What makes chocolate bitter?

Chocolate Envelopes
Chocolate blind tasting

At a recent chocolate lecture, I asked the crowd what each type of chocolate evoked to them. White chocolate? Not real chocolate (ahem.) Milk chocolate? Sweet. When I said “dark chocolate”, the answer was unanimous: bitter. I wasn’t really surprised. The first time I tried a 99% bar, I almost spit it up. Thankfully, the 37 Chocolates challenge made me realize that a good dark chocolate didn’t have to taste bitter. In fact, some beans make an excellent 100% dark chocolate bar, without a trace of bitterness. So, why are some dark chocolate bars bitter? To answer that question, we need to look at the ingredients in chocolate.

To make chocolate, you need cacao or cocoa beans (it’s really the same thing.) Genetics, fermentation, and roasting will all impact chocolate flavor. Cacao is an agricultural product and not all beans are created equal. Just like a Granny Smith apple is more acidic than a Gala, some cacao beans are more bitter than others. Fermentation is a complicated topic, but it’s easy to imagine the results of bad fermentation (mold.)

Now, let’s take a look at roasting. I had long heard rumors of big companies over-roasting their beans, but I’d never seen evidence of that. All of this changed last summer when I got my hands on a roasted cacao bean husk* from a very large chocolate company. I won’t tell you which one, but I bet you can guess.

Overroasted Cacao

On my left, a roasted cacao bean husk from that large chocolate company. On my right, a cocoa bean from Sierra Nevada in Colombia roasted by much smaller, award-winning chocolate company. The bean on the left was over-roasted, to the point of being burnt. What does burnt food taste like?

Bitter.

However, dark chocolate doesn’t have to taste bitter. The combination of quality cacao beans, careful fermentation, and gentle roasting can create beautiful, intense, but not bitter dark chocolate. Granted, those bars won’t cost the same as industrial chocolate, but which color cacao bean would you rather put in your body? So head to your local coffee shop or specialty food store and start browsing the chocolate section. Your taste buds will thank you.

* The husk is the outside part of a cacao bean, one that is removed and discarded during the chocolate-making process (the fancy name is “winnowed.”) Inside the husk is the cacao nib, which will ground into chocolate. 

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Chocolate Tasting Guides

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I used to be one of those people. You know, too cool for chocolate sniffs and tasting notes, harvest years and terroirs. Heaven forbid someone called me a food snob. But if the 37 Chocolates challenge taught me anything, it’s that slowing down matters. Paying attention definitely matters. Taking notes also matters. Referring to a floral note does not make you a food snob, it makes you someone who cares.

Think about it: if you spent a first date scrolling down your Instagram feed, would you know if that person across the table is right for you? The same goes for chocolate: the more present you are with it, the better you’ll get to know it, and the better you’ll determine if it’s right for you. And just like we sometimes need a friend’s nudge to see some signs, we can use a helping hand to catch some subtle notes. So head out to my latest post on the Bar & Cocoa blog (formerly Choco Rush) to discover three of my favorite tasting guides.

Three Chocolate Podcasts You Should Listen To Now + My Favorite Local Food Podcast

Updated on September 16, 2019

You know what I like the best about being part of a new movement? Watching so many projects come to life. As the American craft chocolate scene has been booming over the past couple of years, I’ve been thrilled to witness the creation of several chocolate podcasts to help us all make sense of that world. These shows have informed, entertained, moved, and inspired me and I hope that they will do the same to you too. Happy listening!

Well Tempered, by Lauren Heineck

img_2180Hosted by Lauren Heineck of WKND Chocolate, Well Tempered is a podcast about the “smart and crafty women of the chocolate industry.” Each episode features an intimate conversation with an inspiring woman. Guests range from bloggers and brand strategists to makers and educators (I was the guest of Episode 2!).

This podcast’s for you if you have In The Company of Women* on your bedside table and could use some female inspiration to get to your next chapter. Lauren is a gifted listener and each episode makes me take action, whether that’s contributing to a crowdfunding campaign or book a visit to a chocolate factory. In short, I am a fan.

Chocolate on the Road, by Max Gandy of Dame Cacao

Added September 16, 2019

Chocolate on the RoadKnown as Dame Cacao, Max Gandy has traveled Asia extensively both for work and pleasure. Between air flights and car rides, she shares chocolate stories on the Chocolate on the Road podcast.

