Popular Chocolate Terms and What They Actually Mean

Posted on April 04, 2014 by  Lee Mccoy | 0 Comments

Have you read an article and seen some terminology that you don't understand? How about a retailer's website that made all sorts of claims that just seemed a touch odd or misleading? Every industry has their common terms which are open to interpretation. As an introduction there are two terms which are particularly annoying. The first is "artisan". To me, and to the Oxford Dictionary an 'artisan' is someone that is a skilled trade, especially one that makes things by hand'. Guylian once labelled a box of their chocolates in this fashion. The below aims to help you differentiate fact from fiction. 

Companies throwing meaningless phrases around
On the opposite end of the market I recently saw a truly 'artisan' chocolate maker inform everyone that he makes chocolate from the 'finest cocoa beans'. How does he know? Has he tried all cocoa beans in pursuit of that judgement? All we can say is that they're made from 'fine flavour' cocoa beans, but we'll come onto that later. The point is, that every chocolate maker, chocolatier and even retailer makes statements to improve the perception of their products, or to make them appear more exclusive than the chocolate makers. The problem is, many companies I work with truly deserve to have these labels associated with them, they're ethical, produce great quality chocolate. The problem is that they are being tarnished by the actions of less ethical operators.

It's nothing new, it's been happening for hundreds of years
This isn't a new phenomenon, however. Cadbury in the nineteenth century would make chocolate with just 20% cocoa but still used the slogan: 'Absolutely Pure: Therefore Best' - despite reportedly using potato starch, sago and flour
(1). Use of terms to suit individual companies will never change, but if we improve our own education then we can make better chocolate-buying decisions.

The True Glossary of Terms:

The Main Ingredient

Theobroma - we could get very technical on the scientific classification of kingdoms, orders, families, tribes, etc. but Theobroma is a fairly specific genus of plants which also contains Theobroma Bicolor, Theobroma Grandiflora (which we stock 'chocolate' made from). camimanense, obovatum, and many others, but not, of course forgetting: Theobroma Cacao.

Cacao Tree - A cacao tree isn't a homogeneous member of the plant kingdom. Just as with humans there are many different species and historic origins. People too have evolved according to their surroundings and climate, so too cacao trees.

Cacao Pod - this is the large, often colourful, fruit of the cacao tree which can be seen to be visually unique across cocoa varieties. Some will be white, some dark, some yellow, orange and even some reddish.

Cacao Beans - This is the seed of the cacao pod and is the main ingredient in chocolate which is removed from the flesh of the cocoa pod usually on site, amongst the cocoa trees. You can see how cocoa beans are harvested here:

Chocolate Strain - often people who should know better incorrectly state that there are three main strains of cocoa bean: Criollo, Forastero & Trinitario. If any 'expert' states this as fact walk away. There in fact many, including Arriba Nacional, Criollo, Amazon, Amelonado, Beniano, Bicolor, Contamana, Guiana.

Cultivars - this is the awesome bit. Within the larger gene pools there are more specific genetic groups of cacao which are often named after the region where they are found, too many to name, but they include Canoabo, Chuno, Cuyagua, Ocumare, Playa Alta, Sur Del Lago and Trinitario.

The People

Chocolate Maker - this is a term that is most often a source of confusion. A chocolate maker turns cocoa beans into chocolate. This is different to a chocolatier who turns ready-made chocolate into bon bons or remoulds as chocolate. An argument often arises because the one group may feel they're superior to the other. Such generalisations are moot, however. What is important, though, is: do you actually enjoy what they produce? Labels are only important when you converse with others about what you like.

Chocolatier - see: chocolate maker for the distinction.

Barsmith - a fancy term for someone that makes chocolate as an art-form, not only as a means to make money.  This term is an alternative to the often used: 'artisan' which has become so abused that it could mean anything from Guylian to Paul A. Young.

Marketing Speak

Single Origin - this term was covered here. It basically means chocolate made from beans grown in the one country. However, as explained in this post, just because a chocolate is single origin, it doesn't necessarily mean it’s better than a blended chocolate from a number of different origins.

