If you live in a small town like I do, you may have a hard time gathering a large selection of craft chocolate from a wide range of makers. However, with a little curiosity, you may be surprised at the number of bean-to-bar chocolates you’ll be able to find close to your home. For instance, did you know that many independant natural stores carried lesser known chocolate brands right in the candy aisle? Your local coffee shop may also offer a nice selection of bars right by the register, make sure to check it out.
To me, the quest for craft chocolate is part of the fun: I love the thrill I get from finding a bar I had spotted months earlier on Instagram (I am looking at you, Askinosie’s licorice bar.) I have now been looking for bean-to-bar chocolate locally for over a year now and, while I still have a lot more places to explore, here a list of my favorite craft chocolate purveyors in the Chester County & Philadelphia areas. A word of caution: this is a non-exhaustive, kind-of-subjective list, which I will update as I go. In the meantime, I’d love to know where you shop for chocolate, both in the Philadelphia area and beyond. Leave a comment to let me know!
Carlino’s – both Ardmore and West Chester locations, PA
The first thing people notice about me is my French accent. This usually makes them curious about what brought me to the US (work) and they smile when I tell them why I stayed (love). While they usually are interested in the love story (it started at the cafeteria), some people feel so intimidated by the idea of talking to a French person, they’ll start sharing their knowledge about wine (which I know nothing about) or cheese (which I don’t eat).
The truth is, my family is from Turkey, I spent every summer of my childhood by the Aegean Sea, and I was not exposed to French home cooking until my teenage years.
My last trip to Turkey was five years ago, when I took my American husband to Istanbul so he could visit Hagia Sophia and the Palace of Topkapi. Our last day in this beautiful city coincided with his birthday so we each had a piece of this chocolate cake. It was sweet and delicious, just like I’d like to remember that city.
Back in December 2015, the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate was put on the spotlight after Scott, a Dallas-based blogger, published of four-part exposé demonstrating that the Mast Brothers company had not always been a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker. To meet early demand, Scott explains, the company used premade chocolate known as “couverture chocolate” instead of making it from the actual beans. While there is nothing wrong with using industrial chocolate in confections, the Mast Brothers had claimed to be bean-to-bar maker from their very early days. The chocolate scandal, which was relayed on national media, triggered a series of reactions that made one thing clear: there is a lot of confusion around what being a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker actually means.
Before I started my 37 Chocolates challenge last year, the only chocolate I ever had came straight from the grocery store. For the past several years, I had resorted to chocolate to help me cope with stress at my deadline-driven job. I would buy 12-packs of Theo Chocolate bars on Amazon (dark chocolate with cherries and almonds was a favorite), Endangered Species from the grocery store (I had a soft spot for the blueberry inclusion variety) or the 71% dark chocolate by Valrhona that I would stock up on at Trader Joe’s (I still really enjoy this bar). I would not spend more than $3.50 on a bar because I could not justify spending so much money on chocolate I would eat for stress relief purposes and, if I am really honest, mindlessly. In addition, I had already been disappointed by $8 bars marketed as “bean-to-bar” chocolate, which had then made one thing very clear: the term bean-to-bar is not a guarantee of quality. At that time, I made the decision of sticking with mass-produced but reliable and inexpensive bars than taking the risk of getting disappointed again.
Now, to be fair, all of the chocolate I ate at that point was technically bean-to-bar. However, I had noticed that the phrase typically found its way on the wrappers of handcrafted, smaller batch chocolate that you find in gourmet stores and independant coffee shops. As a consumer, I typically interpret that phrase as a justification of a higher price tag, since it’s a lot more work to make chocolate from scratch (i.e. from the beans) than it is to melt and remold industrial chocolate.
Time went by, I left the stressful job and started growing bored with my chocolate selection. While it felt safe to have a list of go-to brands and bars, that first bite of Twenty-Four Blackbirds Madagascar chocolate made me wonder what awaited me outside of my chocolate comfort zone. I had noticed the explosion of American-made, small batch chocolate and, surely, I thought, some of these bars had to be good. Plus, there seemed to be something about the whole “single origin” chocolate, even though I knew nothing at the time about the difference between Guatemalan or Peruvian cacao. Although I felt guilty at the idea of spending the equivalent of one hour of minimum wage into a 3-oz piece of indulgence, I grew increasingly curious and related the likely prospect of eating disappointing bars as the inevitable bad dates leading me to “the one.” So I took a leap, opened my mind (and yes, my wallet), and never looked back.
