By now you’ve probably noticed the increasingly crowded shelves of chocolate at U.S. grocers and specialty food shops, not to mention Amazon.com, ABC Carpet & Home, and Target. Once the domain of a few, craft chocolate (also known as bean-to-bar chocolate) has found its own niche in the foodie market. There are more options for chocolate lovers than ever before, and that makes the choices all the harder.
One way to navigate this sweet but intimidating little world is with Megan Giller’s forthcoming book, “Bean to Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution.” The book, out Sept. 19, provides tasting tips, origin stories and profiles of the country’s most talented chocolate makers, who have perfected the process of turning specially sourced beans into mouthwatering bars.
A craft chocolate bar means the maker “absolutely starts with whole beans and turns them into chocolate themselves,” no remelting of couverture allowed, Giller said in an interview. Pro tip: Don’t call makers chocolatiers, who work with chocolate that has already been made.
For those new to the world of expensive chocolate – bars generally range from $8 to $14 – these basics will spare you the bitter aftertaste of making a bad investment.
Don’t judge a bar by its cover
Don’t be distracted by the beautiful wrappers. Some of the best bars come in stodgy packaging, while unimpressive bars have been known to cloak themselves in bespoke attire. Instead, look to the information printed on the wrapping. The label should include the bean’s country of origin (or countries, since some makers do blends) and cocoa percentage, both of which will affect the flavor of your bar. Check the ingredients, making sure cocoa beans are listed first, and don’t be afraid of soy lecithin and vanilla.
A chocolate award is a reliable indication of a quality bar. “There aren’t that many awards for craft chocolate right now,” Giller said, “and the ones there are are pretty solid.” But, she added, not all companies go for awards. So look for information about how the bar was made. Some will simply say “small batch” or “bean-to-bar,” while others will tell you how the makers found the beans and what makes them special. “Take ‘handmade’ and ‘artisan’ with a grain of salt, since they often promise more than they deliver,” she writes.
Buy what you like
If you’re going with a two-ingredient bar, just cocoa and sugar, the origin of the beans is that much more important, as their flavor will be prominent. Even though cocoa beans grow only within 20 degrees of the equator, there is still a wide array of flavors, depending on the provenance of the beans. Want something with fruity, spicy notes? Try Vietnam. For floral flavors, go to Ecuador. Giller has provided a handy tasting map to help you make the best choice. At the same time, she warns against assuming you know what you’ll like. “Maybe you like a fruity wine but not a fruity chocolate,” she said.
You don’t need to start with the two-ingredient bars, and certainly not with the bitter, one-ingredient, 100 percent cocoa bars, even if purists swear by them. Lots of excellent makers are adding in old standbys, such as vanilla, and having fun with wild inclusions (chocolate-speak for ingredients that add flavor or texture), such as chai, blue cheese and pop rocks.
Makers are also refuting the notion that milk chocolate is somehow lesser. While milk chocolate has an association with low-quality, drugstore chocolate, makers are now offering “dark milk” bars “with as much or more depth of flavor than any dark chocolate,” Giller writes.
Don’t put too much stock in certificates
One of the big draws of a bar of craft chocolate is the social justice vibes you get when you buy it, because the maker is paying fair prices to farmers for their better-than-commodity beans grown with environmentally friendly methods.
“Chocolate shouldn’t cost $1,” Giller explains, because that price “undercuts the farmer, the flavor and the finesse that it takes to make good chocolate.”
The cocoa commodity market is rife with poverty and human rights abuses, including child slavery, as well as environmental impacts such as rainforest destruction. While the chocolate industry is developing programs to combat these problems, craft chocolate makers operate outside the normal West African supply chain, where the abuses are rampant.
Many craft makers choose not to subscribe to certifications such as Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade or Organic so that farmers won’t have to pay the cost of the certification. Instead, the makers pay the farms or co-ops and evaluate agricultural practices themselves, in what they’ve dubbed “direct trade.” Company representatives will routinely visit their farms and tell their customers about the relationship on the packaging. It’s clearly not a fail-safe method, but Giller said in general the more detailed the information, the stronger the relationship between maker and farmer is likely to be. “To me, that matters way more than Organic or Rainforest Alliance and all of those,” she said.
Try these starter bars
Giller shared some recommendations for novices:
Fruition Chocolate’s Brown Butter Milk Chocolate is made with Dominican cacao and locally sourced milk. “A fantastic first craft chocolate,” Giller said.
Askinosie Chocolate’s Dark Chocolate + Crunchy Sugar Crystals & Vanilla Bean CollaBARation Bar is made with specialty foods company Zingerman’s. It’s a Mexican-style chocolate bar, so it’s got a certain grittiness and big sugar crystals. Giller said it’s a top-notch inclusion bar.
Dandelion Chocolate’s Ambanja, Madagascar 70 percent bar is a single-origin classic with an intense berry flavor. “A good one for curious people,” Giller said.
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