If you have visited a supermarket lately, you may have noticed a new type of chocolate among all the big names you are used to seeing. These high-priced, premium, single-origin chocolates boast that they are made with cacao beans from one region of the world, while mass produced chocolates are made with a blend of cacao beans from different areas.
Chocolate is going through a renaissance and joining the ranks of other foods like wine, coffee, and tea that are assessed by the soil in which they are grown.
Because today’s consumers look for high-quality products with transparent, ethical sourcing practices, single origin chocolates fit the bill. They provide the quality consumers are looking for with a more nuanced taste than mass produced chocolate.
So what makes chocolate single origin? Keep reading to learn more about these specialty chocolate bars.
What does single-origin chocolate mean?
What is the origin of chocolate? Chocolate comes from cacao beans that grow in football-shaped pods on the Theobroma (or cacao) tree. These trees are native to the tropical regions of Central America and South America. Today, cacao trees also grow in some African countries as well as the South Pacific.
At its most basic, single-origin chocolate is chocolate made from one variety of cacao beans harvested in one country or region or on a single plantation. Single-origin chocolates have a complex and provocative signature profile created from the climate and soil (the terroir) in which the cacao beans are grown.
Chocolate single origin refers to where the cacao beans originated from and not the finished product itself. Most craft chocolate makers in the US buy cacao beans from farmers in Central America and South America and have them shipped here so they can work with them and make their delectable chocolate treats.
Good and bad single origin chocolate
Just because chocolate is single origin doesn’t automatically make it good chocolate. As with anything else, there is both good single-origin chocolate and bad single-origin chocolate. The best way to understand what makes a single-origin chocolate great is to learn about variables like climate, harvesting and roasting techniques along with the integrity, reputation and craftsmanship of the chocolate maker.
When trying to find good single origin chocolate, qualities such as the way it looks, smells and tastes are important. High-quality chocolate should be glossy with no bubbles or blemishes, and it should smell strongly of chocolate. When you break a piece of single-origin chocolate, it should snap cleanly and crisply. Milk and white chocolate tend to bend instead of breaking cleanly because of the high sugar and milk content, while lower-quality dark chocolate bends or crumbles.
High-quality chocolate made with real cocoa butter has a smooth, buttery, velvety texture. It can be difficult to describe what a good mouth-feel is, but you’ll know it when you find that exquisite piece of chocolate that melts in your mouth. If the texture of the chocolate is gritty or waxy, that means the chocolate is of lower quality.
Low-quality cacao beans are often burned instead of roasted, and a variety of additives like sugar, milk powder, vanilla and nuts are added to mask any defective flavors. This type of chocolate is mass produced and sold in supermarkets. However, when good-quality cacao beans are processed well, they do not require any additives, and the chocolate produced from these beans is not bitter. On the other hand, if high-quality cacao beans are not processed correctly, you could end up with bad single-origin chocolate.
How does being single origin affect the taste?
If you were asked to describe how chocolate tastes, what would you say? It tastes like chocolate, right? But cacao beans grown in different countries have their own distinctive flavor based on the environment in which the beans are grown. The terroir—which consists of the composition of the soil, the amount of sunlight, the amount of rainfall, and other climate and location factors—directly impacts the flavor profile of single-origin chocolate. It tastes like the area where the cacao beans originated. For this reason, single-origin chocolate can be compared to fine wine, tea, or coffee.
Some of the terms used to describe single-origin chocolate include earthy, floral, herbal and berry. Chocolates made from Madagascar cacao beans have a fruity taste, while cacao originating in Venezuela has a nutty flavor. Cacao beans from the Ivory Coast have a bold, hearty flavor, and those from Trinidad have a woody, spicy taste.
Other factors besides the chocolate’s origin influence the taste, including the fermentation, drying and roasting processes of the cacao beans. Cacao farmers must ensure these processes are handled correctly to preserve the superb flavors of the region.
Why choose single origin chocolate?
Single-origin chocolate has recently seen a huge boost in popularity. People are choosing single origin chocolate because it is a premium, high-quality product. With single-origin chocolate, it is easier to trace the source of the cacao beans, and customers are interested in its rich flavor and distinctive taste. Single origin chocolate provides a unique consumption experience distinct from the bulk cacao chocolate used by larger companies that mix different cacao varieties.
