Photo credit: Geoseph Domenichiello
There is much confusion over who makes chocolate, or what "making chocolate" even means. As a chocolatier, I get asked many times about how I make my chocolate, and I have to explain I don't make the chocolate, I make something out of chocolate. I make truffles, ganache, figurines, and showpieces. I make all these thanks to those who make chocolate, chocolate makers.
It's quite simple. A chocolate maker receives the cacao beans, roasts, grinds, and fine tunes it into what we know as chocolate. It can be dark, milk, white, or even gianduja (think nutella). Essentially, they receive cocoa beans (aka cacao beans, cacao, cacao seeds) and grind them up with some sugar to make chocolate. They can be a large conglomerate such as Lindt or Hershey, or a small scale bean to bar operation in your local town. The term "bean to bar" is a bit misleading, as these are all makers who produce chocolate made from bean, to bar. However, the term "bean to bar" is now being used to differentiate small scale chocolate makers from local chocolatiers.
A Chocolatier, or sometimes referred to as a chocolate melter, receives this chocolate made by the maker, and uses it to create chocolates, ganaches, figurines, showpieces, confections, and so on. They don't make the chocolate, but they can make chocolates (bon bons). Often, when we talk about little one inch chocolate treats, either filled with ganache, or solid, we refer to them as chocolates. The chocolatier reforms the chocolate, adds inclusions such as nuts, or enrobes the chocolate around a ganache.
You can think of it this way. A Chocolate maker and chocolatier can be compared to a flour mill and baker. The job at the flour mill is to receive the wheat grains and process them into a flour. In a similar way, the chocolate maker receives the cacao seeds and processes them into chocolate. The baker receives the flour, and uses it to make breads, pastries, and cookies. In a similar way, the chocolatier receives the chocolate, and uses it to make confections and figurines. A baker doesn't make the flour in the same way a chocolatier doesn't make chocolate.
The Gray Area
However, it's not always easy to distinguish them. If you were to take a walk around Toronto, L.A., or Paris, most if not almost all of the chocolate shops you'd run into are chocolate melters (chocolatieries). However, if you asked any retail associate in these shops if they make their own chocolate, they will most likely say "Yes!" They're not lying, as the chocolates are made there. Most likely, they either didn't understand the question (that you were asking if they make it from bean to bar), or are just ignorant to the difference. Having worked in the industry for 10 years, I've learned that many people are just never informed of these differences, and are not trained on how to answer them.
These shops in the cities mentioned above receive their chocolate often from the same chocolate makers and use it to create their own truffles, figurines, and confections. In Vancouver, the majority of independently owned chocolate shops use Cacao Barry (French, now owned by Belgian company Callebaut), Valrhona (French), and Felchlin (Swiss) to name a few. These are chocolate makers who produce chocolate predominately for the purpose of selling to chocolatiers.
Some businesses, large and small scale, can do both. Soma in Toronto makes truffles, bon bons, and chocolate bunnies for Easter, acting as a chocolate melter, while also having a line of their own bean to bar chocolate they manufacture themselves (chocolate maker). Wellington Chocolate Factory in New Zealand is a chocolate maker producing bean to bar chocolate, and also produce a small range of confections and enrobed chocolates. Lindt is an enormous commercial chocolate maker, but also produces a line of confections and bon bons.
The history of these two divisions
Some might state that before the industrialization era, chocolate makers were small scale operations, and now we're seeing a return to that with the small to medium scale bean to bar movement rising up around the globe. However, this isn't quite the case. We're not returning to something, but rather creating a new concept within chocolate.
Before the late 1800's, a chocolatier or chocolate melter didn't exist. There were just chocolate makers, making chocolate that was used for drinking. Not cocoa powder, or chocolate bars, but ground up cocoa beans and sugar (as well as other spices). Chocolate was mostly a drink its entire history up until 1847. Today we associate tea and coffee to being beverages, and chocolate was no different. Yes, coffee or tea can be used in other ways, but they're either a drink or an ingredient and not intended to be consumed as is.
In 18th Century Northern Italian states, chocolate was used for an array savoury dishes, while also being used as a drink. It was used as a coating for fried liver, a sauce for lamb, or even poured over toast. Even before that, there is record of chocolate being used in Mesoamerica by the Maya and Aztecs for gruels and other dishes other than drinking chocolate. However, like tea or coffee, chocolate was a beverage or an ingredient, not a food.
In Mesoamerica, chocolate began as a drink prepared in local communities, and later became associated with the elite, combined with more elaborate and ceremonial ways of preparing it. They would ferment, roast, and grind their cacao beans into a paste, mix it into water, and add spices. In the 16th Century it entered Europe and was prepared in monasteries and convents, as well as royal palaces. Often they would grind the cacao beans and mix it with sugar and spices, create little solid blocks, that later would be mixed with water to create drinking chocolate (there is evidence the Mesoamericans also prepared little blocks or tablets as well). This method of preparing drinking chocolate continues in Mexico and the Philippines.
