What is Bean-to-Bar Chocolate? (1/2)

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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 two articles 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:

  • Sorting
  • Roasting
  • Cracking
  • Winnowing
  • Grinding
  • Conching
  • Tempering
  • Molding

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.

This is what you’ll find on the side of a piece of Woodblock Chocolate.

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And here is the list of ingredients on a bar made my Map Chocolate:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

You can read the second part of the article here.

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Interview with Laurie Rice, Founder of Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

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70% Guatemala bar by Dulcinea Craft Chocolate. That bit of acidity will awaken your taste buds.

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.

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Photo credit: Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

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.

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Photo credit: Laurie Rice

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.

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Maybe my favorite bar by Dulcinea Craft Chocolate. It draws a subtle smile on my face.

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.

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Photo credit: Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

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. 

Dulcinea Craft Chocolate is located in Beaver, Pennsylvania, right outside of Pittsburgh. Click here for a list of retailers.

Single Origin Chocolate: The First Bite

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Some of the bars carried by Philter Coffee in Kennett Square, PA.

“You like food. Try this.”

I was about to pick my espresso drink when Chris Thompson, the owner of Philter Coffee in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, called me from behind the counter. He was holding a white saucer on which sat a few pieces of chocolate. They were bits of Twenty-Four Blackbirds, 75% Madagascar, as I recall, and all I noticed was their color, much lighter than the dark chocolate I was used to then. I helped myself to a piece and let it melt on my tongue.

To my surprise, the chocolate was very light – I could have mistaken it for milk chocolate – with no  hint of bitterness. This did not taste like dark chocolate at all and I was not sure what to make of it. Did I like it? Was I supposed to like it? Was I expected to share tasting notes? Was I being judged? I was very confused. I don’t remember what I said to Chris but it must have been something flat and generic. “It’s good”, maybe, or “it’s different”.

I picked my drink and left the shop.

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Several months later, after I shot my very first (grocery store) chocolate reviews , I knew I wanted to make the leap into the world of single origin chocolate. I started with what I knew, so I went back to Philter Coffee and started studying the chocolate selection. I looked for the smallest, least expensive bar I could find, and so I went back to where it all started: the 75% Madagascar bar by Twenty-Four Blackbirds. This time, I sampled the chocolate by myself and paid close attention to its taste.

The chocolate was as light as I remembered and the lack of bitterness stood out again. But while I was still somewhat confused, I was also very excited: this was a dark chocolate that did not taste like dark chocolate.I thought of all the people who claimed they did not like dark chocolate but never had that kind of bar before. Oh, the possibilities! I wondered if all Madagascar beans tasted the same. I was curious about other origins, too. How would they differ from this Madagascar bar? I had a lot to learn.

Today, when people ask me who makes the best chocolate or who is my favorite maker, my answer is this: for me, it was and always will be about the journey. It is not about liking or disliking a bar, it is about being pushed, moved, stirred, puzzled, delighted, and confused. When I travel to a new country, I love that sense of confusion that comes with not understanding the culture or the language. For me, the same goes for chocolate. Confusion was the first step for me and it may the first step for you. Embrace it and keep tasting.

Interview with John Nanci, Founder of Chocolate Alchemy

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John Nanci. Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy.

Considering how popular chocolate is in the Western world, it has remained surprisingly mysterious. Think about it. How many of us actually know how chocolate is made? Or what role each ingredient plays in a bar? And do you know why some bars include soy lecithin and others don’t? Up until last year, I really did not have an answer to any  of these questions and, as I started exploring the world of craft chocolate, my list of questions only grew longer. Thankfully, it did not take long before the name of John Nanci was brought up to me by several craft chocolate-makers.

Referred by the New York Times as “the godfather of kitchen-counter chocolatiering“, John Nanci is the founder of Chocolate Alchemy, a company  credited for helping launch the careers of many chocolate-makers. Because “knowledgeable” and “generous” are the two words most commonly used to refer to John, I have asked him a few questions to help us all understand the very basics of chocolate.

Please tell us a little about Chocolate Alchemy: what is your company’s mission?

