Bean-to-bar is a term popping up today all around the world. It's a new chapter for the history of chocolate, but what is it exactly? It's important to first understand a little about the history of chocolate.
1.0 A very brief history of chocolate
Chocolate has been around since about 3800 BCE, which makes it over 5000 years old as far as we know today. However, chocolate was a drink for most of its history, which began in South and Mesoamerica. The cacao seeds were fermented, roasted, and crushed into a paste. The paste was mixed with water and local Mesoamerican spices, and taken as a drink. It was also used as an ingredient in gruels and possibly other foods. This is how chocolate was consumed for most if its history.
When Spain brought chocolate to Europe, it was also consumed as a drink, but with old world flavours and ingredients, including sugar. In 1847, Fry & Sons invented the first eating chocolate, and the chocolate bar was born. This is when chocolate, as we know it today, came into existence. Imagine a world in the future where tea is associated with something we eat, instead of a drink. This is how revolutionary the chocolate bar was. During the industrialization era, with great achievements in manufacturing and mechanization of processes, chocolate became mass produced in England and the United States, with other countries following suit. This made chocolate cheaper, and accessible to most people in the developed world. Even before the eating chocolate was invented, chocolate makers in 17th & 18th Century Europe would adulterate chocolate with other ingredients to make it cheaper or to make a greater profit. Regulations were established to prevent this from happening. The industrialization era also saw chocolate becoming adulterated again, this time with high amounts of sugar, cocoa butter substitutes, and synthetic ingredients. Again, certain countries such as France and Belgium in the 19th Century wanted stricter regulations on what could go into chocolate, and what defined chocolate.
During the 20th Century, the movers and shakers of the chocolate industry were in the spotlight for producing chocolate at the cost of poor working conditions where the cacao was grown, including child labour and slave labour. They were also hit hard, as many large food processing companies were and still are, with producing chocolate containing ingredients said to be harmful to human health such as synthetic fats, high sugar content, and artificial ingredients.
This lead to some companies to developing more transparency in how the cacao used to make their chocolate is grown, and how their chocolate is made. These manufacturers would have a direct relationship with the growers of their cacao, and often pay them a premium on their crops. This tactic is also known as "fair-trade", where the growers or producers of a particular food are paid well above what is normal in order for them to have a higher standard of living than what they may have had beforehand. This requires a greater effort from the manufacturer, that not all are willing to or want to put in. For those who do it successfully, they can make chocolate that is relatively more socially conscious, while also obtaining a better quality cacao and creating a better quality chocolate. These ideals and ideas are what have become to be associated with the term "bean-to-bar" today.
2.0 Bean-to-bar is also what it's not
2.1 Chocolate maker vs chocolate melter
Bean-to-bar is also a way to separate chocolate makers from chocolate melters. A chocolate melter, or chocolatier, will obtain already made solid chocolate, temper it, and form it into bars or filled chocolates. Think of it as a baker. A baker uses flour, a finely ground wheat grain to produce breads and cookies. They don't grow the wheat, or mill the flour. In the same way, a chocolate melter doesn't grow the cacao or mill the seed, but uses the ready made ingredient to make ganaches and other confections. Most of all the chocolate shops you've been to are chocolatiers (chocolate melters) and don't manufacture the chocolate themselves.
Bean-to-bar means that the manufacturer made the chocolate themselves, and didn't just melt and mould chocolate already made elsewhere. That's important, since many chocolate shops will sell chocolate bars sold as their own with their own name on it, when it's really the same chocolate most shops in the neighbourhood are using, produced by the same manufacturer. Most companies today who make their own chocolate from the cacao seed will usually make that very clear to you. When it doubt, ask. It's not that chocolate melters are frauds, but that what they do is very different from what a chocolate maker does. Both are important in bringing forth creativity and gastronomical advancements to the world of chocolate.
