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Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Trivia Everyone with a Sweet Tooth Should Know

The craft chocolate movement has exploded in America. We got the scoop from an expert.

Published Feb. 9, 2018.

“Fifteen years ago there were only about 5 bean-to-bar makers in the country, but now there are over 200!” Megan Giller writes in her information-packed book, Bean to Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution: The Origins, the Makers, the Mind-Blowing Flavors.

Giller, a food writer and self-proclaimed lifelong chocofile, visited the test kitchen recently to talk about the bean-to-bar chocolate movement, answer our questions about the chocolate-making process, and conduct a chocolate tasting of five single-origin chocolate bars.

We started with the basics: defining "bean-to-bar." Bean-to-bar chocolate is handcrafted and small-batch. Craft chocolatiers usually eschew extra ingredients like vanilla and sugar (more on that to follow), so craft chocolate tastes more like the cocoa beans it’s made from, and that flavor can vary depending on where the beans are from (again, more on that to follow). Because they’re made with high-quality ingredients, craft chocolate bars are more expensive than industrial chocolate.

So what’s next for the industry? According to Giller, expect the number of makers to keep growing, and for them to start focusing more on confections instead of single-origin bars.

No matter what the future brings, this movement is only getting more popular. Here’s an introduction to it, courtesy of Giller, which will help you impress your fellow chocolate-lovers right before Valentine’s Day (or any time of the year).

Bean to Bar Chocolate: America's Craft Chocolate Revolution

Almost All Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Contains a High Percentage of Cocoa

Industrial chocolate, made by big companies in big batches, often contains additional ingredients such as sugar, vanilin, cocoa butter, and emulsifiers for creaminess. Bean-to-bar chocolate makers source whole cocoa beans and most add just enough sugar to bring out the beans’ sweetness. (Some makers have also started to include add-ins like vanilla or sea salt.) With so few ingredients and the focus on cocoa beans, bean-to-bar chocolate almost always contains a high percentage of cocoa.

Many Craft Chocolate Makers Favor a Direct-Trade Model

Direct trade removes any barriers between the farmers and the chocolate maker. Think fair trade, but without the middleperson. In the direct-trade model, craft chocolate makers communicate with the farmers themselves instead of paying someone else to do it. This means the makers get to see their cocoa beans before they buy it, and the farmers get paid more for their product.

American Makers Have Established Their Own Style of Craft Chocolate

And it’s different than the European-style, which is known for its even, rounded flavor thanks to additions like extra cocoa butter and vanilla. Giller writes: “Rather than following the European methods. . . American makers started to exaggerate the natural flavor notes in each variety of cacao, so that you immediately tasted what that bean was about. The resulting chocolate was big, bold, and brash—like, well, Americans—and it’s inspired a new school of bean-to-bar makers across the world."

Bean-to-Bar Chocolatiers Are an Educated and DIY Bunch

You certainly don’t need an advanced degree to make your own chocolate. But among the best-known American craft chocolatiers are organic chemists, ethnobotanists, and engineers. Alan “Patric” McClure, of Patric Chocolate, is enrolled in a PhD program in food science with an emphasis in flavor chemistry to better learn how to make the best-tasting chocolate. John Nanci, retired chemist and creator of the Chocolate Alchemy website, created the small-batch chocolate-making machines with which almost all bean-to-bar makers got their start. Madre cofounder Nat Bletter is a professor at the University of Hawaii and has his PhD in ethnobotany.

Hawaii Is the Only State in the Country That Grows Its Own Cacao

That’s because it’s the only state whose ecosystem allows cacao to grow there. But it’s not native to the state. It was brought and planted there in the 1850s by German physician William Hillebrand and it grew there for 100 years before anyone used it to make chocolate.

Different Regions Lend Chocolate Distinctive Flavors

In the same way that grapes’ region of origin influences the flavor of a resulting wine, cocoa beans from different regions have their own distinctive flavors. This has to do with terroir—that is, the effect that the soil, landscape, and environment have on the flavor of the beans.

So if you’re shopping for a single-origin chocolate bar, here is a cheat sheet for the predominant flavors in bars from just a few areas around the world:

Bright and fruity: Hawaii, Costa Rica, Belize, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Madagascar, Vietnam
Nutty: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Grenada
Earthy: Tanzania, Philippines
Floral: Ecuador
Smoky: Papua New Guinea (the cocoa beans are dried inside with a fire because it’s too rainy to do it outside)

Illustration © Amber Day
Photograph in book by Sascha Reinking Photography

To keep up with Megan, check out her Twitter and Instagram.

Want to read more about other food friends who have visited us in the test kitchen? Check out these articles about other visitors: 

What do you look for in a good chocolate bar? Let us know in the comments!

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