Did you know craft chocolate is a thing? It has been for a few years now (...) and it's slowly, rightfully growing. The goal of the movement is to promote chocolate as an artisanal food product worthy of connoisseurship - much like wine, beer, coffee, cheese, olive oil, any number of things - while making the world better by improving the lives of cacao farmers and their communities.
We won't get into that last part here. This continuously updated post simply focuses on my favorite chocolate bars.
But firstly, let me explain why it's the perfect obsession for me, and make the case for you to dive in:
- It's inexpensive.
- (Relative to wine and cheese). An average craft chocolate bar runs $8-12, with the most expensive (not necessarily the best) at $18 or so.
- It's healthy.
- In moderation, of course, and only if dark. Cacao contains flavonoids and antioxidants and flavonols and oh, let's be real now, I don't really care about any of that, I just want another excuse to further rationalize my binging.
- It really helps you lose weight!
- It's tasty.
- Things that taste good are generally worth obsessing over, and if you disagree with this, then why are you still reading these posts? Sheer boredom, perhaps, in which case I'm flattered that this rather inane post won over all the other content on The Internet you could be absorbing right now. Or you're masochistic like that.
- It's an aphrodisiac.
- No, it actually isn't. But keep on believing it is and you have yourself a viable placebo.
Secondly, a little education is in order: %X + %Y = 100%, where X is [cacao mass + cocoa butter] and Y is [sugar + other ingredients]. All percentages listed below, per industry standard, refer to X.
Finally, before we get started, it'll be supremely helpful for you to understand how my friends see me:
This might be more accurate:
Now we binge.
Cacao Hunters Arhuacos 72%
Enchanting micro-batch bar. Aroma is deep tobacco, darkly brewed coffee. But when you break off a piece, the aroma changes! Sniffing this activated that fun tingly feeling some refer to as ASMR.
The taste is exceptionally spritzy and bright - almost juicy - melting smoothly with notes of pear, fudge, huckleberry, and, I kid you not, balsamic vinegar. With severe regret, I ate the whole bar in a single sitting. Too bad, really, as it's probably the only one I'll ever get the chance to eat...
Amano Dos Rios 70%
The description on the back is perfect: Haunting. Its aroma, incredibly unique among any bar I've consumed, is a powerful and riveting siren song of bergamot orange (a fruit which I've never eaten) with a secondary lavender note you'll have to sniff a little for.
Flavor is similar to the aroma, melts smoothly, enhanced by a trace of whole vanilla beans. Amano also makes a 60% version with cardamom and black pepper which is super fun to eat, with its mini-crunchiness.
Marou Heart of Darkness 85%
Joseph Conrad never reveals how Kurtz convinces African tribes that he's a god in his seminal novel, but I'll tell you. Kurtz simply gave them some of this magic:
This stuff is ambrosia. Nectar of the gods. I smell nutmeg and coconut. Ostensibly dark and powerful, the flavor is an incredibly distinct honey graham cracker which lingers throughout the melt and afterwards. It warms the soul much like a hot bowl of soup. Not to be eaten lightly; even I can, must restrain myself to eating just one tiny piece every day because this is a true pièce de résistance.
Again, just two ingredients: cacao (beans from Vietnam's Tân Phú Đông island) and sugar. No nutmeg, no coconut, no cinnamon or flour or honey or anything else.
And I got the last bar being sold at the Northwest Chocolate Festival! You can still find it online though, so hurry up, best ten bucks you'll ever spend, trust me. If you don't want it this dark (you should), Marou's Treasure Island bar uses the same beans at 75%.
David Bacco Peru 68%
The first thing you notice is its slightly spicy aroma. How can chocolate be spicy? Well, you can put chili powder in it - cayenne, ancho, pasilla, bhut jolokia... but that would make it an infusion bar, which this isn't. Like most on this list, it's a single-origin bar, which means all the beans come from one particular region. This bar smells spicy in the sense that if you've ever tried smelling hot chocolate powder, then some of it gets in your nose and tickles your nose hairs - but it's the character of this Pervian cacao that gives it this effect, not tiny dissolved particles. I also smell light vanilla.
