If you're a chocolate lover, you may have noticed there's quite a lot of chocolate lingo being bandied about — including single origin. Now if you're something of a coffee connoisseur or a wine aficionado, you may already be familiar with this phrase. But if it's new to you, here's what it means and why you should care.
At its most basic, single origin means that the chocolate is made using cacao beans from one specific place or "origin." That might not sound so special, but most chocolate is made using a blend of beans from a lot of different countries; companies like Hershey's and Mars even create proprietary blends so that their chocolate always tastes exactly the same. In the past 20 years or so, though, artisan chocolate makers have started making bars using beans from one country — and sometimes even one farm — in order to focus on the terroir of that specific bean.
Yes, you read that right. Like with wine, chocolate's taste is also partially determined by the environment where the cacao trees grow. Cacao beans from different countries have their own distinctive flavor. For example, cacao from Madagascar often tastes fruity, whereas cacao from Venezuela has a nuttier profile.
And before you think you have to be some kind of super-taster to notice the differences, go ahead and give a few chocolates a try. Sample chocolates with similar percentages together and you'll be shocked by what you find.
Keep in mind, though, that single-origin doesn't mean that the chocolate is being made in the country where the beans are sourced. Most craft chocolate makers buy beans from farmers in South America and Central America (where most higher-quality cacao comes from) and ship them back to the U.S. before starting to work with them. Of course, there are exceptions: Pacari makes delicious raw chocolate in Ecuador.
Even though the term single-origin chocolate is a new one, historically people categorized the good stuff by location. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla recounts that the Aztecs "arranged their stores of cacao by place of origin, as we might distinguish between Blue Point and Cotuit oysters." In the late 1700s, Peruvians even wanted to create official fixed prices for cacao "according to quality and place of origin."
The idea of identifying cacao based on where it was grown faded with the industrial era, though; at first bigger companies simply wanted to keep their recipes secret, but some started combining lower-quality beans from many different locations and over-roasting them to mask their acidity and bitterness and create a uniform product.
Fortunately, chocolate is having a revolution these days, with a few hundred small companies in the U.S. alone producing high-quality chocolate — much of it single origin.
Although it should be noted that not all good chocolate is single origin, and not all single-origin chocolate is necessarily good. Blends of high-quality chocolate can be delicious and sometimes more balanced than single-origin chocolate. On the opposite end, single-origin chocolate made improperly or with low-quality beans won’t taste good. However, as a general rule, if your chocolate is single origin, you’re looking at some carefully crafted chocolate.
(Image credits: Courtesy of French Broad Chocolates)