Today, I mostly eat bean-to-bar, small batch chocolate and, while I still enjoy the occasional bar of Valrhona, here’s why there’s no going back.
First, I really appreciate knowing where my food comes from. Most small batch makers will disclose the country of origin of the cacao, some going as far as mentioning the name of the region or the actual estate where the cacao is from. Remember that 40% of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa, where the practice of child slavery is unfortunately still common on some plantations. When you buy industrially made chocolate, the odds are that the cacao used in the blend comes from West Africa.
Next, I learned to appreciate the concept of single origin chocolate, which is not commonly found in grocery stores. While my chocolate-making friend Robert Campbell swears by cacao blends, some single origin chocolates have completely blown me away. For instance, I love the light citrus notes of Madagascar chocolate, have fallen hard for the strong caramel notes of the Castronovo Sierra Nevada bar, and will never forget the distinct cherry notes of this Patanemo bar by Cacao Atlanta.
Finally, I discovered that some makers truly master the craft of making chocolate, going through every single step of the process, from the sourcing of the beans to the molding of the bars, with intention and care. These women and men know how to coax the flavors of each cacao, so the flavors will shine when hitting the tongue. Sometimes, the skilled maker is also an artist who will infuse the bars with her or his vision of the world. In the right hands, the craft of making chocolate is elevated to the rank of art. Some bars will thus bring us to our knees and make our heart beat faster. And, sometimes, the chocolate will find such an echo in our soul that we may shed a tear. This is what Map Chocolate does to me. That is what an artfully crafted piece of chocolate can do to you. $8 for a piece of art? That’s what I call a steal.
With its modern decor, studious atmosphere, and inspired coffee menu (you should try the gran-all-in-one), Philter Coffee is the type of coffee shop you’d expect to find in a big US city. Lucky me, the shop is actually located an hour away from Philadelphia, in a small town called Kennett Square, right here, in Pennsylvania.
Climb the single step, push the heavy door, and you’ll be welcomed by the sound of a little bell, the smell of espresso, and the smile of a soft-spoken barista. On weekdays, I order a latte, sometimes a cappuccino, and settle at one of the thick but smooth wooden tables. From my favorite table, you can hear the orders (“it’s my first time here!”), spot the regulars, and peek at the craft chocolate selection.
As previously mentioned, Philter Coffee was where the “37 Chocolates” challenge truly started. My first bite of Twenty-Four Blackbirds Madagascar chocolate sparked my curiosity for craft chocolate, so I started working my way through Philter Coffee’s bean-to-bar chocolate selection.
Very early, Chris Thompson, owner at Philter Coffee, took an interest in my challenge. As my passion for chocolate grew, I started sharing my stash with him. Because he really appreciates chocolate, I have enjoyed sharing tasting notes with him and geeking out about specific bars or makers (“you should try their Belize!”, “there’s too much cocoa butter in this one”). While I already I have such conversations on Instagram, there’s nothing like having them face-to-face with another chocolate-lover! But since many of you cannot travel to Kennett Square, I have asked Chris to tell us all more about his taste in chocolate.
1 – Tell us a bit about Philter Coffee.
Philter opened in Kennett Square, PA. in December, 2013. We are a hospitality-driven, specialty coffee cafe that takes a craft approach to brewing filter and espresso coffees. In addition, we offer a small menu of sandwiches and salads that are prepared with the same level of care.
2 – Your shop carries a small selection of craft, bean-to-bar chocolate. What drew you to the world of craft chocolate?
I read an article about craft chocolate back in 2006. I’ve always loved food and searched for foods/ingredients that were prepared with intention. Back then, it was difficult to find true bean-to bar makers, so it was always a treat when I could get my hands on a great bar. Luckily for all of us there are many more makers to try now.
3 – What are some of the bars Philter currently offers to its customers?
