What is Bean to Bar Chocolate?
You may have heard of the terms Bean to Bar, Craft Chocolate, Artisan Chocolate, Small Batch Chocolate – but what do they mean?
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. You’ve most likely visited many. We have many friends who are Chocolatiers and Confectioners and it takes a lot of skill and dedication to be good at it. We do not consider what they do to be inferior in any way. It’s simply different.
Chocolate Makers are those of us who work with cacao beans – hence the phrase Bean to Bar. We purchase bags or even large shipping containers of cacao beans and bring them in from all over the world. We spend a lot of time with fermented, raw cacao beans (all chocolate in the world is made from fermented cacao beans). LetterPress is very proud to be the first bean to bar chocolate maker in the city of Los Angeles. 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, we do all of these steps and more. There are no shortcuts. We do not buy nibs, nor do we buy liquor. Because we do this process on a very small scale, we can provide a level of quality that is impossible at the larger, industrial scale. Therefore, we cannot (and will not) compete on price. It is simply not realistic 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. Our 70% Dark bars are typically 70% cacao and 30% sugar. We 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. There is an excellent documentary called The Dark Side of Chocolate that is available to watch online which covers this topic. You don’t want to support that system, and neither do we.
We work with farms that are ethical, pay their farmers living wages, and grow fantastic, high-quality cacao. All of our 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 we’d rather they spend the money feeding their families and maintaining their farms.
Right now we’re operating at a very, very small scale – most days we 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 tradeoff 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 we use 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 our favorite co-ops, La Red Guaconejo in the Dominican Republic, produces only about 48,000 pounds of cacao beans per year.
The difference between Fair Trade and Direct Trade
Fair Trade sounds nice on paper – a set minimum premium paid to farmers above commodity cacao price. However, this price has nothing to do with the quality or ethical background of the cacao. And from what we have found traveling into different countries, talking to farmers and their families, the model is flawed. It is, however, better than not having this certification – which Hershey’s says they’re dedicated to switching to…by 2020.
Direct Trade is our preferred method of sourcing cacao. With this model we pay farmers a premium for the quality of their cacao, in addition to environmental aspects like growing their trees in a sustainable agroforestry or permaculture system. Our investment in Guatemala, Izabal Agroforest, is a shining example of a sustainable, profitable agroforestry system that pays their workers a great wage while supplying fantastic cacao.