Bean to bar chocolate is the cocoa world equivalent of single malt whisky. A more uniquely flavourful alternative, that speaks the language of the land where it came from. Those of you into wine can call it terroir. Metaphors aside, chocolate can truly be a lot more similar to wine and whisky than we imagined. And some bean to bar chocolate makers in India are using Indian origin cacao (almost the same as cocoa) to help you experience that purity, honesty and complexity in flavour, through quality natural ingredients and small-batch handcrafting.
This artisanal movement is picking up steam, but many of us don’t quite know what bean to bar chocolate is all about. Our notions about chocolate are still somewhat unidimensional and defined. So with the aim of demystifying bean to bar chocolate and to help you understand and appreciate it better, I decided to take a full hands-on approach. I bought and tasted some chocolate from notable Indian brands Naviluna (formerly Earth Loaf), Mason & Co, Soklet and Pascati, and spoke to the people behind the brands to get to know the nuances that go into creating their gourmet chocolate bars.
Bean to bar chocolate in India is relatively nascent, but it represents our evolving tastes with growing exposure to the world through media and travel. We’re asking more questions as consumers and we’re looking for things made ‘the right way’. The artisanal movement is a direct response to this, as we speak of being more conscious and try to slow things down. Even if it means challenging things we have nostalgic ties to.
Simply put, bean to bar chocolate is when the entire process of making chocolate, right from the bean, is carried out by the same chocolate maker. There is a difference in making chocolate from cacao beans and creating confections and bars from cocoa powder or chocolate compound. The former is done by chocolate makers, the latter by chocolatiers.
To understand commonalities between bean to bar chocolate makers in India, the following can be said:
- They work directly with Indian cacao famers to help them produce higher quality, organic cacao beans.
- After fermenting and drying beans on the farms, they are sent to the facility to commence the chocolate making process. The steps involved here are hand sorting, roasting, winnowing, refining, conching, tempering, moulding and packing. (This has been discussed in a little more detail later)
- There is no use of chemical additives, emulsifiers, artificial flavours or preservatives. This keeps the chocolate raw and lets the cacao express its unique natural characteristics and flavours (much like a good wine).
- You are likely to be able to tell the difference in flavour of chocolate sourced from different farms and regions across India.
- The chocolate is almost entirely handcrafted and made in small batches to ensure control, quality and flavour.
These factors distinguish it from the chocolate we are used to and in many cases, also make it more expensive than its premium Swiss cousins. More on that below.
So what’s the big deal about bean to bar chocolate?
In early 2018 when I knew less about chocolate, I suddenly saw shelves of supermarket chains fill up with a lot of Indian chocolate. They’re the same brands I mentioned above – Naviluna, Mason & Co, Pascati and Soklet. I was a little confused by their prices, because the good-chocolate-price-benchmark to my mind was a 100 gram bar of Lindt. So my unaware mind drew certain (misinformed) conclusions about Indian chocolate. I had no idea about what bean to bar was or why it even mattered.
Still, I was happy we were producing artisanal, gourmet chocolate locally. So I tried understanding what was going on by figuring out why these Made in India chocolates were different. Through closer scrutiny of ingredient labels, correlating them with taste and speaking to a few people in the business, I came to realise some things:
- Premium chocolates from big global brands usually have additives (like vanilla) that can mask flavour and hide imperfections and unpleasant flavour notes of the cocoa.
- In many cases, the cocoa big corporations use is put through an alkalisation process to neutralise flavour, balance acidity and make the taste profile more consistent.
- Machine processes the beans are put through tend to take away the naturally complex flavours of cacao that are derived from the soil, climate and surroundings.
- They are very high in sugar and often, cocoa isn’t even the major ingredient
- Cocoa beans are mostly sourced from Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa, where there is rampant child trafficking and slavery on cocoa farms.
So while all chocolate most certainly isn’t created equal, that which is made by hands and without chemical additives to let cacao express its terroir naturally, is going to have better chances of pleasing our palate and senses.
Indian grown cacao beans
I’ve used cocoa and cacao interchangeably so far, so a little bit on that. The tree which bears the fruit with beans is known as Theobroma Cacao. So while more raw versions of beans and its outcomes tend to be referred to as cacao, in its more processed form it’s called cocoa. Therefore, artisanal makers prefer saying cacao.
