Lately you've probably heard the term "bean to bar" bandied about — especially in relation to a couple of bearded brothers in Brooklyn. But what the heck does it mean? And should you care if your chocolate is labeled "bean to bar"?
Much of the chocolate on the market is produced by big corporations in an industrial process that seeks to mask the bad flavors of low-quality cacao beans with tons of sugar and vanilla, and improve texture with the addition of cocoa butter and soy lecithin. What's more, most chocolate contains very little cacao. To be called "chocolate" in the U.S., a bar has to be at least 10 percent cacao. (Guess how much Hershey’s has? Eleven percent.)
There are a few exceptions to the rule, notably Valrhona, Guittard, and Callebaut. In fact, many chocolatiers buy chocolate from one of these companies; melt it down; and mold it into truffles, bonbons, and flavored bars.
But in the past 15 or so years, American artisans have started making their own chocolate and overseeing the entire process, from sourcing the cacao beans to blending the ground beans with sugar and sometimes cocoa butter to produce the final bar — thus the term "bean to bar." These producers not only use better ingredients (and pay farmers more for the high-quality beans), but also spend a lot of time perfecting the process to bring out intense flavor notes that you may never have tasted before. For example, chocolate made with beans from Madagascar can taste fruity!
Ultimately, "bean to bar" is an indicator that your chocolate bar will be a more ethical, higher-quality chocolate than other options on the market. And there's never been a better time to be a chocoholic! The craft chocolate market is hot hot hot, with hundreds of makers creating their own unique bars.
The sudden glut of small-batch bars also means it can be as confusing to buy a bar of chocolate as it is to buy a bottle of wine. Whatever you do, don't choose based on the label. Here are a few of my personal favorite brands.
- Amano Chocolate was one of the first bean-to-bar makers in the country, and its bars from Venezuela (which boasts some of the best cacao in the world) are magnificent.
- Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco takes extreme care and pride in its two-ingredient, single-origin chocolate bars. If you’re in the Bay Area, visit the storefront for a drinking chocolate or s’more made with the good stuff.
- Fruition Chocolate makes amazing single-origin chocolate, including maker Bryan Graham’s Marañon Dark Milk bar, which has changed the way I think of chocolate forever.
(Image credits: Molly DeCoudreaux; Laurie Frankel; Dandelion Chocolate)