Yet another reason to choose single origin chocolate is ethical sourcing and sustainability concerns. Small batch chocolate makers work to provide a living wage for cacao farmers, many of whom own a small amount of land that does not produce enough to support their families. This leads to child labor and deforestation as farmers clear more land to produce a bigger crop.
Small-batch chocolate makers are drawing attention to these ethical and environmental concerns. They control every part of the chocolate making process and often visit the farms where the beans are grown to ensure transparent sourcing policies are followed.
When it comes to chocolate making, the cacao supply chain is one of the biggest ethical concerns. The majority of cacao beans are sold as a commodity crop where farmers are paid the same regardless of quality.
Small-batch chocolate makers are working to change that through the direct trade system. In the direct trade system, they purchase cacao beans directly from farmers or through farmers’ cooperatives. This way, farmers receive anywhere from 50 to 300 percent more than for commodity cacao beans, and cacao beans are usually higher in quality.
The future for single origin chocolate
Single origin chocolate isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. With chocolate prices rising globally, this trend is expected to continue for at least the next five years. The rise in consumption of fair-trade coffee paved the way for this growth in the consumption of single-origin chocolate as consumers look for high-quality products with transparent, ethical sourcing practices.
The rise in popularity of single-origin chocolate means there are now two distinct streams of demand within the chocolate industry, creating dual economies for one category of food. There’s the pricey and transparent single-origin product, and then there is the cheaper alternative. Consumers equate single origin with simplicity, quality and naturalness.
Because cacao is a stable commodity, the future of single origin chocolate is bright. Well-processed cacao is good for years, and the chocolate produced is good even longer if it is stored correctly. The growth of single-origin chocolate is also good for the cacao farmers and their local economies.
How to make a single-origin chocolate bar?
Single origin chocolate bars are made using only three ingredients: cacao beans, cane sugar, and cocoa butter for a creamier texture.
Cacao beans come in four main varieties—forastero, criollo, trinitario and nacional. Each has its own distinct flavor. Forastero cacao beans are the hardiest, and this variety dominates the world’s chocolate production market. Criollo cacao beans are high quality and difficult to grow due their tendency to attract pests. Trinitario cacao beans are a hybrid between criollo and forastero that is versatile and contain the best qualities of the criollo and forastero. Nacional cacao beans are the rarest type of cacao bean and regarded as the world’s finest variety.
Cane sugar comes from sugarcane, is ethically sourced like cacao beans, and is minimally processed. Cane sugar balances the natural bitterness of the cacao beans and determines the sweetness of the chocolates.
Cocoa butter is a type of fat that is left behind after cacao beans are roasted and then pressed. Cocoa butter gives chocolate bars their smooth, creamy texture and helps produce a velvety, melt-in-your-mouth feel.
Some high-quality chocolates consist of a blend of two single-origin chocolate varieties. This means two types of cacao beans, from two different points of origin, were purposefully combined. When making these chocolate blends, chocolate makers must consider the flavors of the different terroirs and how well they will work together. Blending cacao beans can produce a more nuanced flavor than one variety of cacao beans would on its own.
Our selection of single origin chocolate
Single origin chocolates are available in dark, milk and white varieties. Dark chocolate bars showcase the intense richness and bitterness of the cocoa bean with a strong, bold flavor. Single origin milk chocolate bars are a sweeter option with a rich, silky taste. Single origin white chocolate is made using cocoa butter extracted from cacao beans.
Tasting single origin chocolate is an engaging, sensory-driven experience. At Cococlectic, we feature American small-batch chocolate makers with products that cover as much of the cacao-producing world as possible, from Central America and South America to Africa and the Ivory Coast to the South Pacific Islands. A sampling of our featured bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers includes Triangle Roasters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Seahorse Chocolate in Bend, Oregon; Lirio Chocolate in Knoxville, Tennessee; White Label Chocolate in Santa Cruz, California; and many others. We feature a different American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate maker each month.
We support chocolate makers who are passionate about their products through our chocolate subscription service. These small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate makers create their chocolate bars from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter. The chocolates we feature are vegan, non-GMO, fair-trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.
Sign up for a chocolate-of-the-month subscription club and join us for a free virtual chocolate tasting with our featured chocolate maker of the month.