From Bean-To-Bar & Beyond: 5. What’s New in Chocolate: ‘Raw’ & ‘Virgin’ Chocolate

From Bean-to-Bar & Beyond 5. What's new in chocolate: raw and virgin chocolate

Against the backdrop of a growing raw food movement, I regularly now see raw chocolate on shop shelves alongside regular chocolate. That is, at least in health food stores in big cities.

But what exactly is ‘raw’ chocolate? What on earth is ‘virgin’ chocolate?!! And where can you buy them? Find out in this next post in this week’s miniseries about what’s new in chocolate.

I have not been paid by any companies to write this post. And as always, I make clear wherever views stated are not my own.

Raw Chocolate. Cocoa Beans at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica
Cocoa Beans at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica, which I visited in 2011

‘Raw’ Chocolate

What is raw chocolate?

You may well already have come across what’s described as ‘raw’ chocolate in the shops. It’s been around for a few years, although it’s still only a small part of the overall chocolate market.

But what is raw chocolate? And how does it differ from regular chocolate?

Well, to understand all that, you need to know just a tiny amount about two steps in how chocolate is made. (And I’ve also written a whole article about how chocolate is made if you’re interested to know more).

First, you need to know that growers always ferment cocoa beans just after harvesting. They do this whether or not the beans will eventually be used to make raw or regular chocolate. Fermentation is triggered by the white, sugary pulp which naturally surrounds the beans in healthy cocoa pods. It creates flavour precursors in the cocoa beans, so they can start developing their unique flavour profiles. And the type of cocoa bean, their country and region of cultivation, and climate etc, all influence those flavour profiles.

Second you need to know that, later in the process, chocolate makers roast cocoa beans destined for regular chocolate. But they do not roast cocoa beans destined for raw chocolate.

Roasting is one of the main processes for removing natural tannins, acids and off-flavours which can give chocolate an undesirable taste. It also starts the Malliard reaction in the beans, which gives regular chocolate a more caramelised flavour.

So the name ‘raw’ is usually applied to chocolate that’s been made from cocoa beans which have been fermented, but not roasted. Meanwhile for regular chocolate, the beans have been both fermented and roasted.

Raw Chocolate. Fermentation crates for cocoa beans at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica, that I visited in 2011
Cocoa beans in fermentation boxes at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica, that I visited in 2011

So is ‘raw’ chocolate actually ‘raw?’

In a word, no. Or at least not by the standards applied in the raw food community.

More widely – and although the precise temperature is controversial – food is generally considered ‘raw’ if it hasn’t been heated above 42ºC (107ºF). Over that temperature, enzymes start to break down, and food starts to lose nutrients, such as fragile vitamin C. The precise temperature at which enzymes and vitamins start to break down differs between individual foods

Therefore, purists rightly argue that chocolate made from cocoa that’s been fermented cannot technically be called ‘raw’. That’s because cocoa beans can reach temperatures as high as 50ºC during fermentation. That is, a temperature that’s higher than the 42ºC cut off point for ‘raw’ food.

All this means that the more correct term for what is known as ‘raw’ chocolate is actually ‘unroasted’ chocolate. Nevertheless, ‘raw’ chocolate is the name you’ll almost always find used.

Forever Cacao Raw Chocolate Company

In September last year I had a fantastic time at the fabulous, authoritative and prestigious Abergavenny Food Festival. While I was there I attended a Chocolate Curiosities masterclass run by chocolatier Demarquette Fine Chocolates.

During their masterclass, Demarquette talked about raw chocolate as being an up and coming innovation. And they chose to highlight the UK company Forever Cacao, which exclusively makes raw bean-to-bar chocolate, as being an exemplar in how it’s done.

Forever Cacao state their aim as being to bring raw chocolate up to the standard of the best regular (roasted) bean-to-bar chocolate.

They use unroasted Criollo i.e. the most highly prized, cocoa beans, cultivated by the ancient Ashaninka community in the Satipo region of Peru. Indeed, part of their ethical mission is to safeguard these heirloom cocoa strains; to buy direct and pay a higher price for quality; and to protect endangered Amazon rainforest.

Forever Cacao say that their raw chocolate, made entirely with natural ingredients, is free from dairy, gluten, palm oil & soya. It’s handmade in Wales, UK, undergoes minimal processing, and is conched at ‘raw’ temperatures no higher than 42ºC.

In choosing to make only raw chocolate, Forever Cacao’s intention is to draw out myriad new flavours, while retaining those antioxidants occurring naturally in unroasted cocoa.

Their 72% Raw Ashaninka Bean-to-Bar won Silver at 2016’s International Chocolate Awards. So, although I haven’t tasted it myself, if you live in the UK and you want to try raw chocolate, then that bar might not be a bad one to start with. In any case, Forever Cacao’s whole range is readily available from their online shop.

Raw Chocolate. Forever Cacao's 72% Raw Ashaninka Bean-to-Bar chocolate
Forever Cacao’s 72% Raw Ashaninka Bean-to-Bar. Photo credit: Forever Cacao

What’s the difference between ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’?

Mentioning Forever Cacao might be a good point at which to discuss quickly the differences between the words ‘cocoa’ and ‘cacao’.

The Engish-speaking world has derived the word ‘cocoa’ from the Spanish word ‘cacao’. And that had originally been derived from the Nahuatl/Aztec word ‘cacahuatl’.

Therefore – and as confirmed by Conner, owner of the UK bean-to-bar Mayhawk Company which I visited last month – the words ‘cocoa’ and ‘cacao’ traditionally meant the same thing. And he assured me that they are still understood as synonymous, and used interchangeably, in the chocolate trade.

