Even chocolate aficionados may be unfamiliar with the world of single-origin chocolates. While most chocolates are a blend of cacao from different regions of the globe, single-origin chocolates use cacao beans from a single country—and sometimes even a single region or particular estate—to create products with unique and distinctive flavor profiles.
The power of terroir
"Early in my chocolate career, I realized that chocolate is a lot like wine, and I could take my wine knowledge and drag-and-drop it onto chocolate," says Timothy Moley, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Chocolove, manufacturer of the Chocolatour single-origin line of vintage-dated chocolates. "You can learn about chocolate the same way you learn about wine. How the soil of a region was created, where the growing area is in relation to the rest of the topography, how much rainfall was received and when it came during the growth of the cocoa pod—all of these have a prominent effect on the flavor of a single-origin chocolate." Indeed, this same combination of weather patterns and soil attributes is what winemakers refer to as terroir.
While most dark chocolates are blended to create a repeatable flavor year in and year out, single-origin chocolates often have very distinctive flavor notes that differ depending on their source, and can include notes of caramel, fruits, tangy acidity and even floral flavors. "Two [single-origin] products that have the same cocoa content can have completely different flavor profiles, because of the location and the soil in which they're grown," says Jacques Dahan of Noble Ingredients, the U.S. subsidiary of French chocolatier Michel Cluizel.
"Single-origin chocolates are most definitely a new concept to the market," says Frederick Schilling, founder and chief executive officer of Dagoba Organic Chocolate Co., based in Ashland, Ore. "Single origins offer the consumer the chance to really taste distinct cacaos and experience nuances and variances you don't get with blended chocolates."
The move toward single origins can be seen as the continuation of chocolate trends, away from mass-market brands and toward darker, more flavorful offerings. "For retailers, chocolate is very similar to wine, olive oil and coffee," says Jim Lampman, founder of Lake Champlain Chocolates, based in Burlington, Vt., which offers four single-origin options. "Over the years, each of these products has made the transition from commodity to specialty. In general, people move from milk to dark chocolate, then to a higher cocoa percentage, then a different flavor profile."
Cacao beans and genetics
Another factor in the flavor of chocolate is the type of cacao bean used. Chocolate insiders generally divide worldwide production into three bean types. The first, Criollo, which means "native birth," was the bean first discovered and cultivated by Europeans. Later, Forestero ("of the forest") cacao was discovered in the Amazon basin and began to be cultivated for its higher yields and greater disease resistance. Finally, Trinitario cacao is a naturally occurring hybrid of the other two types. Each of the three has different flavor characteristics. Criollo is the subtlest, with a lighter, ivory-colored bean, and Forestero is the strongest, with a deep purple bean.
At present, almost two-thirds of the world's cacao production is sourced from western Africa, where Ivory Coast is the biggest supplier. African chocolate is, almost without exception, of the Forestero type, which has a strong basic chocolate flavor but is said to lack the floral overtones and nuanced flavors of the other types.
However, some manufacturers feel that classifying cacao into just three bean types is an oversimplification. "The concept of Criollo, Trinitario and Forestero is not really true," says Joe Whinney, president and founder of Theo Chocolate, based in Seattle. "There are almost 10,000 distinct genetic varieties of cacao, as documented by a botanical library in Trinidad. Depending on how the bean is hybridized, there can be very different flavors from one valley to the next. When you think about single-origin chocolates, this is one of the challenges. Because we don't have varieties like pinot noir or merlot in the wine world to identify the flavor, we talk about where it comes from. We need a better language for all these distinct varieties."
From the plant to the plant
The journey from bean to bar is a complex one. After cacao pods are harvested, the beans and pulp are removed and fermented for three to five days. Each pod contains 20 to 40 beans—enough to make only one or two 3-ounce bars of dark chocolate. The beans are then dried, roasted, shelled and ground. The resulting paste, called chocolate liquor, is a combination of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the naturally occurring fat in cacao.
Developing a supply chain for single-origin chocolates can be daunting, but it can also have benefits for both the farmer and the manufacturer. "Our single-origin line has led us to do a lot of work with farmers," says Gary Guittard, president of E. Guittard Chocolate, based in Burlingame, Calif. "How the cocoa is fermented and dried is one of the keys to a good single-origin chocolate. You can hide off-flavors in a blend, but not in a single-origin." By working directly with the farmers, manufacturers can often control the fermentation process—at least to a degree—by making their preferences known.