The plant itself has three major varieties – Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Criollo is considered the most premium, is native to the Americas and isn’t found in India any more. India tends to have a mix of Forastero and Trinitario, which are said to be relatively inferior in taste. At the same time, Forastero is the variety most of the chocolate we eat comes from – whether premium or otherwise. The quality of chocolate is also directly linked to the method of preparation. A Criollo with a heavy dose of vanilla and cocoa butter probably won’t be able to beat an artisanally made, bean to bar Forastero.
Essentially, we haven’t come far enough in our chocolate eating habits for these things to bother us just yet. Carefully grown and fermented Indian cocoa can still be pretty good, while also highlighting distinct local notes and flavours. This was something I came to appreciate after trying some local, single origin chocolates. Cacao in India is grown only in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Being dependent on climate, it can only be grown till about 20 degrees on either side of the equator.
Before bean to bar chocolate makers came into the picture, even the Indian cacao farmers were not incentivised to produce higher quality beans. They were selling their produce as a homogenous commodity to traders and large corporations.
The bean to bar chocolate making process
Briefly, the chocolate making chain goes something like this. Pods from the Theobroma Cacao tree are broken to extract the beans with the pulp surrounding them and are then left to ferment. This process takes a few days and is where a lot of the flavour development happens. After drying, the beans are transported to the chocolate making facility.
The beans are sorted by hand and then roasted. Roasting is another step to mould and develop flavour, though some chocolate makers leave it out to minimise processing. Next is winnowing where the shells are removed to obtain cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground and put through a process called conching. Conching uses frictional heat to develop the texture of the chocolate.
The final process is tempering, which helps control how the chocolate crystallises. If you’ve seen images or video of a chocolate making process, this is where the chocolate is spread on a marble slab and worked around. After this, the chocolate is poured into moulds and packed.
I mention this process to demonstrate that there are multiple steps which provide chocolate makers room to develop and express flavour, while also putting their own signature on it. Every chocolate maker will do some of these steps differently. So with a combination of technique and terroir, you are going to get something unique with each maker and cacao source. In the case of bean to bar makers in India, almost all of these steps are done by hand.
India’s premier chocolate makers
Getting into who’s doing what in India, there are mainly four notable bean to bar chocolate makers, if we consider those operating at some level of scale. These are Naviluna, Mason & Co, Soklet and Pascati. While All Things is a popular homegrown brand for chocolates as well, they were originally working with Belgian chocolate. However, they have recently started their bean to bar journey too with some offerings and it will be interesting to see how that takes shape.
For each of the brands I spoke to and whose chocolates I tried, here’s an overview of their philosophy, flavour profile, specialties, where you can buy them and prices.
Naviluna (formerly Earth Loaf)
Naviluna started as Earth Loaf in Mysore and are India’s first bean to bar chocolate makers, going back to 2012. They have David Belo at the helm, who lived in South Africa and England before settling in India. David is a strong believer in the artisanal movement and likens bean to bar chocolate to listening to music on vinyl.
Their philosophy is to keep it as raw and simple as possible, focusing on two ingredient chocolate – cacao beans and coconut sugar. So they don’t even add cocoa butter to their chocolate. Another thing they do differently is not roasting the cocoa beans, but having a longer conching process instead. I believe they are the only ones in the country to not add any cocoa butter and not roast their beans.
I tried their 72% Karnataka Single Estate bar, bought from Blue Tokai. The aroma is rich, fruity and intense. It really hits your nose and tells you that there’s a lot going on here. The intensity and fruitiness continue when you taste it and the nuances then start to come through. At this point, it’s a little hard to believe that all the flavour is literally just coming from the cacao. Truly delicious.
The peacock is their emblem, seen in all their packaging and Naviluna means ‘of the peacock’ in Kannada. They use interesting local ingredients like jackfruit, lime and mango for some of their chocolates, while the Smoked Salt and Almond Chocolate Bar remains their best seller.
A list of all their stockists can be found by clicking here. You can also buy them online on Amazon. Price is ₹330 for a 60 gram bar.
