What is quality chocolate?

Photo credit: Geoseph Domenichello


It's a mouthful!  So get comfortable. 


Your average mass produced candy bar (a chocolate covered bar containing mostly non-chocolate ingredients) or chocolate bar in most stores is around $1-$2. The cost for an artisan chocolate bar is anywhere from $5-$12, and as high as $24 in rare cases. The question that comes up then is, "why would one spend that much more on chocolate?" The short answer is: all chocolate isn't created equal, and you're paying for quality.


If that is the case, then what is quality chocolate? This is a very important question, but unfortunately, not a simple one to answer. The reason is that the raw ingredient, cacao seed, passes through many steps (at least 15 steps) in order to become chocolate. There are many points along the way that dictate the quality of the final product.


Basically, the quality of chocolate is determined by:


  • The variety of cacao tree the bean is from

  • Where and how the tree grows

  • How the growers:

    • harvest the cacao

    • ferment the seeds

    • dry the seeds

    • store the seeds

  • How the manufacturer:

    • roasts the seeds

    • chooses their ingredients

    • grinds & conches the chocolate

    • ages the chocolate

    • tempers the chocolate



This isn't an exhaustive list, but these are some of the main determinants of quality chocolate. This is why there is no simple answer.  As well, quality chocolate can mean different things to different people. Here, the term "quality" is meant to describe a process or ingredient of high standards within the chocolate industry, and in a way that optimises the natural flavour contained within the cacao seed.


Let us begin by discussing a few myths of what makes quality chocolate.


1.0 Myths of quality chocolate


1.1 Cacao percentage

Many believe the percentage on a chocolate bar dictates quality. The percentage on a chocolate bar reveals the amount of cocoa bean (or cocoa mass and cocoa butter) as a percentage of all the ingredients in the chocolate bar. The other main component being sugar. That is, a chocolate bar that only contains ground cocoa beans and sugar, and labelled as 70%, is 70% cocoa bean and 30% sugar. Many people proudly boast of eating only dark chocolate of a high percentage, implying that somehow a higher percentage dictates quality chocolate. As well, many well known chocolate manufacturers have, in the 21st Century, began displaying the percentages on bars, feeding into the idea that percentage dictates quality or health. Health benefits of chocolate are debated, but nonetheless, any health benefits that may be contained in chocolate will come from the cocoa bean (specifically the cocoa solids, aka "the brown stuff"). So it makes sense that the more of it in a chocolate bar, the more of the benefits you will be receiving from it. However, this still doesn't determine quality. More cacao solids or cacao bean, that is not quality to begin with, will not lead to a quality chocolate bar.


1.2 Country

Another idea in people's minds is the countries we associate quality chocolate with. When one thinks of quality chocolate today, then tend to go with Swiss, Belgian, or even French chocolate. Although these countries do not grow cacao locally, they manufacture the beans into chocolate, and have done so for hundreds of years. Over those years, these countries have made names for themselves, and handed down and shared the skills in making quality chocolate. However, many manufacturers of those countries also get away with using the term "Swiss" or "Belgian" as cachet, and a marketing tactic to get away with lower quality chocolate. Today, especially with the rise of artisan chocolate and bean-to-bar chocolate makers, quality chocolate can be made almost anywhere in the world.


1.3 "Artisan" & "Fine"

Just as not all chocolate is created equal, not all artisan chocolate is either. The reason why some countries are so well known for making quality chocolate is because they do. Many hold onto techniques and traditions that make for quality chocolate, passing it down through generations, and learning from one another. There has been a sharp rise in the bean-to-bar and artisan chocolate makers during the 21st Century, many of whom start up in regions not known for producing quality chocolate, or chocolate at all. Some do an excellent job of honing in what is required to make quality chocolate, and some are still learning. Some have other motivations, such as benefiting from the tags "artisan" or "fine" chocolate, without putting in the effort to making something great, but rather something decent enough to sell.



2.0 The aspects of quality chocolate

In order to be discerning of quality chocolate, one needs to understand what makes for quality chocolate.


