It has been fifteen years since I entered the world of fine chocolate and watched it develop into the phenomenal, diverse landscape it is today. The variety of products under the “chocolate bar” category can bring incredible joy or an overwhelming sense of confusion, depending on knowledge of the industry. Unlike many products, chocolate bars are difficult to understand the differences between. For example, it isn’t too hard to guess the difference in quality among the various types of juice—frozen, canned, or fresh. With chocolate, packages, percentages, gorgeous landscapes, organic and food quality classifications, and more seduce the consumers to open their wallets—often with little understanding of what they are buying. Chocolate bars with a $3.00 price point or below are offered in the same space as those that cost $20 for less chocolate, and many consumers do not know the difference. In this blog, I will share the secrets and core guidelines to buying chocolate. These are rules I employ when reviewing our in-store purchasing decisions as well as purchasing chocolate for self -indulgence at other specialty stores around the globe. Whether you are seeking a bar with a verified ethical label or one that informs you about the actual chocolate making process, there is one that will taste sublime and delight your palate.
What does Artisanal mean?
The term artisanal, or artisan, was usually used in reference to a person who spent long years as apprentice to a master, learning a craft and becoming an artisan when the master determined the trainee was ready. This is challenging to conceptualize in the chocolate world because the few big names in the chocolate world carefully guard their industry secrets. Therefore, the term “self-proclaimed” artisan maker would be more appropriate, as many launch their product and then improve on it from customer feedback, without the countless years spent studying under a master. In fact, many even enter the chocolate industry from another unrelated profession (a topic for another blog, perhaps). Today’s definition seems to apply to individuals that posses a boundless passion for the art of making chocolate.
Direct trade or Fair trade — what is the difference?
Fair Trade Certification is granted to operations that follow the established guidelines for sustainable practices in harvesting cacao. This means they pay at least the set minimum market price to farmers, allowing them to support their livelihood and ensure that the product carrying this label does not use child labor or slave labor in the growing and harvesting/processing. Direct Trade is a method of buying cacao in which the chocolate makers develop a relationship with the individual farmers who grow the cacao. This means that the two parties collaborate to determine a fair price to pay for the beans. This also means that chocolate makers take the time to see firsthand how the cacao is grown, which also allows them to ensure the sustainability of the farming and harvesting practices.
Handmade or Craft — a Bit of a Misnomer?
The term “handmade” suggests the product is literally made by hand. In some ways, this can be true—Cacao pods are indeed harvested, sorted, fermented, and packed by hand. However, some steps along the way require machinery. Perhaps crushing and grinding beans by hand like the Aztecs use to do is possible, but it would not result in the same well-conched chocolate we are accustomed to. Chocolate making is indeed a craft requiring much skill, patience, experience, and well-selected raw product, but it is not truly an entirely handmade product. Typically, the initial phase on the plantation and the final phase of packaging are both steps done by hand.
For the Health-Conscious Consumer:
As the chocolate industry continues to evolve, so do the ways chocolate makers create indulgences that can be appreciated by even those who are highly conscious of the quality of foods they consume. Appearing more and more regularly in the chocolate industry are options including organic, vegan, non-GMO, dairy-free, gluten-free, and more. One of the more difficult ingredients to pay attention to when shopping for chocolate is soy lecithin. It is a typical food additive that is often used as an emulsifier, and highly common in chocolate due to the ease it provides to the chocolate-making process. That being said, it is also the cause of the sometimes-waxy coating we find on some of the large, commercial chocolate makers we most commonly find at convenience stores. It is also known to tone down some of the different flavor notes of the cacao beans, creating a more monotone flavor experience. Typically, it is a way chocolate makers can continue to make chocolate while minimizing the cost to do so. The debate to use soy lecithin or not and how it relates to the fine chocolate industry is ongoing. Many makers prefer to use pure cocoa butter as an emulsifier to create a highly flavorful, creamy, and decadent treat. However, we do have several favorite makers who use non gmo soy lecithin or sunflower lecithin in their products lending a distinct taste and mouthfeel to the final indulgence. Customers are loyal to those brands and seek out that particular taste experience.