Mason & Co
Mason & Co, based in Auroville, Pondicherry is run by Jane Mason and Fabien Bontems. They get most of their beans from Kerala and Tamil Nadu and work only with certified organic farms for all their ingredients. Mason & Co do a mix of plain and flavoured dark chocolates, with 70-75% cocoa, though they also have an 85% intense bar.
The brand’s facility has a women-only workforce and they work very closely with farmers to train them on best practices. Mason & Co focus on creating single origin chocolate, whereby the cocoa butter they add to their bars comes from the same beans that are being used for the chocolate. Cocoa butter is used to give the chocolate a smoother or more luscious texture and is generally responsible for the melt-in-mouth characteristic we associate with it.
The 75% Zesty Orange and 70% Sea Salt are their best sellers and I tried the latter. It’s very smooth tasting with the satisfying, familiar robustness of a dark chocolate and has a rich finish. Interestingly, the sea salt flavour comes through intermittently when you bite on a crystal and not consistently, giving it pleasing layers of tastes. I find it to be a very comforting chocolate.
You can locate a store close to you by clicking here. You can find Mason & Co chocolates at large chain supermarkets like Food Hall and Nature’s Basket and online on Amazon. Price is ₹295 for a 60 gram bar.
Soklet is India’s first Tree to Bar chocolate. Yes, they take it one step further from bean to bar, as they grow their own cocoa too. Soklet is run by brothers-in-law Karthikeyan Palanisamy and Harish Manoj Kumar in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu.
I found two things quite endearing about the brand. One, the name comes from how the locals in the region say chocolate. Two, their packaging takes inspiration from Kanjeevaram sarees, which is a really nice touch.
Pascati is India’s first USDA Organic and Fairtrade compliant chocolate maker. It was started in 2015 by Devansh Asher, who first tried making chocolate in 2014 using an idli grinder! Devansh is candid in stating that chocolate making is a learning process and that Pascati’s chocolate tastes a lot better today than it did when they first started. Separately, with bean to bar, there are some differences from one batch to the next as well, taking into account seasonal variations that change the cacao’s taste and character.
As with the others, Pascati’s flavoured bars do better than plain dark bars, with Blueberry Walnut being their best seller. However, I tried the 72% Dark Idukki Single Origin from Kerala. It has a prominent earthy aroma that draws you in before you taste it. You can really feel the complexity of flavour coming from the cacao when you taste it. There’s a floral and fruity character to it, with some spice at times, while the aftertaste goes back to earthy. It’s these shifts that make it special.
Devansh tells me cacao is not a mono-crop. It needs rotation with others like jackfruit, guava, banana, coconut and black pepper. By virtue of this rotation, hints of these flavours also make their way into your chocolate. And a good chocolate maker will take full advantage of that.
Visit the Pascati website for a full list of stores where their chocolate is available. You can also buy them online on Amazon. Price is ₹280 for a 75 gram bar.
Ultimately, why should you choose to eat chocolate that has been made bean to bar by the same maker? It’s better for your health – natural ingredients, less sugar and less processed cocoa, which retains more of its inherent benefits. Better to taste – finer raw materials and chocolate making craft that lets the cacao do the talking. And a better connection with what you consume – handcrafted chocolate made in small batches where you even know the origins of beans.
There is a lot more complexity and nuance to cacao than we give it credit for. I’m happy that some local chocolate makers are doing a wonderful job of bringing that out. After all, chocolate is something we are very deeply, emotionally attached to. But no matter where you stand on the chocolate-lover spectrum, I suggest trying a few things, if you haven’t:
- Flavoured bars are great, but try to really get to know the cacao through one of the plain dark bars. Flavoured bars are like sangria or whisky sour, while the plain dark bars are a nice Cabernet Sauvignon or a Speyside single malt straight up. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but you get what I mean…
- Keep the chocolate in your mouth for a little while. Let the different parts of your tongue tell you what flavours it’s getting.
- When you’re eating the chocolate, stop whatever you’re doing and focus on it. You won’t regret it.
Eat better and enjoy all that flavour!
What have your experiences with Indian chocolates been? I hope you share those with us along with any questions you may have. If your friends and family will enjoy reading about Indian bean to bar chocolate, please spread the goodness by sharing!