2.2 "Small" scale manufacturers
Although all manufacturers are essentially bean-to-bar, the term has grown to mean smaller scale or artisanal chocolate makers. Nestle is essentially a bean-to-bar maker, since they take the beans and make chocolate bars. However, their product is something very different from what small scale bean-to-bar or larger scale artisan bean-to-bar makers produce. Bean-to-bar has grown to represent numerous small-scale chocolate manufacturers making a few dozen bars at a time sold at your local farmer's market, to manufacturers making thousands upon thousands of bars. What's different between these manufactures and the larger movers and shakers of the chocolate world (who make millions of chocolates at a time) is the scale of how much chocolate they make, but also aspects such as the quality of their beans, quality of ingredients, and the quality of the manufacturing to bring out the best flavour held within the beans they use. Think of it as grocery store tomatoes (large scale industrial) vs farmers market or homegrown garden tomatoes (small scale artisan). Anyone who has experience the difference knows that for the most part, the grocery store tomatoes are watered down when it comes to flavour, complexity and usually nutrition as well. In the same way, a small-scale artisan chocolate maker focuses on bringing forth subtle and not so subtle flavours within the chocolate, as opposed to a flat tasting mass produced chocolate bar.
3.0 The degrees of bean-to-bar
Today, bean-to-bar can mean many things, but when a manufacturer includes that on the label of their chocolate, it is understood that the manufacturer knows where the bean is coming from, and processes it themselves from bean to the final product in their facility. Their focus is the quality and the flavour within the chocolate.
3.1 From tree to bar
There are some bean-to-bar manufacturers that actually grow their own beans, and make the chocolate at the same or close location of where the cacao was grown. This is rare, since most cacao is grown near the equator, and most chocolate is produced in developed countries closer to the North and South poles. This bean-to-bar chocolate is difficult to make, since chocolate is sensitive to heat, and cooling in cacao-growing countries is usually very costly for them. Nevertheless, it does exist in places such as Madagascar, Vietnam, and Peru to name a few.
3.2 Direct control
Sometimes the manufacturer visits the growers and helps them achieve better growing procedures or simply builds a relationship with them. They have a direct relationship with the growers, and pay them directly, often at a premium, which in turns makes their chocolate more expensive. The growers pay closer attention to the procedures of processing the beans to the chocolate makers liking. Many growers around the world take pride in their cacao products. However, pressure and lack of funds or education on growing pushes some to produce cacao beans that are less desirable to the artisan chocolate maker, but fine for the larger companies who have a different focus. These direct relationships and monetary incentives encourage quality cacao growth and processing in a commodity and profit driven world market.
3.3 Much control over the process
Most other times the manufacturer uses a cocoa bean broker, which in this case, may know where the beans come from, but the makers do not actually have a direct relationship with the growers themselves. They usually pay a premium for these beans, as they tend to be of higher quality. Their trust lays in the transparency of the broker, and may visit the plantation they come from to see first hand where their beans are coming from. Many chocolate makers, especially small scale and new makers, don't have the funds or time to travel the world and spend time on the plantations, and so the cacao bean brokers are of great value to them, and encourages them to make high-quality chocolate products.
3.4 Some control over the process
Bean-to-bar can also mean a chocolate maker only has their hand in some of the steps of the chocolate making process, but not quite from beginning to end. It's not to say this is somehow misleading or sinister, but that bean-to-bar is not a black and white definition, and can encompass different ways of producing bean-to-bar chocolate. They may purchase higher-quality beans that are already ground and already roasted, and so their control over the final product isn't as great as those mentioned earlier.
4.0 So is it best to buy bean-to-bar?
Bean-to-bar, or sometimes referred to as artisan chocolate, began as a way for chocolate manufacturers to have a hand in the whole process of chocolate making in order to ensure that people (particularly growers in poorer countries) are treated fairly, that quality is controlled, and that the consumer can enjoy great tasting chocolate.
Not all bean-to-bar is created equal. Although some bean-to-bar makers may have good intensions, and good marketing, their product may not stand to the test due to lack of skill, knowledge, or focus on what is important in making good quality chocolate. These manufacturers usually boast transparency, so get to know them. Ask them questions about what they do and what they have control over. Ask in a way that is respectful, and non-judgemental, as like I mentioned earlier, there are degrees when it comes to how much control a manufacturer has in the process. Ask questions, while tasting their product, and make the decision for yourself. Don't rely on their awards and what others are talking about. Many in the food industry pay a great deal of money to end up on a cities "Top 10" list of great food. As well, it's difficult today for those in the food industry to not win an award. Although it's important to compete and encourage each other to improve, awards are more a way to improve marketing than distinguish quality.
The final say in quality chocolate or food in general should be your informed judgement. It's for you to decide what is and isn't delicious. What you want to value and put into your body. Decide with a discerning palate, and from a place of knowledge.