Are you looking to shake up your chocolate experience? Or maybe you’re searching for the perfect hostess gift? Well, you’ve hit the jackpot! If you’re new to the chocolate cult, er, circuit, here are some tips on what to look for & where to look when buying craft chocolate.
Table of Contents
Factors to Consider when Buying a Bar (or 4 or 5)
White, milk, or dark. It seems to be a straightforward concept that you’d have a favorite, but for me it depends on my mood. Some days I’m craving something sweet, so I’ll go for a milk or dark milk, and other times I want something really chocolatey, so I’ll go for a dark or a 100%. Know how much sweet you like and go off that; whites and milks tend to be sweeter than darks.
The percentage written on the packaging just tells you what percentage of the bar is made from cacao derivatives, both cacao solids and cacao butter (to give you a real-world application, a general 55% dark milk chocolate recipe might be 20% cacao beans, 35% cacao butter, 15% whole milk powder, and 30% white sugar). This means that a person who normally eats dark chocolate may be surprised by the richness of a milk chocolate and vice versa; it’s smart to try a few things in the middle if you aren’t sure of a friend’s tastes. Same goes for yourself. Ask the seller if they have any recommendations for someone new to artisan chocolate, and I’m sure you’ll get an enthusiastic list of options in return. Don’t be afraid to go dark if they recommend it, too, because some darks are very mild.
There are so many unique origins out there now, and each has a different reputation, though there are always exceptions to the rule (especially as you get into single-region or -plantation bars). Some common flavors are nutty for Ecuadorean beans, smoky for Papua New Guinean beans, and fruity for Madagascan beans. If you have already tried enough bars that you know your preferences for or against certain tasting notes, then it’s worth getting to know these reputations a bit. It’s always a fun party trick to explain trends in cacao origins!
Obviously there will be some people who are better at the art of chocolate making than others. Some people have favorite makers, so you may want to do some digging. Some makers have wonderful subscription packages (Off the top of my head: Raaka, Lonohana, Videri) that make a neat gift for yourself or someone else so deserving. I won’t name any of the makers I’m not a huge fan of, but I’ll name some favorites that are worth looking at as a newbie to artisan chocolate: Escazú, Madre, Solstice, Patric, Manoa…
Some bars are worth the insane-seeming price tag, and some aren’t, and it’s up to you to find out which those are for you. For me, if a bar is amazing enough I’ll shell out $15 apiece. But some people don’t think the same way, and could not care less if a bar was $2 or $20 as long as it contains cocoa and sugar. So know your audience and create your own “price to pleasure index,” as my friend Lowe (Choco Files) calls it.
Are you allergic to something or looking to find specific flavors? Do you want a certain texture to your bar, like the crunch of nuts or the chewiness of dried fruit? Largely it will come down to whether you want a single origin, or something more far-out.
Ask yourself honestly if you’re you just looking for a pretty gift for a friends baby shower or something similar. Do you have a friend who loves certain colors and is not too flavor-focused? Or are there certain out-of-the-box flavors such as lemongrass or rose petals that you want to avoid, maybe due to an allergy or aversion to change? Do you specifically want something locally-made or made with beans from a certain origin? If you’re serious about finding the perfect present, there’s a delicious list of questions to consider.
Actually Buying the Chocolate
What makes a bar good? The expert chocolate buyers tend to consider a variety of factors, depending on whom their audience is. Some buying considerations even lay beyond the chocolate itself. These include: bar size-to-price ratio, packaging quality & appeal, cacao farmers’ story, bar age (yes, it counts in this instance), audience tastes, etc. When buying chocolate for home consumption, you must know both your own taste buds & your own weaknesses. Consumers at all levels tend to go off of how appealing a bar’s packaging is at first glance.