As it became more available to the commoner, it was also prepared by local chocolate grinders or makers who were allowed to open up a shop. Some would even go door to door and grind made to order chocolate at your house (this practise was still common in Southern Europe into the 20th Century). In England, chocolate was made at local coffee houses. Again, this was specifically for drinking chocolate.
Once the chocolate bar was invented in 1847, along with other inventions and methods developed later in the 19th Century, chocolatiers began to exist. However, they existed as chocolate makers and then began to diversify in their product line. Those who made chocolate from bean to bar, also made confections as well, but until the 20th Century, chocolate was still taken as a drink. There were still those who were making drinking chocolate in Southern Europe into the 20th Century.
As the Industrialization era moved in, chocolate making could be mechanized and made in larger quantities, at a faster pace, and for cheaper. Eventually larger chocolate manufacturing companies began to take shape. They would also buy out smaller manufacturing companies (as was done in other industries). This would eventually lead to a few large chocolate manufacturers producing the bulk of the world's chocolate into the 20th and 21st Century. Just as mentioned above, most chocolatiers in your city, state, or even country all use chocolate made from a handful of large chocolate makers.
Since it was more cost effective to buy chocolate already made, chocolatiers began to take on the tertiary aspect of chocolate. The maker would make the chocolate, and the chocolatier would make the confections, cute easter treats, and bon bons. During the mid to late 20th Century, the cost for chocolate had gone down, and it became considered an affordable treat. Therefore, it wouldn't make sense economically for a chocolatier to make their own chocolate from bean to bar (which requires a great deal of time and costs), then after that spend time moulding it, adding other expensive ingredients, and adding fine details. The costs would be so high that most people wouldn't be able to afford the chocolate treats. It made more sense to buy already made chocolate, and do something with it.
Where we are today
Of course, mechanization isn't the only thing that lowered the cost of making chocolate. What's seen as unfair labour practises, such as paying farmers low wages for their cacao beans, also helped keep the cost of chocolate very low. This continues today, and issues such as slave labour and unfair treatment of farmers has made headlines and lead to the adoption of fair trade certifications. This is often associated with the larger scale manufacturers, and from cacao that comes from West Africa (Ghana and Ivory Coast).
Since the 1980s-90s, the idea of premium chocolate has risen steadily. Today, many chocolate makers are not afraid to sell chocolate bars that cost anywhere from $7-14 dollars per bar. These makers are often referred to as artisan, fine, craft, or bean to bar makers. Some are small scale, some are growing quite large, but nowhere as large as the major chocolate makers birthed in the 19th and 20th Century who still dominate today.
These bean to bar chocolate makers are not returning to a traditional way of making chocolate, but part of a new chocolate making concept. They are not like the small shop owners of 18th Century France or England who were making local drinking chocolate. They are using technologies (some more advanced than others) that allow them to make flavourful chocolate using premium ingredients. Many also don't create chocolate that just tastes like chocolate. They create chocolate that can be described in the way we describe a fine wine or cheese. Something that hasn't been considered in the past as it is today. They pay higher costs for their cacao beans, either paid directly to the growers or through a third party. These higher costs are then absorbed by them, and also passed onto the consumer. They not only pay to encourage a sustainable life for themselves and the farmers, but also to encourage the farmers to grow quality cacao, which takes more effort, and requires a monetary incentive.
In British Columbia, for instance, chocolate makers such as Sirine in Victoria, as well as East Van Roasters and Kasama in Vancouver, are bean to bar makers who are doing just this. They purchase cacao beans at a premium, either directly from growers or through a third party, and produce fine chocolate at their small-scale workshops. They focus on flavour, quality ingredients, and fairly traded cacao (either certified or not). East Van Roasters and Kasama also have a small line of confections such as truffles or caramels. However, the chocolate they make themselves already costs at least 2-3 times more than that of local chocolatiers, so the confections are more for diversity of product than profit. As mentioned, adding even more labour to an already labour intensive product doesn't allow for much profit. As these bean to bar operations grow, they may begin to reduce some of their costs, and can begin to profit from being not just a chocolate maker but also a chocolatier.
So now in Vancouver you have chocolatiers, chocolate makers, and some who wear both hats. The same is true for Toronto, Chicago, L.A, and even Tokyo. Most (closer to 90%) of these chocolate shops you run into are chocolate melters or chocolatiers. Once in a while you run into a small scale bean to bar maker, and even more rarely you run into a shop that does both.
Next time you find yourself in a chocolate shop, look around, ask a few questions, and realize if you are in the presence of a chocolate maker or chocolate melter. Appreciate them for who they are, and what they do. Appreciate the artistic capabilities of the chocolatier and the way they harmonize the flavours of their ganaches. Appreciate the skillful and often under appreciated chocolate maker, paying premium for their beans in order to create flavourful and fairly made chocolate.
And finally, tip your hat to those who are willing and able to wear both hats, and make confections from their own chocolate. They are often compared to the chocolatier, but often face more challenges financially. What they do isn't easily recognizable, but deserves recognition.