2.1 The variety of cacao

Like many fruits and vegetable species, there are many varieties within that species. Think of grapes or coffee beans. As with cacao, there are many varieties. However, there is great confusion and debate over the varieties within Theobroma cacao. Many names of varieties are based on the local language of where it grows. The same variety can be called something else in another region where it grows. As well, much of the basis for the names given to varieties is based on the appearance of the fruit, or cocoa pod, and not on genetics. Much research is being done to unpack and understand the varieties of cacao.


The main varieties most people describe are criollo, forastero, and trinitario. Criollo is considered a fine flavoured seed, aromatic, and not very bitter. It is the variety the ancient Mesoamericans were growing. Within criollo, there are other types or sub varieties such as porcelana. Forastero is an umbrella term for varieties that are not criollo. They are more robust in flavour, often more bitter, and said to be not as aromatic as criollo. Forastero is used for about three quarters of the world's chocolate. The reason for this is that it's a hardier variety, not as susceptible to disease, and produces larger pods with more seeds, and therefore being more profitable. Trinitario is a hybrid variety of criollo and forastero, believed to have originated in Trinidad, hence the name. It is hardier and produces more than the criollo, but is also more aromatic and flavourful than the forastero. Criollo is considered a high quality variety because it can produce highly aromatic and flavourful beans that are not very astringent.


It's not that good chocolate can't be made from some forastero, but the criollo and trinitario tend to be more flavourful and aromatic, and so chocolate made with this type of bean can end up being much more flavourful and not as bitter as a forastero made chocolate. However, they are more expensive to purchase, more difficult for farmers to grow, and so only make up a small percentage of the world's chocolate.


2.2 The origin of cacao

Where cacao is grown may have impact on the flavour of the cacao bean. This is what has lead to chocolates with the labels "single origin" or "single plantation". A particular variety, grown in a particular area, will grow seeds that contain certain aromas and flavours, sometimes being very favourable. Of course, the use of single origins can also lead people to assume any chocolate made with cacao from that region is going to be quality chocolate. This is not always the case (see section 2.3). It is true that cacao from Madagascar tends to be quite fruity, with strong notes of citrus flavoured fruits. Cacao from Ecuador tends to be more earthy, with notes of baked bread, coffee, and biscuits. However, that being said, even if cacao originated from this area, and even if it was of the trinitario or criollo variety, won't necessarily lead to quality chocolate.  And much of the final flavour of the chocolate is dependant on the chocolate maker and how they process the beans.


2.3 Growing, Harvesting, Fermenting, and Drying.

Just as some chocolate makers may have better skills and knowledge and producing quality chocolate, so do farmers vary in their skill level or knowledge in producing the best cacao beans possible. There isn't much they can do about the variety or the environment once the trees are growing there, but how they harvest and what they do next is crucial.


2.3.1 GrowingHow trees are propagated also affect the future quality of trees in a particular growing area. Some farmers may choose or feel pressured to propagate more trees from the ones that produce the biggest pods or most fruit. This makes sense from an economical standpoint in their vulnerable economy, but for quality purposes, this isn't always best. Instead, some farmers, choose to propagate trees that are most aromatic and produce the best quality seeds. However, farmers need incentive for this, such as being paid more per kilo for their beans by those who will be purchasing them. 2.3.2 HarvestingCare must be taken in harvesting the cacao. The pods are usually cut off the trees with a machete, in a way that doesn't damage the tree for future pod growth. The pods are then open, allowing the seeds to be exposed. Care must be taken not to cut into the seeds, or they will mould and affect the batch of seeds they are contained in. As soon as the fruit around the seeds is exposed, they begin to decompose. This leads to the next step of fermentation. However, if the seeds are not fermented soon enough, they will not ferment properly in the next step. 2.3.3 FermentationFermentation is crucial to flavour development in cacao seeds. Fermentation develops the precursor molecules that later on will create the chocolate flavour molecules. However, not all cacao growers around the world ferment the cacao beans optimally. This may be due to lack of knowledge and training, or perhaps with pressure from their buyer who is not as concerned with optimal flavour of beans. If beans are not fermented properly they can become very sour, mouldy, or have other strong off flavours that damage the quality of the crop and are irreversible. Sometimes these poorly fermented beans may still be used or mixed in with quality beans, giving the final chocolate product an off flavour. 2.3.4 Drying & StorageDrying occurs right after fermentation. It prevents the fermented beans from moulding or developing unfavourable flavours if left too long. Drying must be done quickly enough that the fermented seeds don't mould, but not too quickly that the flavour doesn't develop properly. As well, cacao seeds are often dried out in the open, and have to be carefully guarded from rain and other outdoor odours. Cacao seeds are usually stored in burlap sacks. They also have a very thin husk. Therefore, any strong outside odours can penetrate the sacks as well as the husks, and permeate into the seeds. If sacs are left in moist or humid conditions, they may grow mould, which flavour may end up inside the bag 3.0 Roasting Cacao

