Account

What is Craft Chocolate?

By Cocoa Runners  ·  20th July 2021  ·  What is Craft Chocolate?

We believe strongly that craft chocolate is the future of the chocolate industry. It tastes better, it’s better for you, and it’s better for the planet. That’s because craft chocolate makers are concerned with ethical trading practices, sustainable agriculture, and great-tasting chocolate.

They’re all about the amazing variety and depths of flavour to be found in cocoa. By contrast, mass-produced chocolate is all about achieving high-volume consistency for the lowest possible price.

But if you’re new to the world of craft chocolate, things might seem a little daunting. That’s why we’ve compiled this guide to cover the basics of what makes craft chocolate so special. Feel free to use the table of contents below to jump around.

On the Farm

Craft chocolate makers want to go back to the start, back to what makes chocolate such a uniquely wonderful food: the cocoa bean. And that means investing time, energy, and (most importantly) money into the place where the magic happens: the cocoa farm.

Agriculture

Cocoa trees grow in rainforests in a band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. This means that most cocoa farmers live in some of the world’s poorest countries. Cocoa farmers also tend to be smallholders, with just a couple of hectares of land on average, which makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

cocoa tree farm

But cocoa farms are amazing places. They have the potential to prevent deforestation and increase biodiversity, and cocoa trees are often used by NGOs as alternatives to narcotics farming.

And cocoa beans have an incredible depth of flavour – up to 400 unique flavour profiles, according to one study – that is affected by soil, climate, fermentation, region, even other plants that are grown nearby.

Cocoa trees are also incredibly thirsty crops. This is a massive – and often overlooked – cost of mass-produced chocolate, which tends to use beans grown on full-sun, monoculture plantations. Craft chocolate, on the other hand, encourages agroforestry systems within existing rainforests, which promotes biodiversity, reduces deforestation, and provides plentiful water through natural precipitation.

Varietals

cocoa pod

Traditionally, cocoa beans are split into three genetic groups: forastero (cheap and widespread), criollo (rare and valuable), and trinitario (a cross between the two). However, recent research has shown that this classification might be an unhelpful over-simplification.

One thing to watch out for is the worrying emergence of clone varieties. These tend to be disease-resistant, high-yield varieties designed for mass production without care for flavour. The most famous, CCN51, has been likened to eating “car batteries”, and its production in large monocultures is doing great damage to Ecuadorian ecosystems and farmers.

 If you want to read more about the complexities of cocoa varieties and the dangers of clones, check out this great article from our friends at Uncommon Cacao.

Single-origin / single-estate

Whether you split your cocoa beans into 3 groups or 11, the most important thing is to know where the beans have come. This is where you’ll begin to encounter terms like “single-origin” and “single-estate”. But what do they actually mean?

“Single-estate” is fairly straightforward: the beans in the bar have all been grown on the same estate or farm. “Single-origin”, on the other hand, means the beans have all been grown in the same place.

The problem there is: How big is a place?

You’ll see lots of supermarket own-brand bars now claiming to be “single-origin”, meaning all the beans come from Madagascar (for example). But Madagascar is a big place! It’s like a wine label saying only that it’s French – that would seem kind of sketchy. It’s exactly the same with chocolate.

There are also problems with “single-estate”, once you get into it. How big is an estate, for example? You can read more about these issues in our post, What’s the Difference between Single Origin and Single Estate?

Transparent Trade

One of the foundations of the craft chocolate industry is an emphasis on transparent trade. Most makers will tell you exactly where they’ve sourced their beans and how much they’ve paid for them. That’s in direct contrast to the world of mass-produced chocolate, where large companies pay as little as possible and don’t tell you where their beans are sourced.

Price premiums

Craft chocolate makers pay a premium to farmers for their cocoa beans. And not a small premium, either; it’s usually 50-100% above the market value.

They do this for a couple of reasons. First, they care about cocoa farmers and believe farmers should be paid at least a living wage. They believe it’s wrong to keep farmers in poverty and wrong to force them to resort to deforestation and child labour.

Second, they believe that hard work should be justly rewarded (and it takes an awful lot of hard work to produce high-quality cocoa beans). They hold their farmers to higher standards than the major chocolate companies, and want to ensure that farmers see a greater return for their effort.

