This is a guest article from the chocolatiers of Santa Barbara Chocolate . Santa Barbara Chocolate is the supplier of my favorite chocolate, and they’ve been a more than welcome sponsor of PrimalCon  since the very beginning, donating boxes of dark chocolate coins  for guests to enjoy. PrimalCon attendees can attest, their chocolate is top notch.
As a big fan of really dark chocolate myself – as I know many of you are – I’ve reported on the health benefits of dark chocolate , and explored whether all chocolate is created equal . Still, with all the various labels and terms thrown about these days, choosing a high-quality dark chocolate can be a little confusing. What separates bad from good from best? So I decided to go straight to the source and get expert advice from professional chocolatiers…
Strike the Right Balance
With recent developments and knowledge about the world of chocolate, more and more people are turning to the idea of eating pure chocolate sourced from healthy trees, grown under the care of happy farmers, and produced with quality ingredients. Yet how do you go about finding the excellent dark chocolate with these qualities? There are many components that affect the quality of chocolate and consumers should aim to strike the right balance between harvesting practices, manufacturing processes, quality ingredients and of course, for those conscious consumers, ethically grown and traded. The flavor and texture of any chocolate will naturally reflect these qualities when selecting and tasting chocolate based on the above factors. When you find that chocolate that meets these standards it will delight and inspire your taste buds.
Shade Grown with Love
A chocolate company that starts their journey on the right foot will have an ethical interest in the environment and the farmers. First, look for chocolate that is shade grown in the depths of the green rainforest. There is a huge difference when it comes to shade grown chocolate and sun bleached chocolate. Rather than growing cacao beans on a farm where the plot of land and the branches are exposed to the harsh sunlight, ethical companies use a natural organic approach known as shade grown. This means the cacao plants are planted in the rainforest and given the chance to do what they do best, to stretch for the sun when they need it and to shrink back into the shade when they want to stay cool. The plant works in harmony with nature and can develop the natural and organic way. Mother earth is in the flavor, and with shade grown chocolate you can enjoy the benefits of the sweet damp soil and the earthly nutrients that add to the flavor.
How can you tell if a chocolate is shade grown?
Chocolatier’s recommendation: The flavor of the chocolate is the best test. Shade grown chocolate won’t exhibit strong astringency or overly acidic flavors. Rainforest Certified Cacao is another measurement.
Ripened to Perfection
Second, look for chocolate that is sustainably grown and ripened to perfection. The old joke that chocolate is actually a fruit isn’t too far from the truth. Chocolate comes from the fruit known as the theobroma cacao. Just like any fruit, if you want to produce the best taste, you pick it when it is ripe. Unfortunately in our modern world of hustle and bustle and to meet high demands, many companies will rush to harvest the fruit and use pesticides to increase yield. For instance, some companies add artificial enzymes such as acetone or enzymatic polypeptides to their cacao to produce a chocolate flavor and thereby eliminate the traditional and difficult step of cacao fermentation. The traditional process of fermentation is one of the most important steps in making great chocolate flavor. The golden rule to remember when it comes to anything good in life is that it is quality and not quantity. Companies snatching the fruit before it is ripe produce chocolate that is acidic in taste or sometimes green potato like in flavor as the fruit is only partially ripe or not ripened at all. True manufacturers of first class chocolate will not cheat the growing or fermentation process. They encourage sustainable growing practices to reduce pesticide use and only pluck the fruit from the trees when the time is just right.
How can you tell if a chocolate is sustainable grown and fermented correctly?
Chocolatier’s recommendation: You’ll notice right away in the flavor. Properly fermented pure chocolate will have the characteristic cocoa flavor without too many other flavors competing. Look for chocolates sourced from cocoa beans that are UTZ Certified as an additional measure.
The Natural Way
The next step in finding premium dark chocolate is to consider the manufacturing process. You are not going to get the definitive taste of chocolate from a company that does a slap dash job when it comes to turning the bean into a bar of luscious and rich dark chocolate. The production process has so much to do with final taste and texture – this is where you can spot the good and the bad from the downright ugly.
Look for chocolate connoisseur companies that have strict manufacturing and quality control practices over the entire production process. These companies handle their production of the cacao bean with care and precision to bring out that true velvety chocolate taste with a supple bitter note that lingers on the tongue. The fruit is not only sustainably grown and fermented properly, but also the beans are roasted and blended with true care to ensure quality. For example, two important phases of chocolate manufacturing that have a significant impact on the final product are the roasting of the cocoa bean and the conching of the chocolate. To reduce cost, companies will over-roast the beans to hide the imperfections of cheap cocoa beans and will under conche the chocolate to save time in production. Companies that care about quality and the essence of taste do not cut corners like these. They roast and conche their beans to perfection and have their manufacturing and quality control processes audited.