This bar is partitioned into uneven little triangles, looking like cracked desert soil, so you can control the quantity you eat (I can't), and is rather thick. Only upon biting in did I realize the thickness was intentional, and why so. The chocolate almost feels hollow, as if there were air inside, although it obviously isn't. It melts quickly and smoothly, tasting initially of vanilla then cherries and finally coffee beans with some baked fudge throughout.
I chatted with David Bacco at the 2015 Northwest Chocolate Festival: "Why 68%?" He said, "I tested it at higher percentages and it felt too thick and creamy. At lower percentages it was too sweet and the sugar overpowered the cacao." He also mentioned these beans were the same ones Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert examined in their Peru Parts Unknown episode.
Rogue Porcelana 80%
The artist's bar. Colin Gasko is the Leonardo da Vinci of bean-to-bar chocolate makers, and everyone in the industry knows it.
Firstly, this bar is exactly 5 millimeters thick. I know this because I measured it with a tape measure. Secondly, the bar has no decoration whatsoever. It's just a slab of darkish brown chocolate, melted into a flat rectangle and wrapped in a transparent piece of plastic.
Okay, so maybe he's more like Steve Jobs. Keep it simple but make it good. What this bar lacks in appearance it more than makes up in complexity. None of the other bars on this list changes flavors as it melts - this one does. Several times. It hits your tongue - the bitterness of a coffee bean. It melts about a third. A sharp, short-lasting note of peach. Now it's a thick creamy mousse of coffee with macadamia nuts. Next, an even brighter infusion of peach, this one much longer lasting. But no hint of that in the aftertaste, which is a mix of pure cacao nibs and whole milk.
Akin to a fine Merlot, this chocolate is one I can appreciate but is not my personal cup of tea.
Domori Guasare 70%
As soon as I opened the foil package I broke off the piece and took a whiff. Whisky. Alcohol. Fermented grapes.
This slow-melting, smooth chocolate at first tastes like Cabernet Sauvignon, but transforms through the melt to taste more and more like simple white grape juice - almost a reverse fermentation. This is the first bar (after eating dozens) for which I could really appreciate why the percentage was set at what it was. A higher percentage would have been too tannic, perhaps bitter, definitely too slow to melt. A big hats off to Domori for skillfully evoking the critical points of this particular Venezuelan cacao.
Areté Puerto Quito 70%
Fruity and bright. Light raspberry fragrance, raspberry through the melt with hints of pear. For some reason reminds me of a rosé (but only in character and not in flavor).
I like this company. Let me transcribe what's on the back of this box:
- Excellence, virtue
- Life as a journey
- Striving to live up to one's fullest potential
- Reaching for the stars in all that you do
Okay, somewhat cheesy, but I have a soft spot for emotive foreign words :)
Note: Arrêter means "to stop" in French and is both a homonym as well as what I should've done while consuming this bar.
Friis Holm Chuno 70%, Double Turned
Chocolate maker Mikkel Friis-Holm from Denmark has done a fantastic job with this bar. Holding one of these you'll notice the thickness immediately; this chocolate has weight.
It melts like a toffee, long and rich, giving you time to savor all the different flavor notes: pepper, nuts, hints of black olives, some occasional brightness, a little bit of sourdough at the end (due to fermentation I'd imagine).
Beans from Nicaragua.
Fruition Hispaniola 68%
Smells like a green bell pepper tastes.
It's pretty, no?
Tastes nutty, slightly peppery. Not spicy. Even though this is 32% sugar (with some vanilla bean), the Dominican cacao does a great job of hiding the sweetness. Melts like fudge.
Soma CSB Chama 70%
This intrepid chocolate strikes you with a certain ferocity as you try to plumb its flavor. Some bars are made by mixing different kinds of cacao; this bar is made from a single kind of cacao, the bean itself being a hybrid rather than the mixture. Ocumare and Porcelana, two of the most prized cacao varietals, both from Venezuela, genetically crossed to create what one would hope to be something even greater.