If one is trying to develop quality chocolate, they would have located growing areas that grow quality varieties, producing aromatic seeds, and have trained farmers to properly grow, harvest, ferment, dry, and store the beans in order to keep the integrity of the bean. For most cases in the world, at this point, the raw ingredient, cacao, is not in the hands of the manufacturer. They must clean and sort the beans before roasting, in order to remove debris that would be hazardous inside the chocolate, add unfavourable aromas, or ruin the machinery.


However, the timing and process of roasting is not as straightforward as roasting it on a pan in the oven. The timing and way the cacao seeds are roasted is one of the final stages in developing the desirable flavour of chocolate. Quality roasting is when a manufacturer places importance on developing the best taste from the cacao beans through optimal roasting techniques.


The fermentation, if done properly, developed the precursor molecules, and now roasting develops them further into molecules that give us that chocolate flavour. Some chocolates may contain flavours such as honey, raspberry, strawberry, almond. These flavours will only be obtained if the quality beans are properly roasted. Over or under roasting the beans may not allow these flavours to come forth later on. As well, different batches of beans from the same farmers will require different roasting times as well, something a quality manufacturer will pay attention too.


If a manufacturer wasn't interested in obtaining aromatic flavourful seeds, they may have seeds that are quite astringent and perhaps unpalatable even after roasting. In this case, they may roast the beans quite far in order to rid or mask the unfavourable flavours due to lack of care in preceding steps. As well, in order to be more efficient, they may not take into account the different batches, bean sizes, and roast beans to the same degree until they all taste similar. This may be beneficial when there are unfavourable flavours, but this also removes any chance of favourable aromas to come through.


4.0 Ingredients

Whether or not a manufacturer uses aromatic and quality beans or not, the cacao solids, the bean itself, tends to still have similar levels of nutrients and health benefits. Some research has pointed out that heat and roasting begins to diminish these health benefits, especially when it comes to antioxidants. However, it's the other ingredients that have a great impact on the quality and taste of the chocolate.


For a purist, chocolate contains cacao bean (which is roughly 50% cocoa butter, 50% cocoa solid) and some sugar (40% or less). Milk chocolate will contain milk powder, sugar, cacao, and vanilla. Most of the chocolate today also contains soya-lecithin, a surface active agent that makes chocolate easier for the manufacturer to use. Some manufacturers use other fats to replace to reduce the amount of cocoa butter contained in the chocolate. Cocoa butter can often be sold at a profit, and a cheaper fat alternative can be used in its place. These other fats may be hydrogenated vegetable fats, or cocoa butter substitutes.


For the manufacturer not interested in optimal flavour beans, adding high amounts of sugar and or other flavour enhancers will compensate for poor quality cacao beans by masking the poor flavours or lack of flavour in the chocolate. Vanilla is a common ingredient, but for most chocolate in the grocery store, it is replaced with artificial vanilla flavour. A misleading term is the term "natural". Many chocolate bars will contain the words "natural vanilla flavour" or "natural flavour". In reality, there is nothing natural about the flavour. In fact, the natural vanilla flavour contains no vanilla whatsoever. It's a synthetically created flavour, that uses organic ingredients, but not vanilla specifically.


