Craft Chocolate vs Commercial Chocolate

Sep 29, 2021Chocolate Industry

Craft chocolate differs significantly from commercial chocolate in the aim of the finished chocolate, the processing, the flavor and the culture. Let’s learn about each.

What are commercial chocolates?

Commercial chocolates, also known as industrial chocolates, mass-market or mass-produced chocolates are what many of us grew up eating as a treat. They are what we so often see in the candy aisle of grocery stores globally. These chocolate bars are produced and distributed on a massive scale everywhere and sold either affordably or cheaply. You may recognize some household names of popular mass-produced chocolate brands such as M&Ms, Ferrero Rocher, Cadbury, Lindt, Godiva, Snickers, Reese’s, and Hershey.

Some of the aforementioned brands are priced slightly higher and can sometimes be considered “gifting” chocolates or “fine” chocolates for their ostentatious packaging as well as what we have been conditioned to think is “good” chocolate. But that still beckons the question: what exactly are commercial chocolates?

Cacao for commercial chocolates

It begins with the aim of production. Similar to industrialized coffee (compared to a specialty brew from an independent roaster), mass-produced chocolates are intended to guarantee a consistent smell and taste. The goal of production is to achieve a large amount of consistently flavored chocolate, with a heavy emphasis on economies of scale (large volume at a mighty low price).

Cacao from a multitude of different sources are grouped together regardless of the variety of beans and then sold as bulk commodity cacao. Since flavors will be homogenized in the production process, it is not worth trying to sort the beans and maintain any of the individual flavor profiles of each type of bean. In fact, it could be “bad” if a bean had too much character and too vibrant of a flavor profile. As such, the production process is simplified as there is no regard for the sensory qualities nor the experience for the end consumer.

In order to really understand the differences between commercial chocolates and craft chocolates, we will have to delve into some parts of chocolate production.

Consistency of Taste

As mentioned before, when commercial chocolates are produced, the whole aim is to ensure the consistency of taste. In order to do this with bulk commodity cacao beans, the manufacturers will alkalize the cacao beans by washing them in a harsh chemical solution. This way, the manufacturers can manipulate both the flavor and color of the beans by reducing the acidity. Then, to combat the bitterness and lack of flavor, vanilla extract and other artificial flavors are added as well as emulsifiers. While none of these ingredients are inherently bad, note that the aim is simply to ascertain homogeneity in every single bar.

Lastly, sugar. If you look at the ingredients list of most commercial chocolate bars, the first or second ingredient will be sugar. In other words, we are eating sugar flavored with cacao, and not cacao enhanced with sugar. This is the reason why chocolates have the unfortunate notorious tag of being unhealthy and are nauseatingly sweet.

A growing body of research has shown that sugar can be classified as “addictive”, and as we repeat the behavior of eating inordinate amounts of sugar, the amount of dopamine released (a hormone that causes a pleasurable “high”) by the brain decreases to adjust. As a result, we crave the substance and we crave more of it. Thus, when you pick up a generic commercially produced chocolate bar, you tend to inhale the entire bar in one seating (we were guilty of this before we were exposed to the real stuff!). Since as kids, most of us thought of these commercially produced bars as “rewards”, we have been conditioned to think that they are the gold standards. As we have more autonomy to purchase whatever we want as we grow older, we are conditioned to think that chocolates are just that. Sweet and unhealthy. Furthermore, we are constantly bombarded by advertisements and reminders of these sweet blocks of nothing. When we engender the thought of Cadbury, you would probably think of their famous song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and if Ferrero Rocher, you’d think of “Time to Say Goodbye”. These songs stick, and are used to trigger favorable and nostalgic memories, which can help in subconsciously influencing consumer behavior. You suddenly crave for a Kit Kat bar and instinctively want to purchase one at the grocery store down the street. The convenience, paired with consistent reminders, result in moving commercially purchased chocolate bars.

What are craft chocolates?

Now, what are craft chocolates and how are they different from commercially available chocolates?

Cacao winnowing at Mahogany Chocolate
Freshly roasted cacao beans entering the winnower at the Mahogany Chocolate factory in Belize.

Craft chocolates, also known as bean-to-bar chocolates, single-estate/single-plantation chocolates, small-batch, micro-batch, and artisan chocolates, is a smaller and lesser known segment of the larger chocolate market. There is an absence of a unified definition of what craft chocolate really entails, but generally, this smaller segment of the chocolate market reflects a commitment to craftsmanship, quality, flavor, transparency, sustainability, and ethical practices. This specialized segment of the chocolate market is nascent but undoubtedly growing and gaining traction rapidly.