Twice a month, she covers topics as varied as South Korean chocolate or social media in the chocolate industry (and yes, it’s my French accent you’ll recognize on that episode).

Tune in if you’re a true chocolate enthusiast, as some of the episodes will require some familiarity with the big names of the craft chocolate industry.

The Slow Melt, a Podcast about Chocolate, by Simran Sethi

IMG_6660Written by the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love*, this podcast’s mission to educate listeners about the complexity and sometimes harsh realities of the chocolate world. After a first season focused on the basics of chocolate (from the origins of chocolate to how to savor chocolate), the new season is dedicated to chocolate-makers. 

This podcast is best for anyone who already cares about the issues of sustainability and biodiversity in food and would like to expand their knowledge to the lesser-known world of cacao and chocolate. The episodes are short (30 minutes) and professionally edited. If you only listen to one episode, may it be this interview of Shawn Askinosie, founder of Askinosie Chocolate. A pioneer of the American craft chocolate movement, Askinosie left a job as a criminal defense attorney to become a chocolate-maker. You’ll relate with his struggle to transition careers and finding work that matters.

September 2019: this podcast hasn’t been updated in a year.

Unwrapped, a Conversation about Chocolate, by Sunita de Toureil and Brian Beyke

UnwrappedWhen two friends who “love to talk about chocolate” want to share their passion, guess what they do? They record their weekly chats and make them available to everyone (yay!). Hosted by Sunita de Toureil, founder of The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, California, and Brian Beyke, co-host of the I Brew My Own Coffee podcast, the show covers a variety of topics, from consumer expectations to subscription box business models, all while keeping it very real. The podcast stands out by it very laid-back tone (Brian will occasionally eat a bar during a recording!), making it the perfect road trip companion.

Unwrapped will appeal to chocolate-lovers who already have a good knowledge of the US craft chocolate movement. If you’ve already heard of Areté Fine Chocolate, Stephen DeVries, or Patric Chocolate, then this podcast’s for you.

September 2019: this podcast hasn’t been updated in a year.

Local Mouthful, by Joy Manning and Marisa McClellan

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Finally, I have to give a shout-out to Local Mouthful, a show about “living the food life in Philadelphia and beyond.” Each of the 30-minute weekly show has been helping me go through the Wednesday lunchbox packing duty for well over a year (will I find two snacks by 8:30 AM? Does dark chocolate count as one?). Listening to two food lovers dish about foods of all kinds is a good reminder that there’s a whole other world outside of cacao and chocolate. Local Mouthful keeps me up-to-date with food news, helps me discover new cookbooks,  and even inspires me to make pierogis from scratch.  Now, if Joy and Marisa would devote a whole show to chocolate, that would make my Wednesdays extra sweet.

* Affiliate links.

How is Chocolate Made?

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How Cocoa Beans Become Chocolate: Graphic Developed by Ecole Chocolat and Megan Giller of Chocolate Noise

How is chocolate made? Find that out in my latest post on the Choco Rush blog. A big thank you to Ecole Chocolat and Megan Giller of Chocolate Noise for providing the fun and educational graphics, including the one here. Happy reading!

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The Perfect Drinking Chocolate

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Drinking chocolate mixes by Acalli Chocolate gifted to me in 2015

About a year ago, I developed a bit of an obsession with drinking chocolate. While I am partial to Philadelphia’s Chocolate Alchemist’s inspired creations, they are made on-premises from the bean, which means you can’t recreate them at home. Thankfully, many craft chocolate companies now offer delicious, quality mixes (with cacao listed as a first ingredient, not sugar) to help us get through winter.

But first, let’s define what makes a good drinking chocolate. I personally like mine thick and dark, rich but not heavy, so I usually find hot cocoa to lack body and most drinks made from melted bars too thick or sweet. With that settled, I started experimenting with a few mixes, adapting milk and water volumes and ratios, until I obtained a drink with a taste and texture that I liked.

The three pouches above, gifted to me by Acalli Chocolate, were some of the most flavorful mixes I tried. To prepare the mixes, I drew inspiration from the “hot chocolate shot” prepared by Ritual Chocolate in Utah. I halved the amount of water recommended on the package, and dissolved 2 tablespoons mix (which is equivalent to 1/2 package) in 2 tablespoons of milk and 2-3 tablespoons of hot water. I loved the thicker texture and strong taste of the resulting drink. My favorite mix was the 1579 because of the balance of spice/chocolate. Original was next. Spicy was for my husband, as I cannot handle hot foods too well.

