To give you a taste of some of the world’s most critically-acclaimed dark chocolate, we have scoured the lists of winners from the most recent global competitions: the Academy of Chocolate Awards (AOC), the International Chocolate Awards (ICA), and the Speciality Food Association Awards (Sofi). With great difficulty, we have managed to whittle the selection down to a top ten!
1. Qantu- Gran Blanco, Peru, 70% Dark (AOC gold winner)
The Bar: As the name suggests, this bar has a remarkably pale, amber colouring. When eaten, layer upon layer of delicate flavour unfolds. Sharp currants along with softer berries come through, rounded off by a beautiful acidity. Finally, we noted a touch of treacle on the finish.
The Beans: The beans in this bar come from the well-sized Norandino cooperative, Peru. The cooperative has managed to create a market for its high-quality beans and dissociate from the market price.
The Maker: Qantu is a Quebecois chocolate maker creating waves both sides of the Atlantic. Read more about Quantu here.
2. Taucherli- Betulia B9, Colombia 80% Dark (AOC gold winner)
The Bar: Taucherli’s B9 bar has a powerful flavour profile: spicy, milky, red grapes and pineapple. Intriguingly, the colour resembles that of a milk bar despite being a high percentage dark chocolate.
The Beans: The beans are sourced from the Hacienda Betulia family plantation located in North-West Colombia. The cacao grows under an agroforestry scheme on 15 hectares alongside 30 hectares of protected native forest.
The maker: Kay Keusen, the maker behind Taucherlu, is redefining what it means to be a Swiss chocolate-maker. Read more about Taucherli here.
3. DesBarres- Ambanja, Madagascar 72% Dark Bar (AOC gold winner)
The bar: Fudgy in texture, this bar merges notes of stoned fruit, liquorice and aromatic spices. Such flavour complexity is testament to the quality of these Madagascan beans, as the only ingredients are cacao and organic cane sugar. Despite there being no added cocoa butter the melt is strikingly elegant, surprisingly smooth.
The Beans: The cacao used hails from Bertil Akesson’s Bejofo Estate. Bertil’s Madagascan terroir is highly regarded for the cacao it grows, which is characterised by heady fruit notes and dynamic complexity.
The Maker: Desbarres is a micro-batch manufacturer or single origin, bean to bar chocolate, sourcing direct trade cacao from around the world. Read more about DesBarres.
4. Castronovo- Maya Mountain, Belize 70% Dark Chocolate (AOC gold winner)
The Bar: An initial wave of tropical fruits sets the tone for this bar. However, as the bar melts and more aromas are released, some nuttiness emerges.
The Beans: Along the foothills of the Maya Mountains in southern Belize, indigenous Mayans were one of the first to commercialize cacao and the tradition continues today thanks to Uncommon Cacao. Uncommon founded Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) in 2010 as their first origin project, and this is the first specialty grade, high quality, fine flavor cacao to come out of Belize.
The Maker: Castronovo crafts its chocolate in Florida, from fine flavour cacao that is sustainably harvested. Read more about Castronovo.
5. Åkesson’s- Madagascar 75% Criollo (AOC gold winner)
The Bar: Bar’s made with Åkesson’s beans win awards all over the world, so it’s not a shock that his 75% Criollo bar has made our top ten. This has the typical rich and fruity taste of a great Madagascan bar, with berry notes followed by a lemony aftertaste and a subtle tartness. This is a satisfying, strong roasted cocoa with just the right amount of sweetness.
The Beans: Bar’s made with Åkesson’s beans win awards all over the world, so it’s not a shock that his 75% Criollo bar has made our top ten. This has the typical rich and fruity taste of a great Madagascan bar. We detect berry notes and a lemony aftertaste with a subtle tartness. This is a satisfying, strong roasted cocoa with just the right amount of sweetness.
The maker: Bertil Åkesson is one of the heroes of the bean to bar market, a true pioneer of the chocolate revolution. Read more about Åkesson’s here.
6. Cacaosuyo- Piura 70% (ICA gold winner)
The Bar: Once again, this bar contains nothing but cocoa beans and sugar, but manages to give us a complex whirlpool of flavour with every bite. Zesty citrus notes are complemented by elegant florals, a combination which lightens this intense, coarse-textured chocolate.
