Answers to common chocolate questions
WHAT IS COCOA BUTTER, AND WHY DO YOU ADD IT?
Cocoa butter is simply the fat portion of the cocoa bean. Pressing cocoa beans separates them into cocoa butter and cocoa powder (the nonfat solids). I add some extra cocoa butter so that the finished chocolate melts more smoothly and evenly on your tongue, making it easier for you to access the chocolate's flavors. And despite containing the word "butter," it's not a dairy product.
IS YOUR CHOCOLATE ORGANIC?
My product line is not certified organic, but in practice, it is largely organic. All of my chocolate is made with certified organic whole cane sugar and cocoa butter. As for the cocoa beans, which make up the bulk of the chocolate, there are 3 possibilities: certified organic, organic but not certified, and unknown. I always indicate if the beans are certified organic on the product's ingredients label.
Often I know the beans were grown organically but are not certified organic, and I will include this information in product descriptions. This often happens because farmers use organic methods but cannot justify the costs of becoming certified organic.
Finally, even for beans of unknown organic status, keep in mind that the majority of cocoa is grown without modern chemical inputs. These chemicals tend to be prohibitively expensive and/or unnecessary.
WHAT KIND OF SWEETENER DO YOU USE?
I use organic, fairly traded, whole (unrefined) cane sugars produced in Central and South America. Light brown in color, whole cane sugar is basically dried cane juice with its vitamins and minerals intact. There is, unfortunately, no sugar made in the United States that comes close to matching its quality, in terms of both flavor and nutrition.
DOES YOUR CHOCOLATE CONTAIN SOY?
No. Many chocolate manufacturers add soy lecithin to their chocolate to create a product that is thinner when melted and hence easier to mold. But it is not necessary, so I do not add it or any other emulsifiers.
DOES IT CONTAIN OTHER ALLERGENS (NUTS, DAIRY, ETC.)?
No. At this time, my facility only makes plain dark chocolate with no inclusions (except for sea salt in one bar). The only ingredients in the facility are cocoa beans, cocoa butter (i.e. cocoa bean fat, which is not dairy), whole cane sugar, and salt.
IS IT VEGAN?
Yes. It is made from just cocoa beans, cocoa butter, and whole cane sugar, which all come from plants. You may have heard that some sugars are filtered with bone char as a whitening agent, but whole cane sugar is not, and hence would be considered a vegan sugar.
HOW MUCH SUGAR IS IN YOUR CHOCOLATE?
Here's how to determine how much added sugar is in any reputable dark chocolate:
- subtract the cacao percentage printed on the package from 100% (for example, for a 75% dark chocolate, you'd take: 100% - 75% = 25%)
- the result is the percentage of the product that is added sugar, by weight
- use the added sugar percentage to calculate how much added sugar is in a given amount of chocolate (for example, for 10 grams of 75% dark chocolate, you'd take 25% of 10 grams, getting 2.5 grams of added sugar)
WHY DON'T YOU PRINT NUTRITION FACTS ON YOUR CHOCOLATE?
Small producers like me aren't required to. Nutrition facts are only required on products that sell over a certain volume per year OR make certain health claims on the product packaging. This policy exists to be fair to small businesses, since the analysis behind nutrition facts can be expensive and time-consuming.
A google search for "dark chocolate nutrition facts" will give you reasonably accurate data, should you need it. The numbers are going to be about the same for dark chocolate of similar percentages.
If you're concerned about added sugar content, I've explained how to find it for any dark chocolate in the previous FAQ.
Please note that chocolate is much more complex than standard data on fat, sugar, and calories can capture. I encourage you to go beyond these simple numbers and consider more of the story when determining what to put into your body.
WHAT DOES THE HARVEST YEAR ON YOUR CHOCOLATE MEAN?
This is the year the cocoa beans were harvested. I include it because different harvests from the same trees can taste noticeably different.
The year does not necessarily indicate when I made the bars.
WHAT DOES THE PERCENTAGE ON YOUR CHOCOLATE MEAN?
The percentage, by weight, of the chocolate that is cocoa, as opposed to any other non-cocoa ingredients, such as sugar. This percentage includes both whole cocoa beans and cocoa butter.
For example, one of my recent 75% dark chocolates was 67% cocoa beans, 8% added cocoa butter, and 25% whole cane sugar. 67% + 8% = 75%.
WHAT IS CHOCOLATE'S SHELF LIFE?
For best flavor, I recommend eating chocolate within 6-12 months of purchase. After this period, chocolate will not "go bad," but it can become dull in appearance, grainy in texture, and less flavorful. These changes are known as coming out of "temper."
That's why the "best by" date on my bar labels is 12 months after the chocolate was molded.
HOW SHOULD I STORE CHOCOLATE?
