I can’t tell you how excited I get about really good quality bean-to-bar chocolate! But what exactly goes into it to make it so good? What are the best ingredients in chocolate? I visited Conner Haines’ craft chocolate factory – Mayhawk – to find out.
This article is just the first instalment of my ‘From Bean-to-Bar & Beyond’ series running for the rest of this month. I’ll give you the answers to questions including: how is craft chocolate made from bean-to-bar? How can I become a chocolate maker? What’s the next big thing in chocolate going to be? And many more.
The Mayhawk Chocolate company provided some source material for my ‘From Bean-to-Bar’ series of articles, and have kindly donated a competition prize this month. I’ve used them as an example of how the best bean-to-bar companies make craft chocolate. But all views are my own unless otherwise stated.
Ingredients in Chocolate: Craft Chocolate vs. Mass-Produced Chocolate
The first bean-to-bar chocolate makers started in the US and UK as ‘home-brew’ operations in the early 2000s. Their emergence was partly in response to the diminishing ingredients in chocolate, and quality of commercially-sold chocolate. Increasingly since the 1980s, chocolate manufacturers have substituted natural ingredients in chocolate with cheaper, unnatural, unhealthy ones.
The bean-to-bar movement was, and remains, a strong stand against this trend. Last month, for example, I visited the craft chocolate making company Mayhawk, in Lydney, Gloucestershire, UK.
Mayhawk say they focus on simplicity and purity in chocolate-making. So their dark chocolate origin edition bar, for instance, contains only two ingredients – cocoa beans and sugar. And their flavoured bars also contain only small lists of natural ingredients. They don’t use emulsifiers, oils, fats, or chemical flavour essences in their chocolate.
All this is in stark contrast to the ingredients lists on many mass-produced chocolate bars. That even includes some high-end, premium priced, chocolate.
Here, for instance is the ingredients list from a bar from the Patchi company. It just happens to be one example that I had (bought for me) around the house. Patchi have stores in all the major affluent cities across the Middle East. They also have one in Harrods in London, England; one in Paris, France; and several across the USA. You can tell from this, and the packaging below, that Patchi position themselves as a high-end brand, charging premium prices. Yet, for instance, while there’s no hydrogenated vegetable fat included in the chocolate, the biscuit it contains does include this cheap and nutritionally dangerous ingredient.
Individual Ingredients in Chocolate
Conner at Mayhawk Chocolate told me that bean-to-bar companies like his pay around £10 (US$14) a kilo (at 2018 prices) for top quality, first grade, cocoa beans. Meanwhile, companies like Cadbury buy lower-grade beans for mass-produced chocolate at around £1.80 (US$2.5) a kilo.
Elite chocolate makers select beans by country, growing region, and flavour profile. The four types of cocoa bean (species of tree) are:
- Criollo e.g. Madagascar produces 100% criollo beans. Coming from the oldest species of cocoa tree, these complex and subtle flavoured beans are highly prized. They are not very disease-resistant and so are expensive.
- Forastero beans, mainly grown in Africa, produce very ‘chocolatey’, but very ‘one-note’, chocolate. They are very disease-resistant and so are planted much more widely. Therefore these beans supply over 70% of the world’s chocolate.
- Trinitario beans – a blended species of Criollo and Forastero, created originally in the Caribbean islands. They contain subtle chocolate notes.
- Nacional or Arriba – a distinct Forastero bean variety from Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, with real depth of flavour.
Fermentation of Cocoa Beans
After growers have harvested cocoa pods from their trees, they remove the pulpy raw cocoa beans. They place these in large fermentation boxes, where natural yeasts start to ferment them. Growers typically ferment beans for 8 to 13 days. They then remove the beans from the fermentation boxes to start a week-long process of drying in the sun.
Throughout all this, a knowledgeable plantation owner will make sure the beans are turned so they ferment and dry evenly, and none start to germinate. Fermenting and sun-drying ensures that the ‘raw’ pulpy beans from the pod won’t rot, and will remain stable for years.
The grower grades the dried beans, which chocolate makers then either buy direct, or through an agent.
Conner told me that, like many of the best bean-to-bar chocolate makers, Mayhawk mainly purchase beans through ‘direct-trade’. This, he says, ensures that all the money goes to the co-operative or owner. Meanwhile, ‘fair-trade’ involves a middle man taking a cut from the grower.
Mayhawk also won’t buy beans from continental African countries. That’s in part because child slave labour is still used in many countries to harvest them. And also in part because they’re not the best quality or species variety that they look for.
Whatever is being used to sweeten the chocolate is added as the cocoa beans are ground down. It’s often icing/confectioners’ sugar, from cane or sugar beet sources. But Conner told me that the best chocolate makers use unrefined, or minimally-processed cane sugars, with a coarser grain.
Meanwhile, chocolate makers focusing on health benefits will also use alternative sweeteners to cane sugar. It’s not uncommon now to see bars made with stevia, for instance, instead of sugar. And this bar I also happened to have around the house has been ground with coconut blossom sugar!
Conner told me that which sweetener is used is one of the biggest influencers of differences in how chocolate tastes. For instance, uniquely he makes his own maple sugar inhouse from Grade A maple syrup from sustainable Canadian forests. The syrup contains B vitamins and antioxidants, which Conner believes makes its high cost well worth it. It also has medium-carb content compared to processed cane sugar. Mayhawk’s 73% dark maple bar, made with single-estate Trinidadian cocoa beans, is one of their bars sweetened with maple – instead of cane – sugar.
