Chocs away

Harmony Marsh of craft chocolate subscription service Cocoa Runners explores the similarities between craft beer and craft chocolate


Over the past few years, from Budapest to Brooklyn and Saigon to San Francisco, a growing band of cacao farmers and small batch chocolate makers have been pioneering a revolution in single estate, craft chocolate. Just as with beer and its grains and hops, the key to great chocolate starts with amazing beans. Both too require careful harvesting, fermentation and a knack for craft. And just as with beer, with chocolate “less is more”. Craft chocolate makers are all about coaxing the full flavour of their beans, adding and taking away as little as possible.

What we call Single Estate Craft Chocolate is chocolate made directly from bean to bar, crafted in ‘small’ batches with a conscious effort behind the sourcing of the cacao and other ingredients.

Craft chocolate makers source their cacao based on flavour, transparency and the farmers. Why the farmers? Because craft chocolate makers want to celebrate all the work that cocoa farmers do in their growing and post-harvest practices. 

The overall experience - flavour, texture and mouthfeel - of a craft chocolate bar is thus an orchestration of cacao genetics and terroir, the farmers’ post-harvest practices, and the chocolate maker’s processing of ‘bean to bar’.

Different styles of chocolate making

The style of a chocolate maker involves the many steps and processes chosen whilst crafting chocolate. One of the first major steps in the bean to bar process is the roasting. Similar to beer with roasting malts for darker beers, roasting cacao attributes to the flavour of the final product and it too undergoes a Maillard reaction. Similar to coffee too, think of your light, medium and dark roasts.

Another important step is the grinding, refining and “conching”. The grinding of cacao and sugar is to reduce the particle size of the chocolate, allowing for a smoother - or rougher - texture. During and more-so after the grinding, the chocolate maker will ‘conche’ its chocolate. Conching involves heat and aeration of the molten chocolate, with its main purpose to smooth out the particles of the cocoa and sugar. Conching helps evenly distribute the cocoa butter within for a smoother texture and helps with the flavour development and overall balance of flavour - not too acidic, not too bitter.

Craft chocolate makers source their cacao based on flavour, transparency and the farmers

Single estate craft chocolate is often separated into two incredibly broad categories: USA style and French style. American craft chocolate is typically made with just two ingredients: cacao beans and sugar. Whereas ‘French style’ chocolate is known for its extra added cocoa butter, some adding much more than others, making it much creamier on the palate and buttery in texture. Both however, are fond of a smaller particle size in their chocolate and conching. The French and Americans also tend to use different grinders and conches – the French rely on their heritage with a preference for “longitudinal conches”, whereas Americans prefer converted ball mill refiners and grinders based off indian lentil grinders.

These two styles of chocolate making are not the be-all and end-all. It might be easier to see these two styles as opposites on a spectrum. The former associated with a ‘purer’ flavour and representation of the bean, the latter more of a ‘traditional’ style of chocolate making - something one might consider more indulgent. There are of course chocolate makers who go against their nation’s tradition grain, for example American chocolate makers using additional cocoa butter or French makers not using added cocoa butter at all. We typically see more variation within the two parties than between them. Case in point, stone-ground chocolate.

Taza in Somerville, Massachusetts crafts ‘stone-ground’ chocolate from solely cocoa beans and cane sugar. The chocolate has a gritty and biscuit-like texture, and to achieve this rustic style Taza follows a short grind of its cacao and sugar - i.e. the chocolate has a much larger particle size, and also omits ‘conching’. This style is neither distinctly American nor French, but it would have been how all chocolate was made about 150 years ago - way before conching had been invented!

Looking at chocolate that’s crafted in countries where cocoa grows, for example Menakao who crafts its chocolate in Madagascar, the style typically lies somewhat in the middle between the American and French approach. This also rings true for chocolate that’s crafted in Peru, the Philippines, Brazil, to name a few. Majority of the single estate chocolate crafted at origin is smooth in texture and also conched, however typically the particle size is a little rougher than American and French styles. Again, fortunately this is not the be-all and end-all as each maker has its own distinct style.

Terroir in cacao 

Terroir is the French word for soil, and when used in the context of single estate wine it refers to a region’s climate, soil and terrain. However, it too is prevalent in the growing of single estate cacao.

Much like how the varieties of cocoa and the post-harvest practices affect the flavour of cacao, the soil and climate conditions often result in some cocoa growing regions (“origins”) having distinct flavour profiles. For example, Madagascan cacao will often have very strong notes of red fruits or citrus, whereas Ecuadorian cacao is often more vegetal and earthy. Indeed, cacao that is also grown in the same country but in different regions, for example Cusco versus Piura in Peru, the cacao will have very different flavour profiles. This is what we refer to as “terroir” in chocolate.

Pairing tips

When pairing beer and chocolate, we recommend assembling 3-4 bars; ideally from different cacao regions and of different intensities. Here is a great opportunity to also introduce different chocolate makers (and from different countries!) 

Do the same with beer. Introduce different styles – from NEIPA to fruit-led sours to chocolate stouts.

Invite at least one – and ideally more – friends. We strongly encourage sharing the pairing experience with more people, as no two palates are the same – but foremost because it is a really fun experience! 

Have some water on hand and any neutral palate cleansers, such as bread.

When choosing the bars and beers, look for flavours and textures that not only match (e.g. smoked chocolate with smoked beer), but pairings that also contrast (e.g. stone-ground chocolate with a smooth beer). Some pairings work together by layering or fulfilling complexity (e.g. a fruity, complex Belgian beer with a rich, indulgent bar akin to chocolate pudding).

We recommend trying the following combinations:

Tempest Brewing Co’s Black Kolsch x Taza Chocolate’s Cinnamon Chocolate Mexicano

This rich, incredibly deep stone-ground chocolate is a surprisingly perfect partner to Tempest’s crisp, bitter black Kolsh. Neither dominates, but the contrasting mouthfeel is really interesting, while the beer draws out the cinnamon, and different kinds of bitterness layer on your tongue.

71 Brewing’s Après Apricot Session Pale x TCHO Dark Milk Chocolate

A much more obvious match, the fudgy notes in Tcho’s smooth, creamy chocolate play very nicely with the floral apricot in the beer. Hoppy bitterness still provides a good counterpoint to what is otherwise a sweet chocolate.

Big Mountain’s IPA x Original Beans’ Cru Udzungwa 70% with nibs

A fantastically complex chocolate that reveals itself only gradually, with the cacao nibs adding wonderful texture as well as flavour. The finish is long, with bitter notes of Seville orange, which pairs perfectly with the tropical Simcoe and Centennial hops of Big Mountain’s flagship IPA. Both beer and chocolate strike a balance between smoothness, bitter astringency and zesty sweetness. A great match.

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