Just look at any grocery store chocolate section and it's obvious: The craft chocolate industry is booming, and small chocolate makers are steadily gaining against the corporate behemoths that have long dominated the candy industry.
Everywhere from burgeoning high-end boutiques with carefully curated selections – like Portland's Cacao and Chicago's Cocoa + Co – to fast-casual restaurants are offering an impressive array of chocolate.
These days, choosing a bar can be overwhelming. So how do you look beyond flashy wrappers and fancy packaging in order to make a selection you’ll be happy with? Next time you buy chocolate, pay attention to these four elements on the label to get an idea about exactly what you’ll be biting into.
Bean-to-Bar: This designation means that the bar was made from scratch, through an eight-step process that starts with fermented and dried cacao beans. It's an expensive and complicated process that begins with roasting, cracking and winnowing the beans, followed by grinding the nibs to produce a chocolate liquor. Next comes conching (one of the most important steps to develop flavor and smooth texture), tempering and forming the chocolate bar. If the wrapper doesn't specify that it's “bean-to-bar,” it may be merely melted down chocolate reshaped into bar form, sometimes with added flavors or inclusions like nuts, fruit and spices.
Percentage: Until recently, chocolate only came in three varieties: dark, milk and white. And oftentimes the dark chocolate would contain about 54% cacao content. Now, true dark chocolate tends to be 65% cacao and up, and craft chocolate makers like Videri make dark milk chocolate that's 55%. The percentage you'll enjoy most is totally dependent on your taste buds and the origin of the chocolate (more on that later), but in general, the higher the percentage, the less sweet and more intense.
Origin: Like coffee and wine, chocolate has terroir. Translation: the flavor of a chocolate bar depends heavily on where the beans come from. Madagascar is known for producing beans that are high in acid with citrus and berry notes, while beans from Ecuador have fudgy, nutty, caramel flavors. Peruvian beans might be more floral and herbaceous, compared to hints of tropical fruit in beans from the Caribbean. Naturally, the subregion within a given country and varietal of bean (criollo, trinitario or forastero) make a big difference too, though these are not always listed on the label.
Ingredients: If you're looking for a pure chocolate experience, the fewer ingredients the better. Great chocolate makers like Ritual and Dandelion will only use two ingredients: cacao beans and sugar. Some chocolate makers also add in extra cocoa butter during conching for a creamier texture. Avoid bars that include vanilla, vanillin, artificial colors or flavors, high fructose corn syrup and soy lecithin.
*This article was originally published in October 2017.