Americans consume nearly 9.5 pounds of chocolate per capita annually, with December being one of the busiest seasons for chocolatiers. The sweet treat is made from the fruit of the cacao tree, native to Central and South America, although it’s now grown in regions all around the equator. When the fruit is harvested, the sweet, pulpy flesh is scooped out and fermented before the seeds are separated and dried. These seeds are the cacao beans, which are roasted (usually), ground, and processed into chocolate.
According to Michael and Sophie Coe’s book The True History of Chocolate, for most of its history chocolate was a drink. The Maya were the first to grow cacao millennia ago, drinking it hot or cold and blended with flavors such as honey, chili, or vanilla. Chocolate came to Europe in the 16th century, where it became wildly popular in part because it was the first caffeinated beverage introduced to the continent, predating tea and coffee. The first chocolate bars didn't come around until the 19th century, when, as Deborah Cadbury writes in her book Chocolate Wars, chocolate makers in Europe devised the process of blending ground cacao beans with extra cocoa butter (the fat present in the beans), as well as sugar, dairy, and other ingredients.
The process of making high-quality chocolate continues to be innovated today. Mental_floss spoke with Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, Peter Gray of Raaka Chocolate, and Andrew Black of MAST Chocolate—three New York-based bean-to-bar chocolate makers—for their insights into this ancient confection.
1. KNOWING WHERE CACAO BEANS COME FROM IS IMPORTANT.
Most mass-produced chocolate is made from what's known as “commodity” cacao. Kave moved away from commodity cacao because she felt there wasn’t enough transparency in how the chocolate was sourced—much commodity cacao is grown on the Ivory Coast, where child labor is used. Gray feels similarly: “Bean-to-bar brings a lot of focus on to sourcing. You’re finding out where it comes from and letting the consumer know what they’re getting. For us, the most important step is sourcing.”
2. CACAO FROM DIFFERENT PLACES TASTES DIFFERENTLY—LIKE WINE.
Whereas commodity chocolate is made from beans from multiple regions that are blended to create a consistent product, being bean-to-bar—which means a company starts with unroasted cacao beans and oversees the process through to finished chocolate—entails embracing the variations in single-origin cacao beans. Not only do beans grown in different areas taste differently, but cacao harvests from the same farm can taste different during different seasons. Terroir, or the qualities of the place where chocolate is grown, can affect acidity, fat content, aromatics, and more.
“Where the region is, what grows around it, the nutrients in the soil … that all determines what the cacao tastes like,” Black explains. For example, he says the cacao that MAST sources from Madagascar tends to be really fruity and acidic, with a taste like fresh berries, while their beans from Tanzania are more earthy, toasty, and nutty, and have a higher fat content.
3. THERE WERE THREE MAJOR VARIETIES OF CACAO—BUT THAT’S CHANGING.
Generally speaking, there are only three varieties of cacao—criollo, forastero, and trinitario. (Most of the world’s production is made from forastero.)
“But that’s kinda all blown up with genetic profiling,” Kave says, pointing to the work being done by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. “What they’re doing is going out into the field in all the various cacao-growing regions of the world, getting samples of cacao people find pleasing, or have an interesting flavor, and then genotyping the trees.” The group hopes to understand each tree, so they can breed for certain qualities, or blend the chocolate in different ways. “There are a lot of different varieties of cacao now; much more subvarieties than previously thought. ... It’s kinda a cool time to be interested in cacao."
4. TWO BARS LABELED WITH THE SAME PERCENTAGE WON’T TASTE THE SAME.
When a bar says it’s 60% or 80%, the percentage refers to the amount of cacao solids in the bar. In general, a bar with a higher percentage is more chocolatey, but can also be more bitter. But two bars with the same percentage won’t taste the same: Not only do beans from different areas taste unique, but the remaining percentage can be made up of any combination of sugar, dairy, emulsifiers, and other ingredients. Kave mentioned a 60% from Brazil that uses goat’s milk and tastes vastly different from any other 60% bar on the market.
5. INSPIRATION COMES FROM INGREDIENTS.
Kave is known for the bold flavors of her truffles, which include pomegranate, sour cherry, key lime pie, pear-walnut-gorgonzola, pickle, and many more. Kave says, “I love to go to different markets and different shops, like Kalustyan’s on Lexington Avenue.” Kalustyan's is known to New Yorkers as an ingredients-focused store with an enormous spice selection, a huge offering of exotic imported foods, and even fresh produce like hatch chilies and makrut limes. “I can go in there and go ‘what the hell is this? I need to learn how to make something from this.’”
Raaka offers pink sea salt, ghost pepper, and smoked chai tea chocolate bars. Their motto is “Be as innovative as possible.” They’ve started a club called “First Nibs.” Every month, subscribers get two flavors that “are a little wild and experimental,” according to Gray—like porcini mushroom or pine needles.
MAST, meanwhile, has a six-bar herb collection (with flavors like bay laurel, lemongrass, and sage) that Black says is inspired by springtime trips to the greenmarket, as well as a “fruity, savory” olive oil bar. But Black notes that adding flavors to chocolate can be tricky, since cacao has a strong taste on its own: “Sometimes you’ll add a flavor in there that you think may work well, but you can’t even taste it because the chocolate is too overpowering.”
6. STORE YOUR CHOCOLATE DRY—IF YOU’RE STORING IT AT ALL.
“You should always store your chocolate at room temperature,” Black notes. If you put it in the fridge, condensation can develop, and “water is the enemy of chocolate.”
Gray agrees. “It’s good to store between 55-70 degrees. But I’m always baffled by people who don’t eat it within a couple days ... at the most.”
7. YOU SHOULD EAT CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S BIGGER THAN YOU.
Gray feels an almost spiritual connection with chocolate. “It’s something that’s been consumed for 3000 years. The consumption of chocolate has outlasted most cultures and societies and empires. It’s bigger than me. It’s rare that there’s something that’s good for your body, mind, and soul—and I think chocolate is that.”
Kave feels that “Craft chocolate makers now are doing really exciting and innovative work, and I love to see that ... It’s almost like a rediscovery.”
8. EVEN YOU CAN LEARN TO MAKE CHOCOLATE.
Roni-Sue’s, Raaka, and MAST all offer opportunities to learn about chocolate-making. Kave always starts her classes off with a chocolate tasting, while MAST offers tours that include tempering and wrapping your own chocolate. Raaka, meanwhile, will be launching classes on bean-to-bar chocolate-making in January 2017. Both Roni-Sue’s and Raaka also offer occasional chocolate-focused trips to cacao-growing regions; visit their websites for details.
With additional reporting by Bess Lovejoy.
All photos via iStock.