You probably think you already know everything you need to know about chocolate. For instance: The higher the percentage of cacao, the more bitter the chocolate, right? The term “single origin” on the label indicates that the chocolate expresses a particular terroir. And wasn’t the whole bean-to-bar movement started by a couple of bearded guys in Brooklyn?
Wrong; not necessarily; and definitely not.
Americans spend $21 billion on chocolate every year, but just because we eat a lot of it doesn’t mean we know what we’re eating. And misunderstandings at the store can make it especially hard for chocolate lovers to figure out which of the myriad, jauntily wrapped bars crowding the shelves are the best to buy, in terms of both taste and ethics.
One thing that’s clear is that there are more varieties of handcrafted chocolates on offer than ever before, at prices that soar as high as $55 a bar.
According to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, sales of premium chocolates grew 19% in 2018, compared with 0.6% for mainstream chocolate like the classic Hershey bar. Over the past decade, the number of small American bean-to-bar chocolate producers — the kind with cacao percentages and places of origin printed on those hyper-chic labels — has jumped from about five to more than 250.
But while creativity and technical acuity in chocolate making have blossomed, ethical and environmental concerns still plague the supply chain. Despite a 20-year effort to battle the systemic poverty, child labor and deforestation endemic to the industry, those problems may actually be getting worse.
It might seem a lot to think about as you choose your Valentine’s Day chocolates, but here are answers to some basic questions you may not even know you had.
How is chocolate made?
All chocolate, even white chocolate, starts with the fruit of the cacao tree, an equatorial, Seussian-looking plant with plump, bumpy, ovoid pods that grow directly from the trunk.
The cacao beans (also called cocoa beans) are the seeds that grow inside the pod, surrounded by fleshy, juicy fruit that tastes a little like a mango crossed with a pear that was carrying lychee. After harvesting, the beans are fermented for up to a week to develop their flavours and dried.
To make chocolate, the dried beans are roasted, then cracked to separate the outer husks from the inner nibs, which have a nutty, earthy flavour and crunchy texture — and are excellent added to baked goods. The nibs are about half cocoa solids and half cocoa butter.
Chocolate makers grind the nibs into what’s called chocolate liquor, or chocolate paste. This liquor is ground again, along with sugar and other ingredients that might include milk powder to make milk chocolate, lecithin to smooth the texture or vanilla for flavour. Sometimes extra cocoa butter is mixed in to give a creaminess to dark chocolate or to mellow the flavour of extra-bittersweet chocolates without much-added sugar.
The goal of this second grinding, called conching, is to reduce the size of the sugar and cacao particles until they feel like satin on the tongue, a process that can take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. Then the chocolate is tempered (heated and cooled to specific temperatures) so that it sets with that characteristic glossy look and snappy texture. After that, it’s ready to savour.
What is bean-to-bar chocolate?
Strictly speaking, all chocolate is bean-to-bar, just as all meals are essentially farm-to-table. But just like the chef who fanatically seeks out all her ingredients, down to the flakes of salt garnishing her sustainable line-caught crudo, bean-to-bar chocolate makers obsess over the character and ethical origins of their beans.
This is in marked contrast to mainstream industrial chocolate, in which the beans are a commodity product, bought in bulk for price, not quality.
“If there are infested, moldy, terrible-looking beans mixed in with the good ones” large chocolate companies will buy them anyway, said John Scharffenberger, a founder of Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in San Francisco. That’s because big companies often mix in so many other ingredients that the consumer won’t taste any bad beans in the final product.
The best bean-to-bar chocolate makers (also called craft or micro chocolate makers) choose beans the way chefs choose tomatoes — obsessively, often visiting the farms where the beans are grown. They roast and grind the beans themselves before making them into chocolate bars.
Pastry chef and author David Lebovitz, who wrote “The Great Book of Chocolate,” compares bean-to-bar chocolate to natural wine. “It’s exciting and alive in a way that even really great regular chocolate isn’t,” he said. “It can surprise you.”
Who started the bean-to-bar craze?
The new wave of craft chocolate began with Scharffen Berger, founded in 1996 by Scharffenberger, a winemaker, and Robert Steinberg, who had studied at the famous chocolate shop Bernachon, in Lyon, France.
