Frequently Asked Questions

Cacao, cocoa & chocolate.

You’ve got questions and we’ve got answers. Well, hopefully! We’ve done our best to answer as many questions as we get asked into one place. Just like with all our other sections we’ll keep on adding questions and updating answers as we go.

What is chocolate?

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree. The seeds are removed from pods that grow on the tree and are then fermented, dried, sorted, roasted, winnowed, ground, and conched to create what’s called cocoa liquor or cocoa mass. The liquor is a combination of cocoa butter and cocoa solids, which can be separated from each other. A chocolate maker can take these products, temper them and add sugar to make chocolate bars. Cocoa liquor can also be processed into other chocolate derived goods as well like milk chocolate, white chocolate, cocoa powder and cocoa compound.

What does the word “chocolate” come from?

Popularly the word chocolate is said to be derived from the Natuahl (Aztec) word chocolatl. There is evidence that this isn’t really the case and that the word chocolatl has Spanish origin and is from the 16th century. It is thought that the word chocolatl itself might have Aztec origins either in cacahuatl (meaning cocoa water), xocoatl (meaning bitter water) or in the Mayan term chacau haa (meaning hot water).

What is the difference between cocoa and cacao?

In our modern times both cacao and cocoa are used interchangeably at different points in chocolate’s processing. For the most part we use cacao to refer to the cacao tree and the pods that contain the seeds. Once the seeds are liberated from the pods it’s common to switch spellings and call them cocoa beans. However some people only refer to the seeds as cocoa beans once they have been fermented, dried, and roasted.

The word cacao has origins in the Mayan word kakaw.

Do all small companies do make their chocolate?

Depending on what you mean by “make” the answer could be yes or no. Many chocolate companies, large and small, do not grind their own cocoa beans to make chocolate. Instead they buy chocolate from other companies and then melt and temper the chocolate for their own needs. By melting and blending different chocolates a chocolatier can create new chocolates but they are not “making” chocolate from raw materials. We like to call these companies melters.

Bean-to-bar companies make chocolate by purchasing whole cocoa beans and processing them all the way to the finished product. We call these companies makers.

Farm-to-bar chocolate means that the chocolate maker or company controls the entire process from cacao growth to finished chocolate. These are grower-makers.

Though many chocolatiers do not make their own chocolate, and our focus here is on bean-to-bar chocolate, don’t think that all melters are taking an easy route. It’s simply a different approach. Getting a good result with any chocolate takes great skill and care.

What is bean-to-bar chocolate?

Bean-to-bar chocolate means that the chocolate maker is making the chocolate from whole dried cocoa beans. They own equipment to grind and conch the beans and control all of the ingredients that are added to the chocolate. Bean-to-bar is becoming much more popular now with small batch and artisanal chocolate makers. Some makers prefer the term craft chocolate.

What is farm-to-bar chocolate?

Farm-to-bar chocolate means that the chocolate company either owns or is involved directly with the farmers themselves. Farm-to-bar companies sometimes grow, process and package chocolate in the country of origin.

Is all bean-to-bar or farm-to-bar chocolate artisanal?

Short answer is no. Many large multinational chocolate corporations own their own cacao plantations and technically are making bean-to-bar or farm-to-bar chocolate, no matter the quality or product.

So although the bean-to-bar label does not mean the chocolate is artisanal, and artisanal chocolate may not be bean-to-bar, many artisanal and craft chocolate makers WILL tell you right on the package about what they do. Craft chocolate makers are proud of their product and where their beans come from.

Where does cacao/cocoa grow?

Cacao grows in many countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Central America. It also grows in Mexico and Hawaii in North America and in northern Australia as well. The range of cacao’s growth around the world is called the cocoa belt or the brown belt. This belt is a range up to 20º both north and south of the equator.

Visit here to see the belt and countries of origin.

How many types of cacao are there?

Cacao has a complicated genetic history that we are just beginning to understand. The three bean types seen most often on chocolate bar labels are forastero, trinitario and criollo but recent research has shown that there are many more strains of cacao out there. In general, forastero beans are considered bulk beans and beans from the trinitario and criollo strains are flavor beans, though this isn’t true across the board. We’ve had some great bars that were labelled forastero.

Flavor beans only account for about 5% of the worlds production. Some other cacao strains you may see are Nacional, Porcelana, Chuao, Java and La Red.

There is an organization called Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative (HCP) dedicated to identifying and preserving fine flavor cacao varieties as well as conservation of biodiversity and empowerment of farming communities.