Price guarantees

Makers often enter into contracts with their farmers, promising to pay a consistent price for their harvests. This stability is a lifeline for farmers, who are usually at the mercy of severely fluctuating – and steadily decreasing – world cocoa prices.

These contracts also tend to include investments in education, training, and infrastructure. We’ve seen a number of success stories where these relationships have enabled communities to flourish.

“Direct Trade”

One term you might come across within the industry is “direct trade”. It’s a term used by makers to encapsulate a lot of what we’ve just covered, from investments in education to price premiums and guarantees.

We think the term “transparent trade” is more accurate. That’s because makers are often not communicating directly with farmers; farmers rarely have personal computers, let alone the language skills or capital to organise export to makers.

Instead, makers usually communicate with intermediaries. These intermediaries are often centralised fermenteries, but can also be farmer cooperatives or NGOs. Some are private, some are charitable; some large, some small; but all share the same values of farmer empowerment, high-quality cocoa beans, and traceable supply chains.

To read more about transparent trade and traceability, check out our profiles on some of these intermediaries: Oko Caribe (Dominican Republic), Kokoa Kamili (Tanzania), ABOCFA (Ghana). Or you can check out our page of Transparency Reports, where we’ve compiled annual transparency reports from across our range of makers.

Organic and Fairtrade

Customers often ask if craft chocolate is certified Organic and/or Fairtrade. The answer is usually no, as the cost of these certifications is extremely prohibitive for small-scale cocoa farmers.

But the majority of beans in craft bars are grown organically (just not certified), and all of our makers pay above the Fairtrade price premium. You can read more about these two certifications here.

Making

Once the beans have been packed and shipped, our makers begin the arduous process of turning them into chocolate bars. This is the second foundation of the craft chocolate industry: the care and attention to detail in the making process, and how that differs so widely from the mass-production process.

Read more: How Chocolate is Made

Small-batch

Most of our makers are small-batch makers, which means they carry out every step of the process by hand. They believe that only in small batches can you have enough control to bring out the best of the beans.

Each batch of beans is different, so each batch requires slightly different roasting, grinding, and conching profiles to make the most of their natural qualities.

Whole-bean roasting

One key difference between craft chocolate and mass-produced chocolate is the concept of whole-bean roasting.

Craft chocolate makers roast the beans whole before cracking them into nibs, which is less efficient but creates a better flavour. Mass-production companies, on the other hand, crack the beans first into nibs and then roast – skimping on quality but saving on cost. It’s a small point, but it’s emblematic of the wider differences between the two approaches.

Ingredients

Finally, craft chocolate makers endeavour to highlight the natural qualities of their beans. This means they don’t cover up bad beans by adding vanilla, and they certainly don’t include ingredients such as palm oil or other confusing additives.

Instead, their ingredients lists are short and simple – and consist of things your grandparents would recognise. Typically that means cocoa beans (or cocoa mass), cocoa butter, and sugar. There might also be a lecithin listed, which is there to make the crafting process a little easier.

Buying

Well now you know what craft chocolate is, how do you know where to find it (aside from Cocoa Runners, of course)? Large corporations employ clever marketing strategies to make their chocolate seem premium, so finding good chocolate can be a minefield for the consumer. However, there are a couple of places you can look for clues.

Labelling

First, and most importantly, what’s on the label?

  1. Have they said where the beans come from (down to the specific cooperative or estate)? Don’t just settle for “Madagascar” or “Peru” – dig deeper!
  2. Do they say where the chocolate is made? (It’s surprisingly hard to find out with some of the large chocolate companies.)
  3. What ingredients are listed? As we explained above, anything other than “cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter (and milk)”, in that order, should be treated as a warning sign.

For more on this, and for the ins and outs of which ingredients to look out for, read our handy guide on how to read a label.

Pricing

Second, how much does the bar cost? Centuries of colonial expansion and commercial exploitation have allowed us for years to buy chocolate at a price far below its true value. If a full-size bar costs £1-2, someone is paying the price somewhere down the line (and it sure isn’t the corporations).

This obviously isn’t a perfect metric. Just because a bar costs £5+ doesn’t mean it’s been ethically traded and crafted. But it’s a helpful initial guideline, especially for seeing through clever marketing strategies from “luxury” brands.

Terminology

If you’re new to the world of craft chocolate, there might be some terms or phrases that are unfamiliar to you. This Glossary should help!