The aroma is complex, like a perfume; breaking it down into its individual elements is better left to a sharper nose than mine. I think of sea moss and pirate coves. The melt is smooth and slow, revealing notes of heavy cream, then cashew, then finally a sweeter fig with a pleasant roasted aftertaste. You may note that what I taste reflects the label's tasting notes, which suggests either:
- That I am influenced by expectations
- That Soma's chocolate makers and I have similar taste profiles
Both must be true to some extent, as there are bars which taste very different to me than their tasting notes indicate, even after I've read and tried tasting for them.
Rogue La Masica 75%
I'm going to pretend to be a competition judge for this one:
- Aroma: Raisins, prunes.
- Flavor: Grapefruit, dark rye bread
- Melt: Smooth (like a criminal, like a supervillain, like Lex Luthor)
- Aftertaste: Celery
- Break: Snappy, even
- Color: Brown
Akesson's Madagascar 75%
Actually, all Akesson's bars use cacao from Madagascar. This one is 2% voatsiperifery pepper, so it gets classified as an inclusion bar - a bar that isn't just cacao and sugar. The pepper, which only grows in Madagascar, tastes ancient. I think of the phrase "Promethean fire." Rusty and smoky with just a touch of warmth, promising spice but delivering none; the effect is, in a word, tantalizing.
Neither complement nor counterbalance, this quality fuses instead with the smooth and fruity Madagascan cacao, producing an otherworldly flavor that is uniform and distinct, one best described not as a combination but something altogether original; an accomplishment which merits the award trifecta it so proudly displays.
Durci Corona Arriba 70%
Rediscover chocolate, it says. A slogan fit for those coming off Hershey’s and Nestlé, definitely; Theo and Green & Black’s, perhaps. But for those of us comfortably ensconced in the bitter abyss of chocophilia? Even if not so much, I must admit this new maker from Utah is in it to win it. I liked their samples so much I picked up three of their bars.
Corona Arriba is Spanish for “The Crown Above,” which would be super badass if not for the fact that I remember a hyperactive kid from middle school who, much to the annoyance of basically everyone in his direct vicinity, would screech “ARRRIBA! ARRRRRRRIBA!” every time the bell rang to signal the end of the class period; I’m sure he’d be pleased knowing he’s remained in my memory since then.
Durci scoured the Ecuadorian highlands for this bar’s bean, which has obvious floral overtones both in scent and flavor. And while it is by far the most powerful floral chocolate on the list, it never reaches a point of oversaturation – an impressive accomplishment given its 30% sugar content. To my palate it develops into a whisper of tangerine as it melts.
As to the character of the blend, graceful and airy come to mind. I imagine strolling around in one of those baroque, manicured gardens in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Which, to be clear, is not remotely close to my personal sensibility – for a closer likeness refer to the Marou bar above.
Lillie Belle Farms Perfect Illusion 65%
The first word that comes to mind when biting into a chunk of this: meaty. Kind of like a sirloin steak. Or maybe beef jerky. It’s even hard to break at room temperature, owing perhaps to the cacao varietal or to the design of the chocolate mold – a solid bar without the usual little squares that guide fracturing and moderate consumption – but not to the thickness of the bar itself.
The aromatics are, in strict honesty, less than savory, evocative of many standard public lavatories (albeit in a clean state), with a hint of the ash that succeeds burnt tobacco. None of this, strangely, fortunately, is present in the much more agreeable flavor, a constant mix of sugar and brownie fudge with a spot of leather.
Of greater note is the long melt length, characteristic of the white Marañón bean from Peru from which maker Jeff Shepherd derived the bar’s “Perfect Illusion” name (cacao beans are typically brown or black). The notable density enables you to bring this chocolate on a hike or a survival expedition.
Note: Lillie Belle puts “Limited Edition” on virtually all its bars, but they actually seem perennially available. If it works as a sales tactic, it does not to promote moral integrity in the industry.