Single Estate - if cacao is grown on a particular estate (plantation/farm), rather than across a country then this generally shows better provenance, but not it is not necessarily a definite determinate of quality. Also it doesn't mean that a chocolate maker owns the estate, as is the case with Åkesson's and Domori, amongst others, it just means they have access to it.

Bean-to-Bar - this simply means that a chocolate maker has purchased cocoa beans and made chocolate them. An example is Duffy, Amano, Fruition, Forever Cacao, etc. This is the main approach that most chocolate makers we retail her take.

Tree-to-Bar - this is generally where a chocolate maker also owns or has direct control of the cacao trees on the plantation, as is the case with Hotel Chocolat in St. Lucia, Menakao in Madagacar, The Grenada Chocolate Co. Claudio Corallo in São Tomé e Príncipe, etc.

Tasting Notes - these are the flavours that the chocolate maker has detected in the chocolate and has offered on their packaging. Some makers provide them as a guide to help people choose the right chocolate for them. 

Fine or Flavour Cacao Beans - the term is very loose which leaves it open to abuse, but can mean a cacao bean with a high % of Criollo genetics.

Bulk Beans - this is the opposite of flavour beans as they are generally high yielding and higher resistance to disease beans that traditionally offer less enjoyable flavour.

Grand Crus - this is often used to distinguish particularly good cacao beans from the rest from an estate.

Limited Edition - a phrase used to denote exclusivity. It doesn't, in itself, denote quality, however, often it actually denotes a bar made from a limited stock of 'fine flavour' cacao beans.

Fairtrade - an expensive to acquire label in which chocolate growers are required to join together to try and gain a price advantage with the expectation that the increased price for their beans outways the hefty price to receive certification. Many consumers have a preference for Fairtrade, when they may not actually know what it means in the sense of cacao production as it differs from coffee.

Ethical - this is a phrase that is very much open to abuse and why we support a truly ethical approach to cacao sourcing by Direct Cacao and its members.

Micro-batch - this is a term used to denote a chocolate made in small quantities and by using fairly small-scale, perhaps even rudimentary equipment. There is no clearly-defined level of production to denote the transition from small batch to large-scale, however. It is also important to note that large companies such as Hotel Chocolat can actually make small or micro batch chocolate amongst their mass-produced stuff (we've visited their micro batch operation and it minuscule, but incredibly interesting). Furthermore, a company such as Askinosie which has often been classed as micro-batch, although their production levels have greatly increased with demand and the term 'micro' may no longer be appropriate - we do, however, still absolutely love their chocolate and their support for 'more than Fairtrade.

Finest beans - this is a term used by chocolate makers who wish to differentiate themselves from larger scale chocolate makers which use bulk beans and those chocolate makers which use fairly standard beans. The difficulty comes in classifying 'finest' as there is no independently governed body which can cross-reference this claim.

The 'Snap' - this is a term used to denote how well the chocolate is produced, given their physical structure . A crisp, clear 'snap' denotes a better made chocolate than a dull sound. This, obviously will also depend on how much fats there are in the chocolate, as milkier chocolate will have a less pronounced sound. 

On the Packaging

Cocoa Percentage - as a child my mother used to say that the higher the % on the label, the better the chocolate. She was obviously wrong. All that number on the packaging indicates is the amount of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter (perhaps even cocoa powder) present in the chocolate i.e. the amount of product fruit of the cacao in the chocolate. If a chocolate indicated as being 70% then around 30% of the rest may be sugar, although it could contain vanilla etc. There is a whole methodology set down by the EU parliament on this which manufacturers have to stick to, and us retailers have to ensure is available on the packaging.

Cocoa Butter - this is the fat that is pressed out of a main part of a cocoa bean after it has been dried and roasted. It is usually solid at room temperature and looks yellowish and feels waxy. It can be difficult to work with given its physical composition and that's why it requires great skill to create chocolate with the desired texture and consistency. The creation of  processes to work with cocoa butter in the 19th century saw the chocolate making industry move forward in leaps and bounds - most noticeably the Ghirardelli in 1864, and Van Houten in 1815

Cocoa Nibs - when the cocoa beans have been fermented, dried, roasted, and the shells removed they can be crushed into small pieces and turned into 'cocoa nibs'. These are more acidic than traditional chocolate, but often have a delightful flavour.

