Craft Chocolate in 3D, Part 1: Flavor

You've landed at the very beginning of the Wm. Chocolate maker's blog--welcome! I'm Will Marx, chocolate maker, and I want to offer you my behind-the-scenes perspective on chocolate making and the craft chocolate industry.

There will be some eye candy--it's chocolate after all--but there will also be substance. Substance is vital because the craft chocolate industry is small, new, and uncertain. My goal is to see the industry grow in ways that are positive for the planet, for our bodies, and for our tastebuds, but that's not going to happen without more people understanding what "craft" or "bean-to-bar" chocolate is and why it can be a force for good.

So let's dive in--and please feel free to ask questions, share, and debate as we go.

I'm opening with a short series called "Craft Chocolate in 3D", where I'll share some basic information on the three areas in which I think craft chocolate has the most potential to do good: flavor, ethics, and nutrition. Today I'll consider the flavor side of chocolate, because the easiest way into the world of chocolate is through our tastebuds. So, grab a piece of your favorite bar and read on...

Take a look at this chocolate bar:

This is what happens when you run out of chocolate during molding.

Do you know what I can tell you by looking at this bar? Almost nothing. It's not white chocolate, that's for sure. But I can't tell you whether it's milk or dark chocolate, what its cocoa percentage is, if it's craft chocolate or something mass produced, or if it tastes good.

Fortunately, as consumers, we can answer many of those questions by looking at the chocolate's packaging. Unfortunately, packaging can't help us answer the big flavor question: does the chocolate taste good?

Of course, what it means to taste "good" is subjective. But I think we can agree that all chocolate products have the potential to taste good on some level. So, from a flavor standpoint, why should you pay 3-10 times more for craft chocolate?

My take on this is you should be comfortable paying more because well made craft chocolate delivers flavor that is both delicious AND interesting. Well made mass-market chocolate tastes chocolatey in its most basic sense. That can make it delicious. In contrast, well made craft chocolate tastes like a lot of things, one of which is the basic "chocolate" flavor. But there can also be be fruit flavors, nut flavors, earthy flavors, dairy flavors, acid flavors, and so on--naturally--contained in the cocoa beans themselves and unlocked by skilled makers. For many of us in the craft chocolate industry, this range of natural flavors is fascinating, and it's certainly one of the main reasons I keep making and eating chocolate.

So what gives craft chocolate the potential to taste not only delicious, but also interesting? We can boil it down to a pretty simple equation:

good flavor genetics + careful processing = delicious & interesting chocolate

Plain dark chocolate gets all of its flavor from the cocoa beans that go into it. Here are some I've used:

Cocoa beans from Wampusirpi, Honduras--fermented and dried to perfection at origin, and ready for roasting at the factory.

These are really, really nice looking cocoa beans. A big reason for the excellent looks of these beans is that they were fermented very carefully. Quality fermentation is absolutely critical if you want interesting flavors, and it's something that cocoa destined for mass-market producers often misses. Fermentation fits under the processing part of our equation.

What the photo can't show is the cocoa genetics half of the equation. This is also an area where craft and mass-market chocolate diverge. Craft chocolate producers seek out cocoa beans with the genetic potential to make chocolate with interesting natural flavors. Mass-market chocolate producers care mostly about yield, and for that reason have favored a particular variety of cocoa with fairly limited flavor potential.

Even if your beans have good flavor genetics and are processed carefully at origin (that's the fermentation bit), you still aren't guaranteed chocolate with interesting flavors. The short story is this: aggressive processing at the chocolate factory destroys flavors. The mass-market chocolate industry uses aggressive processes because its raw beans often have bad flavors that must be driven off. All that's left is chocolate with a straightforward, bitter chocolate taste.

Now, craft chocolate as an industry is pretty good at sourcing cocoa beans with the potential for interesting flavors. But from there it's hard to predict how much character each maker's final chocolate will pack. After all, different makers use different processing techniques at their factories, and there are many steps in chocolate making (read more about them here).

I've tasted a lot of craft chocolate. Some bars present the fascinating flavors that are worth your extra dollars, and some do not. My personal preference is for chocolate with bold natural character, and my techniques aim to make just that. It's a spectrum though, and some people might prefer something gentler. For them there are craft chocolate makers who use techniques to tame the intensity of the interesting flavors without losing them altogether. There are also craft chocolate makers whose products don't taste much more interesting than mass-market chocolate, to me at least.

The packaging arms race plays out on some craft bars picked up at DeLaurenti in Seattle, WA.

So what can you do to navigate the flavors of this new industry, craft chocolate? I hate to say it (not), but you're going to have to try some chocolate. It's the only way to find out a) what's actually interesting and b) what you actually like. Here's the good news: you have an infinitely better chance of finding something that meets both a & b from a craft chocolate maker than from a mass-market chocolate company.

Beyond that, keep an open mind. In some ways, craft chocolate has become a packaging arms race, where the brands with the prettiest wrappers get the most attention. But taste around. This is just like wine or beer or coffee. Your favorite bar need not be the one with the prettiest package, or the steepest price tag, or the most scarcity--it's the one you enjoy the most. And as the craft chocolate industry grows, so do your chances of finding that perfect bar.

Looking for a place to start? Check out this list of American craft chocolate makers.