Among foodies, high-end chocolate has joined the prestigious ranks of artisan cheese, gourmet coffee and fine wine. Its ascendancy is due, at least in part, to the efforts of bean-to-bar chocolate makers. So, what is bean-to-bar chocolate-making and what is all the fuss about?
Many companies start the chocolate-making process with couverture chocolate, a block of high-quality, cocoa butter-rich chocolate ready to be moulded into bars. Others, however, take greater control of their product by eschewing couverture chocolate and participating in the process –you guessed it — from bean to bar.
Cacao trees (the origin of the beans that eventually become chocolate) can only be grown in lush-heavily forested areas near the equator. That’s why most chocolate makers buy their beans from far-flung cacao farms, although a few upscale brands have begun purchasing their own cacao estates.
Chocolate companies get involved at varying stages of manufacturing. Many bean-to-bar makers begin by sorting the cacao beans they receive from suppliers. Companies that use multiple bean varieties must carefully measure each to ensure the perfect blend. The cacao, having been fermented and dried at the farm, must be winnowed (shelled), roasted, ground into a paste, blended and tempered at the factory before being made into bars.
Some bean-to-bar chocolate makers take over the process even earlier on by visiting suppliers’ cacao farms and oversee the fermenting and drying of the beans. Certain quality-obsessed chocolate entrepreneurs go as far as bringing beans home from abroad. They experiment with drying times in their kitchens, or see what happens when they ferment smaller bean batches in bins instead of the large, banana leaf-covered piles used on many farms. They then discuss the results with suppliers and decide whether current methods need tweaking.
This meticulous attention to detail is being credited by some for the rising quality of artisan chocolate — not to mention consumers’ increasing willingness to pay previously unthinkable amounts for high-caliber chocolate. The desire to make a top-notch product compels these chocolate fanatics to obsessively pursue just the right pieces of manufacturing equipment, or even build their own bespoke machinery.
Chocolate entrepreneurs who become involved in every aspect of manufacturing tend to think more holistically about their craft. Knowledge begets knowledge, and soon a fledgling chocolate expert learns multiple ways to improve efficiency and quality in every phase of the chocolate-making process.
Technology has especially helped the smallest of bean-to-bar chocolate companies. Besides allowing them to stay in close contact with suppliers, the Internet even allows tiny chocolate-making outfits to learn new chocolate-making techniques via video tutorials.
Don’t let the success and mushrooming numbers of “indie” bean-to-bar chocolate makers fool you; big-name chocolate companies are often using the same practices, but on a much larger scale. Mega-manufacturers Nestle and Cadbury produce bean-to-bar chocolate; Cadbury, in fact, pioneered bean-to-bar chocolate-making in the UK. Hershey, kings of cheap American chocolate bars, acquired three artisan bean-to-bar chocolate makers: Dagoba Organic Chocolates, Joseph Schmidt and Scharffen Berger.
Don’t Exclude Couverture Chocolate
It would be a mistake to completely overlook couverture chocolate in favour of bean-to-bar varieties, however. Paul A. Young consistently produces award-winning chocolate from the finest ingredients. Young’s high-end, innovative products prove that quality ingredients and exquisite craftsmanship are the keys to producing complex, flavourful chocolate.
Single-origin chocolate is another example of chocolate makers pursuing new heights in quality. Single-origin chocolate uses beans from a single harvest from one particular region for a distinctive flavour. Whether from the Venezuela, Brazil, Indonesia or another cacao-growing part of the world, single-origin chocolates let you escape the homogenised taste of ordinary chocolate.
Red Star Chocolate produces single-origin chocolate under the helm of Duffy Sheardown. Red Star proudly fashions micro-batches of bean-to-bar chocolates from beans for which they pay a fair price. Their single-origin, high-quality beans and slow conching (mixing) technique ensure a constant