Artisan chocolate when I was a child was the sort that you could find on the top shelf of the confectionery aisle in Tesco’s. Well I thought Lindt and Green & Blacks were artisans – perhaps they were compared to the omnipresent Cadbury’s and Nestle. Today, with thanks to the introduction of the EU Fortnum and Mason, Selfridges, Waitrose and the odd boutique will stretch to Pralus and Venchi. Although that’s certainly an improvement, there is a wide world of utterly fantastic chocolate which unfortunately goes unnoticed by all but the most inquisitive of chocolate connoisseurs.
There are many self-styled artisan chocolate makers
Artisan chocolate is an over-used phrase. It can mean two things depending if the word chocolate is plural or not. Artisan chocolates are made by highly-talented people typically using couverture – chocolate they haven’t made but melt, temper and form into various filled chocolate or add flavouring to make chocolate bars. Without the ‘s’, I would contend, lie the small-scale (typically called small or micro-batch) chocolate makers. These chocolate makers take the cocoa bean; go through the entire chocolate making process of roasting, winnowing, milling, pressing, conching, tempering, moulding and packaging. To me, this is where the real art lies. When you look at a bar of chocolate and see ‘artisan chocolate’ written please do have a look at the ingredients and tasting notes and make up your own mind.
Tinker, tailor, chocolate maker
These people are what are called ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate makers. They tinker, experiment with various roasting lengths, conching times, try different equipment and reconfigure the whole chocolate making process to suit their own style. Some may prefer have the cocoa nibs stone-ground instead of using steel which is a more modern process. This all affects the end product as grinding not only makes produces smaller particles small enough for later stages of the chocolate making process, but also to remove as much fat as possible from the structure of the nib to coat the cell surfaces. Artisan or craft chocolate makes understand each bean variant and origin and tweak their process dials accordingly. They typically don’t operate a ‘one size fits all’ approach as the largest chocolate makers appear to do. With such volumes they simply can’t give as much attention to detail.
In recent years the likes of Hershey have bought up small-scale chocolate makers to muscle in on the market. To me when that happens the soul of the company is lost and the raison raison d’être is no longer to make awesome chocolate while improving the world and become the desire to simply make yet more money.
Blood, sweat & tears
For craft bean-to-bar companies the chocolate making process can be an arduous one. Some I know have ‘wasted’ significant volumes of cocoa bean trying to get the right flavour profiles and textures. This experimentation takes a great deal of time and energy. But it’s this emotional expenditure that can be tasted in the chocolate they make. For me at least, you can get a far more wonderful and intense experience from enjoying a bar of artisan bean-to-bar chocolate than that is the case when that bar is one of several hundred thousand produced. Many of the bars that pass through this shop or that I have reviewed are micro-batch where they may produce as few as five hundred to a couple of thousand bars at most.
However, you’re not only paying more for a more flavoursome, bar of chocolate made by true craftsmen, but you’re also trying chocolate that comes from beans that the big chocolate makers don’t get hold off. Most artisan chocolate makers have strong links with the local cacao tree growers and farm owners. They’re able to source small harvests of beans and create chocolate with a tailored process to make the most of the individual characteristics of the bean. Over the past few years some of the world’s historically finest cocoa beans have been acquired by larger commercial enterprises and this has pushed artisan chocolate makers to pursue more original beans from smaller-scale and remote estates. They’ve been forced to innovate and you can benefit from those more obscure, flavoursome beans.
Giving more back to communities
Without wanting to make sweeping generalisations; small-scale chocolate makers typically pay more for their cocoa beans and those that grow and harvest them also get more than from the multinational companies with shareholders to please. Artisan bean-to-bar chocolate makers are truly passionate not only about the bean, but those that are responsible for growing and harvesting it. They go beyond FairTrade, and pay a higher price than the market would dictate as they understand the toil going into making chocolate from the very first time a new cacao tree is planted and more mature ones tendered.
The whole sustainability of the chocolate industry is key to the business of artisan chocolate makers, and while they can’t fund large scale agricultural initiatives, they can help at the micro level. There is an extra cost to keep the small plantations and farms going and that appears in the price you pay for your unique chocolate. Every bar you buy from most small-scale bean-to-bar chocolate makers goes towards supporting the hyper-local economies of some of the world’s more fragile economies.
What’s more artisan chocolate makers are willing to produce chocolate that isn’t constrained by the types of chocolate that highly-paid marketers instruct us to buy. You’re unlikely to find the rustic style chocolate of Manufaktura Czekolady in any supermarket, nor are you likely to find anything as expensive as Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé or chocolate from a company as socially beneficial as Naive. Doing something different and original costs, and there just isn’t enough money in it for the high-street shops.
Supermarkets and department stores may be good for bread, milk and £100 jumpers you don’t need, but when it comes to flavoursome chocolate that improves the world? Probably not.
If you would like to go one step further you could lend $25 or more to those that produce cocoa beans in the developing world via Kiva. At the time of writing you can make a difference to 19 people wishing for support for their cocoa based business.