In the 17th and 18th Century, European chocolate was known to sometimes be adulterated with chickpea flour, lentil flour, potato starch, brick dust, and animal fats. Today, adulteration is more sophisticated, such as "natural vanilla flavour", or synthetically modified fats, whose intended purpose is not to better chocolate, but to better profits for those producing it.


5.0 Conching & Grinding

Conching was invented by Rodolphe Lindt of Switzerland in 1879. What this does is two fold. It reduces the particle size of chocolate, making it feel very smooth and creamy on our tongue. It also allows strong acidic and harsh flavours in the chocolate to evaporate, leaving behind the more delicate favourable aromas. If fermenting develops the precursors to the chocolate flavour, and if roasting develops the chocolate flavour, conching refines it.


Poor quality beans tend to be roasted very far in order to diminish unfavourable flavours. However, this often leaves a very bitter and dark roasted flavour, not appealing to many people. In this case, the chocolate can be ground or conched for extended periods of time in order to mellow out the flavour. Good quality beans may not be optimally ground or conched. New manufacturers may not have worked out how to obtain the best flavour and texture in their chocolate, and may sell chocolate that many seasoned chocolate eaters may find difficult to digest.


Conching allows the harsh volatile aromas to evaporate, but if over conched, then even the favourable flavours will leave the chocolate as well. What you are left with, is a chocolate that is not very dynamic in flavour. However, this is compensated with other added flavours and ingredients.


6.0 Aging and Tempering

After the chocolate has been fully developed, it is allowed to set in blocks and aged, usually for a few months. This allows the flavours to mellow and develop to the manufacturer's preference. Once they have been aged, the blocks are melted and tempered into chocolate bars or used for filled chocolates and other confections. Tempering chocolate allows the fat molecules to set in a specific form. When this happens, the chocolate is dark, shiny, hard, and also tastes its best. The aging and tempering state are important final steps in determining how the consumer receives the chocolate. If chocolate is not tempered properly, it will not taste as good as it can taste, even if all the other steps were done properly.


Nowadays, most manufacturers do temper their chocolate properly. It's how they are stored and transported that can affect the temper, which in turn affects the taste. As well, some


7.0 Bringing it all together

Again, what makes quality chocolate? As you have read, many things can lead to quality chocolate. The chain of events is long and laborious. Those who grow the cacao beans usually never see the end result, and those who make chocolate don't fully understand the agricultural aspect of it. Someone along the lines may have good intentions for making quality chocolate, but if at some point a step or process fails to maintain quality, the end product will suffer.


One may have sourced great cacao that was properly grown, harvested, and fermented. However, if that manufacturer doesn't have the knowledge or skills (or care) to maintain that quality during the next phase, then the quality of the chocolate will be poor, regardless of the quality of cacao bean used. As well, if a skillful chocolate manufacturer uses poor quality cacao beans, or quality cacao beans from a poor batch that were not fermented properly, there isn't much they can do to fix that in the manufacturing phase. If a manufacturer adulterates chocolate with ingredients not meant to enhance quality, then no matter how the bar is labeled, where it was made, or who it's associated with, will it be high quality chocolate.


To be fair, it's a difficult process to manage. The Mesoamerican kings had all the resources they needed to allow for the best chocolate. Spanish and European royal courts could afford their chocolate makers to take their time and source the best ingredients to create the finest tasting chocolate. Today, chocolate is a billion dollar industry, where time and costs are important at every level of the chain. It's easy in theory to know how quality chocolate should be made, but making it happen is much more difficult. Yes, there are those whose intentions are just to make a profitable product that is good enough, but there are those with intentions that are more associated with the integrity of the chocolate itself. That said, there are those who can balance it out well, who can make quality chocolate, or who are on their way to making better quality chocolate.


The final say is the consumer. You have to enjoy what you are eating. You also have to understand what you are eating. Choose chocolate you enjoy, learn about how it was manufactured, and learn what separates it from the rest. Eat and compare. Ask questions. Understand who is behind the chocolate you are consuming, where it comes from, and then decide with your wallet where your resources will go, and who you will encourage to keep making chocolate.