Chocolate connoiseur and co-founder of Cocoa Runners, Spencer Hyman, gives us the low down on all things craft chocolate.
Comparing craft chocolate to mass produced chocolate is a bit like comparing a free-range roast chicken to a chicken nugget. They are both chicken, but that is where the similarity begins and ends.
Craft chocolate, just like craft beer and good wine, should be made using the finest and simplest ingredients, and focus on provenance and the maker’s skill. It’s all about coaxing out and enhancing the natural flavours of the cocoa bean.
The craft chocolate journey begins with a cocoa farmer in the rainforests of South America, Africa, or maybe even South East Asia (i.e. not in a factory in Belgium,). Smallholder farmers grow and harvest the cocoa pods. Inside is a white pulp containing the cocoa beans that farmers must then carefully ferment and dry to remove the pulp and so that the beans’ flavour can begin to develop. Already the chocolate’s profile is being shaped by the farmer. But even before this, the cacao’s terroir, the environmental conditions in which it’s grown will impact its taste.
At this point, the beans are transported to the maker. To ensure the quality of their beans and that farmers are fairly compensated, makers tend to buy straight from cooperatives and farmers. Avoiding middlemen wherever possible, makers build direct relationships with their suppliers that are better for everyone. By contrast, mass-produced chocolate makers go for quantity not quality. They beans in bulk, from a mixture of origins (often the Ivory Coast), at the cheapest possible price.
Once safely arrived, the beans need to be sorted, roasted, winnowed, ground and conched before the chocolate is tempered, moulded and wrapped. At every stage the maker is re-assessing the beans and making decisions that will affect the bar’s final flavour. Should they use an intense roast or a light one? A medium conche or a short one? How long should they leave the chocolate to rest?
Most of our makers have workshops about the size of the averaged kitchen and amount of the work done by hand or machine varies. They might have a machine to winnow for them, or they might have rigged up a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner to do this instead. Almost all wrap the bars by hand.
At every stage our makers are there. Their care, skill and attention to the beans is what makes craft chocolate so unique. Nothing is taken away. Apart from a little sugar, and some milk (but only if you’re making milk or white chocolate) nothing is added. Instead it’s all about the beans.
Mass produced chocolate factories are a world away. Beans from all over, both good and not so good are put into large hydraulic presses. The cocoa butter, the natural fat present in the cocoa bean, is separated out and often sold off. Vegetable fats, artificial flavourings, whey powder and soy lecithin is added into the vats. The reconstituted mixture is churned round and moulded into bars in record time: whereas an artisan bar will take 2-5 days to craft (and then needs to rest for many weeks before wrapping) a mass produced bar can be turned out in a matter of hours.
These carefully crafted chocolate bars, made the simplest possible ingredients taste better. The flavour doesn’t come from cheap synthetic flavourings, fake vanilla or tonnes of added sugar but from the cocoa bean itself. Keeping the ingredients pure has another advantage too; it’s better for your wellbeing. Turn over a dark craft chocolate bar and you’ll only see these ingredients: Cocoa beans and sugar.
Craft chocolate doesn’t just taste better, it’s better for people who grow it, for the planet and for you.
Written by Spencer Hyman