Curating a Tasty Collection of Craft Chocolate

Curating a Tasty Collection of Craft Chocolate

By LAUREN ADLER, Chief Chocophile, Chocolopolis

Sponsored content provided by Chocolopolis.

You’re probably hearing a lot about craft chocolate these days. “Craft” chocolate refers to chocolate made in small batches using fine flavor cacao. While there were only a handful of craft chocolate makers in the US a decade ago, there are now hundreds, with more coming on the market every day.

Coffee and cacao have a lot in common, so if you’re already selling coffee you can sell craft chocolate. It is a great way to increase your sales among a customer base that understands the story of origin and post-harvest processing. But where do you start?

Let’s start with the basics. First, some information about craft chocolate to help you better understand how to evaluate it. Then, I offer five tips to successfully curating a selection of craft chocolate bars that sells.

You say “Chocolatier” I say “Chocolate Maker”

While there are plenty of artisan chocolate shops around the US, most of these chocolate shops showcase the talents of chocolatiers. Often trained as pastry chefs, chocolatiers are artisans who work with chocolate to transform it into chocolate truffles, chocolate bars and other chocolate treats. While chocolatiers work with chocolate, they do not make chocolate from the cacao bean.

Craft chocolate, on the other hand, is made by small, artisan chocolate makers who roast, refine and conch cacao beans to transform them into chocolate. The craft chocolate movement started in 1995 when Scharffen Berger Chocolate launched its brand in Berkeley, California. Scharffen Berger was the first company in the US to make chocolate in small batches. The company sold to Hershey’s in 2005 for $20 million. Shortly after the sale a new wave of small-batch chocolate makers entered the market.

Searching the Equator for Fine Flavor Cacao

Craft chocolate makers work predominantly with fine flavor cacao that comes from good genetic varietals. Mainly grown in Latin America and Madagascar, fine flavor cacao represents less than 5% of the world’s cacao production. Some of the genetic varieties date back to Mesoamerican times when cacao was consumed as a savory beverage by the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs.

Fine flavor cacao is prized not only for good genetics but also for the quality of the post-harvest processing conducted at the farm. During post-harvest processing, wet cacao that is covered in a sticky, sweet, mucilaginous pulp is fermented naturally in a wild process. The fermentation takes advantage of the wild bacteria in the area, which imparts a unique terroir from the region where the cacao was grown. Fermentation is the most important part of flavor development in chocolate, so a craft chocolate maker can only make a good bar of chocolate if he/she starts with well-fermented cacao beans.

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

In 2008, when Chocolopolis first opened our doors we were one of a handful of pioneers focusing on retailing small-batch chocolate made from single-origin cacao beans. At the time there were seven North American craft chocolate makers, most of them having started their businesses between 2006 and 2007. It was a nascent market that required a lot of education. We had to help customers understand the difference between mass-market chocolate and chocolate made from fine flavor cacao using minimal ingredients, and we had to help them understand why the bars cost $8 or more.

Fast forward to 2018 and the craft chocolate market has exploded. We now choose chocolates from a universe of craft chocolate makers that exceeds 200 in the US and almost 500 worldwide. While our customers are more knowledgeable, there is also a lot more chocolate to choose from when we’re curating our chocolate collection. The choices can seem overwhelming.

We receive a lot of chocolate samples from new chocolate makers and we accept less than 5% of the samples submitted each year. So how do we choose?

Set Criteria First

We have strict criteria for vetting the chocolate we sell. If a chocolate meets these criteria it still must pass the most important test – taste. If we don’t like the taste, we won’t carry the chocolate.

We start our evaluation process with objective criteria that serve as a first point of elimination. The criteria are:

  1. Chocolate made with fine flavor cacao
  2. Maker only uses the following acceptable ingredients:
    1. Cacao beans (a.k.a., chocolate liquor, cocoa mass)
    2. Sugar (optional)
    3. Additional cocoa butter (optional)
    4. Vanilla (optional)
    5. Soy lecithin (optional)
    6. Milk powder (only in milk chocolate)

Engage the Community in the Selection Process

Once we’ve evaluated a chocolate on our objective criteria, we put it through a blind tasting panel made up of customers and employees. Our panel comes with a wide variety of chocolate palates and represents a microcosm of our customer base. Some members prefer lighter roasts with more delicate flavor complexity, others enjoying the bold notes of roasted, smoky or earthy flavor profiles.

We evaluate each chocolate on taste and texture. We look for chocolate that demonstrates excellence in flavor complexity and provides a smooth, creamy texture. The chocolate must be something our customers will enjoy enough to purchase regularly.

Five Tips to Curating a Tasty Chocolate Collection

Here are my recommendations for curating a selection of craft chocolate bars your customers will love.

# 1 – Taste a lot of chocolate

The best way to build a refined palate is to taste a lot of chocolate from many different chocolate makers. Try different cacao origins and different styles of chocolate so you don’t condition your palate to only one style. We’ve put together The Calibrator, a bundle of bars we feel represents some of the finest examples of craft chocolate. We’ve chosen the bars for this collection by specific batch numbers that we think demonstrate excellence. We’re offering a 15% discount to SCA members on purchases of The Calibrator. Use coupon code SCACALIB15 when you place your order.

# 2 – Conduct blind tastings to choose your favorites

Whether you do this with a group of employees or with a group that includes customers, I recommend having at least 5-10 people participate in the blind tasting. Individuals have their own tasting biases – some may like fruity flavor profiles and a light roast, others may prefer earthy flavor profiles and a dark roast. When you have data points from a wide group of tasters you have a much stronger group by which to evaluate the chocolate. I recommend keeping the evaluations blind so tasters aren’t swayed by pretty packaging or the brand name of a chocolate they already think they like/don’t like. We always taste in silence, only sharing our thoughts after everyone has concluded rating a chocolate so that we’re not biased by others in the group.

# 3 – Pay attention to packaging

I once heard someone say that the story of the cacao and the chocolate maker was more important than a “pretty” package. While I wish that were true, packaging does matter. Good packaging sells the chocolate, at least on the first purchase. A consumer will buy a bar they haven’t tasted before if they like the packaging. If the product inside is inferior, however, the consumer won’t buy it again. A great chocolate bar hidden in unattractive packaging may not sell the way you expect it to sell because it is not enticing customers to make that first purchase.

# 4 – Tell the story

If you’re selling single-origin coffee, then you already know how to sell single-origin chocolate. Customers want to know about the story of the cacao and where it was grown. They want to hear about the cacao farmers who grew it, and they want to know the story of the artisan who transformed the cacao beans into chocolate. If your team knows how to tell the story of coffee, they’ll have no trouble adding chocolate to their repertoire.

One way we tell the story is by organizing our collection of over 100 chocolate bars by cacao origin. We arrange the bars by cacao-growing regions such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Madagascar, to name a few. It’s a merchandising tool that helps tell the story of cacao.

#5 – Create community around chocolate

There’s an additional benefit to our customer tasting panel. It creates community. The members of our tasting panel are an engaged and loyal group who are evangelists for our store and who make our chocolate community stronger. Engage your customers in your craft chocolate collection.

Now it’s time to get started. Let us know if we can be of assistance.

You may contact us at (206) 282-0776, @chocolopolis, and @chiefchocophile.