A big goal of ours here at Potomac Chocolate Co. is to bring you, our friends and readers, along on our chocolate-making journey and to provide information that will help you to wring the most enjoyment out of chocolate.
A lot of people have never had fine chocolate and so may not know what to expect or how it’s different from ‘normal’ chocolate. So, I’ve been wanting to write this blog entry for a while as a way of discussing some of those differences.
My conversion to the dark side
For as long as I can remember, Mars’ masterpiece of fluffy chocolate simplicity, the 3-Musketeers bar, was my chocolate of choice. My go-to bar, I’ve eaten countless hundreds (thousands?) 3-Musketeers. I know its history–there used to be three bars, one each of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, but everyone just liked the chocolate one; I remember when they switched from the older-style red, white and blue wrapper to the current silver wrapper.
The wrapper change came when I was in middle school. They updated the wrapper to highlight that there was now more chocolate. I was convinced that the older version was better. So my mom and I drove around to find somewhere still selling the old style so we could compare. I was right! The new version just made the chocolate shell thicker which messed up the balance between nougat and shell. I always wished they’d make a 3-Musketeers Classic or something.
See? I was a serious connoisseur. 🙂 I never liked the ‘good’ chocolate that people raved about–typically, I thought it was too creamy compared to what I was used to. Also, I hated–I mean absolutely loathed–dark chocolate.
So, when my brother Brett and his wife, my sister-in-law Angela said they wanted to hold a fine chocolate tasting for the family, I was sceptical. I went into the tasting with an open mind, but pretty sure that their excitement and love for great chocolate would be wasted on me.
Obviously, I was wrong. I had never tasted chocolate like this before–pure, dark and filled with subtle (and some not-so-subtle) nuanced flavor. We learned a little of the history of chocolate and how to evaluate and taste chocolate. After several bars, we tried a good ol’ Hershey bar. It was quite a shock, as it bore almost no resemblance to chocolate and tasted mostly like a chemical marshmallow.
Anyway, I’ll get back to the chocolate in a second. First, the epilogue to my long and storied history with 3-Musketeers.
So, after the tasting, I waited a full 4 weeks before trying a 3-Musketeers. I had no other fine chocolate since that tasting and figured 4 weeks gave my mouth plenty of time to forget the good stuff. I couldn’t choke down half of it. All I could taste was sickly sweetness and a faint chemical flavor.
It was my last 3-Musketeers bar. I’ve been a fine chocolate guy ever since. 🙂
Fine vs. ‘Normal Chocolate’
So, what is the difference between fine or bean-to-bar chocolate and ‘normal’ or mass-produced chocolate? I think that the main difference, and the one that all of the other differences come from, is found in the goals of the chocolate makers. The goal of most chocolate makers is to make a piece of candy that can be made consistently and inexpensively. The goal of a fine/bean-to-bar chocolate maker is to make chocolate that brings out those subtle flavors already in the variety of cocoa bean they’re working with.
To achieve the dual goals of consistency and low cost production, mass-produced chocolate makers employ huge machines making thousands of pounds of chocolate at a time. To keep costs down, they use lower-quality beans that are less expensive and less flavorful. These beans also tend to be very bitter and can vary a lot in flavor depending on where in the world they were produced. To overcome these problems, the chocolate makers drown the beans in sugar, chemicals and vanillin, which is synthetic vanilla.
Like a wine grape, the flavor of a cocoa bean is affected by the environment in which it grows, absorbing flavors from the ground. Instead of trying to mask the natural flavor of the cocoa bean, fine bean-to-bar chocolate makers try to bring it out. To do this, they start with high-quality beans. These beans are generally more flavorful and less bitter, and therefore more expensive than what the mass-produced makers use. Starting with the roasting of the beans, every step in the process is fine-tuned to bring out and highlight these natural flavors.
Since a lot of sugar, chemicals and other ingredients would blunt these sometimes delicate flavors, fine chocolate generally has very few ingredients. Some of my favorite bars are made of only cocoa beans and sugar, while others also add additional cocoa butter, whole vanilla bean and soy lecithin, an emulsifier.
Through this intensive, artisan approach to chocolate making, fine chocolate makers are able to craft chocolate that is completely different from anything I had ever tried before. This craftsmanship is evident in the nice shine, crisp snap and complex flavor filled with notes of fruit, earthiness, pure rich cocoa, or even weirder stuff like banana leaves and various spices. And all from nothing more than cocoa beans and sugar!
Fine chocolate is really incredible stuff! I’m really excited to be learning this craft and to start working towards our first bar!