But Wait…Why is it a Question?
To start, I want to address the elephant dominating the tail end of the sentence— a question mark. Concerns were raised by fellow chocolate people, as well as myself, in regard to the bean-to-bar nature of Alluvia Chocolatier‘s products. Their advertisement material in English conflicts with itself in a few different ways, which may exclude it from meeting the criteria of being “bean-to-bar.” The term describes a company which not only uses raw cacao beans to make their chocolate, but which knows the origin of their beans, which Alluvia clearly does, as they reference this numerous times in their publicity materials. I just got my hands on the entire line of Alluvia’s Vietnam-crafted and -sourced chocolate bars, made & designed in Ho Chi Min City (and more recently, re-designed). Since publication, Alluvia has contacted me and clarified some of the points I address below. First of all, they do indeed make chocolate exclusively from bean to bar.
I had come up with 5 reasons as to why I questioned the applicability of bean-to-bar as a description of their products, and now happily have the answers to those questions.
- If you look closely, you can see the label of “pure cocoa powder” rather than “pure chocolate” or “pure cacao” on the stickers dotting the seal of each bar, though it may just be that they took the seal from the cocoa powder they also sell & thought it completed the bars’ aesthetic. This is exactly what happened, and they have since remodeled their bars’ packaging, and removed the confusing stickers.
- Again, the concurrent speculation from some trusted industry friends. These friends know little more than I, but again, this has to do with the lack of English-language information on the company.
- The unclear involvement level of a Swiss NGO that is often-referenced on their website. Helvetas, that Swiss NGO that Alluvia references so much in their marketing materials, has actually been working with the Vietnamese government since 2005. Their goal has been to sustainably increase Vietnam’s output of quality cacao in an effort to increase farmer income in the region. The head chocolate maker’s father was actually a part of this pioneering project, and since it started Alluvia’s cacao has been certified by UTZ and the Vietnamese Ministry of Health.
- The crumbly & hardened texture of their bars, which often implies a deficit of cocoa butter, itself implying the use of cocoa powder + cocoa butter as a base rather than only cocoa beans. This is either due to age, or a need to add extra cocoa butter in future recipes.
- Alluvia describes itself as a “chocolatier” rather than a chocolate maker, which is a very important distinction. The brand actually maintains their own cacao plantation in southern Vietnam, in addition to buying cacao from farmers in Cho Gao, in the Tien Giang region.
*Bonus: they’ve been around since at least 2013 and I’m just now hearing of them, though my interest in Asian chocolate goes back just as far. It does say on their website, however, that they are only recently beginning an international campaign, so this may be a result of quite recent English-language publicity material. But it is for those reasons stated above that I (was) hesitant to give them the label of bean-to-bar. As the Mast Brothers have very publicly shown, mislabeling something can lead to a lot of public distrust and disappointment. It always pays to be wary, even if a language barrier is largely at fault. Alluvia has actually been making cocoa butter & cocoa powder since 2013, and bean to bar chocolate since 2014.
How Did My Hands Come to Rest upon These Bars?
I believe that Alluvia sent me a message through one of my social media channels several months ago. I semi-forgot about it for awhile, until the opportunity arose and they popped back into my mind. A few weeks ago, I met up with my boyfriend in the capitol city of Cambodia; he was fresh from two weeks in Vietnam, and two days prior he trekked all over Saigon in pursuit of this chocolate. We actually didn’t expect it to be the long-winded trek that it turned out to be. Alluvia has a cafe right in the heart of downtown Ho Chi Min. Yet he left downtown at the advice of his GPS, which he trusted less & less as the buildings became more & more residential.
It turns out that his GPS had simply been given bad advice. The cafe address given on the chocolatier’s Facebook page was actually for the owner’s apartment. That’s right. My boyfriend showed up at the doorstep of the owner’s apartment on a Friday morning, 100% confused after questioning a few local residents. But he said that the man was very gracious; my story was relayed, and strangely enough the bars were still bought. But then again, now that I think about it that might explain the off-texture of my bars (but not the rest of the stuff). They source their organically-grown cacao nearby, in a small village along the Mekong River, and are rightly very proud of that fact.
And Now, For the Main Event
Dark Chocolate with Cocoa Nibs: 7/10
I wish I knew the percentage definitively, though I assume that its base is their 70% Dark chocolate. It has a deep cocoa aroma that’s a bit fudgey, like a dark chocolate ganache. The texture and flavor are a deep improvement over their plain 70% bar, and I would happily eat this. The line of cacao nibs bisecting the bar through the middle add a pleasant earthy crunch and more flavor to an otherwise good-but-not-striking chocolate.
