When it comes to cheap chocolate, the flavor of the cacao used doesn’t really matter.
Its tasting notes are mitigated by powerful ingredients like sugar, butter and milk. Sadly, cacao becomes just another unremarkable addition in the ingredients list. This makes sense though. The ultimate goal of low-quality chocolate is not savoring, but mindless eating. So whether it is fine or bulk, flavorful or flavorless, cacao is mercilessly overlooked in cheap chocolate.
But with craft chocolate, it’s another story.
Here cacao is King.
Its flavor is the main reason why consumers decide to pay a higher price-tag for their chocolate (unless they are deceived by clever marketing). Often accompanied only by sugar, cacao can’t hide behind other flavors. Its tasting notes are in the forefront, constantly scrutinized by attentive chocoholics.
Since this is chocolate crafted from the bean, every step of the process has the power to influence its end-flavor. The main players are genetics, terroir and fermentation at origin, and roasting and conching in the kitchen. But there are also other less remarkable steps that still have an impact, like transportation and storing.
The product delivered to consumers can therefore be inconsistent for many reasons. We can divide them in two categories:
- nature. The cacao tree is known to be very promiscuous. In the same farm, there can be many different varieties of cacao. But also the same tree can give birth to cacao pods with different genetics. Not only this, but even inside the same cacao pod there are cacao beans of different colors. Moreover, weather changes at origin are frequent and uncontrollable. It is clear how cacao farmers have limited control over what they are harvesting due to the behaviour of the cacao tree and the frequent changes in the weather (together with other thousand factors).
- human nature. So many variables affect the products that come out of a chocolate laboratory. Times, temperatures, machines, techniques. Also the skills of the chocolate maker might vary. He/she can do a very good job with certain cacao beans, but find more challenges with others. Even daily mood or energy level can influence the flavor of the chocolate. After all, an artisanal product is affected also by the physical and mental conditions of its creator. While bigger companies manage to keep consistency thanks to innovative hi-tech tools, smaller manufacturers can’t afford such luxuries.
This uncertainty in the end-result is considered by many “the beauty of craft chocolate”. But the marketplace might say otherwise.
The demand-supply game requires some level of consistency. Consumers expect to spend their money on chocolate that tastes like the last time they bought it and enjoyed it. Among many choices, they trust those brands that can deliver products that match their previous positive experiences. If they feel betrayed, it will be hard for a brand to get those customers back.
So, is inconsistency the beauty or the damnation of craft chocolate?
Let’s analyze what’s good and what’s bad about consistency and inconsistency in chocolate flavor development.
Consistency in craft chocolate means that (ideally) a specific chocolate bar will have the same flavor profile over time. In this scenario, consumers can rely on a specific set of tasting notes that belongs to that bar. This is in fact the first advantage of consistency: returning customers.
Even consumers who understand the fluctuating nature of craft chocolate need some predictability during their shopping. They expect the same flavor from the same chocolate. It doesn’t matter how well educated they are on the subject. They are not afraid of manifesting their disappointment whenever a chocolate maker changes supplier, recipe or doesn’t keep up with standards and expectations. And if consumers are not happy, retailers and distributors are not happy either.
Consistency is a touchy subject for craft chocolate retailers and distributors.
It’s not easy to have craft chocolate makers as suppliers. Some of them take bean-to-bar making as a hobby and can’t guarantee a stable supply. Some others only produce in small quantities. There is also the frequent problem of interrupted supply of cacao beans at origin. If the chocolate maker changes supplier for a specific Single Origin bar, this might taste completely different from the previous one, even though it might hold the same country of origin on the packaging. In this chaos, those who sell directly to end-consumers need to guarantee quality standards for the products they sell. To them, consistency is a priority.
Last but not least, coverture made of craft bean-to-bar chocolate seems to be a new potential niche. Professional pastry chefs are developing great curiosity for this kind of chocolate, to the point that some of them become chocolate makers. This opens the doors to craft chocolate being sold in bulk for business-to-business purposes. But also pastry chefs need to serve desserts that are consistently good to their customers. The chocolate needs to guarantee a consistent harmony with all the other ingredients used in the recipe.