The Beans: The cacao used in this bar comes from the area around the Andean city of Cusco. The beans from this region are regarded as the finest from Peru, with a fine aroma that is greatly superior to the hybrid varietals from the country.
Read more about how hybrid varietals in Peru are damaging to flavour complexity and the environment here.
The Maker: Cacaosuyo’s mission is simple: To produce the best chocolate in Peru by seeking out rare and undiscovered cacao varieties from across the country. Read more about Cacaosuyo.
7. Åkesson’s- Brazil 75% (AOC silver winner)
The Bar: Taking silver at the Academy of Chocolate’s 2020 awards, this smooth and fruity 75% dark chocolate has a roasted finish and is full of flavours reminiscent of the lush Brazilian rainforest. As it melts in your mouth, deep woody notes anticipate a bright fruity kick, thanks to the local Brazilian pitanga fruit. A subtle hint of tobacco comes through on the finish.
The Beans: In April 2009, Bertil Åkesson and his Brazilian partner, Dr. Angelo Calmon de Sa, purchased the Fazenda Sempre Firme estate in Bahia, Brazil. Known as “paraíso”, or “paradise”, to the locals, this 120-hectare cocoa plantation lies in the middle of the Mata Atlantica, the wild forest in southern Brazil famed for its extraordinary biodiversity.Parasinho, the traditional variety of cocoa grown there, gives all of Åkesson’s Brazilian chocolate a deep earthy quality enriched with fruity and woody notes.
8. Friis Holm- Chuno, Nicaragua 70% Double Turned Dark (ICA silver award)
The Bar: Another silver-awarded bar, this time from the International Chocolate Awards. It has a subtle profile, which is initially dominated by the bar’s creamy quality. It is incredibly smooth, with light spicy notes and just a hint of peach. The dark chocolate is finished off with a touch of sherbet and a slight astringency, giving it a really balanced flavour.
The Beans: The unique profile of this bar is owed in part to that fact that Friis Holm specified that the Nicaraguan beans used in this bar be turned twice during fermentation (hence the name).
The Maker: The precision with which Mikkel Friis-Holm’s bars are made comes as no surprise when we consider that this is a maker fascinated by the genetics of cocoa. Read more about Friis-Holm here.
9. Goodnow Farms- El Carmen Nicaragua 77% Dark (AOC silver award, Sofi silver award)
The Bar: Goodnow’s Nicaraguan bar has a wonderful melt, and distinctive flavour notes of dried raisins, burnt caramel and well-roasted black treacle. Containing just cocoa butter and cacao, this is a “two ingredients only” bar.
The Beans: These beans are grown in Nicaragua’s central highlands. Most cacao farms in Nicaragua are too small to generate enough volume to properly ferment the wet cacao (known as “baba”). As a result, many farmers simply dry their baba and sell it at local markets at a very low price, since unfermented beans don’t develop the flavor characteristics that we recognize as quality chocolate. Farm owners Giff Laube and Jose Enrique Herrera saw the potential in Nicaraguan beans and built a fermentation and drying facility on their farm, and began reaching out to local farmers, convincing them to sell their baba to Cacao Bisiesto for a higher price than they’d get at local markets.
The Maker: Read the story of how a Los Angeles real-estate agent and TV producer became single-origin chocolate makers Goodnow.
10. Standout- Iduuki India 70% (AOC bronze award)
The Bar: On taste, this dark chocolate bursts with rich sultana and dried fruit notes, with quite the “Madagascar” quality within the bar. The melt and texture is smooth, with a nutty finish.
The Beans: Known as the spice garden of Kerala, the Idukki region of southern India has long had the climate and ecology to grow cocoa. But it wasn’t until 2016, when GoGround started investing in post-harvest processing facilities and farmer education, that fine-flavour cocoa farming really took off. Now husband-and-wife Luca and Ellen, with the support of the Italian RIVA foundation, have built relationships with the smallholder farmers of Udumbannoor, paying them guaranteed weekly payments in exchange for freshly harvested cocoa beans.
The Maker: Swedish maker Fredrik Martinsson sources his beans directly from co-operatives and farmers all over the world, and aims to create “a better world through social, environmental and economic sustainability for the farmers”. Read more about Standout Chocolate here.