I usually have four origin bars from Dick Taylor, three from Woodblock, three from Parliament, and two from Twenty Four Blackbirds. I personally don’t usually care for inclusions in a chocolate bar, but do get excited when I find one I like, and am happy to offer those. I find that people who aren’t familiar with properly crafted chocolate, may find the inclusion bars easier to approach. Then they’re hooked!
4 – What are you looking for when choosing chocolate?
I have to say that I have never made chocolate before and I know that not everyone will agree with what I say below. These are just my thoughts on what makes a good bar and what has guided me in my selection offered at Philter.
I wanted to only feature true bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Additionally, I prefer a lighter roast profile that, in my opinion, highlights the natural sweetness of the cacao without getting to the roasty/ashy/dry flavors that I find off putting.
I find that I also prefer that there be no additives other than cane sugar. This includes additional cocoa butter. I understand that adding cocoa butter makes the chocolate easier to work with, but I find that it also changes the texture to be waxy and also blocks or mutes some of the more subtle nuances in a bars flavor.
I do make exceptions when I find an inclusion bar that highlights the flavor of the chocolate and not mask it. Some notable examples are: Dick Taylor’s black fig, Woodblock’s dark milk, and although I haven’t brought it in yet, Nathan Miller‘s buttermilk 55% buttermilk & Oko Caribe with Himalayan sea salt is fantastic!
There are other makers who I’d like to eventually work in. It’s mostly a spacial thing and it’s also hard to move someone out when they do such an amazing job.
5 – Craft chocolate is typically a lot more expensive than its industrial counterpart. How do you address the questions your customers may have about the price of your bars?
I usually will tell the story of a small company of as little as one or two people who carefully source cacao from smaller farms based on specific flavor characteristics of the region and quality farming practices. If they seem interested still, I go into how the makers then take the cocoa from it’s “raw” form and take it through the multiple stages of processing until the have the finished chocolate. If I still have their interest, I’ll explain how each chocolate has a unique flavor that can only be brought out by careful roasting, and that comes from experience and a lot of trial and error.
6 – What are some of the chocolates you like to pair with coffee?
Sometimes we’ll have a bar and a coffee from the same origin, that’s always fun. But I encourage people to play with pairings and see what they like.
It’s been a little quiet here but for good reason: I launched the second edition of my French book! To say I am ecstatic is a huge understatement: from the content, updated after the “37 Chocolates” challenge, to the new cover, designed by Dan McShane, I am THRILLED at the improvements I have been able to bring to this edition. The book is a “food survival guide” for French expats in the US. It is written in French but printed in the US and, at the moment, exclusively sold online through a platform called Gumroad. It will make a great gift for the francophile in your life
A bit of background on the book. When I moved from France to the US in 2002, nothing had prepared me for the cultural shock I experienced at the grocery store. Milk was sold in the refrigerated section, there was no crème fraîche but a product called “sour cream”, flour was “all-purpose”, yeast dehydrated, and baking powder sold in ginormous containers. The first time I went to a grocery store on my own, I spent 2 hours reading labels.
The idea for my food survival guide was born 10 years ago, after I shared the result of my research on American dairy and baking products on my French blog. These posts inspired an actual book, which I first released in 2015. In my book, I walk expats through two of the most daunting aisles of an American grocery store, namely, the dairy and baking aisles, then help them pick meat, eggs, potatoes (nope, there’s no Russett overseas), organic food, and, of course, chocolate. My goal is to give expats the keys to understand their new food environment so they can spend less time at the grocery store and more time enjoying their new American life.
The “37 chocolates” challenge had started as an offshoot of the book: if you remember, on the first video, I mention stumbling upon a grumpy expat’s comment online, who was complaining that American chocolate was bad. “I’ll show you”, I thought, and, at the last minute, made US-made bean-to-bar chocolate the focus of my challenge.
Today, I am particularly proud of the chocolate section of the book, which I believe provides a blueprint for a casual chocolate eater to expand their horizon and start dipping their toes into the world of handcrafted, single origin chocolate.If you already like Lindt and Endangered Species, why not look for Theo, then move on to TCHO? You could then give Olive and Sinclair a try, move on to Dick Taylor, before sailing off to your next chocolate adventure.