Lecithin - this is a type of fat-like substance which is used during the chocolate making process which allows fats to form stable suspensions with non-fats. It helps with the viscosity of the chocolate. Personally I prefer chocolate not to contain it and some have said damning things about soya lecithin, also their are EU laws stating how much lecithin can present in chocolate.


The Chocolate Making Process

Fermentation - after the seeds have been removed from the pods and the intensive production process has begun, the cocoa beans, along with some surrounding pulp are then covered with leaves, along with their bacteria, whilst being either stored in wooden boxes or on the ground. The temperature rises, the bacteria and mucilage react and then liquefies in to alcohol and then drains off. The length of time the beans are left to ferment will depend on the varietal of cacao bean as some, such as Criollo, will ferment more quickly than others. As the sugars are acted upon during fermentation air is allowed into the bean and a second fermentation takes place. This is an absolutely essential process in the production of chocolate and is a massive determinant in the final flavour you experience. It is vital, therefore, that particular attention is taken with this part of the process.

Conching - this process works out many of the acids with a roller found in the roasted cocoa beans and thus directly affects the final flavour profile when the length of time the chocolate is conched for. The process heats up the chocolate mass to also reduces the amount of water found in the chocolate and allows the fatty acids to form crystals and begins the process of giving chocolate the luscious texture.

You can see a conch in operation here:

Roasting - after cocoa beans have been fermented, dried then comes the roasting process. The exact length of time the beans will be roasted and at what temperature is dependent on the type of beans used and the exact effect the chocolate maker/roaster wants to achieve.

You can see Art Pollard roast his beans below:

Chocolate Liquor - when the cocoa beans have been processed and separated from the ground cacao mass, chocolate liquor is formed.

Tempering - this is the process of warming, stirring and cooling chocolate to form the desired crystal structure to give the desired melt, mouth-feel and 'snap'. This is a highly skilled process.

Dutch Process (Dutching) - a process devised by a Dutch chemist, Van Houten, to use an alkali agent to remove much of the fatty content from chocolate 'cake' (a state of the chocolate during the making process).

Types of Chocolate

Couverture - this is ready made chocolate that a chocolatier or confectioner would use to produce chocolates such as ganaches or pralines. Some chocolatiers would also melt, temper and remould this chocolate and then wrap and sell.

Dark Chocolate - this doesn't necessarily have anything to do with cocoa % you would see on a chocolate's wrapper as Zotter sell a 70% milk chocolate bar. Dark chocolate is solely the absence of milk-based ingredients such as dried milk powder. It will contain cocoa butter and, if it is not 100% chocolate, will contain sugar. It may also contain soya lecithin or vanilla (hopefully not).

Milk Chocolate - on a very basic level, it is dark chocolate, as described above, but with milk products added.

White Chocolate - this is generally a product made from sugar, cocoa butter, some sort of milk solid(s), milk fat and vanilla.  Many purists will (rightly) say that this isn't actually chocolate.

Cocoa Powder - this is the product after the fat is removed from the chocolate liquor to form 'cocoa cake'. It is then ground to form the particles of powder. The level of cocoa butter left in the powder will be different by manufacturer. The US regulations state this this can be from 10-22%, however, for example, Domori's Cacao in Polvere has 22% to 24%.

Raw Chocolate - this is a term used to denote chocolate made from unroasted cocoa beans. The issue is that during the conching process the temperature the cocoa liquor reaches is way above a level where the acids are affected, hence, there are many in the industry which views this type of chocolate with scepticism.

Extra-bitter - another term that has no specific meaning. It is generally viewed to be chocolate that is more intense than normal. My own perception is that this is chocolate at over 80% - but even that is an arbitrary level as you can have chocolate at 75% which is more bitter than that at 85%

Bittersweet - a pointless phrase with no-specific meaning.

Unsweetened - essentially that, it is just cocoa solids.


1 - Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage Louis E. Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro, 2011, pg. 615

What is Italian Chocolate Like?

How Do You Choose The Perfect Bar of Chocolate?

Leave a Reply

Comments have to be approved before showing up.

Recent Articles

Most Popular Articles