CWG BEAN TO BAR COMPASS
Labels & Ingredients
There’s a great deal of information we can get just from knowing how to read a wrapper and what to look for. Understand what the wrapper means can make the difference between feeling overwhelmed with information and quickly being able to scan and get the information you want!
Awards do not determine quality. The main purpose of awards is to market and network within the chocolate industry. Any chocolate expert looks past the award. They taste the chocolate for themselves and come to their own informed decisions. It’s important for you to do the same! Awards are there for those who know nothing about chocolate, and need something to go on. As an informed chocolate eater, relying on them confirms that you don’t have confidence in yourself.
Most award certifications revolve around a business model, where contestants (chocolate makers) pay to enter. This is why practically every chocolate maker has a multitude of awards, and many from the same awards organization. If the awards organization do not give out enough awards, the contestants will not likely pay the following year, since their chances of winning are low. Therefore, the more awards that are given out, the more chocolate makers are willing to pay to have their chocolates judge. What you are left with is an award certificate with very little value, but it looks pretty and is great for marketing your chocolate.
As well, these are most often not “blind” tastings, which focus merely on the flavour, texture, and quality of the chocolate. These judges taste chocolate with the maker and brand clearly visible, which is highly influential to their rating. These chocolates are not based solely on flavour, but also on who the maker is and the sort of weight they carry in the industry, or if they meet the checklist of makers the judges want to see succeed. Although it’s important to give credit to the hard work behind the packaging, brand, and business models, the chocolate itself should be judged for its flavour and quality.
As well, most judges for chocolate are not chocolate makers, chocolatiers, or even chefs. Sometimes they are writers, bloggers, or foodies with a solid network of collections. Nothing is wrong with that! We need all sorts of people judging the flavour. However, the point is that many judging panels have the option to choose local makers and chefs, but often do not. Having uninformed judges removes the value of the award, since they are not making wise, informed decisions.
Branding is obviously very important, which ties into marketing. However, keep in mind that just because a bar is labeled as “bean to bar” doesn’t mean that it actually was made by the owner of the brand. There are many cases where a brand will outsource the bean to bar process. There are other chocolate manufacturers who would be able to make the chocolate for them, send it to them, where it gets wrapped and branded as their product. This is not new to the chocolate or food industry, but it’s important to keep in mind.
The essence of “bean to bar” revolves around craftsmen who source, roast, and manufacture the chocolate themselves. Having another chocolate maker do that process instead makes the others no different than chocolatiers, who take already made bulk chocolate and repackage it themselves.
Now, you may enjoy the chocolate, and that’s fine. There are still hard working individuals behind that who grew and manufactured the product. However, if you would like to support the actual skill and craftsmanship involved in bean to bar making, it’s important to know who is actually making their own chocolate from the seed, and who is getting it outsourced so they can focus on marketing and branding.
If we want to encourage and see more fine chocolate in the world, it’s important to support those directly involved in it. Those who are willing to take the risk to bring the finest cacao and processes in the best possible (often more costly) way.
Origin is important, but not always in the way you may think. Origin does not determine quality. Ecuador, which grows most of the worlds fine cacao, nacional, also grows one of the worlds worst cacao, CCN-51, and often on the same farm!
Many like to point out that origin determines flavour. There is no evidence to date where the soil or climate directly or greatly impacts the flavour of the chocolate. There is evidence that the flavour of the fruit of the cacao impacts the flavour of the seed and chocolate, and there could be a link between fruit and terroir, but no yet research shows this link.
Marketing has gotten so fierce that certain origins have been held to fame for their incredible cacao, such as Venezuela. And it’s true, Venezuela does produce some incredible cacao. Brazil, the homeland of the cacao species grows a multitude of varieties and cultivars of cacao, some very flavourful, and some quite bitter and bland. The problem with pinning a few origins as “the best” origin for cacao is that it deters uninformed customers from trying new origins or origins not associated with “the best” cacao. Philippines is not known for its high quality fine cacao, but as more research and experimentation occurs there, the more we are seeing that there actually is some incredible cacao that is used to make some pretty spectacular chocolate.
We need to move beyond origin as an indicator for quality. Yes, origin is very important. Terroir also includes the microbes which are involved in fermentation, also very important to flavour development. As consumers we should know where cacao is coming from, who is growing it, the variety, and even the levels of iron and copper found in the cacao. However, origin does not indicate whether a cacao is going to be fine or bulk. Evidence has shown that fine and bulk cacao can be grown in the same region. What matters more is the genetics of the tree, and how the beans are processed.
This also has little to do with quality, and more to do with level of sweetness. The percentage on a bar reflects how much cacao bean or its constituents (cocoa mass, cocoa butter) is contained within the whole bar. The other percentage is all the other ingredients. For dark chocolate, the other ingredients is often just sugar, or some extra added cocoa butter. For milk chocolate, the other ingredients include sugar and milk powder. For instance, a 70% dark chocolate bar that is made only with cacao beans and sugar is 70% cacao, and 30% sugar. The lower the percentage, the sweeter the chocolate becomes.
Now, the cacao bean, in particular the non-fat portion of the seed, is what contains all the minerals and antioxidants in chocolate. Therefore, the higher the percentage, often the higher in quality the nutrition. However, keep in mind that antioxidant levels fluctuate from harvest to harvest. As well, levels of minerals change as well from crop to crop or region to region.