Ideally, keep your chocolate at a cool room temperature (65-70F), away from sunlight, excessive humidity, and strong odors. A little warmer or cooler is just fine. If it's really hot where you are, you can put it in the fridge. Just make sure the chocolate is sealed first so that smells and humidity don't damage it.
MY CHOCOLATE LOOKS DULL, DOES NOT SNAP, AND/OR SEEMS GRAINY. WHAT'S GOING ON?
Your chocolate is old or was exposed to warm temperatures and has come out of "temper." This is common during warm summer weather. It is still completely safe to eat, but the flavor and texture will not be at their best.
HOW SHOULD I TASTE CHOCOLATE?
There is no single right way to taste chocolate. However, some simple tips can help you get the most flavor from your chocolate:
- Make sure the chocolate is not too cold. You can rub a piece between your fingers to warm it up before tasting, or just leave it out for 15 minutes at room temperature if it was stored somewhere cool.
- Cleanse your mouth of strong flavors before tasting chocolate. And if you are sampling several different chocolates at once, a sip of lemon water or a slice of green apple works well to reset your tastebuds between bites.
- Slow down enough to enjoy it.
WHAT IS SINGLE-ORIGIN CHOCOLATE?
"Single-origin" chocolate is made with cocoa beans from one area or from one variety of cocoa. The size of an origin can vary a lot.
Sometimes the origin is a whole country. For example, I use a Rainforest Alliance certified bean from Ghana, and it is a blend of beans grown on RFA-certified farms throughout that country. At the other extreme, an origin can actually be a single farm or estate. And in the middle of the spectrum, we have cocoa from a single state or province, or a regional farmers' co-operative.
Finally, for particularly celebrated varieties of cocoa tree, I will often name the country and variety rather than the specific estate or cooperative. I know it's a little complicated, but fear not: I always explain the origin's meaning on my bar labels.
WHY DOES CHOCOLATE FROM DIFFERENT ORIGINS TASTE DIFFERENT?
Short answer: plant genetics, growing conditions, and post-harvest processing methods.
Expanded answer: all chocolate comes from a single species of tree, known as theobroma cacao. You'll often see the tree further classified into "criollo," "forastero," and "trinitario" varieties, but in reality the situation is considerably more complicated. Furthermore, this tripartite classification system tends to carry prejudices about quality, which I have found to be untrue and do not wish to propagate.
If you want to learn more about cacao varieties, my suggestion is to visit the C-spot, an excellent online resource for the finer points of cacao. In sum, there are not three but rather hundreds of subtypes of cacao and, hence, potential for flavor differences. Couple that with the variations in soil, climate, weather in a given harvest year, and even adjacent crops, and you have thousands of possible chocolate flavor profiles.
And that all comes before fermentation--a step in the process that some would argue is even more significant than genetic and environmental factors.
WHERE DOES CHOCOLATE GROW?
The chocolate tree can only survive in rainforest regions in the tropics, in a belt spanning roughly 20 degrees north and south of the equator. It is native to South America and now grown throughout the global tropics, with West Africa as the largest growing region.
HOW DO YOU SELECT YOUR COCOA BEANS?
I purchase cocoa beans through a variety of partners who share my commitment to ethics and sustainability. Typically, these partners have a substantial presence at origin, often purchasing cacao directly from farmers and performing or assisting with the critical fermentation and drying steps. From their offerings, I select beans with what I think are the most interesting flavors.
WHAT KIND OF ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT DOES YOUR CHOCOLATE HAVE?
In general, supporting quality-driven cocoa farming has the positive consequence of preserving and even restoring rainforest habitats. This is true because cocoa trees cannot survive outside of rainforest-like conditions. In other words, if you want cocoa trees, you would do well to preserve the rainforest or at minimum practice mixed agriculture, rather than monoculture.
The major negative consequence of chocolate is the energy it requires to go from bean to bar, including the energy required to ship cocoa beans from origin (in the tropics) to factory (usually located in cooler climates). I try to mitigate this by using local ingredients when possible, and by using only responsible packaging material with a goal of creating no new landfill waste. Please do your part to help by recycling or composting these materials!
WHAT KIND OF SOCIAL IMPACT DOES YOUR CHOCOLATE HAVE?
All of my chocolate is high-quality chocolate. High-quality chocolate often has a positive social impact because it requires high-quality cocoa beans. It takes investments in infrastructure at origin to produce high-quality cocoa beans. These investments can create economic opportunities up-front, and in the long run they bring farming communities higher prices for their harvests. There are many examples of the extra money leading to increased educational and entrepreneurial opportunities at origin.
Low-quality chocolate depends on cheap, low-quality beans. Sadly, these low prices can promote a vicious cycle of substandard farming and labor practices, even including slave labor in some cases. Out of concern for both ethics and flavor, I do not use low-quality beans. However, I do make a point of buying high-quality beans from areas affected by these issues in the hope of supporting positive changes to their local cocoa-growing industries.