My company mission?  The over reaching mission is to make chocolate making approachable and accessible to everyone.  Both for DIY types, people who love to make things from scratch and those that want to take it to the next level.  How I do that is through making ALL of my information free and available.  Knowledge should be shared.  There are no trade secrets here and I encourage others to share what they know also.  We all benefit from paying it forward.  After that I have made it my goal to have all the equipment and selection of beans so that people can get everything they need, regards of size, to go from bean to bar chocolate.

How did you develop a passion for making chocolate? 

This is one of my open secrets.  I actually don’t have a passion for chocolate.  I mean, chocolate is good and I enjoy it, but it in of itself isn’t what drives me.  I have a passion for discovery, teaching, learning, building, creating, exploration, and helping others find those passions in themselves and supporting it however I can. Chocolate Alchemy lets me do that.  In short, my passion is for problem solving.

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John Nanci shooting a video series teaching how to make chocolate. Photo Credit: Chocolate Alchemy

The term “craft chocolate” is currently not regulated. How would you define craft chocolate?

To me craft chocolate is chocolate made with intent.  I might be able to argue that it is where one person has a hand in every step of the process of creation.  It might not be any more or less than that. To expand a little though, it has little to do with scale.  Someone that pours beans in a hypothetical machine, pushes a few buttons and chocolate comes out the next day isn’t making craft chocolate even if it is only one pound. Alternatively, some that is using 3 bag (500 lb) roaster, watching the controls, who has personally formulated the chocolate and decides when it is done is still craft as they have their hands in it.  Intent.

What is the difference between the cacao used in industrial chocolate and the cacao that you carry?

How is my cocoa different from “industrial”?  It goes back to 3).  Intent.  Sometimes what I carry is exactly the same cocoa.  What is different is that I have evaluated it blind and chosen it on its own merits. I’ve not picked it because of a cut test or a spec sheet.  I’ve roasted, winnowed, and made chocolate from it evaluating it at every step.  That said, I carry both conventional (“industrial”) cocoa and specialty cocoa, the later generally coming from smaller coop and farmer holdings. Often those later beans have been prepared, again, with intent.  But at the same time, I’ve rejected many a specialty bean because it didn’t stand on its own merits.

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Cocoa bean from Peru (Norandino). Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy

A lot of bean-to-bar craft chocolates only contain two three ingredients: cacao beans, cane sugar, and sometimes cocoa butter. Industrial chocolate, on the other hand, often contains cocoa butter, but also vanilla, and soy lecithin. Could you briefly explain the role of these ingredients? How do they impact the taste and/or texture of the chocolate?

First off I have to tell you how pleased I didn’t see wax, oils and other things in your list. I hear way too much about how those are in ‘most’ consumer chocolate and it just isn’t true.  So thanks for that.  As for the others, I’ll address lecithin first.  And I’ll say outright that I see nothing wrong with it. And I’d challenge near anyone to tell from taste or texture whether it was present.

It plays 2-3  roles and depending on your process, makers can decide whether to use it or not.   Most people think of it as an emulsifier. That is really only true if you are making an emulsion, or a homogeneous mixture of a water and an oil. That isn’t chocolate. Chocolate is oil-based, so it doesn’t need any emulsifier per se. But it does use part of that property.  It helps bind trace amounts of water that can either be present still in the chocolate or bind water that comes in from the atmosphere. In either case, when it ties up the water, the viscosity of the chocolate is reduced and tempering and molding become easier.  If you don’t have a viscosity or water issue, there is no need for it. The other reason it is used has to do with shelf life and transportation times and temperatures.  In short it helps chocolate resist blooming to some degree. If your craft chocolate is sold locally, consumed quickly and/or just doesn’t show signs of having tempering or bloom issues, it is again of no benefit.  The history is that many commercial large scale chocolate did and do travel great distances and hang around a while.  The lecithin can help keep it presentable to the consumer.