One thing to note is that much of the language being used by the industry is not protected by law. Terms like “bean to bar”, “single origin”, and even “craft chocolate” have no protection from abuse and misuse.

We use the term “craft chocolate” to stand for values of ethical trade, sustainable practices, traceability, and top-quality chocolate. But that might change if industrial makers co-opt the term for themselves (as they have done for “bean to bar” and “single origin”).

We encourage you not to be taken in by these terms alone. The best practice for buying good chocolate is to read the label and to check the chocolate maker.

That’s why we include on our website extensive maker profiles (we’re also planning a range of grower profiles, to boost transparency even further), so you can be sure that the chocolate you’re eating is only the very best.

Savouring

So much for the processes behind growing cocoa and crafting chocolate. Chocolate is a food, and it’s designed to be eaten. The most important (and most obvious) difference between craft chocolate and mass-produced chocolate is the concept of savouring.

Savour vs. Scoff

Have you ever looked at an empty chocolate bar wrapper in dismay, having promised ten minutes earlier that you would only eat one or two pieces? That’s not your fault. That’s the bliss point.

Mass-produced chocolate, like most fast food,  is designed to make you want more. It plays with your brain and forces you to consume unhealthy amounts of fat, sugar, and salt in a single sitting.

The result, in our experience, is an awful combination of self-loathing and little satisfaction.

On the other hand, craft chocolate is made to be savoured. The full flavours of the cocoa bean come alive as the chocolate sits on your tongue for five, ten, fifteen seconds. Most of our bars are so intense and deep in flavour, you wouldn’t want to eat them all at once. They’re bought to be enjoyed over the course of a couple of days or shared after a meal.

So, no more self-loathing. Craft chocolate allows you to enjoy more and eat less – making it better for you and better for the planet.

If you want to read our top tips for eating chocolate bars, read our guide on How to Taste Chocolate.

Resealable packaging

how to store chocolate

To back up this point, most craft chocolate makers sell their bars in some sort of resealable packaging. Whether that’s Pump Street’s award-winning airtight “Ziploc” style bags, or a simpler foil wrap inside a (recyclable) cardboard outer with flaps galore to fold it shut again, it’s all designed for you to eat only a little at a time.

Contrast that with the large 100g bars of Cadbury’s or Galaxy, which defy any and all attempts at resealing. That’s because they’re designed to be eaten all in one sitting, regardless of their enormous size, via the bliss point (queue the self-loathing…).

Craft chocolate makers are more than happy for their bars to last weeks, even months. If you want to learn how to store chocolate to keep it fresher for longer (and why you should never put it in the fridge), read our guide on How to Store Chocolate.

Health benefits

Because craft chocolate is intended to be savoured, you end up eating a lot less than you would do eating regular, mass-produced chocolate.

There’s a lot of nonsense out there about the health benefits of chocolate. Depending on what you read, it can be a cure-all for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression – you name it, someone’s claimed it.

We think a lot of those studies are garbage (and often, when you read the small print, funded by major chocolate corporations).

We don’t shy away from the fact that most chocolate contains a lot of sugar. Not as much as you might think, but still enough that eating a whole bar in one sitting is unhealthy.

That’s why craft chocolate is the healthier alternative: satisfying yourself with a couple of squares after dinner, for example, ensures you’re consuming a lot less sugar than you would do if you went for a slice of cake, a bowl of ice cream, or even a low fat yoghurt.

And that’s before we even consider the health dangers of ultra-processed, additive-ridden mass-produced chocolate.

Join the Revolution

We hope that you now understand why we believe craft chocolate tastes better, is better for you, and is better for the planet.

Where to start

So now you want to make the switch. Hurrah! But where to start? Of course, you can’t go wrong by just searching our Library and picking out the bars you fancy.

For a more directed introduction to the world of chocolate, you can attend one of our weekly Virtual Chocolate Tastings. They’re free to attend, or you can purchase yourself a tasting kit to taste along with us.

You can also watch some of our past Craft Chocolate in Conversation videos, in which we discuss various aspects of craft chocolate with special guests.

Or, you can dive right in with our monthly subscription. Your first three boxes are an introduction to the world of tasting chocolate – origins, texture, flavour, intensity – before moving on to our regular Box of the Month. It’s a perfect way to keep discovering new bars and new makers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.