Patric Chocolate: Sure, We Have a Chocolate-Making Bias (or) What IS a Chocolate Maker Anyway?

It has been mentioned in this blog before that only a handful of American companies actually make chocolate .This fact isn’t peculiar to the United States however, it may just as easily be applied to many other chocolate-making countries.

“What?” you may find yourself saying “But can it be true that the company behind the manufacture of my favorite organic, fair-trade, 70% dark chocolate may really not be the company whose name graces its label?” The reality is that you may have a better chance of striking gold in your own backyard than stumbling across a bar of chocolate made by the company who has branded it. Alright, maybe there is a little bit of exaggeration going on here, but the truth isn’t too far off, and if one looks to the labels of the chocolate bars in question for hints regarding whether this is truly the case, all that is likely to be found is further confusion.

Here are some examples of a few titles used by chocolate companies:

“Chocolate maker,” “chocolate manufacturer,” and “chocolatier.” And of course, if you add the word “artisan” to any of these, then you will find many additional combinations just by doing a simple Google search.

What does it mean, however, to use each of these labels? Does it mean that a company actually makes chocolate starting with cocoa beans and carries out every part of the complicated and lengthy chocolate-making process in their own facility, resulting, in the end, in a marketable chocolate product? Though certainly possible, it is not likely.

First, let us deal with the term “chocolatier.” Chocolatiers produce chocolate-based confections either manually or on an industrial scale. However, very rarely do they make the raw product—chocolate—that they use for these confections. There are quite a few chocolatiers, though, who blend different finished chocolates to create bars with intriguing and original profiles. And certainly, as long as these companies do not claim to be making their chocolate, then there is no room for complaint. Yet, there are dishonest individuals in every group.

An extreme example of this dishonesty occurred in recent memory, when one chocolatier, selling perhaps the most expensive chocolate per pound anywhere in the world (up to $2000/lb), had worded things in such a way that it seemed, by most accounts, that they did make their own chocolate. However, it was eventually discovered and brought to light, due to some careful sleuthing, that in fact they didn’t make their chocolate at all. The truth is, that the chocolate that they did use was being sold by its actual manufacturer for up to seventy-five or eighty times less per pound in bar form. Many people felt that this was more than misleading; they felt that it was unethical.

Dishonesty can be found anywhere, however, and there are also practices with which one could take issue regarding non-chocolatier companies who package chocolate bars without actually making their chocolate. This category actually includes the vast majority of chocolate companies, and there is a French term that can be applied to them: “fondeurs.” This word translates as chocolate “melters,” and it speaks to the actual process carried out by these companies: they melt and mold chocolate into bar form. Of course, just as with chocolatiers, there is nothing wrong with chocolate melters per se, and there are certainly some good-quality products produced by such companies, but the problem is that many of these companies choose marketing language that suggests that they do, in fact, make their own chocolate.

One might ask oneself, though, why it even matters who does and doesn’t make chocolate. After all, the most important aspect of chocolate is its flavor, the quality of chocolate defined as a combination of aroma, taste, and mouthfeel. And can’t chocolate bars blended by chocolatiers or packaged by melters taste amazing? Certainly, but part of taking chocolate more seriously, in an effort to better appreciate its complex flavor qualities, involves an attempt to understand the full process that led to its creation. This is the goal of a chocolate connoisseur or chocophile.

This learning process includes finding out what the origin of the cacao used in the chocolate is, what the chocolate-making philosophy of the company is, and how this impacts processes, (i.e., what is the roasting profile, how long was it conched, what type of refining setup is used, is it aged, etc.) among many other variables. To learn answers to these questions allows one to readily and accurately compare and contrast chocolates from various chocolate makers, the same chocolate maker, various countries, different styles, etc. All of this understanding, of course, leads to an even greater appreciation of an already delicious product. So, the bar that is at first just simply delicious, once it is understood how it was made and how it compares to other chocolates on many different levels, becomes either more or less impressive and flavorful as the case may be. The intellect certainly does come to bear on sense impressions, and what we do or don’t understand can alter the flavor of a product for better or worse.

In fact, the more that one learns about chocolate, the more that one’s previous preferences gradually come to be altered as new and more fulfilling chocolates are discovered.

Consequently, knowing if a company actually makes its chocolate is important, and, as we have seen, this knowledge may be able to impact flavor perception after all. But now comes the question: how do we know when a company makes its own chocolate? If it isn’t being advertised one way or the other, how can we tell? Furthermore, when a company says that it is a chocolate maker, can we actually know that this term has some pre-defined meaning? Unfortunately the answer seems to be no. This term and others are thrown about with such ease that it isn’t possible to tell much about companies that use them. Even companies that do make some of their own chocolate may outsource an even larger quantity of it. Another possibility is that one company roasts and refines the cacao, and then this product (cacao liquor) is then refined with added sugar in another location, molded and packaged. Similar confusion can exist with the word “artisan.” Though artisan chocolate makers certainly do exist, we can hardly take the word of them all when they use this term. Short of the English-speaking world bringing into common usage the French term “cacaofèvier,” which translates roughly as a “cocoa-beaner,” or a person who makes chocolate from cacao itself (bean to bar), finding the truth will take a bit of work, a bit of intellectual elbow grease, so to speak.

Luckily, this intellectual work also involves a great deal of chocolate tasting! One can be as organized or as laid-back as one would like in tasting various chocolates, and taking notes on them, but it is a good idea, when a new chocolate is discovered, not only to read up on it on the company’s web site or packaging, but also to visit chocolate review sites. One such site is Seventy Percent.com, another that I hear will soon be accessible to English speakers is www.theobroma-cacao.de and there are many other online resources that discuss chocolate companies, their methods, and their products. Even doing a Google search for the product and trying to find out what other people and web sites have to say about it can help. Finally, writing to the company in question can definitely have an impact. The more that companies see that consumers are concerned about all of the details behind their chocolate, the more the culture of secrecy in the chocolate world will have to melt away. Demand that chocolate companies, whether they make chocolate or not, be clear about their processes. They might not want to divulge every last detail, but their goal should be to educate chocolate consumers, not to keep them in the dark. Over time, one can hope that such openness in chocolate business will grow, and will lead to a more educated chocolate-loving public. After all, as an educated chocolate consumer, one receives far more pleasure from each bar than the average person, and who could complain about that?!

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