How many types of chocolate are there?

There are three main types of chocolate produced: dark, milk and white. You can also find several dark-milk bars on the market.

There are also other commonly found chocolate derived products like gianduja, chocolate compound and cocoa powder and speciality chocolates like Mexican chocolate and raw chocolate. All of the mentioned chocolate products can be used in cooking, baking and manufacturing.

How is chocolate made?

Here is the simplified outline for making bean-to-bar chocolate. Cacao pods are harvested from the cacao tree and split open. Inside the pods is a pulpy fruit that contains the cacao seeds, also called cocoa beans. These beans are left to ferment, then they are sorted, dried and roasted. Once they have been roasted the beans are winnowed to remove their shells and break them into cocoa nibs.

The nibs are then ground down into cocoa liquor, also called cocoa mass, that contains the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter. This liquor is then processed to reduce the particle size of the cocoa using movement and agitation, and then refined to the finished texture.

The refining stage is a huge part of what makes chocolate seem like chocolate. It’s also a common point when additional ingredients are added to the cocoa mass to sweeten it or make milk chocolate.

Some chocolate makers age their refined chocolate before moving on the the tempering process. Tempering is a process of heating and cooling the chocolate in order to create optimal stability and texture.

As you can see making chocolate isn’t a simple process at all!

What are some ingredients added to chocolate?

The most common ingredient added to chocolate is sugar. Some very fine cacao’s are made into sugar free 100% bars but most dark chocolate comes in sweet, semi-sweet and bittersweet varieties. Other common ingredients are soy lethicin, which is a stabilizing emulsifier, and vanilla, which helps brings characteristics of the flavor forward.

Milk solids can also be added to cocoa mass to make milk chocolate. Milk chocolate can contain either a lot of milk solids, like 30%, or very little. If there are any milk solids in the chocolate it is technically milk chocolate. Even if it’s 1%.

From there many chocolate makers add in all kinds of additional ingredients. The skies the limit.

What is white chocolate?

White chocolate is actually just cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids and is actually a product derived from cocoa mass that contains no cocoa solids. Because of this it’s technically not chocolate though we still call it that. Fine white chocolates do exist and are very, very delicious.

What is couverture chocolate?

Couverture is high quality chocolate that contains added cocoa butter. It is used by chocolatiers for melting and tempering into bars, dipping and molding and within baking and confectionary. It is generally sold in large amounts either in slabs or in pistoles (small flat discs).

What is raw chocolate?

According to proponents, raw chocolate is made from cocoa beans that are not roasted nor brought about 120ºF/49ºC at any point in the process of making the chocolate. Raw chocolate advocates tout it as an healthier option to standard chocolate because they believe the low heat preserves more of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Critics of raw chocolate state that chocolate can not be considered raw because the fermentation process reaches temperatures exceeding 120ºF/49ºC. They also site evidence that raw chocolate is unsafe for consumption due to food safety concerns.

We encourage you to research both sides of the argument. No matter your opinion, there is no doubt raw chocolate offers a different set of flavors to chocolate lovers.

You may find raw chocolate labeled as virgin chocolate or unroasted chocolate.

What is gianduja?

Gianduja looks like milk chocolate but actually contains about a third of its weight in hazelnut paste. It was invented in Turin, Italy around 1800 when, due to blockades around Italy by the British Navy, Michele Prochet used the hazelnuts to extend the chocolate he had.

You can find it either solid or spreadable. 

What is that chocolate on my candy bar?

Chances are it’s going to be one of two products. Compound chocolate is made by removing cocoa butter (which is expensive) from cocoa liquor and adding in vegetable fats (which are cheap) to make a pseudo-chocolate. Or it could be one of many “chocolate-y coatings” made with or without any amount of actual chocolate solids and artificial flavors.

What is bloom/What is that white stuff on my chocolate?

There are two types of bloom found on chocolate: fat bloom and sugar bloom. Incorrect tempering or bad storage can create bloom on chocolate. When the chocolate isn’t allowed to set properly changes in the fat create fat bloom, whereas moisture creates sugar bloom. Fat blooms or sugar blooms are not molds and are safe to eat. However heavy blooms may make the texture and flavor of chocolate really poor and render the chocolate inedible. Or at least not as enjoyable.

How do I store my chocolate?

Store chocolate in a cool dry place out of the sunlight and preferably in an airtight container – chocolate will absorb strong smells if it has the chance.