The last three makers are the newest additions to the chocolate section. I selected them for their chocolate-making style, which I believe will please French palates, as much as for the American touch they bring to their bars. I love that TCHO calls its chocolate “new American chocolate” or that Olive and Sinclair uses brown sugar to sweeten their bars. This is my favorite kind of food, food that embraces its roots, does not pretend to be what it’s not, and I hope my readers will give these bars a try.
What I really wish, though? Find the grumpy expat to make him sit through my 37 reviews.
Ideas are a funny thing. I had planned on writing this post last week until I accepted that I could not finalize the second edition of my book, write a blog post in French, working on this article in English, and enjoying spring break with my oldest daughter. Nope. So I updated the book and had fun with my girl, while I witnessed twoarticles being published on the very topic I was planning to tackle here, namely: what exactly is bean-to-bar chocolate?
Bean-to-bar is a term I used in many, if not all, of my videos, but its use is currently not regulated in the US. As I understand it, a bean-to-bar manufacturer oversees the chocolate production chain, from sourcing the beans to making the actual bars. Some may argue that a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker has to produce chocolate in small batches but there is no reason, in my mind, why the term should be associated with a specific production scale.
A bean-to-bar chocolate-maker will therefore be responsible for sourcing the beans before processing them through each of the following steps:
If that sounds like a lot of work, it is because it is. The whole process takes days and when people ask me if I ever feel like making chocolate, all I have to do is referring them through each of these steps to help them understand that my answer is a big “no”.
The next question would be: how do you recognize a bean-to-bar chocolate? My answer: by checking the list of ingredients. A bean-to-bar chocolate bar will most likely list “cacao”, “cocoa”, or “cocoa beans” as its main ingredient. I took a picture of two ingredient lists on two different bean-to-bar chocolate labels so you could see yourself.
And here is the list of ingredients on a bar made my Map Chocolate:
OK, but isn’t all chocolate made from cacao beans? Technically, yes, but, it is not always made by the company whose name appears on the bar. As I mentioned in a previous post, a chocolatier uses already-made chocolate, typically referred to “couverture chocolate”, to use in his or her chocolate creations. I like to say that chocolate-makers express their personality by making chocolate and chocolatiers by making chocolate confections.
To spot a bar made my chocolatier, look for information on the wrapper. For example, CHUAO decided to claim its chocolatier status by indicating it on its wrappers.
Other times, you’ll have to do a little more work to determine whether the bar is made by a chocolatier or not. If the company uses couverture chocolate in its bars, it will likely NOT list “cacao” or “cocoa” in its list of ingredients but “dark chocolate” or “milk chocolate” as a first ingredient.
Now comes the trickier part. Some makers actually make chocolate from a product called “cocoa mass” or “cocoa liquor”, which is what you call cocoa after it has been ground and melted.
The whole idea of using cacao liquor to make chocolate is very puzzling to me. How do you become a liquor processor? Where do you find these companies? How do you ship that liquid product to a maker? If you have an answer, please feel free to chime in.
Identifying a maker that uses cocoa liquor can be easy, as you will see on this ingredient label.
Other times, you will have to study the label a little more closely. Check this label of Moonstruck Chocolate, for example. The first ingredient on the bar is “dark chocolate”, which is described to us as a mixture of “unsweetened chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, and soy lecithin”. My interpretation of the label is that the chocolate is made in-house from cocoa liquor that has been melted and molded, mixed with the additional ingredients. In other words, the company probably has not sourced, roasted, cracked, sorted, winnowed, and ground the cacao itself.
Phew. Who knew interpreting a label could be that hard?
I hope this post helped you understand how to identify a bean-to-bar chocolate. Let me know of your questions or comments – I’d love to hear from you.
When I committed to review 37 US-made chocolates by my 37th birthday last year, a lot of people asked me if it was even possible to find that many to review. The answer? You bet! Just look for #beantobar #craftchocolate on Instagram and you’ll soon appreciate the diversity of the chocolate-making scene in this country. One thing you’ll even notice is the concentration of chocolate-making companies in California. Dick Taylor, Dandelion Chocolate, and LetterPress Chocolate, to name a few, are all based on the West Coast. Living in Pennsylvania, I was actually hoping to discover more makers in my state, which I did last fall.
