Bars and bonbons, dark and milk, single-origin and small-batch, Mexican and Vietnamese: The world of chocolate is vast and fascinating. With this A-to-Z survey, explore it in all its delicious variety
WE LOVE chocolate, and we think we know it well. But our understanding is undergoing an evolutionary leap, keeping pace with innovations in the way this edible luxury is sourced and sold worldwide. These changes have the potential to bring us more delicious chocolate and to improve the lives of the people who produce it.
Grown in a narrow band around the equator, cacao is a pod-shaped tropical fruit containing bitter seeds that, once processed, become cocoa and chocolate. The crop is the basis of a global industry currently growing at a rate of about 7% per year and expected to reach over $161 billion in revenue by 2024, according to Zion Market Research.
With a botanical name—Theobroma cacao—that translates as “food of the gods,” the plant is grown by smallholder farmers based mostly in West Africa, Indonesia and throughout Latin America. The crop is loosely divided into two categories: bulk varieties grown for high yield, sold on the commodity market, that end up in conventional candy bars; and fine or “flavor” cacao destined for more specialized chocolates.
While the former sort of confection dominates the market, a smaller industry dedicated to foregrounding the unique flavors the crop has to offer—typically referred to as “fine,” “bean-to-bar,” “small batch,” “artisanal” or “craft”—is on the rise. Craft chocolate makers tease out the immense range of scents and tastes found in different cacao varieties around the world; whereas consistency has historically been the goal of mass-produced chocolate, here, diversity and complexity are the selling points. Cocoa has more aroma compounds than wine, and flavors ranging from fruity and floral to nutty and herbaceous. A chocolate will have a different character depending on whether it’s produced in, say, Cameroon or Hawaii, and also thanks to specific practices employed along its journey to market.
Without farmers, there is no chocolate—no molten lava cake, no fudgy gelato—yet the economics for them can be harsh. A 2017 study from the French Development Agency and chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut found that farmers in Ivory Coast (the world’s largest producer of cacao) earn roughly $1 per day, below the World Bank threshold for absolute poverty. By supporting the craft industry’s efforts to source directly from farmers and pay a premium for higher-quality, diverse and delicious cocoa, we can help grow a robust market for farmers, makers and chocolate lovers.
This guide is a celebration of chocolate—of where it comes from, who grows it and the sensory experiences held within its wrappers. You’ll find tools for understanding aroma; resources for baking and chocolate making; explanations of the ways in which origins and certifications impact the end price and product; and, best of all, cocoa in sundry forms, from nibs and chips to butters, bars, truffles and bonbons. By sampling chocolate in its many manifestations, learning its long history and supporting the people and regions that produce it, we can ensure a steady and infinitely varied supply of excellent chocolate for many seasons to come.
A is for Aroma
Cocoa has over 600 volatile aroma compounds. This kit’s 24 vials contain the key notes to know. Les Arômes du Chocolat aroma kit, $250, projetchocolat.com
B is for Butter
Sustainably sourced cocoa butters from Mountain Rose Herbs retain a heady cocoa scent. Organic Roasted Cocoa Butter, $10 for 8 ounces, mountainroseherbs.com
C is for Chuncho
Peruvian maker Maraná pays a premium to indigenous farmers for native Chuncho cocoa from the Cusco region. Cusco Dark 100% Bar, $9 for 70 grams, chocosphere.com
D is for Dark Milk
Try a spicy version of the bar the International Chocolate Awards named world’s best. Friis Holm O’Payo Milk Sansho Pepper 50%, $20 for 100 grams, caputos.com
E is for Educated Palate
Read “Cocoa” by Kristy Leissle (Wiley), “Chocolate Nations” by Órla Ryan (Zed Books) and “The True History of Chocolate” by Sophie and Michael D. Coe (Thames & Hudson)
G is for Ghana
The crop from Ghana, the second-largest global producer, is the touchstone for cocoa flavor. Pralus Ghana 75% Bulk Squares 50-Square Bag, $24, chocosphere.com
H is for Hazelnut