Fair Trade within cacao was established in the 1990’s as a response to low and unfair compensation to the farmers (mostly in West Africa) for their cacao. Today, there are many fair trade organizations, and although some do help make us aware of issues within cacao growing regions, they don’t always help as much as we would like. It costs a great deal of money and organization for the farmers to become fair trade certified, most of whom can’t afford or rather use that money to improve their farms.
There is also the idea of direct trade, which implies that the chocolate maker buys directly from the farmers themselves. This often surfaces as “single estate” bars where the maker and the farmers have build a direct relationship. However this is extremely rare, and many who proclaim to be “direct trade” still go through a broker or middle man to purchase the cacao, and never actually meet the farmer.
Some chocolate makers can use a mix of cacao, some of which are direct trade, and other origins that they purchase through a broker. It’s important to keep in mind that even though a chocolate maker pays a premium for cacao, doesn’t mean that extra money goes to the farmer. It’s very rare for farmers to make more than a few dollars a kilo for their cacao. If a maker purchases cacao for $14 a kilo, and is informed they are fair trade, the farmer likely only receives $3-$5 per kilo, the rest going towards the costs associated with the broker and getting the cacao to the maker.
Organic is a term many people in developed countries look for. Most people assume organic implies no pesticides were used on the produce, however, this isn’t usually the case. Cacao is very fragile and susceptible to pests, so organic usually implies the cacao were sprayed with less harmful pesticides, but rarely is there a case where none are used. The term organic also has nothing to do with quality or flavour of the cacao. There is plenty or organic chocolate bars on the market which use bulk organic cacao, and often double the cost of a non-organic bulk chocolate bar. Again, having a certified organic marking on the cacao or chocolate bar costs the farmers and makers money, which for many is just not affordable.
Vegan or plant-based chocolate bars are most often dark chocolate bars with plant based ingredients. By definition, dark chocolate should always be vegan, but cheaper commercial chocolate may contain milk solids. As well, some refined white sugar are processed using bone char, and so don’t classify as vegan by some standards. Again, vegan chocolate has nothing to do with quality, as many of the vegan chocolate products in most grocery stores still use bulk cacao, not fine cacao.
When comparing or reflecting on prices, keep the weight in mind, as packaging can be quite deceiving. Two chocolate bars at $9 each could be quite different in weight, with one weighing 25g and the other at 65g, both being high quality bean to bar chocolate. Something to consider when you want to get more chocolate bang for your buck.
Here the company will often include information about their values and mission, or how they started. It’s helpful to visit their website to learn more about them, and see if what they present is transparent and genuine. Not all bean to bar makers are high quality. And not all are in the business for the same reasons. For those who want to support specific ideas in addition to supporting quality craftsmanship, then it’s important to learn the values of the chocolate makers you are supporting.
This should include information not only on the bar, but on the ingredients as well. The more information a maker can offer you in regards to the cacao, the more likely they source higher quality cacao. Of course, many well marketed bars can appear to offer a lot of information, which sometimes are not more than very vague words. Many vague words, which gives you the impression they are offering up lots of information.
Find out where the cacao comes from, and not just country of origin, but region or farm as well if it’s available. Find out how they source their cacao, and if they know the variety or cultivar.
This is very important. It’s the first thing I look at when I pick up a bar. For dark chocolate, all I would want to see is “cacao” and “sugar”, and that’s it. Sometimes instead of cacao makers will put cocoa mass, cocoa liquor. If they are bean to bar and roasted and ground it themselves, then it all came from the same source and the terminology is not that important.
You’ll see “cacao” and “cocoa” used interchangeably. They do have more specific meanings in the industry, but as far as labelling and marketing goes, they are the same thing.
Sugar is important. In a dark chocolate bar, it should certainly be the second ingredient. Some makers will be more precise and indicate if its cane sugar, coconut sugar, or some other sugar. This is more of a preference of purity or what their consumers are looking for. Today, many are pushing back on refined white sugar (which often comes from beets, not sugarcane).
Cocoa butter is another ingredient. You may be thinking, cocoa beans already have cocoa butter in them. And that’s true. However, depending on the moisture level of the chocolate and how it was processed, it can be quite thick. The maker will add extra cocoa butter, usually 10% or less, to make it more creamy and smooth, as well as make it less viscous, which makes it easier for them to work with.
Other ingredients you may see are lecithin (most often from soy, but sometimes from sunflower) or vanilla. Most high end bean to bar makers are steering away from adding these. Lecithin is not harmful to us, but because most of it is derived from soy, and because people don’t know what it is, it deters more food conscious people. Vanilla is also not used, not because it’s harmful, but because makers who produce fine aromatic chocolate want the flavours of the cacao to come through, and vanilla would impede or mask them. Vanilla is also added to chocolate where cacao is not as flavourful.
Most often we see flavour notes on fine chocolate bars. They offer you an idea of what the flavour of the chocolate will be. However, we are learning flavour is a very individual experience. As well, articulating the flavours can vary greatly even amongst the top chocolate tasters of the world.
Expiration, best before, and manufacturing date. They can get confusing. Plain solid dark chocolate doesn’t really expire. The high fat content, high amount of polyphenols, and sugar is not a great environment for microorganisms to grow. You can have a dark chocolate bar for years without it spoiling. Of course, the flavour will deteriorate, so I don’t recommend waiting years to eat it.
The expiration dates are really best before dates. It gives you an idea how old the bar is. The closer to the date of manufacturing, the more vibrant the flavours will be.