How can you tell if a chocolate company has strict manufacturing and quality control practices over the entire production process?
Chocolatier’s recommendation: Look for companies that have ISO and or HACCP Certifications for their manufacturing processes. Does the company exhibit good intentions and care? What does your intuition say?
How can you tell if the cacao has been over-roasted or under conched?
Chocolatier’s recommendation: Taste the chocolate and see if it is smooth and the sugar doesn’t seem separate. Average chocolate when it melts seems to be in parts (sugar separate from the cocoa butter separate from the cocoa fiber). Premium chocolate will be smooth with a solid marriage of cocoa butter, sugar and cocoa fiber which produces a velvety smooth texture. Over roasted cacao that has shell in it will often have a burnt rubber taste.
Quality Ingredients vs Cheaper Alternatives
The FDA regulates which ingredients can and cannot be used in chocolate, and thus, have issued standard definitions for chocolate. In sum, a quality dark chocolate typically only has three to four ingredients. The main ingredients are cocoa mass, cocoa butter and sugar. However, during the manufacturing process, it is easy for companies to slip in cheaper ingredients to supplement the more expensive quality ingredients. For example, some companies will use low cost artificial sweeteners in their chocolate production rather than real sugar. Also, common practice of some chocolate companies is using cheaper “cocoa butter equivalents” (CBE) such as vegetable or hydrogenated oils rather than the pure cocoa butter. For those true chocolate lovers, watch out for these substitutes in the ingredients. In Europe, manufacturers can add the CBE known as PGPR and not even list it on the ingredients.
Nothing compares to the deep and luxurious taste of the finest, high quality dark chocolate, and nothing else should be used to make it.
How can you tell if a chocolate is using cheaper alternatives in their ingredients?
Chocolatier’s recommendation: Always opt for quality ingredients. Make sure to look at the ingredients label. Make sure the ingredients include cocoa mass (or cocoa liquor), cocoa butter and sugar. Watch out for CBE (cocoa butter equivalents) ingredients such as vegetable or hydrogenated oils. Also, ask if the chocolate is made from Grade AA Cocoa Butter and GMO free cane sugar. Using Grade AA cocoa butter creates that wonderful melting sensation in your mouth that CBE cannot even come close to creating. Cane sugar, when added sparingly, perfectly complements the taste of the cacao bean and produces a finished result that is the very best it can be. Natural vanilla, as long as it isn’t too much, can help accent the chocolate’s nuances too.
Strong Ethics Equals an Honest Taste
Finally, the most important factor worth investigating when seeking high-quality chocolate are the ethics behind the business. You may think this does not have much to do with the taste of the final product but in reality it plays a major role. A standard, run of the mill chocolate company who believes only in profit, will pump out chocolate designed and produced with many cut corners. The result will be a product designed without care for our world. As we say at Santa Barbara Chocolate “save the Earth – it’s the only planet with chocolate.” Choose your chocolate company carefully and look for those who believe in strong ethics and hold integrity close to their heart. A company that is selective over how they produce chocolate from the bud to the bean to the bar is going to put a lot more effort into creating something worthwhile.
Our natural organic approach is an important step in achieving harmony when it comes to chocolate production. The same can be said when it comes to ethically produced chocolate. The sad reality behind the situation is that cheap chocolate and mass produced chocolate can be procured at the disadvantage of the local people. In a world where we are becoming more aware of the hardship faced by others it’s important to take an approach of integrity and be conscious consumers. This means selecting chocolate companies that deal exclusively in ethical trade from the farmers to the family who tirelessly work to bring extraordinary chocolate to our shelves. Making the world a better place for all is certainly worth the small amount of extra expense. That is why our motto at Santa Barbara Chocolate is “Healthy Trees, Happy Farmers, Great Chocolate.”
The Truth Is in the Taste
Once you have discovered a company that is integral to quality ingredients and ethical in their farming, harvesting, and manufacturing practices, then you are well on your way to finding the best high-quality chocolate on the shelves. The final truth will be in the taste. Many dark chocolate connoisseurs enjoy a high percentage of cocoa and only a hint of sweetness. With dark chocolate that is over 75% cocoa you can taste the exotic long notes of flavor that resounds on the tongue and deepens with every bite. Dark chocolate should be smooth, rich and complex regardless of cocoa content. Many chocolatiers think that dark chocolate holds more flavor and depth than red wine and it will ignite all the senses.
When sampling solid dark chocolate, notice the aroma and how it prepares the palate for something magical. As you slip the chocolate onto your tongue a quality dark chocolate will be pleasing in texture and the taste will linger and grow. Dark chocolate is an experience for the senses, and if chosen right can be pure bliss, and a healthy, sweet indulgence.