Some larger craft chocolate pioneers include Bonnat Chocolatier, Pralus Chocolate, and Zotter Chocolates and they all specialize in producing recognizable chocolates that are well-loved by fine chocolate lovers. As with commercial chocolates, understanding what craft chocolate is will boil down to the aims of production.

Craft chocolate embraces diversity

Unlike commercial chocolate, craft chocolate embraces diversity. The end goal of craft chocolate makers is to figure out a way to best represent the complexity of the bean they have on hand compared to the flat profile of commodity cacao beans. These chocolate makers encourage flavor exploration and respect the distinctive nuances that accompany the cacao beans by adjusting the rest of the chocolate making process to properly enhance the flavors of each bean variety (fermenting time, drying time, roasting time, etc.). The art and science behind figuring out the best way to fully express the flavor profiles of each bean variety takes years and years of experimentation and research. Each type of cacao has a different protocol and processes to allow a very specifically desirable flavor to develop properly. This process would depend on the genetic material (such as the amount of cacao butter) and the physical characteristics of the beans (for example, the size).

Hand sorting cacao beans in Belize.

You might also like reading about our Centralized Processing

Cacao bean selection for craft chocolate

When sourcing for cacao beans, craft chocolate makers search for plantations with high-quality plants and practices. These are farms where the plant variety all the way to drying are all done with the end flavor in mind. Some chocolate makers, such as Stephane Bonnat from Bonnat Chocolatier, will travel with some bars in hand to the farms for the farmers to taste, to accurately express what he looks for in cacao beans. Many makers will travel to remote lands, sometimes trekking for multiple days, to locate potential farmers in specific countries and regions with plantations who will agree to grow and harvest an agreed-upon cacao bean with strict requirements. Craft chocolate makers and the farmers prioritize beans with incredible aroma and complex flavors. Less emphasis is placed on productivity and disease-resistance of the beans. As such, only a small amount of fine cacao of a certain flavor can be produced, subject to the environment. The amount of time, attention, capacity, and technique that is dedicated and required to simply grow the beans already justifies the higher price.

Jacques Cop of Coco Caravan UK in Belize with Mahogany Chocolate Ltd.

It is then evident that the environment, in addition to the genetics of each cacao bean variety, plays a crucial role in flavor development. Not only has the cacao species sought after in craft chocolate gone through a long process of genetic evolution and improvement, the environment has to be within the Goldilocks zone for the beans to develop properly. What is this Goldilocks zone? It depends. However, some of the criteria include being planted within the cacao belt (which is 20 degrees north and south of the equator), under proper shade with appropriate amounts of water and sunlight, and preferably in non-monoculture environments.

Less is more approach to craft chocolate ingredients

Craft chocolate bars and products also generally have fewer ingredients compared to industrial chocolates and the ingredients are usually of higher quality and tend to be natural or organic. Many manufacturers believe that in order to not desecrate the precious beans that had taken so much effort to harvest, only ingredients that have been treated with similar respect can be added to highlight the flavors of each bean. Sugar is present in most craft chocolates as well, but it is used in smaller amounts and to enhance certain notes in the cacao beans. It is never used to mask any type of error in any bar or products nor will it ever overwhelm the consumers’ taste buds.

Craft chocolate fosters traceability & transparency

Jose Antonio Cal
Jose Antonio Cal, one of our cacao growers in Belize.

Lastly, and most importantly, most craft chocolate makers focus on direct trade on top of fair-trade instead of the bare commodity cacao. Basically, what this means is that craft chocolate makers are committed to ensuring that farmers are compensated fairly and ethically for all the hard work that they have invested into growing beans of excellent quality. To do this, makers work directly with the farmers instead of going through middlemen. It is not an easy task to determine when each cacao pod ripens, the fermentation, and the drying time required for each bean type. The amount that craft chocolate makers pay to the farmers for the beans can sometimes go up to seven or eight times the amount that large corporations pay cacao farmers for a similar amount of beans and every cent is well justified and deserved.

You might also like reading Meet Our Farm Team.

This is a high-level overview of what commercial and craft chocolates are, and the differences between them. The world of chocolate is such an intriguing and complex industry filled with culture and history that begs veneration. It is much more than a simple bar of sugar flavored with cacao.

Source: The original version of this article appears on HelloChocolate.asia.

Image credits: Mahogany Chocolate Ltd.

Mahogany Chocolate Ltd.

Mahogany Chocolate Ltd.

Belize & Panama