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A Beginner’s Guide to Craft Chocolate

Chocolate. It’s a word that brings a smile to just about every person’s face. And those smiles are growing, as high-quality chocolate continues its rise, with artisan makers emphasizing superior ingredients to create delectable bars. But what is “craft chocolate”?

The phrase is usually used synonymously with “bean to bar,” which is defined as chocolate made with whole beans from scratch by one company.

All chocolate starts as whole beans. But most of the chocolate on store shelves is made from beans roasted in enormous batches and combined with sugar, vanillin (fake vanilla) and a host of other additives to make a consistent product.

With craft chocolate, the focus is less on consistency, and more about artfulness and deliciousness. Artisans work closely with cocoa farmers to source the highest-quality beans, which they carefully roast, grind and smooth into chocolate. They use few ingredients besides cocoa beans and sugar.

Wine connoisseurs might be familiar with the name of the first bean-to-bar chocolate company in the U.S.: Scharffen Berger.

In 1997, winemaker John Scharffenberger partnered with chocolate aficionado Robert Steinberg to make chocolate from scratch. They coined the term “bean to bar,” and they inspired a generation of similar makers. Twelve years ago, there were only five bean-to-bar makers in the U.S. Today, there are nearly 200.

Of course, not all good chocolate is necessarily bean to bar. Many great producers use chocolate premade by different companies (like Valrhona or Guittard) to create truffles, chocolate bark and other tasty treats.

Here’s what to know next time you’re overwhelmed in the chocolate aisle.

A close up view of some broken pieces of dark chocolate

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate doesn’t have a legal definition in the U.S. Essentially, it’s a form of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate housed under the umbrella of “sweet chocolate.”

Dark chocolate usually contains at least 50% cocoa, with most around 70%. Be sure to look for the percentage on the label, as well as a list of ingredients. You might see milk, which is allowed. In fact, there’s a new category called dark milk. It has all the flavors of a complex dark chocolate with the creaminess of its cousin, milk chocolate. Try Castronovo Chocolate’s Sierra Nevada Dark Milk from Colombia.

How It’s Made: After beans are fermented and dried, they’re roasted. This can be done in a conventional or industrial oven. In some cases, quirky bean-to-bar makers build their own roasters out of creative materials like clothes dryers. Next, the beans are cracked and sorted. The cocoa nibs (the interior of the bean) are then separated from the inedible husk. Then the nibs are ground and refined in a machine called a melangeur and heated to create a thick substance referred to as “chocolate liquor.” Sugar is added, and sometimes the whole thing is conched, a process that mixes and polishes the chocolate. Last, the chocolate is heated and cooled in a process called tempering, and formed into bars.

Flavor Profile: Like wine grapes, cocoa beans flavors are nuanced and express terroir. They can be fruity and bright like fresh raspberries or balsamic vinegar, or earthy like mushrooms or yeast. Dark chocolate that’s of single origin without any additions (like Dandelion’s insanely bright Madagascar) can have a roasted flavor like coffee or nuts, or even spicy like licorice and cinnamon.

Pairings: Match dark chocolate with a sweet Sherry or ruby Port, or with blue cheese.

Melted milk chocolate
Melted milk chocolate / Getty

Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is chocolate liquor combined with sugar and milk or cream powder. In the U.S., it must be at least 15% cocoa, though high-quality brands can go up to about 45%.

How It’s Made: In 1867, a Swiss chemist named Henri Nestlé (yes, that Nestlé) discovered how to make powdered milk. Twelve years later, Swiss chocolate manufacturer Daniel Peter added powdered milk and cocoa butter to dark chocolate to make the first milk chocolate bar. Chocolate makers continue to use that process today.

Flavor Profile: A good milk chocolate can have all the flavors mentioned under dark chocolate, but it’s often dominated by milky, caramel overtones. A great choice is Fruition Chocolate’s Brown Butter Milk.

Pairings: Pair milk chocolate with Parmigiano-Reggiano for a treat. Try the combination on a piece of rye bread for the perfect afternoon snack. As far as wine goes, try a soft, fruit-forward pour, like a Merlot or Pinot Noir.

Close-up of white chocolate chunks

White Chocolate

Yes, it’s really chocolate. In 2004, “white chocolate” earned legal classification from the Food and Drug Administration. It must contain at least 20% cocoa butter, 14% total milk solids, 3.5% milk fat and a maximum of 55% sugar or other sweeteners. White chocolate is a combination of cocoa butter with sugar, vanilla and milk or cream powder.

How It’s Made: In 1828, a Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten, figured out that if you put a few tons of pressure on chocolate liquor, it will separate into cocoa powder and cocoa butter. That cocoa butter is then mixed with sugar and other ingredients to form white chocolate.

Flavor Notes: Good white chocolate will taste sweet, often like caramel. In general, however, white chocolate is not known for its complex flavors. That’s why it’s often paired with ingredients like dried strawberries or nuts. Caramelized white chocolate has become popular, with big brands like Valrhona and small ones like Charm School making delicious renditions.

Pairings: Nothing beats Askinosie’s white chocolate with a cup of matcha green tea or, if you’re feeling frisky, a shot of Tequila (sipped, of course). In between those two, however, opt for a fruity sparkling wine, like a Moscato d’Asti, to match the smooth, slightly sweet nature of the chocolate.

Megan Giller is the author of Bean to Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution and hosts chocolate tasting events in NYC

how to pair chocolate and wine
Infographic by Eric DeFreitas