Chocolate consumers can never get bored.
The range of products offered in 2016 by the fine chocolate industry is incredible. Chocolate bars with vegetable inclusions, Japanese flavors inside bonbons, cacao sourced from wild places, different types of sugar. From brave to old-fashioned, there is enough to suit every personality. To survive in such competitive market, the only hope for chocolate makers is INNOVATION.
Innovation takes up different meanings in the chocolate industry. It can involve fancy food combinations. Perhaps sourcing cacao from yet to be explored places. Sometimes it is a tiny difference in temperatures and machines.
Today, it can mean “BLENDING”.
A blended chocolate bar is the result of two different varieties of cacao that have been used together for the production of the same batch.
Since the meaning of Single Origin chocolate is still the subject of fierce discussions, it follows that also Blended chocolate is defined by blurred lines. The types of cacao used can differ in origins, plantations, genetics or even years of harvest. As long as they are somehow different, they can make up a blend. The only firm point is that blends include two different varieties of cacao that have been PURPOSELY put together.
The Theobroma Cacao is in fact already a very promiscuous plant.
Cross-pollination occurs so often that a tree can end up holding many fruits fertilized by a neighboring tree. One cacao pod could ironically already be called a blend. The difference is that, in the case of blended chocolate, the chocolate maker has voluntarily chosen two different cacao varieties and has proudly put them together.
The advantages and disadvantages in working with Blends are many, as the ones with Single Origins.
As David from Soma Chocolate, multi-award winning bean-to-bar in Toronto, describes it:
“With an Origin we try to reveal the character of the cacao. By experimenting with different roast/conch times and temperatures, we eventually find what we think is the best way to process any given bean to reveal its best attributes.
Blends are more like painting a picture using the different origins. We always work with about 10 different origins so we can build more or less the chocolate that we are going after. There are a lot of factors at play, and many different origins every season.
It is always a nuanced and dynamic process.”
Blending is an art that puts chocolate makers to the test.
Flavors from different terroirs, soils, weathers and DNAs have to collaborate and give a good result. Blending is also useful to work with those cocoa beans that are ordinary on their own but can be great in blends. Moreover, blends allow to manipulate the recipe to ensure a more consistent quality product. Some also say that blends work better with milk than single origins.
Huge fans of combining different varieties of cocoa beans are the guys at Raaka Chocolate, Brooklyn based bean-to-bar that has seen its sales skyrocket in the past years.
Co-founder and head chocolate maker, Nate reveals Raaka’s passion for blends:
” Raaka likes to use blends because we choose not to use roasting as a step to develop flavor. We want our flavors to come solely from the flavor of the unroasted cocoa beans.
As a result, some beans that we try to use to make single origin bars from can come off as being really unbalanced in flavor. Blending these beans is a way for us to balance and develop flavors in a conscious and deliberate way, just like someone who roasts works tirelessly to choose the temperature and time that best represent the single origin flavor of a particular bean.
We want to make chocolate that’s different, but also chocolate that people enjoy for its craft, and not just for its novelty.
In blends we can use cocoa beans like a painter mixes paint to form the perfect hue and create new colors. We use cocoa beans that may seem to have opposing flavors to craft flavors that are new, exciting and palatable.
One disadvantage to this is that it makes it harder to give a sense of place to the fantastic origins we are working with.”
When mixing cocoa beans from different origins, the terroir is obviously lost. The tasting profiles typical of a specific origin or variety become unrecognizable. This might be the reason why some chocolate makers prefer to avoid blends.
Taylor from Sirene Chocolate, bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Victoria (Canada), explains his reasons for not selling blends:
“I don’t make blends because what excites me about bean to bar chocolate (craft chocolate) is the variety of flavors possible from the various farms growing cacao beans. I love the challenge of maximizing the possibilities of a particular bean, and comparing the flavors of chocolate made from various farms’ beans.
This is the reason I put two bars in one package: I love the comparison. I believe diversity and difference are wonderful, and keep life exciting and interesting.
This is contrasted with blending where you are trying to achieve a specific flavor profile. I prefer to let the beans show what they naturally are rather than create a specific taste. I have no problem with others blending, but I just choose to focus on the wonderful variety that is possible.”
Blends are often accused of being a getaway to improve the flavor of imperfect beans.
Chocolate makers may be able to masquerade low-quality beans by mixing them with better ones. Who decides to work with blends also has a bigger “availability” problem. Both beans have to be always available, while it’s already a struggle to keep up with the consistency of a Single Origin product line.
David from Letterpress, bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Los Angeles, gives an unexpected point of view.
“We need to learn to crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run.
Every batch we make, we learn something from. We make tweaks to the roast, the timing of the sugar, the conching time, etc – all to learn and get better. Some people say we’re one of the best makers out there, others say we have a long way to go. I feel it’s important to try other makers’ chocolate as often as possible to calibrate.
My mentor, Dr. Nat Bletter of Madre Chocolate, came up with the term “conche mouth” to describe the phenomenon of believing your chocolate is better than it is because all you ever taste is your own chocolate. I have absolutely fallen victim of it, especially when we first started. All of that to say, LetterPress Chocolate isn’t a fixed point – we’re very much still in the development phase, learning as much as we can as we go.”
His reason to why there are no blends among his bars is clear:
“Blending is an art form.
We used to live near Napa Valley and learned there about microclimate and the concept of terroir from winemaker friends – but also about the art of blending. Most wine we found interesting was a blend. The possibilities are limitless when you have fantastic origins to use as your palette.
I simply don’t feel we’ve done everything we want to do with our origins yet. There has yet to be a batch we’ve made where I have said “Yup, that’s it. That’s the best that chocolate from that origin can be”.
Far from it.
Every batch we make, I see an opportunity to make a tweak for the next batch.
That being said, we have done blends as tests and have people evaluate them, and I would consider it as a matter of when, and not if we decide to start producing batches of blends. It will happen – and like some other jumps in our company’ past, maybe it will be driven out of NECESSITY rather than desire. One of the best things that happened to us was being kicked out of our apartment – our landlord threatened to evict us if we didn’t move all our chocolate making out – and when we moved into a commercial kitchen, we found huge efficiency gains and a sudden jump in overall quality.
The eventuality of blending may be, again, more out of necessity than desire – but it will lead to very interesting chocolate. And that’s kind of the point, right?”.
Either it be single origin or blend, chocolate consumers care about flavor above everything. As long as the chocolate has a satisfying taste, the use of one or more types of cocoa beans might not be so relevant in the end.
Do YOU prefer Single Origins or Blends?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.