What is “bean-to-bar” anyway? Surely all chocolate comes from the cocoa bean? “‘Bean-to-bar’ is a bit of a misnomer, as all chocolate bars are made from beans,” agrees Dom Ramsey, founder of chocolate-tasting service Cocoa Runners. “The term is usually used to indicate the entire process is undertaken by a single manufacturer, and is closely associated with small-batch artisan producers.”
There’s also “tree-to-bar” chocolate, which means the maker went the extra mile and grew the beans, too. The general gist is that the beans are traceable, ethically sourced and a fair price has been paid for them. “A lot of bean-to-bar chocolate is better than Fairtrade because the makers are working directly with the farmers,” says chocolatier Paul Young. So lots of ethically made bars will not be labelled Fairtrade. “In some cases, makers will pay four or five times the value of Fairtrade beans when dealing direct with the cocoa farmer,” says Ramsey. Which might make your chocolate hit all the sweeter. Unless, of course, you like your chocolate bitter.
I used to think that more bitter bars had a greater cocoa percentage, denoting a better chocolate. Not true. According to Young, that would be like choosing a bottle of wine based on its percentage of alcohol. “My main advice would be not to worry about percentage,” he points out. “Just because a bar is 70%, does not mean it’s a good chocolate. The flavour in chocolate doesn’t come from the percentage of the cocoa, but from the bean. Most chocolate is a blend of different varieties from different regions, and even different harvest-years mixed together to a ‘house style’. If a bar is labelled ‘single origin’, it’s made from beans from a single area.
“Madagascan beans are very fruity and you’ll find the beans can change slightly with each harvest,” explains Young. “Terroir, the soil conditions and climate have at least as much impact on flavour,” adds Ramsey. “As does the way the chocolate-maker treats the beans.”
If you really want to nail the provenance, you’ll want a “grand cru” bar, where all the beans come from the same plantation. But, to add to the confusion, not everyone who makes fancy chocolate would describe this as grand cru, so look out, too, for “premier cru”, “estate grown” and “single estate”.
Read this feature as it originally appeared in the Guardian