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As there is no standard in labeling chocolate there is also no standard in grading cocoa beans. Each country has their own governing authority. In Brazil it's the National Foreign Trade Council; in Ecuador it's the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, etc; Dominican Republic has the Cocoa Department, Ministry of Agriculture; and so on. Most authorities grade based on percentage of faults in each of these categories: mould, slate, infestation, germination, shape, color, moisture and foreign matter. Each authority uses their own set of descriptors and standards for each and the percentage of allowable faults varies greatly. See the table below for only a few examples. The point being, labeling a package with bean quality would be almost pointless considering the serious lack of uniformity. However, as a consumer, ideally I would want to know if I'm paying for the highest quality or mid-grade before I spend my hard earned money. Wouldn't you?

Cocoa bean quality standard comparison:

Country Highest Quality Descriptor General Comments
Brazil Superior Maximum of each individual defect is 2%, sum of all defects not to exceed 4%
Ivory Coast Grade 1 Lots must be of uniform color and flavor, free of musty or smokey flavor, maximum defect count is 10%
Dominican Republic Sanchez Smokey beans not permitted, max defect count 6%. *Hispaniola 1 and Hispaniola 2 are considered lower grade. Note, many brands use the word Hispaniola on their packaging. They may be unknowingly advertising bean quality when they think they are advertising origin.
Ecuador ASSPS Arriba Superior Summer Plantation Selected, greater than 85% fermentation.
Ghana Grade 1  
Indonesia Grade AA1 Free of foreign odors
Papua New Guinea Export Quality Board approved fermenting and drying, free from foul or foreign odors
Sierra Leone Grade 1 Max of 15% mold, slatey, germinated or flat
Venezuela Superior  
Vanuatu 1-A Proposed standard of max moisture content of 8%
Malaysia SMC 1-A Cocoa showing more than 10 live insects per bag is rejected

 

CRAFT CHOCOLATE
An American Phenomenon

Many labels are used on packaging to describe the process and convey value.  Terms like artisan, bean-to-bar, micro-batch, small batch and craft are all used by companies as a way to differentiate their chocolate from mass market chocolate.   All of these labels are usually meant to convey a message of high quality in small quantities.  Although we don’t want you to get too hung up on the way a chocolate is labeled, we do like to use the term “craft” because we believe it describes even more than that.

Creation.  Craft chocolate makers are not motivated for financial returns but for their love of the creative process. The experience of creation and creating the best chocolate is what drives them and entices us to seek out the most interesting chocolate we can find.

Philosophy.  Craft chocolate makers are able to integrate their own personal vision and core values into the creative process and they are eager to share this philosophy with their customers.  Because smaller companies are more accessible it too is easier to connect directly to the maker when you seek information that can often enhance your chocolate appreciation.

Originality.  We love that craft chocolate production provides unique character which can’t be reproduced in any mass market factory.  Their goal is not sameness, but originality. Large mass market companies buy cocoa from large plantations and in contrast, small makers often purchase from smaller farms.  Smaller farms are more likely to pay closer attention to post harvesting details that are integral for flavor development in the same way a small chocolate maker can pay closer attention to processing details.


AMERICA'S CRAFT MAKERS

The craft chocolate movement is on the rise worldwide but it is no more evident anywhere than it is here in the United States.  In 2006, there were fewer than 8 American craft chocolate makers and by early 2016 there were more than 160 passionate entrepreneurs living their dream of making chocolate.  No other country can offer as much variety.  With this explosion you’ll experience a wide range of creative expression in the American craft chocolate scene.  Below we have highlighted a few of these American makers to show how they are different and examples of what makes craft chocolate so interesting.

At Fresco (Lynden, Washington), chocolate maker Rob Anderson, has championed his philosophy of making chocolate tasting not only pleasing to taste but educational.  Fresco sells chocolate bars from the same harvest of beans, made with the same mixture of ingredients, but then makes distinct batches by altering the roasting  and conching process and then displays the process on Fresco’s packaging.  Each batch results in very different taste experiences.  In this way, he is able to display how the creativity and skill of the chocolate maker impacts the end product.

Originality is also evident by the type of equipment a chocolate maker uses. Early pioneers of the American craft chocolate movement were Art Pollard and Clark Goble (Amano Chocolate- Orem, Utah) who sought out vintage chocolate making equipment from around the world that could help them produce the results they were aiming for.  Earth stewards, Dan and Jael Rattigan in Asheville, North Carolina, created a rooftop solar production deck for their company French Broad and have been experimenting roasting small batches with a parabolic trough solar roaster that Dan also built.  Scott Moore of Tejas (Spring, Texas) is roasting cacao in the oven he built out of reclaimed bricks.  Barbara Wilson and Joe Meza of Mindo Chocolate Makers (Dexter, Michigan) use a hydraulic cocoa butter press so they can ensure the traceability and quality of their butter.  Unique equipment choices in all of these examples help to create distinctive profiles in the finished chocolate for each. 

