If you are passionate about small-batch coffee and specialty coffee roasteries, it’s likely that you’re a foodie who enjoys good eats and drinks. You likely value quality and technique, and support specialty foods and ethical trade when possible. If that’s the case, craft chocolate is right up your alley.
In many ways, the craft chocolate industry and specialty coffee scene are strikingly similar in business values and product quality.
Both industries, in recent decades, have moved away from lower quality, mass-produced goods made by large manufacturers. In its place, the craft movement has gained ground in the form of bean-to-bar chocolate companies and small-batch coffee roasteries. These businesses operate on a significantly smaller scale and offer high-quality products by giving more attention to technique and craftsmanship.
Specialty coffee is arguably in its third or fourth wave of development. According to the National Coffee Association of America, specialty coffee accounts for 55% of the coffee market. By contrast, craft chocolate is not as far along, comprising about 6% of chocolate production in 2015 according to the International Cocoa Organization.
Even though craft chocolate has a smaller industry footprint, makers are pursuing the same long-term goals of sourcing, fair trade, and sustainability celebrated by specialty coffee.
Both craft chocolate and specialty coffee place a high value on the raw product, by this we mean the cocoa and coffee beans respectively. The regions and farms where these beans are thoughtfully grown and processed are referred to as “origin” and celebrated by specialty shops. Interestingly, there is a lot of overlap between the two products.
Cocoa is harvested from Theobroma cacao - a small tree that thrives in tropical regions. Like coffee trees, there is a similar cocoa belt around the world where Theobroma cacao flourishes. This geographical area is along or near the Equator in Latin America, as well as the tropics of western Africa, and Asia.
Cocoa beans are in fact seeds that are extracted from the fruit that grows on cacao trees, in the same way that coffee beans are harvested from berries that grow on coffee trees. Cocoa beans are found inside oblong, football-shaped cacao pods that produce 20-60 seeds per pod. Coffee beans are extracted from coffee berries that produce, on average, two beans per berry.
Coffee beans have a few main varietals, like Arabica and Robusta, from which various offshoots or mutation varietals have developed over time. Like coffee and even wine, cocoa beans also have different varietals - Forastero, Criollo, Trinitario, and Nacional. Each cacao varietal thrives in various geographical regions and conditions, and has unique characteristics in terms of appearance and especially flavor. Depending on those qualities and the available supply, some varietals like Criollo are more valuable than others.
Cacao pods and coffee berries on any given tree ripen at various times, and so both products require small farms and its farmers to manually handpick the fruit as it ripens. Both Theobroma cacao and coffee trees grow for about 5 years before bearing fruit.
After the cacao pods are harvested, farmers open the pods and remove the beans from the pulp. The beans are then piled together to begin fermentation. Depending on the varietal, cocoa beans can ferment for 2-10 days, during which a number of chemical reactions occur to develop the flavors and color of the cocoa beans.
For coffee farmers, coffee beans are extracted from the coffee berries in one of two ways - dry process or wet process. Either process removes the pulp from the beans while developing varying degrees of acidity, body, and aroma that compose the bean’s flavor.
Both cocoa and coffee beans are then dried to reduce moisture levels. Afterwards, cocoa beans are aged for 30 days. Coffee beans, on the other hand, immediately undergo milling to hull, clean, grade, and polish the green coffee beans.
The post-harvest process is crucial for cocoa and coffee beans alike. It demands knowledge and expertise to ensure that flavors are properly developed and quality is not compromised. Minor missteps can ruin a good harvest.
To make chocolate and coffee for consumers, both cocoa and coffee beans are roasted to draw out the unique flavors of the bean’s origin. This requires technique on the part of chocolate makers and coffee roasters, who work to strike the right balance between over roasting and under roasting the beans.
There are some companies that make chocolate from raw or unroasted beans in order to preserve bolder flavors. Coffee beans, however, always need to be roasted in order to be brewed into coffee. There are instances of products that use unroasted green coffee extract, but it typically functions as an additive or supplement for energy and nutrition.
Despite its many similarities, chocolate and coffee differ in its usage of “dark” as a description of its product.
For chocolate, when a chocolate bar is referred to as “dark” chocolate, this is in reference to the ratio of cocoa to other ingredients. So, the higher the concentration of cocoa solids and cocoa butter directly correlates to how “dark” it is. Typically, a craft chocolate bar is made using the two ingredients cocoa and sugar. Chocolate that contains 50% to 90% cocoa is labeled dark chocolate.
However, when discussing coffee, “dark” coffee is specifically in reference to the type of roast. For instance, a dark roast means the coffee was over roasted to achieve a specific flavor profile, such as smokey and caramel tasting notes. A light roast means that the coffee was under roasted and preserves flavors of the bean’s origin like the fruity and floral notes that may be unique to that region or farm.