Sarah Lambersky talks about chocolate and how we should ditch cheap varieties and pursue the tasty ones, regardless of price tag.
By Sarah Lambersky
Like most North American kids, I was brought up in a chocolate loving home. I grew up eating chocolate cake for my birthday and dunking chocolate chip cookies baked with Chipits (Hershey’s Canada’s chocolate chips) into cups of milk. As I entered university, I thought it was a real treat to indulge in a truffle or a piece of chocolate from a ‘gourmet’ shop. I only purchased supermarket bars labeled “70% cacao” or higher thinking that would appease my conscience when baking. In my 20-something year old mind, I was at the peak of chocolate sophistication.
A decade later, my chocolate world was turned upside down by a conversation I had with local bean-to-bar chocolate maker, Mikkel Friis-Holm, in Copenhagen. It was one of those game changing conversations that propels you to look critically at the food you consume and how you make consumption decisions. My decision making process for chocolate can roughly be translated to “I need to buy some chocolate for a recipe, this bar looks medium priced, it says 70% cacao on the label, I am somewhat familiar with this brand; good enough.”
This chocolate conversation also happened to occur at a time in my life when I had taken a strong interest in learning how to identify and taste a broader range of flavour profiles in food (think Gary Vaynerchuck and Wine Library TV). So, I was motivated to dig deeper into understanding the world of chocolate and admit my ignorance like Socrates. I was ditching cheap chocolate in pursuit of taste.
The distilled version of my conversation could be paraphrased like this: “A bar marked with “70% cacao” on its label is not an indication of quality, a chocolatier and a chocolate maker are not the same thing and there is a whole world of chocolate flavours waiting to be discovered if you are prepared to hunt down a bar made by a chocolate maker who controls the entire process from bean to bar.”
The longer version of contains a handful of interesting learning points, some of which I will share with you. First, chocolate is similar to wine or coffee and is capable of presenting a broad range of flavour profiles on the taste buds of consumers. The ability to bring out flavours such as nutty, spicy, floral, earthy or fruity are dependent on the genetics of the cacao bean as well as the chocolate making process of converting the bean into a bar. Chocolate makers employ their own techniques, which are influenced by business decisions and priorities. These affect the outcome and taste of the bar you eat. For large multinational chocolate companies, high-volume, low-priced chocolate is better for business, but the bars taste flat, are excessively sweet and are often loaded with fillers and additives. Bean-to-bar chocolate makers (the purists on the spectrum of chocolate makers) avoid additives and work with smaller batches of beans and concentrate on bringing out the bean’s true characteristics.
Second, in the world of chocolate (meaning consumers, producers and makers) quality is not always rewarded. Many cacao farmers are paid based on volume of beans produced, rather than the quality of their beans. Mikkel explained how this affects the product: “When farmers plant cacao trees, if quality is not the goal, they will decide to grow what is most profitable for the farm. Starting in the mid-’90s, this decision was reflected by the move away from original cacao varietals, towards planting high-yielding cacao crops, such as the CCN-51 bean. The chocolate produced from a CCN-51 cloned bean not only tastes like cardboard, but the planting of this varietal also depletes the earth of nutrients. In 10 to 12 years, the cloned trees stop yielding; then a greater use of pesticides is required to continue growing.”
Customer demand for affordable “candy bar” chocolate equally contributes to the cycle. Consumers purchase lower-quality-lower-flavour chocolates for a myriad of personal reasons including price, exposure to marketing, lack of knowledge, or simply indifference. This begets the question: what motivates someone to trade up or try something new when the benefits are not as clear on paper as say trading up between an economy and a higher performance car? If you don’t know what to look for or where to start, or have not experienced the difference in quality first hand, nothing changes.
Fortunately, there are shifts in the chocolate industry that will impact the entire eco-system. On the chocolate maker side, today’s small batch bean-to-bar makers (Mikkel included) are increasingly motivated to work directly with cacao producers rather than buying their chocolate (pre-processed) through third parties in order to have a better handle on selecting high quality raw materials and are paying direct trade prices. It also allows the micro-chocolate makers to control, experiment and tweak the chocolate-making process in order to bring the best flavours out of each bean, just as a winemaker does with grapes.
However, experience is the best education and conducting your own chocolate tasting at home is highly recommended. To experience both ends of the chocolate spectrum, go to your nearest supermarket and buy a 70% dark chocolate bar along with a bag of chocolate chips. Next, track down a few bean-to-bar chocolate bars (there are plenty online resources to help you locate a quality bar including a partial list I created here). Start with the supermarket bar or chocolate chip and work your way towards the bean-to-bar sample. If you have never participated in a chocolate tasting, sometimes I find helps to taste the chocolate samples a few times until your brain can differentiate the variations in flavour.
I hope this discussion has prompted you to explore the lovable food that is chocolate and to broaden your awareness of this food as it relates to quality. It’s fascinating what our taste buds experience when quality and taste are the main drivers of a product instead of price and quantity.
Sarah Lambersky was born in Toronto, Canada and caught the travel bug early on in life. She has had the opportunity to live in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, New York, Prague and currently resides in Copenhagen, Denmark. Sarah is the co-founder and editor of Countlan, a quarterly digital magazine dedicated to exploring how people all over the world entertain at home and lectures undergraduate marketing strategy courses.
Thanks for a great post on a subject we love! For me, this is a familiar experience with many foods as we move from commodity qualities to specialty. We see it in chocolate, coffee, tea, olive oil and cheese. As you suggest, taste testing across the spectrum is the best way to identify the differences for yourself. Lucky for us in the US, there has been a shift over the past 10 years toward bean-to-bar chocolate production with exceptional results including Rogue Chocolatier, Dandelion Chocolate and Ritual Chocolate to name a few. Ed Behr writes about it in his latest Art of Eating publication too. Thanks again!
Tim, you are so right and happy you liked the subject. It is everywhere (chocolate, coffee, tea, olive oil and cheese) and it’s a good thing. I will have to check out the Ed Behr publication. Thanks for including it.
Glad I found your article via Twitter!
Tim is very right in that there are now some excellent chocolate makers in the US and in virtually every part of the world. I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting a lot of them as I continue the research for the second volume of Chocolatour.
It’s really super how people are now beginning to see pure chocolate as the complex power food that it is, and are seeking out the artisans who are making a top quality product. This chocolate tastes nothing like “chocolate candy” which I absolutely will not eat (unless I’m desperate!)
Glad you’re enjoying the opportunity to explore the world of chocolate. It is like no other.