But why should inconsistency be forgiven to other fine foods (like wine and olive oil) and not to chocolate?
A wine expert knows that the best wines in the world are not made in large quantities.
They often come from small-scale companies that still use artisanal techniques. The vineyard is guarded by the attentive eyes of the owner, who personally handles the wine-making process and adds very little preservatives to the final product. It sounds a lot like craft chocolate. And like craft chocolate, even fine wine is highly affected by weather changes, genetics and diseases (compared to a larger production that can handle these variables more efficiently). Quality standards and flavor profiles widely vary depending on the season. This is why any suggestion about a specific bottle of wine is often accompanied by the year of harvest (of the grapes).
The same mentality should be used for craft chocolate.
If a chocolate bar had the same flavor profile over time, the beauty of craft chocolate would be lost. When consumers taste craft chocolate, they take joy in knowing that they might never try anything like that again. That the unpredictability at origin might interrupt the supply of that fine cacao forever. Or that the chocolate maker might decide to stop the production of that specific bar.
What makes craft chocolate special is the appreciation in the moment. It’s those specific tasting notes that might not be achieved in the next batch.
Inconsistency is definitely charming. Consumers never know what to expect from a craft chocolate bar. And let’s admit it, that’s kind of exciting.
On one side, consumers get attached to their favorite products, and can get upset with so much volatility in the craft chocolate world. But on the other side, this same volatility is what keeps them interested and curious.
Because the assortment of a chocolate maker changes so often, consumers are always looking out for the next product release. They are anticipating new origins, new flavors, new stories. They also know that a specific bar might not taste the same the following year, and they like to keep track of the changes. The assortment of a craft chocolate company can be compared to the seasonal menu of a restaurant. Chefs are excited to work with fresh ingredients, experiment with new products available, not knowing if they are ever going to get those same flavors again. And the clients of the restaurant anticipate the chef’s new creations.
At the same time, inconsistency might not matter as long as the flavors are consistently good.
A chocolate maker that puts on the market consistently good chocolate might be forgiven for his/her inconsistency. Flavors may change, origins may change, recipes may change. But if the artisan manages to deliver quality and flavor in every product, consumers might stay loyal even to a variable assortment.
However, there is one occasion where inconsistency becomes truly problematic: the Chocolate Awards.
There is a high risk that the chocolate tasted during these competitions is not going to be the same purchased by consumers. Any chocolate expert knows that the flavor of bean-to-bar chocolate made on a small scale can vary from batch to batch. Even with the same origin and the same making process, two chocolate bars can come out different from one another depending on when they were produced. It might be because of the supplier at origin, because of the current season or because of the skills of the maker. This is the same reason why the indication of the Batch Number in craft chocolate is becoming as important as the Year Of Harvest in fine wine.
As mentioned earlier, craft chocolate is to be appreciated in the moment, because it might be a unique, unrepeatable experience. But when the sticker of an award is appointed on the same chocolate bar throughout months and years, it creates the false illusion that the product is consistently good and worthy of attention. On the contrary, the volatile nature of craft chocolate encourages us to challenge the quality of a chocolate bar at every tasting.
Inconsistency can also compromise the relationship with distributors and retailers.
Consistency is very important to those who have to sell directly to consumers. If a chocolate maker can’t deliver a consistent or consistently good assortment, third parties might decide to interrupt the collaboration.
At this point, should craft chocolate makers try to achieve more consistency or should inconsistency be embraced and celebrated?
The best approach might lie in the middle way.
On one side, there are solutions to achieve more consistency in the craft bean-to-bar world. One of these is for chocolate makers to take detailed notes during every step of the process to find the reasons behind flavor changes from batch to batch. Working hard at origin to establish strict protocols and efficient practices is also a crucial step to take.
On the other side, there are solutions that help inconsistency be appreciated. Educating consumers on the bean-to-bar process is definitely one of them. This way, consumers are made more aware of the fluctuating nature of the flavors in craft chocolate. They can learn to appreciate the beauty of inconsistency and embrace the always-changing assortment of a craft chocolate maker.
What do YOU think about Consistency and Inconsistency in craft chocolate?
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.