At the time of this writing there were no fewer than 7 craft chocolate makers in the Hawaiin islands.  Hawaii being the only state in the U.S. where cacao is grown, gives these makers a better opportunity, if they choose, to control everything from growing, post harvest techniques and chocolate production.  Other craft makers who don’t have the luxury of growing their own cacao still value being involved at the farm level. Environmentalist and forest-carbon specialist, Charles Kerchner (Kerchner Chocolate- Burlington, Vermont) works in the Dominican Republic on biodiversity and cacao projects focused on planting fine flavored varietals, select grafted varietals and improving agricultural practices.

These examples of innovations in craft chocolate emphasize it’s desirability. While we only highlighted a few American companies here there are many more companies to explore.  Craft chocolate making is happening all over the world, from Europe, South America, Vietnam, Australia and beyond.



WHAT DOES BEAN-TO-BAR MEAN?

Bean-to-bar defined:  Simply put, it is the process by which a cacao bean is transformed into chocolate.  If bean-to-bar is placed on packaging it is understood that this claim indicates that the company name on the package is the company that performed the processing of the bean into chocolate.  Within the craft chocolate industry there is some level of  mistrust of people who put the bean-to-bar label on their package.  There are basic steps that are needed to produce chocolate and a few that are optional. To be an true bean-to-bar company means that the company making the claim must perform every step that was taken to produce their chocolate from the bean.   There are no exceptions to this.  Every step, of every batch must be performed by the company making the claim.  Even if only one step is subcontracted to an outside party, the company is not a true bean-to-bar maker.  If a company designs a recipe and determines the specs for another company to make it, the designing company is not bean-to-bar.  Making chocolate requires a physical skill, so designing, supervising or subcontracting are not the same as making. 

The demand for transparency with “bean-to-bar”: Because there is no legal or FDA definition of bean-to-bar, it is often misused and even used purposely to mislead.  Some companies do this because they think this will make their chocolate seem better.  But bean-to-bar does not automatically mean high quality, and if a company isn’t bean-to-bar, that in turn doesn’t mean the chocolate cannot be good.  People simply want to know who is making the chocolate they are buying.

 

THE BEAN-TO-BAR PROCESS

Sorting removing irregular, bad looking beans and anything that isn’t a cocoa bean
Roasting

important step to develop and release flavors. Also needed to loosen the thin outer shell from the inner nib.

Winnowing

removing the shell from the nib

Grinding

initial step of breaking down the solid nibs into a thick paste

Refining

breaking down the particles into a smaller size that is less detectable in the mouth

Mixing

adding in sugar and other ingredients during the refining process

Conche

a continuation of the refining process that ensures solid particles are completely covered with cocoa butter and continued movement and aeration over time reduces moisture and undesirable flavors. However, there is also risk of overconching and removing desirable flavors.

Aging

allowing the chocolate to sit and develop flavors before tempering

Temper

stabilize the mix of the cocoa butter crystals with the solids to prevent them from separating and creating proper melting in the mouth.

Molding

pouring the chocolate into molds and allowing to cool

Wrap

proper packaging of the finished chocolate will ensure it is kept safe from outside aromas.  Choosing packaging that is odor free is important as well.


WHY DOES CRAFT CHOCOLATE COST MORE?

Like most artisan products, the price of craft chocolate is significantly higher than mass market or grocery store brands.  Whereas 3oz of mass market chocolate would cost less than two dollars at your local grocer, the price for the same amount of craft chocolate would probably start at 6 dollars and often as much as 10 -12 dollars.  Although the initial price tag might be shocking there are very justifiable reasons for the high cost.  Both ingredients and labor costs drive up the price of the chocolate for a small company.

Using high quality ingredients. Mass producers usually rely on less expensive bulk cacao and smaller craft makers tend to focus more on fine flavor and limited edition cacao.  Fine flavor cacao beans command a much higher price, often twice as much as a bulk bean.  For several reasons, but a few are because these beans are less disease resistant, less hardy in variable climates and overall produce fewer beans per tree than a high yielding bulk bean used by mass market companies.  Fine flavor cacao also offers a larger range in flavor potential.  Craft makers also pay more to farmers using the best post harvesting practices.  Mass market chocolate companies can sell at lower prices too because they purchase ingredients by the ton and use a variety of artificial ingredients that are used to cut costs and substitute for more expensive natural ingredients.  See these two ingredient lists taken directly from two packages labeled as “dark” chocolate.

