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What are craft chocolates?

In the previous post of this series, we have briefly covered what commercial chocolates are and the common brands that many of us have grown up with to know as chocolates (i.e. Royce, Venchi, Laderach). Now, what are craft chocolates and how are they different from commercially available chocolates?

Craft chocolates, also known as bean-to-bar chocolates, single-estate/single-plantation chocolates, small-batch, micro-batch, and artisan chocolates, is a smaller and lesser known segment of the larger chocolate market. There is an absence of a unified definition of what craft chocolate really entails, but generally, this smaller segment of the chocolate market reflects a commitment to craftsmanship, quality, flavor, transparency, sustainability, and ethical practices. This specialized segment of the chocolate market is nascent but undoubtedly growing and gaining traction rapidly.

Some larger craft chocolate pioneers include Bonnat Chocolatier, Pralus Chocolate, and Zotter Chocolates and they all specialize in producing recognizable chocolates that are well-loved by fine chocolate lovers. As with commercial chocolates, understanding what craft chocolate is will boil down to the aims of production.

Unlike commercial chocolate, craft chocolate embraces diversity. The end goal of craft chocolate makers is to figure out a way to best represent the complexity of the bean they have on hand compared to the flat profile of commodity cacao beans. These chocolate makers encourage flavor exploration and respect the distinctive nuances that accompany the cacao beans by adjusting the rest of the chocolate making process to properly enhance the flavors of each bean variety (fermenting time, drying time, roasting time, etc.). The art and science behind figuring out the best way to fully express the flavor profiles of each bean variety takes years and years of experimentation and research. Each type of cacao has a different protocol and processes to allow a very specifically desirable flavor to develop properly. This process would depend on the genetic material (such as the amount of cacao butter) and the physical characteristics of the beans (for example, the size).

When sourcing for cacao beans, craft chocolate makers search for plantations with high-quality plants and practices. These are farms where the plant variety all the way to drying are all done with the end flavor in mind. Some chocolate makers, such as Stephane Bonnat from Bonnat Chocolatier, will travel with some bars in hand to the farms for the farmers to taste, to accurately express what he looks for in cacao beans. Many makers will travel to remote lands, sometimes trekking for multiple days, to locate potential farmers in specific countries and regions with plantations who will agree to grow and harvest an agreed-upon cacao bean with strict requirements. Craft chocolate makers and the farmers prioritize beans with incredible aroma and complex flavors. Less emphasis is placed on productivity and disease-resistance of the beans. As such, only a small amount of fine cacao of certain flavor can be produced, subject to the environment. The amount of time, attention, capacity, and technique that is dedicated and required to simply grow the beans already justifies the higher price.

It is then evident that the environment, in addition to the genetics of each cacao bean variety, plays a crucial role in flavor development. Not only has the cacao species sought after in craft chocolate gone through a long process of genetic evolution and improvement, the environment has to be within the Goldilocks zone for the beans to develop properly. What is this Goldilocks zone? It depends. However, some of the criteria include being planted within the cacao belt (which is 20 degrees north and south of the equator), under proper shade with appropriate amounts of water and sunlight, and preferably in non-monoculture environments.

Craft chocolate bars and products also generally have fewer ingredients compared to industrial chocolates and the ingredients are usually of higher quality and tend to be natural or organic. Many manufacturers believe that in order to not desecrate the precious beans that had taken so much effort to harvest, only ingredients that have been treated with similar respect can be added to highlight the flavors of each bean. Sugar is present in most craft chocolates as well, but it is used in smaller amounts and to enhance certain notes in the cacao beans. It is never used to mask any type of error in any bar or products nor will it ever overwhelm the consumers’ taste buds.

Lastly, and most importantly, most craft chocolate makers focus on direct trade on top of fair-trade instead of the bare commodity cacao. This point will be elaborated in subsequent blog posts. Basically, what this means is that craft chocolate makers are committed to ensuring that farmers are compensated fairly and ethically for all the hard work that they have invested into growing beans of excellent quality. To do this, makers work directly with the farmers instead of going through middlemen. It is not an easy task to determine when each cacao pod ripens, the fermentation, and the drying time required for each bean type. The amount that craft chocolate makers pay to the farmers for the beans can sometimes go up to seven or eight times the amount that large corporations pay cacao farmers for a similar amount of beans and every cent is well justified and deserved.

All that we have covered above and in the previous blog post is just a high-level overview of the what commercial and craft chocolates are, and the differences between them. The world of chocolate is such an intriguing and complex industry filled with culture and history that begs veneration. It is much more than a simple bar of sugar flavored with cacao. It is worth so much more than $1.50.

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