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Time to Savour the Craft (and Read the Small Print)

magnifying glass over small print

Anyone who has been to one of our virtual tastings will have been subjected to an explanation of the difference between roast chicken and chicken nuggets.

We use the comparison to try and highlight the difference between mass produced chocolate and craft chocolate. It’s all about time. And ‘who’ does ‘what’ and ‘when’. And ‘what’ is added (and taken away).

Roasting a chicken takes time. You are the cook. And the end result is a reflection of the quality of ingredients combined with the care, and time, taken.

Making chicken nuggets requires the end user to use a microwave or oven for a short time. But on the other hand, to make a chicken nugget requires a LOT of processing, and capital equipment, at the factory. An awful lot is added. And much is taken away. It’s an efficiency game which is all about consistency, cost and getting people hooked.

Time and Craft Chocolate

To craft chocolate, time and care are key. You first have to sort the beans; think a few hours per 50kg sack. Then you have to roast (and sometimes pre-roast); think 20-30 mins in most cases, but realise that the time at different heats is key here to account for different bean sizes and types. Then the roasted beans have to be cracked and winnowed (removing the shells from the roasted beans); think 1-2 hours per batch, and depending on the winnower (which could even be a hair dryer…) lots of broken nails. Then grinding and conching; which can be anywhere from 10 to 200 hours. Then, many chocolate makers will let their chocolate ‘rest’ before tempering and moulding into bars (some will rest for weeks if not months). Time is required. It’s all about coaxing flavour from the beans. And that takes time.

Efficiency and Mass Produced Chocolate

By contrast, mass produced chocolate can see a bean turned into a bar in a few hours. It uses a completely different approach. Time is (literally) money: The faster, and more efficient, the better. Flavour, taste and texture can all be added later. The machines have to be kept running and utilised. Hence the problem with “mass balance fair trade” bars, where the beans in these fair trade bars may not be themselves “fair trade” as this would require the machines to be stopped, cleaned, changed over, etc. So their is an exemption allowed and beans are “balanced out” (for more on this see the blog).

Indeed, the very roasting approach of mass produced bars is completely different to craft makers’ roasting. Instead of first roasting the beans, and then removing the shells, most mass produced chocolate bars reverse the process. Beans are steamed, shells removed and the nibs are roasted. This is more efficient (yields go up by 3-5%). But it doesn’t optimise flavour. Think freeze dried coffee versus freshly roasted, and then ground, coffee beans. Faster and more efficient. But not the same flavour.

Next, mass produced chocolate uses high pressures and massive grinders to turn the roasted nibs into chocolate liquor. And then they temper and mould. It’s fast. It’s efficient. It’s MASSIVE. Craft chocolate is in batches of between 10-500kgs. Mass produced chocolate starts with batches of 2,500kgs and goes to hundreds of thousand kilos / tonnes per batch. However, to put it mildly, this is not great for flavour. But that’s what additives are for!

Also, very often mass produced chocolate will remove the cocoa butter and replace with other ingredients. Why? These other ingredients are far cheaper. Palm oil, vegetable fat and PGPR (don’t ask) are a lot cheaper than cocoa butter. And sugar is far, far cheaper than even cocoa powder (what’s left over when the cocoa butter is extracted). And sugar is VERY addictive.

Read the Label

It’s so important to turn the bar over and look at the ingredients. Sugar should NEVER be the first ingredient. And follow Michael Pollan’s advice: Only eat ingredients your grandmother would recognise.

But it’s not always that easy. Labels can be confusing. Different countries have different requirements (e.g. in the UK and US you can list cocoa beans as an ingredient, but in Germany you have to say cocoa liquor). And we can debate the merits of vanilla as an ingredient for a long time (quick answer: vanilla is great for milk chocolate; whereas in dark chocolate it’s generally not a great sign of bean quality. And vanillin should always be a flashing red warning light).

And there is an interesting additional ‘tell’. Mass produced chocolate will hardly ever detail where the chocolate is made (or where the beans are grown). Indeed ‘big chocolate’ has even secured an exemption from normal EU regulations here as they argue that they can’t answer this question as their chocolate is most often made in, and sourced from, many places. The roasting and initial grinding can be done in one place and sold as semi finished chocolate (couverture) that can be tempered and moulded by the ‘chocolate maker’ somewhere else (on a different continent even).

Couverture shows how complex (and ironic) terms like Belgian can be. One of the reasons we associate Belgium with chocolate is that in the 1920s Oskar Callebaut created couverture in his Belgian factory, thereby alleviating the need for other chocolate makers to make their own chocolate. And then a generation later (in the 1960s) Callebault started to export this couverture, putting Belgium firmly on the chocolate map.

However today much of this ‘Belgian’ couverture is no longer processed in Belgium., nor is it even processed by a company that is technically Belgian. In 1996 Callebaut merged with a French company, Cocoa Barry, and then listed its shares in Switzerland. But under EU (and UK) regulations, this couverture can still be labelled “Belgian” as the term is not protected.

Bottom line: read the back of a bar carefully. Check the ingredients. Check where the beans are from. And check where, how, and by whom the bar has been crafted (as opposed to ‘processed’).

Some Bars to Savour

To appreciate the ways different applications of times and approaches can enhance the complexities of flavour in craft chocolate, see the series of pairings we’ve assembled for you (with a small saving on each).

Stay safe, sane and enjoy!


P.S. As with last week’s blog post, I asked a number of people for their help and expertise to write this. But I didn’t ask their permission to acknowledge them. However, I’d still like to ‘hat tip’ and thank them. So here are their initials: MOD, KC, CC, MFH, JB, RP.

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