You can order these pouches online on Acalli Chocolate’s website. Another mix I really like is Undone Chocolate’s, which is made from Ecuadorian cacao. It is sold in powder form, so it is mixes really well with hot water or milk. Too bad my jar’s empty.

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Dick Taylor drinking chocolate sampled at Philter Coffee (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania)

Looking for more drinking chocolate inspiration? Read John Nanci’s comprehensive post on Chocolate Alchemy’s blog. Here is how a few of my Instagram followers prepare their drink.

I make Frankencocoa! We mix a bunch together.

Jess

2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder, 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1/2 cup of milk (the 2% works); mix very well, add spices (cayenne pepper, cinnamon, ginger, whatever you like) and bring to a boil so it really thickens.

The sugar and cocoa mix should be first heated up with 1/4 cup of the milk and whisked VERY well so there’s no cocoa lumps; then, once smooth, add the second 1/4 cup of milk (whole is even better, of could) and gently bring to 2 or 3 boils; that’s how it gets thick 🙂

Stéphanie

I like Taza Chocolate Mexican Chocolate Cinnamon disc mixed with blue corn masa or atole and piloncillo. I make mine with almond milk. I pretty much make most of my drinking chocolate with almond milk or water.

Sophia, Projet Chocolat

Now tell me: how do you prepare your drinking chocolate?

Interview with Carol Morse, Founder & Maker, Acalli Chocolate (New Orleans, Louisiana)

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Carol Morse, maker and founder, Acalli Chocolate. Photo credit: Erin Krall.

“So. Much. Flavor.”

Those were my thoughts as I sampled the Milk & Nibs bar by Acalli Chocolate last summer. The brand had been recommended to me by Laura, a chocolate-loving barista, soon after I committed to the 37 Chocolates challenge. I was looking for recommendations and she was happy to share hers. She jotted down the names of four makers on a piece of parchment paper before commenting on each brand.

“Acalli. I like what she does in New Orleans.”

She?

That was a first.

I was not aware of any female chocolate-makers. I obviously had to learn .

A few weeks after that conversation,  I found myself in Wayne, Pennsylvania, trying to escape the scorching heat with my friend Teresa. We pushed the door of Gryphon Cafe and, as I ordered an ice latte, my eyes caught the sight, on the elevated counter, of a small orange box with the name of that Louisiana maker – Acalli Chocolate. The bar, a combination of  65% dark milk chocolate, was sprinkled with cacao nibs. I was intrigued.

After we picked our drinks, Teresa and I sat down, we breathed a sighed of a relief – cool, at last. I opened the orange box, inside which was a thick cellophane wrapper that I unsealed to reveal a dark piece of chocolate. I cut the bar into squares, one of which landed on my tongue.

“So. Much. Flavor.”

That day, I finally understood what craft chocolate was about.

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Soon after I posted my video review of Acalli Chocolate’s Milk & Nibs bar , I connected with Carol Morse, founder of Acalli Chocolate and we spent a couple of hours on Skype getting to know each other. Unlike other makers, who fall into chocolate by wondering how chocolate is made, Carol became curious about chocolate after finding herself on an actual cacao plantation. How cool is that? I found her story so interesting that I invited her to share it with you. In this article, Carol answers a few of my questions about her background, her brand, and what’s next for her company.

Thank you, Carol for sharing your chocolate story.

1) When we first talked last year, I was surprised to learn that you have a PhD in Anthropology. How did you make the switch to becoming a full-time chocolate-maker?

I don’t have a PhD, but anthropology was my college major. I also have a background in economic development, as I worked in micro-finance before I made chocolate. So the full chain of chocolate making – from cacao and the people that grow it to the final bar – lets me combine a lifelong love of chocolate with an interest in people and the work that they do.

My husband is an archaeologist (he is pursuing his PhD), and three years ago we spent a summer in Guatemala while he studied a Mayan language and I worked remotely for a California micro-finance nonprofit. We visited Maya Mountain Cacao in Belize and I met Guatemalan chocolate-makers. I was just fascinated by everything, and when I got back to the U.S., I ordered small equipment and cacao from John Nanci (I don’t know what I would’ve done without his Chocolate Alchemy website!) to begin making chocolate at home. The Chocolate Life was also a really helpful forum for me when I started out – so many chocolate-makers offering advice and guidance.

