While the COVID-19 pandemic had sweeping negative impacts throughout 2020, one silver lining for sheltering-at-home consumers was to counteract a challenging and insecure scenario with a growing crave for ‘healthy comfort foods,’ such as chocolate, meeting a need for mindfulness and escapism. But a genuine appreciation for chocolate goes far as much as a deep understanding of its quality.
Not all chocolate on the market is created equal. While this may sound like a misfortune, in reality, different levels of quality for chocolate are pushing the lower ranks to raise their status and adapt to the impact and value of higher-end specialty chocolate, advocated by consumers who care about flavor and sustainability.
Imprinted with the experience of bland-tasting products filled with second-grade ingredients, most chocolate consumers cannot consciously discern the difference between genuinely high-quality specialty chocolate and the mass-premium counterpart that dominates the confectionery aisle of a grocery store. Even if no rules can discriminate the difference in quality and value among big and smaller chocolate producers, consumers can yet start cutting some weed out of their choices with helpful reference points available today.
- Premium chocolate is referred to as items priced at about $11 per pound—equivalent to a $2.40 or €2 per 100g bar—according to the National Confectioners Association (NCA) and market research agency IRI. Manufacturers of premium chocolate are considered Ferrero, Lindt, Ghirardelli, etc., who are usually contracted even by big retail chains to make private label products.
- Mass-Premium chocolate generally utilizes commodity cocoa from West Africa and bulk-grade cocoa with the bare minimum standards on quality from other countries, often mixed with other heavily-processed cocoa ingredients such as deodorized cocoa butter and alkalized cocoa powder.
Fine or Specialty Chocolate
- Fine chocolate—also variably reported as Ultra-Premium, Craft, or Specialty chocolate—is generally referred to as high-quality products made with specialty and fine flavor cacao beans and natural food ingredients by small to medium scale chocolate makers—according to the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA). Although fine chocolate is not strictly defined with a distinct price-point category, depending on the process and ingredients, a bar of good to exceptional fine chocolate typically ranges between $4‒16.
- Fine chocolate is made from top-quality cacao beans, valued higher than commodity and bulk cocoa for including heightened aspects about traceability, genetics, terroir, and post-harvest techniques that highlight the rich flavor profile that high-quality cacao has to offer.
To look even closer to the difference between mass-marketed premium chocolate and high-quality specialty chocolate, Mānoa Chocolate, one of the most established fine chocolate makers, explains why truly high-quality chocolate costs more:
In the video, two primary reasons point to why high-quality specialty chocolate may look a little too expensive for the average buyer but also how it ends up being an entirely fulfilling experience:
Quality of Raw Materials
Specialty and fine cacao beans for producing high-quality chocolate cost an average of $6‒10/kg; on the opposite spectrum, commodity or bulk cocoa beans start at a low ground of $2/kg. Well-fermented and clean cacao beans without flavor defects and off-flavors are paramount to a fine chocolate maker but harder to produce for the farmer because the process upstream requires knowledge, attention, and commitment to retaining high standards.
Small Economies of Scale
Craft or fine chocolate makers are so small that they will have to consider a much larger unit cost to make up for the initial investment when they buy more raw materials or packaging concerning their production volume capacity. To drop that unit cost, craft chocolate makers would need to buy more efficient and more expensive chocolate equipment lines to transform the chocolate-making process into a more continuous cycle. So, the tradeoff to make fine chocolate profitably is not easy because the margins are thin and may remain so for a long time. To give perspective on this point, a giant chocolate company producing mass-made premium chocolate can process 3 tons of cocoa beans per hour, while a craft chocolate maker 16 tons a year. Translated, it means the big company would take 5‒6 hours to reach a small craft chocolate maker’s total capacity in an entire year!
However, these considerations that justify the higher price necessary to make exceptional chocolate don’t necessarily imply that all of the expensive craft chocolate products made on a small scale are good tasting. There’s, unfortunately, some percentage of defective craft chocolate products out there. A 60g chocolate bar priced at $10 should then be the best chocolate consumers can get to elevate the demand for fine chocolate and avoid giving alibis to cheap mass-premium chocolate.
Also, some medium-sized chocolate makers can provide an optimal compromise between price and quality for consumers who don’t need to turn to low-quality premium chocolate to find products more sustainably-made and with great flavor. (Examples are Zotter, Original Beans (made by Felchlin), Michel Cluizel, Guittard, TCHO, etc.)
A third less-explicit aspect that can justify why high-quality specialty chocolate is more costly but undoubtedly encompasses a fairer reward than plain premium chocolate is:
A Journey of Layers and Shades
Craft or fine chocolate expresses and unfolds a journey of layers and shades by utilizing a specific type of cacao processed according to different protocols of fermentation, roasting, conching, and aging. From the cacao farm origin to the final chocolate product, each step dramatically influences cacao’s aromatic complexity used to make chocolate, independently from a country or even regions in the same country. Instead, mass-marketed premium chocolate stresses hard on the high cocoa percentages but narrates ‘cocoa’ as a monodimensional flavor characterized as bitter and intense, void of secondary flavor nuances, such as fruity, spicy, floral, nutty, etc.
Furthermore, fine chocolate usually invests innovative thought and research when developing products that feature a particular type of inclusions—nonchocolate ingredients added to exalt or juxtapose the texture and flavor of chocolate. For example, combining similar elements such as dried cherries with dried strawberries is more complicated to get right in the chocolate than mixing salted almonds with candied orange peel, which happens to work by contrast and difference. Some specialty food inclusions for chocolate are exclusively local or rarer to source and prepare than more mainstream ingredients like pink Himalayan salt or toasted walnuts. Think of spices like cardamom or heirloom chili peppers from Central America, Filipino pili nuts, cupuaçu fruit from Brazil, and cocoa nibs rested in barrels of liquors in local distilleries for months before being ready to be used in chocolate.
Lastly, choosing different types of sweetener or milk, or a selected mix of different cacao origins constitute optional elements adding a higher value to fine chocolate. They all deepen the variety of layers and shades that only chocolate made from great cacao and raw materials can provide. Great-tasting fine chocolate is all about establishing an intimate connection with the consumer through an appreciation for its multiple layers and shades rather than giving a quick fix with a standardized profile.
As fine chocolate companies are committed to sourcing specialty cacao, paying premiums to farmers for sustainable practices, and boosting a holistic innovation in chocolate, we must wonder if mass-premium chocolate can be ‘excellence’ with only two dollars.