Harper Macaw Atlantic Forest 74%
This chocolate (read: wrapper) is here for the same reason Marshawn Lynch is here: to look pretty (so he won't get fined). Its flavor was as one-note as the response Marshawn gave to his annoying sports reporters (except the latter was at least funny). Style over substance is a great heuristic for social media poseurs, but not for this your humble epicurean connoisseur.
Amedei Blanco de Criollo 70%
Italy’s job growth has been stagnant for years, but that doesn’t matter to me so long as I get my chocolate bars. “You sound like Marie Antoinette.” Okay, but understand geopolitical speculation is a fashionable way for precocious young college grads to signal learnedness to each other without knowing what they’re talking about and without actually accomplishing anything. Amedei is at least helping, you see, as by proxy am I, creating demand for their product and maybe persuading you to buy a bar with my luxuriant description to follow:
This creamy blended cioccolato smells of vanilla bean and cinnamon, but more importantly like I’d imagine J.K. Rowling’s Honeydukes candy store to smell (the version you imagine when reading her books, not the manufactured version by Universal Studios). It takes about a minute for each square to melt on your tongue, which to some may feel like an eternity. I recommend taking it as a meditative aid. Chewing it into smaller bits will cause it to melt faster, but you miss some of the flavor (mostly plum and macchiato) by doing so.
One must ask, what is the point of spending more money (this bar is the most expensive here at $18) on a product that you to have to expend even more effort to enjoy? Why not just spend 5 bucks on Ghirardelli squares and pop them in like potato chips? I’ll be giving a long answer in a later blog post – the answer is perhaps more melancholic than you’d expect – but your intuition is right: it’s not inherently justifiable.
Madre Solomon Islands 73%
Once upon a far less civilized time, hunting exotic game maintained a certain aspect of romantic heroism, today nothing more than the remnants of an archaic affect, and perhaps (but only so) for good reason.
The mistake is to consider, on the grand scale of things, that our times are somehow more ethical (although they must be according to the current scales by which we measure such things), and that “civilization” possesses inherent worth, and even that the existence of such a concept is useful. Possible it is that with time plant suffering will transform itself from a laughing to a serious matter. What would become of us then, each and every one of us complicit in the cultivation of genocide?
Luckily, we are not at such a point, I am not a saint, and a saint is something which I do not wish to become. So with delight and relish do I approach the fact that a whole conspiracy of confectioners, patissiers, restaurateurs, chocolate makers, and cacao farmers are on a worldwide hunt for the most exclusive, the most exotic, the most exquisite Food Of The Gods that can be discovered within 30 degrees of 0 longitude. Because eating chocolate is socially sanctioned, and because I happen to be a capitalist zombie who thinks not – zombie are unconscious – a whit about the moral implications of his consumption patterns, I will continue my rabid, brainless xocophagia.
The Solomon Islands were named after the biblical King Solomon, famed for his wealth, though the country’s GDP is less than a hundredth of Amazon’s revenue. But it certainly has some virgin cacao, which we all know has to be the tastiest since no one’s ever had it before. Madre – kudos to them – doesn’t put much effort into the graphic design of the packaging, which is a good sign that they take the actual crafting part of the chocolate seriously, and I’m happy to report that they do.
Aroma: mild green pepper. This smooth bar opens with a symphony of coffee, toffee, and cherries, morphs into a brief, bright burst of kiwifruit, and fades into a calm fudge with bits of residual brightness. Super hard to resist consuming in one go, so I suggest pairing it with a different bar to pace yourself.
Fruition Wild Bolivia 74%
Like butter. Roasted macademia nuts. Warmth. But the first thing that hits you is the original bitterness. Not that the variety of bitterness is original per se, but it's like you're experiencing the flavor of bitterness for the first time, biting into your first piece of dark chocolate as a kid. Bitter batter butter bitter. But I like it because it is bitter. And because it is my heart.
Mindo Ecuador 77% Cacao Nacional
First of all, there is not even a speck of English on this packaging. You can trust me - as someone who speaks English - on that one. Not even a speck. What this means is either that Mindo Chocolate flew to Seattle just to showcase their bars at the fair, or that they’re really damn good at marketing and know how to target.
