I throw a lot of terms around, like “bean-to-bar” and “confection,” and I’ve never really sat down and defined what I mean by those terms. I’ve defined three words: chocolate makers, chocolate blenders, and chocolate confectioners, to the best of my ability. I’ve also listed some of my favourites in each category. These are not exhaustive lists, and I know that I’ve forgotten (or simply don’t know about) some great stuff out there. If I’ve offended you…well, that’s just too bad.
Anyway. Here we go.
Also called bean-to-bar producers, chocolate makers actually make chocolate. They start with cacao beans and process them into the delectable thing that we know as chocolate. Typically, the chocolate comes in the form of chocolate bars, or chocolate pistoles (giant, flat chips). This chocolate is sometimes sold to consumers, while some is sold exclusively to industry folks.
Chocolate makers buy dried, fermented cocao beans from farmers, though their level of involvement in the growing, fermenting and drying process can vary. Some chocolate makers work very closely with farmers, while others deal exclusively with bean brokers and never meet the growers.
Chocolate makers are one part agricultural expert, one part production engineer, and one part artisan. They need to understand cacao (an agricultural product), be able to transform it through a series of steps (that’s the engineering part) and create something delicious, nuanced and distinctive at the end (definitely an artistic pursuit).
Some of my favourite small-batch producers: Amano Artisan Chocolate, Soma Chocolatemaker, Claudio Corallo, Theo Chocolate, and Askinosie Chocolate. I’ll also admit that I’m partial to working with Valrhona chocolate, thought they’re far from small-batch.
Chocolate blenders don’t make chocolate, but they buy chocolate and blend it. This is less lame than it sounds. It’s not quite bean-to-bar, but there’s still a fine art to blending a chocolate mixture that is delicious and distinct. Think about an artist’s palette; while the colours come in a tube, the right mixture of colours can express something that stock colours can’t.
I don’t taste as much blended chocolate as I do bean-to-bar chocolate, but I was impressed with Chocolove’s 73% organic dark chocolate bar. You can read about it here.
Chocolate confectioners are what most people think of when you say chocolatier: someone who takes chocolate and creates bonbons, pralines and truffles. Way back when, the term chocolatier meant someone who took chocolate from bean to confection, but not anymore.
Chocolatiers don’t typically make their own chocolate. It’s partly economic, and partly because the two tasks are so very different. The equipment required is completely different, and it really doesn’t make sense to have the equipment to process chocolate and turn it into bonbons. (Two exceptions: Soma Chocolatemaker and Theo Chocolates are both bean-to-bar producers and chocolatiers.)
Quality confectioners work with quality ingredients: chocolate, but also with cream, sugar, spices, fruits, nuts, and liquor. Beware of fondant, corn syrup, or – to quote Michael Pollan – “anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.” The lack of preservatives in quality confections means that these treats have a limited shelf life: 3 weeks, at most.
There are a lot of folks out there masquerading as top-end chocolatiers. Some of them are pretty good – say, an 8 out of 10. And then, there are some whose attention to detail, flavour profiles and execution are all there. If you want to impress me, bring me something from Thomas Haas, Christopher Elbow, Norman Love, Kee’s Chocolates, Vosges, or La Maison du Chocolat.
P.S. Thomas Haas is opening a new location in Vancouver, next to Lumiere. Boss-man says that it’ll be open in mid-October. Wheee!