Dark Chocolate with CinnaPepper: 3/10
Again, I wish I knew the percentage definitively, though I also assume that the base is their 70% Dark chocolate. The aroma is straight black pepper, and you can even see the chunks of it specking the bar; I was for some reason expecting a more chai-like scent. There’s not even a hint of cocoa, which is immensely intimidating.
When you taste it, the pepper is the only flavor until the sweet chocolate and a hint of cinnamon come in. Then the spiciness of the pepper begins, and just like the beginning it lingers and it’s strong. I actually gave the bar to some of my students after they bugged me and I wish you could have seen the faces they made; it was hilarious and sad, like a baby trying a lemon for the first time. If you love pepper, you’ll love it, but if you don’t then you’re gonna have a bad time.
100% Dark Chocolate: 5/10
It’s quite hard, but not crumbly like you might expect, because with just slight provocation it begins to melt. A little more cocoa butter might have helped, but I imagine it’s not as necessary in the constant heat of Vietnam. The aroma speaks of deep dark cocoa and light licorice. On the tongue there’s little bitterness & strong cocoa, with earthy overtones and very light notes of dried red fruit, especially in the finish. You really need to leave it time to melt, though, because if you don’t then at such a high percentage all the flavor will stay trapped in the cocoa solids.
70% Dark Chocolate: 6/10
The aroma has much lighter cocoa and stronger red fruits, maybe a bit juicier and obviously much sweeter, though in a honey-coated way. Sort of floral strawberry, and overall quite pleasant. The flavor matches the aroma well, though it is slightly acidic, leaving me to assume that they conched the 100% for a lot longer to even it out. The texture is still quite hard, and the flavor a bit unreachable. I wouldn’t blink if you told me this was made from cocoa powder added to cocoa butter.
40% Milk Chocolate: 3.5/10
It’s got quite a hard melt, but the flavor and aroma are surprisingly similar to that of the 70%. Additionally, the flavor is there and then disappears quite quickly, and while it is there it’s not very strong or creamy. Maybe it’s the quality of the milk powder? It melts a bit easier than the 70% or 100%, but the milk flavor reminds me of the powdered stuff, sort of separate from the chocolate, rather than the smooth splash of cream that I expect from a milk chocolate. Either way, once the texture and lack of melting is sorted out, the flavor will likely be stronger and sweeter.
Milk Chocolate Ginger: 7.5/10
The aroma is sweet, and the texture is much more hefty than a plain milk chocolate, because each bite has a line of chewy ginger bisecting the bar. There’s a sweet and notably spicy aftertaste in the back of your throat.
Milk Chocolate with Cashew Nuts: 6.5/10
I wish I knew the cacao percentage of this bar definitively, though I assume that the base is their 40% milk chocolate. This bar just smells really creamy and sweet. Yes, it smells creamy, with just a hint of cocoa, maybe. Unexpectedly, you can see the whole cashew nuts in the bar as soon as you break off a piece. Cashews are naturally much higher in fat than most other nuts, so they have softened more than almonds or peanuts would.
The result is a very subtle crunch and overall delicious melding of the two flavors, and just those two flavors. It’s a sweet, one-dimensional bar that I think would actually be better-served (& more profitable) as a chewy ganache in a truffle. I would definitely buy this again, though, as it truly is yummy.
Milk Chocolate with Peanuts: 5/10
Again, I wish I knew the percentage definitively, though I continue to assume that the base is their 40% milk chocolate. The bar smells exactly like the Reese’s peanut butter cups of my childhood. You can see the whole peanuts sitting in the bar as soon as you break off a piece; it’s got a strong snap, though. You really have to chew this chocolate due to the now-softened peanuts, whose flavor dominates. It’s very good and quite sweet, but more like a candy bar than a single origin chocolate bar.
Overall Thoughts & Impressions of Alluvia
These bars are fine. Some of them are even pretty good. But they’re not overall something that I would be excited to buy again; I would prefer the many Marou bars I’ve sampled, if this were a contest. The issues are glaringly obvious, to me at least, and generally quite fixable. These are the texture (& thus the uneven melt), the somewhat over-processed nature of the chocolates, and the inconsistencies in both packaging information and publicity materials.
I look forward to those fixes as the company brings their products to the global market and receives ongoing feedback. I have never sold my micro-batch chocolates, however, and have only had a few internships in chocolate. My knowledge of the chocolate businesses’ day-to-day operations is limited. But opening any business is insanely difficult, and even more so when run in more than one language. I applaud Alluvia for working so hard and choosing chocolate as their medium to do so, but I’ll wait a few more years before I invest in another taste of their work. Many thanks to Alluvia for reaching out to me and answering some of my lingering questions.
Which bar would you want to try first?