Vanilla. I don’t have a great answer here. Tradition is what I would say. Why do we add it to so many baked goods?  Tradition?  How did it become tradition?  I can only assume, and I am only guessing here, is that at some point someone added it to a recipe and found it to their liking. Heck, I like vanilla. I put it in my chocolate sometimes. Most of the time I don’t.  Sometimes it’s added because so many people simply associate the flavor, even very low, with chocolate and when missing, people can find the chocolate ‘lacking’.   Honestly it can annoy me to hear people preaching down on vanilla.  It isn’t fair and it can be condescending playing up the ‘purity’ of two ingredients by putting others down.  My take is make and eat what you like.  If it contains vanilla (or whatever else) and you like it, then that is all that matter.  You and that chocolate are not lesser for it.  It’s about enjoyment.  On the flip side, I agree with getting outside your boundaries and trying chocolate that is ‘just’ cocoa and sugar.  Just don’t get to thinking you are better than ‘the masses’ eating (and enjoying) their chocolate that has other things.  Be open minded and enjoy what you are eating and accept others have different tastes and that different is NOT inferior because it is different.  Ok, so maybe I did have a bit to say.

Looking back at your question, I would say using vanilla with a heavy hand, out of the gate, leads to the potential of masking what the chocolate can offer on its own and my preference is to start simple, cocoa and sugar, and only add vanilla and lecithin if the need is there. Basically, if it isn’t broken don’t fix it.

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Milk chocolate in the making. Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy.

Cocoa butter.  There are three things I want to address here. First, it is purely optional. At least in higher percentage chocolate. Chocolate needs about 30-35% fat to flow well in a refiner. Given that a bean is around 50% cocoa butter, that means if you drop under 60-70% cocoa mass in your chocolate some extra cocoa butter is going to be needed just for practical purposes. After that, and a little counter intuitively, a touch (2-5%) cocoa butter can actually heighten a chocolate’s flavor as it helps the chocolate dissolve faster in the mouth leading to the impression it is more flavorful. It is basically the same effect if you were to eat a spoonful of granulated sugar vs a piece of rock candy.  Both are basically 100% sugar, but the rock candy doesn’t give that burst of flavor. I personally add 5% cocoa butter to all my chocolate for that reason. More after that amount can be added to change the mouth feel of the chocolate and is just a personal choice of the maker.  The final thing I want to talk about is what I see as some makers going over board.  I’ve heard it going around that certain makers are making a big deal about how others chocolates are not true single origin chocolate, and are implied (or stated outright) to be inferior, because of the use of a couple percentage points of cocoa butter from an origin that does not match the bean.  In my opinion “Single Origin” is just to make it clear you are not blending your beans.  Such, I can technically I can see that a “single origin” bar from Ecuador isn’t “pure” if it has 3% cocoa butter from the Dominican Republic, but I have to ask, so what?  Sure, the cocoa butter, by its nature is changing the chocolate a little, but you can’t get me to believe it’s making it inferior because it’s from a different origin.  There just isn’t reason to make this distinction to my mind.

During my challenge, I discovered you sold equipment and ingredients to make chocolate at home. What advice would you have for someone looking to invest in chocolate-making equipment for their home kitchen?

I guess the main thing to advise is to decide how deep you want to get and what your work to money ratio is.  Basically you can fully outfit yourself to make chocolate very easily, but it isn’t super cheap. Alternatively, with purchased roasted nibs and a melanger, the bare minimum, you are ready to go.  After you get comfortable, take steps backwards.  Raw nibs. Roasted bean. Raw beans. Becoming proficient with each stage (and new piece of equipment) before moving on.  And as odd as it sounds, accept you need a melanger. It’s so hard to hear the tales of people struggling to make blenders, mixers, and other things work that I’ve tested and failed with and at the end of the day spending more on ruined equipment than just starting off right.  Granted I was initially told you could not make chocolate at home, but that is totally different from being told a specific piece of equipment won’t work and you thinking you can make it work.  Oh, and ask LOTS of questions.  It is why I am here.  I do my best to answer everything that comes in in a timely fashion.  But do at least a little homework first. “How do I make chocolate?” probably isn’t the best first question if you catch my meaning.

Thank you, John, for taking the time to answer my questions.

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