Chocolate is so good that even terrible chocolate is pretty good, and this is why you are happy to eat commodity chocolate
But it can be so much more.
Unfortunately, most of the chocolate in the world is terrible.
That’s a very radical statement, and we’re going to break it down.
Chocolate can get damaged at many stages, starting from the DNA of the plant, simply being that of a healthy, tasty and flavourful genetics, through poor cultivation and harvesting practices, through uninspired or sometimes poorly executed or unhygienic fermentation, through mouldy cacao from transportation or storage in giant facilities, through excessive or again uninspired roasting, refining, conching, tempering and storage, all the way to the state of the cacao butter in the chocolate, and even unintentional aromas.
With this broad definition of defective in mind, most of the chocolate in the world is made of defective cacao or “liquor” (the industry name for 100% refined cacao).
The vast majority of chocolate you find in the supermarket comes from West Africa, with 60% coming from Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, most of that coming from Cote d'Ivoire, almost half the world's chocolate.
Cacao grew in Venezuela first, transported to current day Mexico by humans who there started a cacao consuming culture. This was discovered by the Spanish who brought it to the courts of Europe, for the royalty. This was on brand for cacao, which was consumed only by warriors and royalty in Maya and Aztec cultures.
Once the royalty of Europe caught on, the European powers all began trying to grow cacao in their colonies, using their enslaved people. Despite chocolate’s huge demand and high price, the local growers in these countries to this day are seeing an astonishingly, embarrassingly low portion of this value, and are forced to resort to pay and labour conditions which the modern world does not accept within the definition of human rights. As you can imagine, this has a big impact on produce quality and management.
Chocolate’s huge rise in the industrial revolution happened because of Mexico's cacao farms’ proximity to the booming American confectionery market dominated by Mars, Hershey’s, etc. These large companies immediately began buying farms and treating them not much different from the colonial experience.
Besides other reasons, ethically, I find it questionable to eat chocolate from cacao grown in these regions… Which is most of the chocolate in circulation, the major brands.
Most of the chocolate bars you are buying are made by chocolatiers, who are companies who work with chocolate, which they buy from one of the handful of major chocolate making companies like Barry Callebaut, and the likes. This issue is not as simple to resolve as it sounds and there will be more on it in another post dedicated to cacao ethics.
Due to the ethics reason and some the others, cacao grown for these makers is also of low quality, high damage to the environment and of poverty labour conditions, prepared and stored poorly considering correct cacao storage is expensive especially at large volume, and genetically boring as it is based on the old approach before Bean-To-Bar, which steamrolls over nuanced differences in chocolate notes, by roasting and conching it beyond recognition, for consistency - a prime goal humanity established in production during the industrial revolution that allows production to scale uninterrupted.
These large manufacturers treat chocolate as a commodity. Hence “commodity chocolate”. In order to ensure easy storage and transportation they add emulsifiers which not only destroy the way chocolate melts in your mouth, but also taste like plastic or wax (think of the distinct flavour of chocolate coins as they have a lot of this). They also replace cacao butter which is expensive with cheap vegetable oil, sometimes palm oil (like in Nutella) by combining these fats with cacao powder which is much cheaper than whole chocolate.
Milk powder can actually cover for a lot of bad flavour.
As result to all of the above, most people believe that high cacao % chocolate should be bitter, and it’s only tasty with either a lot of sugar, or as milk chocolate.
Almost all of these brands add vanilla which is the only “good” flavour in these chocolates. Vanilla is delicious. It is also dominant especially when paired with high sugar, which is why these very sweet bars taste so good. Vanilla masks over flavours of bad, bland, and potentially mouldy cacao.
Many food products these days have had their prices pushed down together with quality below the acceptable bar, such as coffee or meat. Cacao is one of them.
So what kind of chocolate to eat?
Look for bean to bar, or for chocolate makers who take accountability on themselves to ensure buying high quality cacao directly from farmers who craft their art of growing incredible cacao. Makers who buy from a farm (or one of the trustworthy co-ops) who sets their own price as a functional self-sustained business, using their profit to hire scientists who assemble a farm and fermentation process they’re proud of to define their terroir as a brand, like in wine regions.
“Fair Trade” is a standard, and a decent jab at a solution but being influenced by and essentially negotiated with the chocolate corporate giants, it does not reflect direct impact on welfare and sufficient income on employees who are only of age to work, nor does it have a noticeable impact on flavour or quality. You will often not find this mark on bean to bar chocolate bars, although this tier of the industry pay far higher prices, in our case 2.5* the Fair Trade price. This is because the farmer would need to pay to get this certificate and that feels a little redundant.
Still - a bar bearing this icon is better than a commercial/commodity bar that can’t even pass this test.
The Bean-To-Bar approach, similar to wine making, celebrates the difference between different cacao by beginning the chocolate making process at cultivating a tasty cacao plant, then carefully fermenting it making it’s flavour one of the most complex in the world, even more than wine. The drying process ensures cacao has 6-7% moisture, and the speed at which it happens is taken into account as it influences the fermentation’s funk taste in the chocolate.
Both fermentation and drying must happen in natural conditions in the farm as cacao is incredibly sensitive to aromas (even more so before it’s dry) and would absorb any at this stage, so this all takes place before any new aromas are introduced, like packaging or a vehicle.
Then, chocolate is roasted gently looking to sharpen and showcase the natural flavours found in this particular cacao terroir. The refining and conching stages then fine tune the texture and flavour of the chocolate, respectively.
Tempering, lastly, when done well does not require an emulsifier, meaning the way well tempered “clean” chocolate melts in your mouth is far more satisfying and doesn’t carry a waxy texture and flavour.
All of these steps must be taken with intention and often get adjusted to account for changes in the organic matter that is cacao.
The modern cacao industry has been growing in a rising curve over the past 10 years and today there are hundreds of independent makers in some countries. A tsunami of better chocolate has begun, which are largely both responsible with farm relationships and wizards at flavour development.
In Hong Kong alone there are 5-6 makers that we know of. My personal favoUrite (except Conspiracy of course) is Chocobien. All of them are excellent. We are lucky to work in an industry where makers celebrate each other and share knowledge in the community.
Good chocolate is like good wine, in two ways. One is that every maker takes pride in their carefully designed process and can share methods without the risk of “plagiarism”. Secondly, no wine maker will tell you to only drink their wine. They will want you to drink good wine and educate your palate, every time choosing the wine which fits your setting, mood and company. A vineyard will also work hard to be among the most delicious wines in the store, and get bought by people in the right setting for their wine.
As a chocolate maker, I suggest eating better chocolate, and familiarise with the broad terroirs and recipes.