Now I’m not so clueless as to have to Google words I don’t know. I picked up some Spanish just by training my powers of deduction on the nutrition facts. Those three bars on the back? Azúcar means sugar, grasa means fat, sal means salt. Bajo means low. And alto means high. Just like altitude. But notice how much bigger and bolder the ALTO font is. How much longer those red bars are. It looks like the Ecuadorian government insists on pointing out how much of a challenge this bar represents to your health. As challenging as climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, maybe. But not Everest. For that the SAL bar would have to be ALTO and ROJO and LARGO too (okay, these I googled).
But then you look at the numbers. This bar, 60 grams in mass, is broken into 2 servings with 7 grams of sugar each. So 14 grams total. A standard 12 ounce can of Coca-Cola has 39 grams of sugar. Does Ecuador have an EXTREMO label? No. Methinks they need to recalibrate their scales. Or just admit they have very little mountain climbing experience.
An intense, earthy, prickly spice hits your orthonasal receptors as soon as you open the plastic. You imagine this is going to be concentrated stuff and get excited. Break off a piece. Put it on your tongue. But it doesn’t taste like it smells. Surprise! A smooth guava through the melt, with a bright burst of lychee as the last fragment dissolves. I love lychee, and so made sure to break this into tiny pieces so I could pop them in one at a time.
24 hours later, I was up and down Kilimanjaro.
Minimal Haiti 70%
This rare chocolate comes from Japanese confectioner Minimal and is an absolute delight to eat. Japanese food culture is all about precision; it screams: “Pay attention to what you eat!” If you’re into narrative films, you need to watch Tampopo, and if you prefer documentaries, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is pretty much a requirement.
However, Minimal seems to have a philosophical disagreement with the way chocolate making is done in the West. Firstly, Minimal does not conche their chocolate. Conching is the process of grinding the chocolate/sugar mixture down so the average particle size becomes too small for your tongue to detect; below 50 microns, the tongue can no longer detect grittiness and so produces the sensation of a smooth texture. Minimal is proud of their 226 micron particle size, and it’s noticeable to the point where you can even hear some crunching when you chew a piece. For reference, a grain of sand has a diameter of 63 to 2,000 microns.
Not only does Minimal eschew conching, they also design the mold to be a tutorial in eating. Observe the different cuts: some are rectangular, some are square, some are tiny, some are large, some have banding, some are smooth. Indeed, each individual piece produces a different sensation, eats as a distinct entity.
It is not a stretch to say that Minimal does to craft chocolate what Picasso did to painting.
Let us consider the difference between the bottom two pieces: one has lines, the other does not. The lines appear small on screen, but are incredibly palpable when you pop the piece in your mouth and lick its surface; if we think of each line as a canyon, it’s probably around 2,000 microns from one edge to the other. Now the smooth piece has no canyons, it is just a flat landmass, its reduced surface area leaving your taste buds no room to explore while its increased mass leads to a fuller consumption as a totality.
Many will, upon seeing me dissect these differences in such minute detail, laugh at what they consider the utter futility of the project. However, I claim this difference between lines and smoothness symbolizes the very possibility of sensuality, the effect of which is as profound as any of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. This ability to say, “It is this and not that,” writ large, creates the universe. So laugh if you will, but know each hollow bellow is a repudiation of beauty itself.
Tastewise, it is as precise as its note: “Complex of Almond praline.” One of the interesting effects of large particle size is how quickly and powerfully the flavor is delivered to you. Minimal’s method reveals instantly what makes each bean exactly itself rather than leaving the interpretation up to the consumer. Subjectivity, nevertheless, is not slain outright, as I did perceive a clear strawberry note when munching on one of the long rectangular pieces.
My only regret is not bringing cash on the festival’s first day, when they sold out of their Arhuaco bar. Of all the cacao in this post, the Arhuaco bean (see my first review) is only one of two I would consider legendary, and until Minimal I hadn't seen anyone source it aside from Cacao Hunters (who weren't at the festival).
Wait, didn't I say this was a continually updated post?
Continually updated posts don't get conclusions.