You may have heard of the terms Bean to Bar, Craft Chocolate, Artisan Chocolate, Small Batch Chocolate – but what do they mean? And what is good cacao?
First, let’s separate out the terms Chocolatier and Chocolate Maker.
Chocolatiers purchase large blocks of chocolate made by other companies, melt them down until they’re liquid, then use the liquid chocolate to make confections – bonbons, truffles, ganaches, all sorts of yummy stuff. They are also known as Confectioners. The blocks they buy are sometimes known as Couverture. There are lots and lots of chocolatiers and confectioners out there. LetterPress has many friends who are Chocolatiers and Confectioners and it takes a lot of skill and dedication to be good at it. They do not consider what they do to be inferior in any way. It’s simply different.
Chocolate Makers are those like LetterPress who work with cacao beans – hence the phrase Bean to Bar. They purchase bags or even large shipping containers of cacao beans and bring them in from all over the world. They spend a lot of time with fermented, raw cacao beans (all chocolate in the world is made from fermented cacao beans). There may be some confusion with companies claiming to be bean to bar. When in doubt, ask to see the process. In order to be considered bean to bar, makers need to start with raw cacao beans, and those beans need to be roasted, cracked, winnowed (removing the shell), and ground into chocolate to be considered bean to bar. At LetterPress, they do all of these steps and more. There are no shortcuts. They do not buy nibs, nor do they buy liquor. Because they do this process on a very small scale, LetterPress can provide a level of quality that is impossible at the larger, industrial scale. Therefore, they cannot (and will not) compete on price. It is simply not realistic for them to charge $1 for a bar of chocolate.
Why isn’t Bean to Bar chocolate cheap like supermarket chocolate? It really boils down to two factors – quality and scale. To give you an idea, a typical supermarket milk chocolate bar contains around 12% cacao solids, 55% sugar, and 33% made up of other fillers, stabilizers, soy lecithin, or other ingredients. LetterPress 70% Dark bars are typically 70% cacao and 30% sugar. They use certified organic unrefined cane sugar which is vegan. Refined sugar (both cane and beet) that the large companies use are not vegan. The next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up a chocolate bar and look at the list of ingredients. One of the terms you may see is cocoa processed with alkali. Why is that? Most of the cocoa (or cacao – the terms slightly overlap) that these larger industrial makers source is of very, very poor quality. Not only does the cacao not taste very good, but it’s farmed in huge monoculture clear-cut projects that strip the soil of nutrients and are harvested by workers that are paid less than $1 a day and employ slave labor and child labor. LetterPress works with farms that are ethical, pay their farmers living wages, and grow fantastic, high-quality cacao. All of their farms are pesticide-free, and many are already certified organic or are in the process. It is very important to understand that many of these farms are very small and cannot afford certification, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars – they simply don’t have that kind of money, and frankly LetterPress would rather they spend the money feeding their families and maintaining their farms. Right now they're operating at a very, very small scale – most days they manage to temper just 50 chocolate bars from batches that are around 4kg. But each and every one is a labor of love.
What is the difference between good and bad cacao? Most of the world’s cacao is grown in the Ivory Coast of Africa and is usually a poor genetic clone called a Forastero. In Ecuador, Criollo and other premium trees are being torn out and replaced with a clonal variety called CCN-51. This variety is disease resistant, grows in direct sunlight, and produces an astounding number of pods for harvesting. However, the trade-off is taste. This cacao tastes so bad, industrial makers have to neutralize the acidity by treating the beans with an alkali solution prior to processing. That is the cocoa processed with alkali mentioned earlier. The cacao LetterPress uses is of the highest possible quality, often only available in very small amounts. Large industrial companies simply wouldn’t have a use for it as it would cost them too much to try to extract and then blend with every other origin they work with to meet their quotas. To give one example, Hershey’s produces about a million pounds of chocolate per day. That brings down costs but also quality. There simply isn’t enough good cacao for them to bother. For comparison, one of LetterPress's favorite co-ops, La Red Guaconejo in the Dominican Republic, produces only about 48,000 pounds of cacao beans per year.