In 2014, I visited the Norandino Cooperative in Northern Peru, and was impressed by both their work and cacao. I began buying from them shortly thereafter.

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The original line-up of Acalli Chocolate bars. Photo credit: Carol Morse, Acalli Chocolate.

2. What is the origin of the name Acalli?

The name Acalli (ah-CALL-ee) means “canoe” in Nahuatl (the Aztec language that also gave us the word “chocolate”). It seemed appropriate as a name since canoes connect people even across great distances, and were an early method of transporting cocoa beans. I also just think it’s a pretty word and one that evokes the spirit of travel and a sense of adventure. My husband is an anthropologist and linguist, so he helped come up with it!

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Carol Morse, founder and maker, Acalli Chocolate. Photo credit: Erin Krall.

3. When I think of New Orleans, I think about hot and humid: what challenges does that climate pose for a chocolate-maker?

I’m constantly learning about the impact of climate on chocolate here! I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I started, but I do feel like I understand chocolate better because of the time I’ve spent figuring out why things go wrong. Humidity is a big issue – I have a humidity monitor in my workshop and it rarely reads below 50% relative humidity. It’s often above 65 or 70…and I have learned that you can temper in those conditions, contrary to popular belief! Summers are also difficult when it comes to keeping the temperature down, especially for tempering and molding. But like anywhere, I guess you just figure out what works for the conditions you have. I definitely get nervous making summertime deliveries, but I appreciate ice packs more than ever before!

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Park Morse, Carol’s brother, at work making chocolate. Photo credit: Carol Morse, Acalli Chocolate.

4. You just added two new bars to your existing bar line-up. Could you tell us a bit more about your chocolate?

Of course! I’m currently buying all of my cacao from the Norandino Cooperative, and it’s a big cooperative that spans several regions of Peru. I started out last year with three bars. Two are made with beans from six communities in the Tumbes region of Peru, and one is made with beans from the community of El Platanal in Chulucanas, Peru.

The bars that I just released are smaller “tasting bars,” and they’re darker, with an 81% cocoa content. They’re made with a blend of the Tumbes and El Platanal beans, and sweetened with local Louisiana sugar. The combination is so fudgy and rich, with a hint of molasses from the sugar. One bar is plain, and the other is topped with nibs and sea salt. I’m a little obsessed!

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The latest (delicious!) additions to Acalli Chocolate’s original line of bars. Photo credit: Carol Morse, Acalli Chocolate.

5) There are over 150 bean-to-bar chocolate-makers in the US today. What sets Acalli apart?

A big tenant of business model is sourcing in person. I’m not the only one doing that, but it was something important to me from the beginning, especially in light of my anthropology and development background. I want to pay a price that treats cacao as a value-added specialty product, not a commodity. Because there is a huge amount of work that goes into cacao production: cultivation, harvesting, fermenting, drying… I want to acknowledge all the work that has been done by the farmers before I even receive the beans.

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Park and Carol Morse in front of a fermentation box in Tabasco, Mexico, summer 2015. Photo credit: Acalli Chocolate.

6) What’s next for Acalli?

Launching the new little bars has been such an exciting way to close out the summer! I’ll be expanding those into more retail locations, and we’re slowly starting to move toward prime drinking chocolate weather, which is great. I quietly introduced some drinking chocolates late last winter and I’m eager to start offering those in a more visible way.

My husband Luke, my brother Park and I (that’s the entire Acalli “staff,” with Park helping with production and Luke doing a lot of the web and social media work) all visited about twenty farmers in Mexico last summer to pursue Chiapas and Tabasco as potential bean origins. I’m hoping to introduce a new Mexican origin some time soon. I’ve been roasting sample batches of Chiapan beans this week, so that’s been an exciting project also!

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Finding Bean-to-Bar Chocolate in the Philadelphia Area

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Taza Chocolate bar from my local Whole Foods Market

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

  • Ritual Chocolate (their 75% Balao bar and 60% Novo coffee bars are excellent).

Gryphon Coffee – Wayne, PA

Lolli and Pops – King of Prussia Mall

Malvern Buttery – Malvern, PA

Philter Coffee – Kennett Square, PA

The West Chester Ice Cream & Coffee Bar – West Chester, PA

Kimberton Whole Foods – Multiple locations

Martindale’s Natural Market – Springfield, PA

Whole Foods Markets – Multiple locations

Sazon Restaurant – Philadelphia, PA

Shane Confectionary – Philadelphia, PA

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