Dark Mass Market Chocolate Dark Craft Chocolate
sugar beans
cocoa butter sugar
cocoa powder cocoa butter
alkali  
milk fat  
lactose  
soy lecithin  
PGPR (polyglycerol polyricinoleate)  
vanillin(artificial flavoring)  
milk  

Labor.  Assembly line production, on the other hand, has little to do with artistry.  It’s driving factors are related to the bottom line and producing chocolate that is cheap and more affordable. With mass production, they have machines that turn out thousands of chocolate bars in a matter of minutes.  The larger capacity and faster machines used to decrease the actual time spent processing and developing flavors can make their chocolate cheaper.  When you look at how much time goes in to making a craft chocolate bar, the cost of the employee, the energy costs for long hours of conching, refining, roasting, etc, expense of building a factory, among some of the expenses, the price of craft chocolate is justified.

The Caveat.  Higher price does not always correlate with higher quality.  Unfortunately, expensive packaging, slick branding and marketing techniques also result in higher cost.  It is up to consumers to do their best to make decisions based on knowledge rather than advertising.

The Good News.  With plain dark chocolate bars usually topping out at 25- 30 dollars a bar these days, practically anyone can afford (at least once) to experience the most prized cacao and rarest origins available made by any of the worlds top chocolate makers.  Yet compare that to the thousand dollar a bottle price tags on the best wines available and it will be much easier to appreciate the value you’re getting.

 

DECIPHERING COCOA PERCENTAGES

Percentage refers to the total cocoa content of cocoa solids and cocoa butter in the recipe.  However, it is often a misunderstood value for consumers and is actually more useful as a reflection of sugar content in plain dark chocolate than anything else.  In addition, cocoa percentage is in no way an indicator of quality, fine flavor or health benefits (unless you are only concerned about sugar content).  And different chocolate bars with the same cocoa percentage on the label can be made with different recipe mixes and varying levels of cocoa solids.  Let’s take a closer look...

The two main ingredients needed to make plain dark chocolate are cocoa beans and sugar. (It is usually acceptable, but not necessary, to add vanilla or lecithin to plain chocolate, but the two ingredients combined would amount to less than 1% of the total mixture).  A single cocoa bean can be broken down into two separate components, cocoa solids (in the form of powder) and cocoa butter (often referred to as cocoa fat). The cocoa solids contain the flavor components, the butter helps carry the flavor, and sugar is added to complement and enhance the flavor.  Although not all beans have the same makeup, you can roughly estimate that a single cocoa bean is 50% solids and 50% butter.   As noted above, cocoa percent is a value that represents both cocoa solids and cocoa butter combined.  Some craft chocolate makers will make a bar by grinding beans down into a cocoa paste form and then only add sugar to make their chocolate.  Others may mix in extra cocoa butter in addition to the ground beans and sugar.  By adding cocoa butter, a maker can create a creamier feeling chocolate when melting in your mouth.  However, the more cocoa butter there is, also means there is less cocoa solid (flavor component).  So finding the right balance is an art and requires a great level of understanding. As noted, adding some extra cocoa butter to a recipe can have benefits and gives chocolate makers the possibility of creating varying character profiles from the same percentage while using the same batch of beans.  Look at the image below to see how four different mixtures of a 70% chocolate compare visually.  From left to right, the red cap is only beans and sugar, then the mixtures range from 5%, 15% and 30% added cocoa butter.  Yet all 4 mixtures are accurately labeled 70% cocoa content.  Think of all the possibilities!  And although you don’t often know what the breakdown is, you are now aware that it is part of the vision each maker has that they believe translates into a pleasurable chocolate.

Fun Fact
White chocolate does not have any cocoa solid content that provides the flavor of true chocolate.  Although a lot of people argue that white chocolate is not really chocolate, one of it’s main ingredient is cocoa butter, which does come from the cocoa bean.

Fun Fact
100%  cocoa content chocolate is also arguably not chocolate by some aficionados who believe chocolate is not chocolate without added sugar.  100% cocoa content is just ground beans and is also called chocolate paste or chocolate liquor.

Fun Fact
How to calculate cocoa solids and cocoa butter content when a nutrition label is on the package.

1. Divide the Total Fat by the Serving size, then multiply by 100 to get the percentage of fat.

2. Subtract the percentage of fat from the cacao percentage and the difference will tell you what percentage of the bar consists of dry cocoa solids.

3. To estimate the amount of added cocoa butter, subtract the amount of cocoa solids from the amount of cocoa butter. (this is a close estimate based on assumption of a natural content of 50% cocoa solids to 50% cocoa butter in the ground cocoa beans.