Most chocolate – including dark – includes at least 5% cocoa butter as part of its declared total cocoa mass. This makes it less viscous and runnier, so aiding manipulation by the chocolatier. It can also provide a smoother flavour balance in some bars that otherwise would be overly bitter. I tasted some cocoa butter and it had a faint cocoa taste. It was otherwise almost flavourless, feeling very heavily greasy as it melted on my tongue.
Cocoa nibs (cracked, winnowed and roasted cocoa beans) are approximately 53% cocoa butter and 47% dry cocoa powder. To make cocoa butter they have to be pressed. Manufacturers use many tonnes of pressure to separate pure cocoa butter from the cocoa powder. (Cocoa powder is used e.g. in manufacturing drinking chocolate). Clearly then, small batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers cannot make their own cocoa butter. It’s usually the one industrially-made ingredient they’re forced to buy.
The beauty trade also competes to buy what cocoa butter is commercially available (as a moisturiser). This means the trade-price increases, and demand out-runs supply. So producers of cheaper chocolate often now use cheaper substitute ingredients instead of cocoa butter. These include Shea butter, palm oil or (hydrogenated) vegetable fats.
So cocoa butter prices have impacted majorly on how mass-produced chocolate is now made. Conner believes that it’s become the single biggest issue in why unhealthy chocolate has become so prevalent. And today, a massive industry exists just to make cocoa butter substitutes for the chocolate trade.
Milks added as ingredients in milk chocolate are usually in powdered form. They can come in full-fat or reduced-fat varieties, just like liquid milk.
Chocolate makers must include cocoa butter – or vegetable oil, or other cocoa butter substitutes – as ingredients in chocolate to even out the coarseness of milk powder grains.
Emulsifiers as ingredients in chocolate
Many chocolate makers, including good quality ones, include soya lecithin as ingredients in chocolate. They use it as an emulsifier to aid handling during chocolate making, and to bind all the ingredients together. But skilled chocolate making, especially at the tempering stage, can make the use of emulsifiers unnecessary.
Soya is a potential allergen. Food manufacturers must highlight it as such on product labels (at least in the UK). Therefore, some chocolate makers have started using vegetable lecithins instead. For example, Hotel Chocolat – a (partially) tree-to-bar UK company – have started using sunflower lecithin in some of their range.
Meanwhile some chocolate makers like Mayhawk use no emulsifiers at all. Once again Mayhawk say this is because they aim for natural simplicity for their ingredients in chocolate.
The best craft chocolate includes all natural, whole ingredients as flavourings. Conner even grows some of his own flavour ingredients on the farm where his factory is situated. These include chillies, and herbs like rosemary. (Incidentally, I found rosemary an unusual chocolate pairing. To me, Mayhawk’s rosemary chocolate smelled floral, and tasted like gin and tonic.)
Flavour ‘essences’, used by some chocolate manufacturers, are of a much lower quality than natural ingredients. Many essences are artificial, being chemical formulas laboratory-made to resemble the natural ingredients and their flavour compounds.
So there’s a world of difference between using the natural ingredient itself, its extracted oils, or a chemical essence. Mayhawk is again an example of the best bean-to-bar companies that use only natural ingredients or natural extracted oils, never essences.
The difference in taste between the absolutely best bars and mediocre ones is definitely down to quality of ingredients in chocolate. But I now realise that it’s also dependent on the stage at which a chocolate maker enters the chocolate making process.
Bean-to-bar chocolate makers can use whole, real ingredients
Some companies calling themselves chocolate makers do not actually make chocolate. Instead they buy-in industrially-made cocoa liquor or coverture. This means they often do not own stone-grinding machines, used to grind cocoa beans during chocolate-making. Without stone-grinding machines, they cannot generally add in any flavour ingredients in chocolate which will leave grittiness when it melts in the mouth. Therefore, they can’t use whole flavour ingredients in chocolate (unless they pressed them into the top of it). Instead they can use only inferior oil extracts, powdered dried herbs/spices, or chemical essences as flavourings.
By contrast, using their stone-grinding machines, bean-to-bar chocolate makers can put natural whole ingredients in chocolate. They can put them in when grinding the cocoa beans. The stone-grinding machines will usually over a few days grind down most ingredients in chocolate to less than 30 microns. So the resultant chocolate tastes smooth, and can have stunning natural flavours.
Sourcing flavour ingredients in craft chocolate
Sourcing of flavour ingredients is also key to making great tasting chocolate. Mayhawk, for instance, source from British manufacturers where possible, if they provide high enough quality. They use Anglesey sea salt, and exotic dried herbs come from the small Steenbergs company in Yorkshire. And bees which forage on the same farm as Mayhawk’s factory in the Forest of Dean provide the raw ingredient for Aylburton honey used in their chocolates.
An illustration of how these differences manifest themselves came when I tasted Mayhawk’s 70% Coffee Chocolate Bar. I adore good quality coffee, but I don’t usually like coffee chocolate, so I was surprised to find I really like Mayhawk’s. To me, it has notes of a good quality cup of espresso, and smells like coffee Matchmakers did when I was a child. I realise now that’s possibly as those were at that time still made with real coffee.
Mayhawk make their bar with single-estate cocoa beans from Trinidad. These are stone-ground with coffee beans from the Jamaican Blue Mountain which they’ve roasted themselves. But chocolate makers do not usually made coffee-flavoured chocolate this intensive way. Instead, most companies use artificial coffee essence. It’s a revelation that this is most probably why I’ve generally disliked coffee chocolate. And it’s a brilliant example of the difference in quality that good chocolate ingredients make over cheap ones!