Many people store their chocolate in the refrigerator but this isn’t a good idea. There is too much moisture in the fridge to keep chocolate properly. Plus it’s mentioned absorbency will suck up fridge odors too. It’s a quick way to ruin good chocolate. 

What does single-origin mean?

Single-origin implies that all of the beans in that chocolate bar come from the same geographic region.

What does single-estate mean?

Single-estate implies that all of the beans in that chocolate from the same farm or plantation.

What does the % mean?

The percentage on a bar of chocolate stands for the amount of cocoa products that are in the bar, both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Some bars add extra cocoa butter which boosts the cocoa percentage without increasing the amount of cocoa solids. That means two 80% bars could contain different amounts of solids and butter and in turn taste/feel drastically different The rest of the percentage is typically sugar.

How do you taste chocolate?

There is no set way to taste chocolate. However being observant with all of your senses will give you a lot of information about the chocolate before you even taste it. Be aware of its color and texture, how it snaps when you break it and start the tasting with your nose! Then you can put it in your mouth and start to taste it.

Many makers advocate letting the chocolate melt in the mouth without chewing it but this isn’t necessarily the best approach to all chocolates. Some chocolates release intense flavors when you crush them in your mouth. Some chocolates maintain an even flavor profile all the way through and others really change as you proceed. Some leave flavors in your mouth very different from where they started.

Whether you chew it, melt it or a bit of both just bring your full attention to what your experience and see what you find.

What are some tasting terms?

There are some terms borrowed from the wine and coffee tasting worlds and some unique to chocolate. Terroir refers to the place that the cacao was grown: the water, the air and the earth. Another word that’s similar is cru though terroir may be more in reference to the spirit of a place and cru to its physical location. Grand Cru  is sometimes tossed around and it implies great quality from a respected region/grower. 

Just like in wine; the nose refers to the smell of chocolate and body to the mouthfeel or viscosity. Thickness can also refer to the mouthfeel or viscosity as well. Raw can refer to a raw or bitter taste (not to be confused with raw chocolate) and so can the word brut, though brut can also refer to a bar with no sugar. Tannins give chocolate an astringency, like a strong tea or dry wine. Different varietals are different types of beans, some varietals are named after where they are grown so their cru is the same as their name.

You will find that some terminology has been invented as a marketing tool while other terms have practical applications. 

(Check out our glossary for more chocolate terminology.)

What do I look for when buying chocolate?

If you’re buying chocolate bars take a look at the packaging to see if the origin of the beans and/or bean type is listed. Knowing this information can really help you build your vocabulary as you taste more and more chocolate. Most chocolate makers will also tell you if the ingredients are organic or fair-trade as well but keep in mind 70% of the world’s chocolate comes from small farmers. Not all of them can afford organic certification so be wary and open-minded when trying something new.

A bar with a high percent value on it will generally be less sweet than bar with a lower percentage as it contains less sugar. Milk chocolates will generally be smoother and sweeter than darks.

Look around your city, and check out our directory, for various bean-to-bar chocolate makers in your area. Supporting small batch chocolate makers and local retailers is a great way to get started on your chocolate journey.

Does chocolate contain caffeine?

Like everything chocolate it’s not quite the simplest answer. Some texts say that cocoa beans do contain a small amount of caffeine (about 0.2% compared to about 1.5% for coffee beans). Others say that cocoa beans contain no caffeine and that it’s the stimulant theobromine, which is definitely within cocoa beans, that is responsible for all the properties associated with caffeine. Chemically the two are very, very close.

Bottomline is that chocolate does indeed have stimulant properties but exactly what those are is up for some debate.

Is chocolate good for you?

If you are asking if chocolate is as healthy as broccoli then the answer is no. Most chocolate contains sugar though there are brut or 100% chocolates with no sugar. Chocolate does have chemicals in it that do have positive effects on the body though. Studies have suggested dark chocolate helps blood flow and also releases endorphins in the brain due to the theobromine cacao contains.

Chocolate also contains magnesium which, along with the small doses of theobromine, can relax you. It also contains flavenol which is an antioxidant.

Chocolate is also known as an aphrodisiac though this might just be because chocolate is a thoughtful gift.

What is the best chocolate?

For some people money, ethics and nutrition inform the flavor of the chocolate they’re eating as much as the chocolate itself. The best chocolate is the chocolate that you love in all the degrees you think are relevant.