Similar in function to soy lecithin, there are other ingredients to be avoided on chocolate labels that primarily serve as easy-to-use cost-efficient emulsifiers. While they may be beneficial from a business perspective, they take away from the flavor profiles and delightful textures of quality chocolates. For example, polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR) is another cocoa butter substitute that results in a lower quality chocolate. It is often used because not only does it help with the chocolate making process, but it also increases shelf-life. Ingredients such as soy lecithin and PGPR will not be found most in high quality, organic, and artisanal chocolates, nor will vegetable fats or high-fructose corn syrup.
The Effects of Consumer Knowledge
As consumers learn more about chocolate, the industry is pushed to further develop and provide higher quality chocolate in terms of tasting experience, sourcing, dietary considerations and the overall environmental impact. In the past few years alone, the demands on the chocolate industry have increased tremendously. It has only been recently that dairy free and completely vegan options have arisen. Additionally, as chocolate-lovers learn more and more about how much of the land to use cacao is becoming useless, they are looking for more sustainable companies to ensure chocolate will be available in the future.
Chocolate Trends to Keep an Eye Out for
Flavor inclusions are bigger and better than ever. Bacon inclusions have become expected, and caramel is an old classic. More exotic inclusions come in savory and sweet alike—or a mix of both! While sweet flavor inclusions have lasted the test of time, savory flavors are making themselves known in the chocolate industry. Rosemary, ricotta, barley, quinoa, and sunflower seeds are all popular ingredients that have become incorporated in chocolate offerings. There are also suggestions of more intense citrus inclusions, and possibly vegetable and seafood inclusions in Asian markets. To make things visually interesting, activated charcoal, 24 carat gold leaf and myriad of spices and herbs have been incorporated into chocolate as well.
Additionally, the trend of health-conscious chocolates is likely to grow. More reduced sugar and all organic options are likely to come into the scene, accompanied by more offerings that meet more specific dietary and health needs. These healthy chocolate options are likely to raise the retail value of many fine chocolates.
Similarly, the popularity of dark chocolate is likely to grow. A few years back, dark chocolate’s health benefits became widely known to consumers. This was the ignition of the chocolate with health benefits trend, and it is likely to remain a leader in this movement.
Another trend in chocolate is using luxury chocolates and bonbons as garnish on larger desserts such as ice creams, pies, tiramisu and crepes. The need to step up desserts and make them bigger and better is strongly backing this trend. The addition of delectable bonbons to traditional desserts makes it more appealing to the eye and causes mouths to water.
In the opposite manner, the food science behind chocolate is also becoming more and more popular. Creating the illusion of a bigger dessert such as a milkshake or pie through the flavors, textures, and experience of a chocolate is a practice that is causing a stir. Consumers are seeking a more interactive tasting experience not just a bite of something to satisfy their sweet tooth.
Things to Keep in Mind this Valentine’s Day
When thinking about how to treat a loved one to a spectacular time this Valentine’s Day, think about going beyond just the chocolate box. While a delectable chocolate box can make a wonderful gift, creating a thoughtful experience can mean so much more. How can this be done? We will share some ways you can give an experience to your valentine. There are a few more traditional routes to create experiences such as wine pairings, or a more modern spin of coffee pairings. To take it even a level further than that, a collection of chocolate that takes you and your loved one to a whole new place can make this year memorable.
One example would be creating an at home chocolate tasting—typically this is done with one dark chocolate, one milk chocolate, and one white chocolate. For the record—they should be tasted in that order. Perhaps choosing floral flavors of each to be paired with a crisp, sparkling rose could make for an incredible tasting experience.
Another option would be to include chocolates that come from all over the globe. Bring a basket of chocolates including some from Belgium, Australia, Brazil, France, Vietnam, Iceland, New Zealand, and all over the United States. Each country supplies their own history, different types of beans, and environmental factors that affect the notes of flavor that become prominent in each.
Take things a step further by collecting bars that are experiences within themselves. Chocolate companies like Cacao Sampaka create experiences in tasting chocolate such as their Gin and Tonic bar that features crystalized lemon and juniper berries to create the sensation of the beverage. Other companies make an effort to create chocolates that evoke emotions such as La Naya sending those who taste on trips to the Vatican or the Center of the Universe. Original Beans keeps a code on the packaging that allows you to go online and see the forests of Ecuador in which the cacao is grown.
Whether your Valentine is interested in preserving the planet the chocolate trees grown on or is seeking a multisensory chocolate indulgence there are so many amazing options available that even Cupid would be impressed. And if you are lost please engage with our resident chocoholics to help you choose just the right treat.
Written by Kim at Gourmet Boutique