You know your grapes. You know your coffee beans. But do you know your cacao beans?
You know your grapes. You know your coffee beans. But do you know your cacao beans? With small-batch makers popping up all over the US, chocolate is changing from candy into an artisan food with tasting notes (proof: the array of $11 bars at your local Whole Foods).
On those pretty labels, you’ll find a key to decoding what’s inside: the cacao’s country of origin. Each country produces chocolate with distinct flavors. In other words, there’s more to choose than just dark or milk.
Are you a huge Nutella fan? A sucker for citrus and chocolate? Or maybe you’re not sure what you like. Chocolate expert Clay Gordon says to try two chocolates with a similar cacao percentage at a time. Then take your favorite from the pair and try it with a third chocolate. Eventually the “tasting pyramid” will pay off, and you’ll discover your top chocolate.
The US boasts almost 100 bean-to-bar makers, with more coming. Here are some of the best bars from the best American makers, divided by country, for your cacao-eating pleasure. Find them at big stores like Whole Foods as well as in specialty shops like The Meadow in New York City, Cacao in Portland and Chocolopolis in Seattle.
Nutty: Venezuela and Nicaragua
Try Soma’s Black Science bar from Patanemo, Venezuela, a full-bodied bar with undertones of cashews. Or cozy up to the French Broad’s Nicaraguan bar, which has notes of brown sugar and buttered toast.
Go for Rogue’s Balao bar from Camino Verde, Ecuador, which tastes floral and spicy at once. Cacao Portland co-owner Aubrey Lindley said that Rogue developed the bar’s unique flavor by fermenting the beans two different ways and combining the results. “It’s rare to see that kind of innovation,” Lindley remarked.
Fruity: Dominican Republic and Madagascar
Beans from Madagascar can lean toward incredible citrus flavors or rich berry notes, depending on the farm and the maker. Amano Chocolate’s Dos Rios bar from the Dominican Republic says citrus with all of its heart, while Patric’s PBJ OMG bar blends peanut butter with berry-forward Madagascar beans for a grown-up’s peanut butter and jelly treat.
Fruition Chocolate adds a little extra crunch within the sour notes with cocoa nibs, Ceylon cinnamon and whole vanilla bean. Or try the Marañón bar from Ritual Chocolate, which uses a high ratio of prized white beans and tastes aromatic and herbal in addition to acidic.
Smoky: Papua New Guinea
Some say the smoky overtones in beans from this country are a defect from drying with wet smoke, but Tejas Chocolate owner Scott Moore Jr. likes the aroma, saying, “Texans will smoke anything.” Try Tejas’s PNG-64 for a taste.
Askinosie Chocolate’s Davao bar with Filipino cacao has an earthy, roasty aroma with slight bitter notes. To prove that milk chocolate can be as exotic as dark, try Askinosie’s Davao 62 percent bar with goat’s milk and fleur de sel sea salt.