CWG BEAN TO BAR COMPASS
Bulk Versus Fine Chocolate
The difference between bulk vs fine chocolate can be quite clear when you’re comparing very cheap generic chocolate chips from the grocery store versus a $15 craft chocolate bar. However, comparing the grades of chocolate in between those two extremes becomes more challenging.
There is no universal standard for classifying chocolate as fine or bulk, or placing it within the quality hierarchy. Whether one is a craft chocolate maker, a large commercial maker, a chocolatier, or a seasoned foodie, what qualifies for high quality for one may not be the same for the other. Many chocolate sommeliers debate over these ideas.
Something to keep in mind is not exactly what a maker does to their cacao and chocolate, but why they do it. Why do they roast it longer? To improve the flavour, personal preference, or to burn away the off-flavours of mediocre cacao? Why do they conche it for so long? Is it to achieve an incredible array of flavours, or is it to mute the poor flavours within the mediocre cacao they use. It’s going to be difficult as a consumer to discern all this just from a bite, but there is a lot a the taste of your chocolate can tell you.
Let’s go over two extreme examples of the process of creating bulk vs fine chocolate.
A Journey Of Two Chocolates
Extremely Poor Bulk Chocolate
Using bulk cacao which is very bitter, astringent, and without any other aromas or complexity other than a basic cocoa flavour.
This cacao may not be harvested at an optimal ripeness, and the fermentation may have been too short, too long, or the temperature of the fermentation heap too low. Perhaps it was dried too quickly, which didn’t allow the acetic acid from fermentation to evaporate. Perhaps it was artificially dried, but the smoke from the wood oven was too intense or escaped into the surrounding air and was absorbed by the cacao beans. This would make them quite smokey.
You’re left with a very bitter, astringent, acidic and very smokey cacao bean. On top of that, perhaps it was stored in a humid and unventilated room, where mould began to grow on the bags of cacao. This would impart many poor flavours into the cacao.
Now the maker will roast these cacao seeds longer and darker, much like how medicore coffee beans are roasted darker to the point where they taste burnt. This is done in order to burn off as much of the acidic and off-flavours as possible.
Once this cacao is roasted, its ground up and refined. Because this cacao taste burnt and has many off flavours, plenty of sugar is added to compensate for this.
The chocolate is also conched/melanged for longer than usual. Conching allows for the acidic and harsh flavours to evaporate out of the liquid chocolate. However, the longer you you conche, the more aromas evaporate out, and eventually most of are removed, leaving a very flat tasting chocolate. This was necessary to remove the poor flavours.
Of course, vanilla is added in order to improve this flavour, and perhaps its mixed with other inclusions or flavouring ingredients to better mask the mediocre flavour.
This is not necessarily large chocolate producing companies either. Even they have standards. This is a fictional description of some of the worst possible processes used to make chocolate.
Very Fine Bean To Bar Chocolate
The makers begin with fine cacao, which is harvested at the peak of ripeness. The cacao is known for its aromatic flavour profile, and zero bitterness or astringency.
The cacao is fermented at 50*C just long enough for optimal flavour of this specific cacao. It doesn’t need to be fermented long, because the cacao is already naturally low in bitterness and astringency.
The seeds are then dried within a few days, long enough to evaporate the acidic flavours left over and not too long so as not to develop any other off flavours produced by mould.
They are properly stored in order to avoid absorbing surrounding odours while being shipped to their destination. They are kept in optimal conditions to ensure no mould is formed.
Once the cacao reaches the makers, the cacao is properly sorted to remove mouldy beans, fused beans, or odd debris.
The cacao is carefully and gently roasted, careful not to roast for too long and burn off the fine flavours. The smell of brownies or chocolate cake is a sign the roasting is complete.
The beans are then winnowed and refined. The refining process is carefully monitored not only for appearance and texture, but also for flavour development.
Makers take care not to refine or conche for too long, in order to maintain the fine flavours within the chocolate. Just the right amount of sugar is added to highlight the flavours without masking them. No other flavouring ingredients are added as to highlight the natural flavours that come from the fine cacao and fine processes implemented.
Everything In Between
Most of the chocolate made falls somewhere in between the two above.
Fine Cacao vs Bulk Cacao
We’ve been dealing with chocolate specifically, not cacao. However, there is obviously a relationship between the type of cacao and the quality of the chocolate. There are organizations, such as the ICCO, which tries to classify cacao as “fine”. However, keep in mind that just because one organization has a classification system, it doesn’t mean it’s the only classification system, or is used internally. There is fine cacao which exists that has not made the lists of various “fine” cacao classifications. Check out the “Genetics & Botany” page to learn more about the varieties of cacao which exist.
All fine chocolate is made from fine high quality cacao, but not all fine cacao is transformed into fine chocolate. Keep in mind that many varieties such as “criollo” or “nacional” or the hybrid “trinitario” are known to be high quality. However, what you don’t know (and sometimes the maker’s don’t know either) is the genetic makeup of the specific beans they are using. Sometimes what is sold as “criollo” cacao is mixed with other types of cacao that make it quite bitter, astringent, or just not very flavourful overall. A maker may say they use the finest criollo cacao from mexico, but after tasting the bar, it may be lackluster and just overall quite lousy. This could be a fault by the maker, or this could be the fact that what they believe to be “fine” is not.
There are many factors involved in determining the final quality of chocolate, including but not limited to, type of cacao, how it was processed, and other ingredients used. Terms such as “fair trade”, “organic”, “vegan”, and percentage have nothing to do with quality or whether a chocolate is fine or bulk. Although many fine chocolate makers also try and focus on organic ingredients and fair trade practises, there are many chocolate makers who use bulk cacao which is also fairly traded or organic.
The bottom line is to look at the ingredients, how much information you have about the cacao, and finally your own discerning palate!