Farmers can benefit from this direct relationship as well, by keeping their beans out of the commodities market and working directly with manufacturers. This means better prices for farmers, and also offers an incentive to produce a better product, because of their personal relationships with manufacturers. Going a step further, fair trade-certified cacao uses a third-party certifier to assure that farmers—usually members of cooperatives—are adequately paid. Fair trade certification also ensures that no slave labor is used in cacao production—a significant problem in Ivory Coast.
Whinney, whose Theo Chocolates are both fair trade certified and organic, says, "I think fair trade is important. It's one thing to have a single origin, but also important to know that you're having a positive impact on where the bean comes from." Dagoba, which sources its organic chocolate from a number of fair trade- certified co-ops, uses the company's Web site to share stories of the positive impact this process can have on local communities.
Manufacturers are also finding that single-origin bars may demand different production methods. While the majority of U.S. chocolatiers actually purchase bulk chocolate—often produced in Belgium—and blend and mold it here, a few, including E. Guittard and Theo, control the entire production process from roasting onward.
"With our single-origin chocolates, we realized that we needed to adapt some techniques to really maintain the integrity of the beans," Guittard says. "Some of our methods were destroying the flavors, so we slowed everything down and went back to using some equipment we used many years ago."
Though single-origin bars may not have the flavor variety found in some blends, they still offer great complexity, and in some ways are easier for consumers to approach. For example, the flavor of vanilla is due to a single chemical compound. Chocolate, by contrast, is the most complex chemical compound known to science. It contains between 500 and 1,500 naturally occurring flavor components.
When tasting single-origin chocolates, the first rule is to trust your palate. "I start with, either I like it or I don't," says Randall Turner, U.S. representative of the Venezuelan company Chocolates El Rey. "I don't do well at fancy hoity-toity tastings, because of all the terminology—notes of blackberry this and wood smoke that. The bottom line is, if you like it, it's good."
Nonetheless, single-origin chocolates do offer distinct flavor profiles, from the tangy, acidic flavors of Madagascar to the deep chocolate taste of Ghana to the fruity, floral notes of the best Venezuelan chocolates.
The question is, then, how to introduce these flavors to customers? Luckily, the move toward darker chocolates, coupled with health information about chocolate in recent years, has primed consumers to take the next step.
"A lot of retailers don't want shelf talkers cluttering up their shelves, yet when I walk into a wine store I love reading the tags on the different wines," says Dagoba's Schilling. "If a retailer can take the same presentation and education and apply it to chocolate, I think consumers would appreciate it and sales would increase." Retailers can generate tasting notes for their chocolate tags through in-house tastings, or visit Web sites such as seventypercent.com, which uses a point scale and detailed descriptions, much like wine tasting notes.
Many manufacturers also offer their single-origin chocolates in tasting kits, to make sampling a range of chocolates more affordable for shoppers. "Chocolate is such a personal experience that you really can't sell it without allowing people to taste and experience it themselves," says Lake Champlain's Lampman.
"I do think this is a trend that's here to stay," says Christophe Van Riet, owner of Belgium's Best Chocolates, maker of Nirvana Chocolates, based in Wellesley, Mass. "Single-origin [chocolate] adds a lot of options, and retailers can differentiate themselves by having a nice selection for shoppers who are clearly more sophisticated."
Dagoba's Schilling suggests using single-origin chocolates in the bakery, and including recipes along with the product. "Single origins are so direct in flavor that they work wonderfully with other ingredients," he says.
Single-origin chocolates are generally no more expensive than fine blended chocolates—and much cheaper than a vacation to Tanzania or Madagascar. "With single origin, you can really be transported to the country of origin, tasting the soil, the nearby plants, the smells in the air," says Chocolove's Moley. "It's more enjoyable because of all the subtle nuances you can't find in a blend."
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Editor's Note: As NFM went to press, Hershey announced it had acquired Dagoba. Please see "Dagoba and Natrol in buyout deals" for more information.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 12/p. 22, 26