So at your local chocolate shop, gourmet grocery store, or upscale retailer, if you have questions just ask them. Most anyone will be excited to chat about chocolate for a bit, so consider buying options which fall outside of the typical aesthetic. If you live in a more rural area, or simply lack the time to shop in-person, check out Chocolopolis, Bright River Chocolate or Caputo’s for online ordering. I’ve had great experiences with them, and all will ship anywhere in the continental United States. If you’re from abroad, allow me to recommend Cocoa Runners (UK) or The Chocolate Bar (NZ) or Beans to Bars (Singapore). If you’re from even further abroad, just run a quick Google search and you’re sure to get at least one result for a shop which can ship to your town.
Storing Chocolate: Best Practices
In the hopes that it’ll make it longer than a few days, you should keep your bars or truffles in a dry room temperature environment, like a cupboard or on top of the fridge. If they’re open bars, put them in a Tupperware or other plastic container. Even if they’re open, they should last this way for a few months or longer, if you let them. Most chocolate is actually aged before it is put into packaging and sold on the open market, so further aging of your chocolate might not be a bad thing! It is leaving chocolate in extreme temperature which could lead it to a breaking point. Literally.
Not Sure Exactly Where to Start?
Personally, when I’m just getting into a new subject, I like to have a lot of examples of both good and bad specimens. Now while I won’t give you any “bad” examples, as you’re likely often surrounded by them, I can let you in on some of the “good” bars I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Because I know that we all have different taste buds and likes & dislikes, the following is a variety of very well-made and widely-appealing bars. Just like bottles of wine, chocolate bars come in a variety of sizes, tasting notes and prices. For each bar I indicate: Maker, Bar Name, %, and approximate price (as well as a bit about what made the bar stand out to me). They are all equally good, but I have placed them in order by percentage. So if you’re really not sure where to start calibrating your taste buds, here are some bars by makers I trust & admire. You can’t go wrong with any of them, so pick a description that appeals to you & get on it! You may even find a maker near you.
10 Bars to Try Today
- Escazú, Goat’s Milk bar, 60%, $6 (A solid way to ease a milk chocolate person towards the dark side, this bar is smooth and creamy with some interesting spiciness.)
- Manoa, Lavender Dark Milk, 60%, $9.75 (A spectacular display of herbaceousness without overpowering the sweetness of the chocolate.)
- Zotter, India, 62%, $8 (Very fudgey and smooth, much like a milk chocolate, making it a great introduction to darks.)
- Amano, Dos Rios, 70%, $7 (Blueberry and lavender naturally come out in this Dominican cacao, making it one of the most unique bars I have ever had, and one I enjoy trying whenever I can.)
- Solstice, Uganda, 70%, $8 (This bar is very chocolate-y, and stood out in my mind as simply a spectacular bar.)
- Madre, Triple Cacao, 72%, $11 (This is my Mom’s favorite bar, and it’s near the top of my list, as well. It’s a dark chocolate with nibs and pieces of dried cacao pulp, a flavor expressed in the bar as a chewy fruitiness if you’re unfamiliar with fresh cacao’s lusciousness; all together the flavors are delicious madness, trust me.)
- Pump Street Bakery, Madagascar Criollo, 74%, $16 (this bar is very sweet and creamy despite being a dark chocolate, and the very light berry notes that these British makers have managed to get out of these beans is fantastic.)
- Pralus, Ghana, 75%, $9 (This is a very smooth and brownie-reminiscent chocolate which has always been a crowd pleaser & friend to even those who aren’t huge fans of dark chocolate.)
- Askinosie, Davao Philippines, 77%, $8 (A good friend of mine is obsessed with this bar; it’s got decided tobacco & earthy notes with a decent hit of tannin at the end. A strong choice for true dark chocolate lovers.)
- Åkesson, Madagascar Single Estate, 100%, $7 (Though I would also recommend their 75% made with the same beans, this is the mildest 100% bar I’ve ever had, and as such would be a great addition to a tasting by a crowd newer to the chocolate world; Pralus’s 100% is also great, but has a bit too much tannin for me.)
Happy Shopping!~Thanks for reading!