For that reason, and for simplicity’s sake, unless I’ve been quoting a brand name in which the word ‘cacao’ appears, I’ve just used the word ‘cocoa’ throughout all my ‘From Bean-to-Bar & Beyond’ chocolate articles.

But you should also be aware that the word ‘cacao’ tends these days to be used to designate raw or unroasted cocoa. Meanwhile the word ‘cocoa’ tends to be used for the roasted product. So even though, technically, the words mean the same thing, when shopping etc, you’ll want to be aware of the modern/marketing distinction that has evolved.

Raw Chocolate. Costa Rican cocoa beans, Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica,
Costa Rican cocoa beans at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica, which I visited in 2011

Raw Chocolate and Health

In a post coming soon I’m going to summarise for you what the latest objective science says on the health benefits of raw vs. regular chocolate. So that’s not covered fully here. But for now, here’s just a quick summary of what Forever Cacao say on their website:

Nutrition facts as yet unchecked by me as at March 2018:  Forever Cacao say that, according to ‘some scientific research’, raw chocolate has a wide array of unique health-giving properties. They say these include being rich in flavonol antioxidants; providing an important dietary source of magnesium; and containing natural mood elevators and antidepressants such as dopamine and serotonin.

Forever Cacao conclude that raw chocolate is much more potent than widely available regular chocolate. And they suggest that because their chocolate does not contain refined sugar or dairy products, this means that these ingredients are not there to ‘block’ the positive effects of the raw cocoa.

Raw Chocolate. Raaka Virgin Chocolate from the US
Raaka Virgin Chocolate from the US. Photo credit: Raaka Chocolate

‘Virgin’ Chocolate

The Raaka Chocolate Company, Brooklyn, NY, US

When talking about raw chocolate, I was massively intrigued by the US Raaka company that Conner at Mayhawk mentioned to me in passing. That’s because they make what they call ‘virgin’ chocolate. So I looked into them.

I found that Raaka are based in Brooklyn. They make bean-to-bar ‘virgin’ chocolate, paying well over the commodity market price for high quality ‘fine flavour’ cocoa beans sourced from well-run cooperatives in different countries such as Bolivia.

So what is Virgin Chocolate?

It seems that Raaka’s virgin chocolate is essentially the same as what is known as raw chocolate. That is, they make it from beans that have been fermented but not roasted. The difference in Raaka’s approach is that they don’t chose to call it ‘raw’ – because as we have seen above, actually it isn’t! And they go to some lengths to explain why that’s not so.

Despite, their chocolate being minimally processed, Raaka are explicit that what it is is not raw, but ‘unroasted’. That’s despite the word ‘raaka’ meaning ‘raw’ in the Finnish language! They explain that they picked their name because they liked the cadence of the word.

Raaka explain about their cocoa beans reaching temperatures beyond raw during their fermentation (see above). And they also make clear that their cocoa nibs will reach higher temperatures of up to 54ºC-60ºC or 130ºF-140ºF during grinding.

It’s because their chocolate is neither raw nor roasted, that Raaka have coined the name ‘virgin’. Raaka intend the name to encapsulate a sense of culinary purity and quality, as that word does when applied e.g. to olive oil.

Raaka believe that leaving out roasting smooths out flavour in chocolate, while preserving the beans’ native personalities. That way, they say, they achieve their mission of making chocolate that tastes more like cocoa beans.

If you live in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan or Finland, then you can buy Raaka’s virgin chocolate from their online shop. Sadly I won’t be trying it anytime soon as they don’t ship to the UK!

IQ Chocolate's range of raw chocolate bars.
IQ Chocolate’s range of raw chocolate bars. Photo Credit: IQ Chocolate

Which other companies sell raw chocolate? Where do I buy it in my country?

If you want to try other companies’ chocolate, or you live outside the countries mentioned above that Forever Cacao and Raaka cater for, then I suggest you could start your search for raw chocolate in health food stores.

In London, UK, for instance, I’ve easily found many different types and flavours of raw chocolate in Planet Organic, and in stores that are international chains, such as Wholefoods Market and Holland and Barrett.

Other companies which sell raw chocolate in the UK, and which are ones whose chocolate I particularly rate, include:

IQ Chocolate – make a whole range of raw bars of different flavours at their factory in Scotland, UK. I’ve got a big thing about good quality minty chocolate! So my favourite of IQ’s bars is their Plush Peppermint, made with real peppermint oil.

Ombar – you can even find Ombar’s products in Waitrose supermarket. Aswell as not roasting their cocoa beans, Ombar also say that they do not conch their chocolate. They say that’s at least partly because chocolate can reach temperatures of over 70ºC/158ºF during conching. And by the way, on their website Ombar give a great bit of insight into the obstacles that good raw chocolate makers need to overcome to preserve the quality and integrity of their chocolate.

Mayhawk – hot off the press, the English chocolate-making company Mayhawk have just started selling an unusual 75% cocoa raw bar. But also, most crucially, they have not added to it any sugar or other sweetener. I tried this when I visited Mayhawk’s factory and it really is fantastic. But I’m not going into detail about it here. Instead I’m going to cover the new phenomenon of completely unsweetened chocolate properly in another post later this week.

Mayhawk's SDM75 Raw bar. 75% Sugarfree Dark Milk. Photo Credit: Mayhawk Chocolate
Mayhawk’s SDM75 Raw bar. 75% Sugarfree Dark Milk. Photo Credit: Mayhawk Chocolate

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