Nutella is the best-known version of the choco-hazelnut treat gianduja; this artisanal take is a cut above. SOMA Tube-Gianduja, $25 for 18-inch tube, somachocolate.com
I is for Intense
These single-origin discs of white, milk, and dark cocoa heighten holiday baking. Cacao Master Chef Baking & Eating Chocolate Set, $52, cacaodrinkchocolate.com
J is for Jammy
Madagascan cocoa offers strawberry-jam and citrus notes. Ritual Chocolate Madagascar Drinking Chocolate 70%, $17 for 8 ounces, ritualchocolate.com
L is for Latin America
Here, a top authority on chocolate and Latin American cuisines shares many cocoa-based recipes. “Gran Cocina Latina” by Maricel E. Presilla (W.W. Norton & Company)
M is for Molinillo
Artist Arteollin Alonso crafts beautiful takes on the Aztec tool for frothing cocoa drinks, available via the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. From $50, chocolateinstitute.org
N is for Non-Cow
For those who avoid dairy, Charm School Chocolate’s coconut-milk offerings are rich substitutes. Vanilla Cappuccino Crunch, $14 for 5.5 ounces, charmschoolchocolate.com
O is for Origin
The taste of place pervades this bar of celebrated Venezuelan Criollo cacao. Escazú Patanemo, Venezuela 80% Dark Chocolate, $8 for 80 grams, barandcocoa.com
P is for Percentage
A higher cacao count means less sugar, more flavor. This nuanced bar is a case in point. Bachelor’s Hall, Jamaica 85% Dark, $18 for 2 ounces, letterpresschocolate.com
Q is for Quality
Eric Parkes of Somerville Chocolate tempers and molds his unique bars by hand. Hops Infused Dark Milk Chocolate, $9 for 2.5 ounces, somervillechocolate.com
R is for Restore
The source for this bar, Zorzal Cacao in the Dominican Republic, supports reforestation. Raaka Chocolate Green Tea Crunch, $6 for 1.8 ounces, raakachocolate.com
S is for Subscription
Cococlectic’s monthly bean-to-bar box gives a platform to smaller chocolate makers. Each elegant package includes flavor notes and a tasting guide. From $38, cococlectic.com
T is for Tea
As part of its zero-waste initiative, Videri Chocolate Factory uses cocoa bean shells in an infusion with a green-tea-like lift. Cocoa Tea, $12 for ½ pound, viderichocolatefactory.com
U is for Umami
Rogue Creamery cheese meets almonds and milk chocolate in these salty-sweet truffles. Lillie Belle Farms Smokey Blue Cheese Truffles, $25 for 12, lilliebellefarms.com
V is for Varieties
Save endangered cocoa breeds by savoring them, including this rare cocoa from Tanzania. Original Beans Cru Udzungwa 70% With Nibs, $8 for 70 grams, barandcocoa.com
W is for White Chocolate
Castronovo Chocolate’s white bar balances sweet, salt and citrus. White Chocolate Infused With Lemon Oil and Lemon Salt, $11 for 2.2 ounces, castronovochocolate.com
X is for Xocolatl
Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate is a nod to cacao’s Mesoamerican roots. The Baker’s Box includes nibs, vanilla-cacao extract and a chile-spice mix. $64, xocolatlchocolate.com
Y is for Year
Askinosie Chocolate shares profits with farmers and is transparent around pricing. “A Year Of Chocolate” Collection, $100 for 12 bars plus natural cocoa powder, askinosie.com
Z is for Za’atar
Pistachios With Za’atar and Orange Spice from Fruition Chocolate Works display founder Bryan Graham’s culinary chops. $10 for 4 ounces, fruitionchocolateworks.com
CHOCOLATE 101 / Combine the Elements Above For a Deeper Understanding of Global Trade Factors, Unpredictable Flavors or Hands-On Fun
Percentage + Fairer + Origin
APPETIZING AWARENESS: The array of chocolates currently available can be dizzying. When deciding what to reach for, look for details on percentage and origin, certifications such as Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade, and direct-trade designations. These indicate the attention makers pay to people who produce the cacao and regions where it’s grown.
Jammy + Non-Cow + Umami
THREE-PART TASTE QUEST: To explore the continuum of flavor, begin with a complex, fruity cocoa from Madagascar. Then consider how other ingredients—such as the coconut milk that replaces traditional dairy in the Non-Cow entry—impact the taste
Kitchen + Butter + Xocolatl
DEEP DIY: For those who want to get hands-on, a bean-to-bar primer, an all-purpose cocoa butter and a kit of distinctive baking ingredients provide the elements and insights required to get started—whether the aim is brownies, bonbons, beverages or balms. Understanding how to make chocolate helps foster even greater appreciation for this complex substance.