After tasting Robert Campbell’s creations for Chocolate Alchemist in October, I stumbled upon Dulcinea Craft Chocolate’s Instagram account. I quickly fell in love with the sense of aesthetics of the maker (I was mesmerized by this picture) and put Dulcinea Craft Chocolate‘s bars on my “to-try” list. Laurie actually sent me three bars for me to sample in late 2015 and two words come to mind to describe her work: Love and Respect. Watch my review of her Guatemala bar to learn more.
Because I wanted to hear more about Laurie’s chocolate story, I asked her to answer a few questions for the blog. I think you’ll really enjoy meeting her.
What prompted you to start making chocolate?
I’ve always been a maker – even as a child. And coming from a large Italian family, I understood at an early age that food equals love. It’s hard to say for certain what put me on this path – it really was more like a calling I just couldn’t get out of my head.
In the 90’s I saw a documentary about cacao farmers. Until then, I’m ashamed to say, I never thought about where chocolate came from – or at whose expense. Then in 2008 I discovered Askinosie. I fell in love with their bars and the company’s ethos. It was my first introduction to craft chocolate. Taza was another company I admired – making a rustic and wonderful chocolate while positively impacting the lives of cacao farmers. Then a few years later the Mast Brothers were featured on a program called Food Crafters. I know there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding them lately, but at the end of their segment they asked a question that struck a cord with me, “Why can’t every town have their own chocolate maker?” Those words really resonated with me.
Then, on Christmas morning, 2011, my daughter and I took off for Paris on a whim. We had two buddy passes, our passports, two carry-ons, and a translation app. It was the craziest, most impulsive thing I’d ever done in my life -and it changed everything.
Sometimes we spend so much of our time doing what is expected – Paris was completely unexpected. We wandered the city in amazement of the sights, the streets, the patisseries, the art! We laughed. We ate. We sipped chocolat chaud. And on our last morning, our concierge treated us to warm pain au chocolat fresh off the delivery truck. Paris awakened my courage. It reminded me of who I was – what I was capable of. And now, it was sending me off with chocolate. This was my sign. It was as if that flaky little pastry whispered, Life is short. What are you waiting for? I did three things when I came home. First, I enrolled at Ecole Chocolat. Next, I stopped coloring my hair. Finally, when the school year ended, I submitted my letter of resignation. And I’ve never looked back.
The name of your company was inspired by Don Quixote. Can you tell us more about it?
My husband is an historic preservationist. A few years ago he was trying to save a landmark home from the wrecking ball. His effort became a quest of sorts so a friend jokingly called him Don Quixote of Beaver. This was right around the time I was looking for a name for the company. Dulcinea is Don Quixote’s love. She becomes the inspiration behind his quest for justice and honor. My husband and I have a great deal of love and respect for cacao farmers, and also for each other, so the name seemed to fit perfectly.
You used to work as an assistant librarian. How has that career influenced your approach to chocolate making?
For starters, it certainly helped in doing my research.
But every time we work with our hands, we tell a story – we share a piece of ourselves. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Our individual life experiences influence everything we do. If you think about it, millions of books are written each year using only twenty-six letters of the alphabet and the writer’s perspective. Instead of the alphabet, chocolate makers have cacao. We may work with the same beans, but like a novel, the end product will never be the same. Stories reflect the writer’s voice – their particular point of view. Craft chocolate does that too.
Your sense of aesthetics – minimalist, yet timeless and romantic – really stands out in the world of craft chocolate. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
That’s a lovely compliment.
Well… my home is filled with books and photographs, broken clocks and old typewriters, copper pots and a few antiques, snippets of fabric, and lots and lots of art supplies. These are some of the things I love so I guess you can say they also inspire me.
While craft beer has gone mainstream in our part of the country, this has not been the case for craft chocolate – I know a lot of people who still see chocolate as candy. What are some of your customers’ reactions when they sample you chocolate for the first time?
There is definitely a sense of surprise and delight when someone tastes craft chocolate for the first time. People are amazed by the flavors they discover. I love explaining how cacao, like wine grapes and coffee beans, picks up flavors from the environment in which it’s grown.
But it’s even more exciting to see kids taste, and like, our chocolate. Helping people, especially children, connect with their food is an amazing thing. It’s one of the perks of being a chocolate maker.
Thank you, Laurie, for taking time away from the beans to answer my questions.