“When we started, there were only nine companies grinding their own cacao in the United States and they were all huge, except for Guittard,” Scharffenberger said, referring to Guittard Chocolate Co., also in the San Francisco area. “We were the first new chocolate maker on the scene in 150 years.”
When Gary Guittard, the company’s fourth-generation owner, sampled some of Scharffen Berger’s chocolate, it spurred him to revamp his own production, in some cases going back to the way his great-grandfather made chocolate when he started the company in 1868.
“Scharffen Berger was the disrupter,” Guittard said. “Trying their chocolate was just terrible for me. It opened my eyes to a world of flavors that had been present in our chocolates 50 years ago but that were lost. We had to change everything to get them back.”
Scharffen Berger was sold in 2005 to the Hershey Co., which moved the operation to Illinois. But other small bean-to-bar makers quickly followed Scharffen Berger’s lead. There are now more than 250 in the United States. And even though Brooklyn, contrary to popular belief, didn’t invent the bean-to-bar craze, it has several producers, including Kahkow, Cacao Prieto, Jacques Torres, Raaka and Fine & Raw.
Is a bean-to-bar chocolate maker the same as a chocolatier?
No. A bean-to-bar maker makes chocolate from cacao beans. A chocolatier buys premade chocolate, then melts it and combines it with other ingredients to make confections like truffles or pralines. And this isn’t at all a bad thing: The best chocolatiers buy superb bean-to-bar chocolate as a starting point. (Many professional chocolatiers buy from Valrhona.) It’s just that making chocolate and making chocolate confections are two different skill sets.
What is single-origin chocolate?
To return to the wine analogy, many people think that single-origin cacao beans are like grapes from one vineyard, producing chocolate that expresses nuances from that particular soil and vintage in the same way a wine might.
And sometimes that’s true. But just as often, beans labeled as having a single origin in, say, Peru or Trinidad can come from small farms in different parts of that region, each farm with a distinct terroir, variety of cacao bean and fermentation process.
“Single-origin is a flexible term,” said Maricel Presilla, author of “The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes.” “It could refer to a specific farm known for a particular cultivar of fine cacao. Or it could mean a larger region where they grow a mix of cultivars, some of which are high-quality and some of which are not. Just saying that a cacao comes from Ecuador opens a can of worms because there are so many genetic varieties. You can’t be sure what you’re getting.”
That said, knowing a chocolate’s origin can tell you something general about its flavor. I’ve found that chocolates made from fine Latin American beans tend to be complex. Some might be bright and fruity, with notes of dried apricots, fresh berries and dark fruit, while others taste of nuts or fresh herbs. West African chocolates are often more straightforwardly fudgy, sometimes tinged with flavors of coconut, raisins and coffee.
When you’re buying single-origin chocolate, Presilla’s advice is to look for as much detail on the label as possible, including country and region, farm or estate, and the genetic variety of the cacao. “It’s a lot for the consumer to understand,” she said, “but if the chocolate maker is transparent about it, it’s a sign that they are putting thought and care into the bar.”
What does the cacao percentage on the label mean?
Cacao percentage is the amount of cacao mass (ground-up beans) present in the bar.
In order for something to be labeled chocolate in the United States, it must be at least 10% cacao mass. Most milk chocolate is 10% to 30% cacao; most bittersweet chocolates, 35% to 55%. (For white chocolate, only the cocoa butter is used, and it must constitute at least 20% of the bar.)
Historically, the cacao percentage was printed on the back of the package in tiny type, if it was listed at all. But this had changed by 1986, when Valrhona introduced its Guanaja chocolate, the first bar with a 70% cacao content. And it said so right smack on the front of the label, indicating a more intensely bittersweet flavor. Other chocolate makers quickly followed suit.
Here’s the confusing part. While most people assume that the higher the cacao percentage, the more bitter the chocolate, that’s not always true. In some cases, a chocolate maker’s 68% might taste more bitter than its 74%.
That’s because the percentage includes both cacao solids and cocoa butter. The solids are bitter, while the butter is smooth and creamy. If a chocolate maker adds extra cocoa butter to produce a smoother texture, the overall cacao percentage will increase, but the bitterness will not.
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