What is Bean-to-Bar Chocolate? (2/2)

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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.

If you are not clear on the concept yourself, take a moment to read the post I wrote to define the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate. However, the real challenge does not lay as much in explaining the concept as in determining why it matters in the first place. In this post, I’ll explain why the concept came to matter to me as a consumer.

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This chocolate bar by Cacao Atlanta has clear dark cherry notes

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.

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Nightswimming, a beloved dark milk chocolate by Map Chocolate

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.

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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.

5 Things I Did Not Know About Chocolate

2015-10-26 15.07.34Before the “37 Chocolates” challenge, all I really knew about chocolate was that it was made from cacao beans grown in faraway countries and that making it was a labor-intensive process. That was about it. As the challenge unfolded, I have learned interesting, puzzling, sometimes disturbing facts about cacao and chocolate that I’d like to share with you today.

1) There is “cacao” and then there is “cocoa”. I always knew about “cocoa” but “cacao”? I thought that was the French term for “cacao”! As it turns out, the term “cacao” is usually used to refer to the bean of the fruit of the cacao tree but, once fermented, it is typically referred to as “cocoa”. This is the explanation I found on the Equal Exchange website as well as in the book called Raising the Bar, The Future of Fine Chocolate.

2) Ivory Coast is the #1 producing region of cacao beans in the world.

3) Shockingly, the cacao grown in West African plantations, including those in Ivory Coast, has been associated with child slavery. The topic is well documented – in 2014, CNN even devoted an entire documentary on the issue – and a corporation like Nestle cannot guarantee that the cacao used its chocolate products does not involve child slavery. To me, that meant farewell to most mass-produced chocolate candy bars that are the most likely to contain cacao from West Africa.

As a consumer, feel free to ask a manufacturer about the origin of the cacao used in their chocolate products. To learn more about the issue of child slavery in cacao plantation, check the CNN Freedom Project page.

4) A 70% chocolate is not a 70% chocolate. Let me explain: the 70% chocolate bars you buy at the grocery store are usually made from a blend of cacao beans formulated to taste like what we have come to associate to “chocolate”. If you are mostly used to these bars, your first taste of a quality, single origin chocolate, will send you to a land of both delight and confusion.

I will never forget my first taste of a 70% Madagascar chocolate, whose complete lack of bitterness and bright citrus notes totally threw my taste buds off: that bar did NOT taste like chocolate! As you further explore the world of single origin chocolate, you will discover that an 80% bar is not always darker or more bitter than a 70% chocolate bar from the grocery store and you may find that a 70%, single origin chocolate is too sweet for your taste. In the world of single origin chocolate, the percentage of cacao specified on a wrapper is not an indication of how dark, bitter, or “chocolate-y” your bar will be.

If you are not familiar with the notion of single origin chocolate, check this article on The Kitchn website.

5) A chocolate-maker is not a chocolatier. It took me months before I realized you could not use these terms interchangeably. A chocolate-maker makes chocolate from scratch, starting from cacao beans.  A chocolatier uses already-made chocolate, typically referred to “couverture chocolate”,  to use in his or her chocolate creations (think truffles and bonbons, or even bars.) I like to say that chocolate-makers express their personality by making chocolate and chocolatiers by making chocolate confections.

To learn more about the steps involved in the chocolate-making process, check this article by Ecole Chocolat.

Now, tell me, what are some facts about chocolate you have learned through this post?