What Are The Benefits Of Single Origin Chocolate?
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
Anyone with any kind of relationship with chocolate, may have noticed a recent change within the supermarket confectionary aisle. Sneeking in amongst the big name chunky chocolate brands are a new breed of thin, high percentage and high price, luxury chocolate bars.
Many of these new bars will proudly boast a single country of origin. Just like other gentrified food stuffs - wine, coffee, tea - chocolate is going through something of a geographical awaking. The flavour and value of a bar is no longer just down to its brand name, mix of ingredients, or packaging, but assessed by the very soils in which the original cocoa bean is grown.
But what does single origin actually mean? Are there really any benefits to choosing a single origin bar? And, most importantly, does it really make any difference to the taste?
This is what I tried to find out.
What is single origin chocolate, and why the fuss?
Single origin chocolate, as the name suggests, means that all the cocoa used in the bar can be traced back to a single country of origin.
My interest in single origin was sparked by a recent trip to Grenada, a cocoa-growing part of the Caribbean. On visiting three different cocoa plantations, I came to understand that the soils, growing conditions and processing methods of Grenada were distinctive. The taste of the resulting chocolate was also distinctive, and made all the more special through my appreciation of the people and landscapes involved in its production.
Historically, most of the chocolate we consume in the UK is blended. For brands like Cadbury, Nestle, and Galaxy the two key factors when it comes to chocolate are cost and consistency. Taking cocoa beans from multiple locations - some of which will be low grade and some higher - helps them with both. If buying a bar of Cadbury’s Bournville, you know the price will be reasonable and thanks to the other ingredients added, the taste predictable.
Single origin chocolate bars aim for a higher quality bar with a more nuanced taste. Despite containing the same ingredients and percentage of cocoa, the different beans and treatments will mean the taste and texture of a Peruvian 75% bar should be distinct from a Costa Rican 75% bar (we will be testing this assumption later).
The benefits of single origin chocolate.
Yet the whole issue of single origin is inevitably more complex than this.
Firstly, single origin refers only to the origin of the cocoa beans, not to its place of production. While the idea of cocoa beans picked from the trees being crafted into chocolate next to the plantation is lovely, in the majority of cases beans are still just exported in bulk to europe for production. Despite proudly boasting a country of origin on the packet, all the single origin bars we tried in our taste test were actually produced in Switzerland.
Secondly, single origin doesn’t always mean single location. Some chocolatiers will be able to trace their cocoa back to a single plantation (commonly called ‘bean to bar’ production), but others will still be blending - just with cocoa beans from the same country. Ecuador is known for the quality of its cocoa, but also for its diversity of terrain. According to experts, ecuadorian cocoa beans can vary hugely in taste (from fruity to nutty) meaning that an Ecuadorian single origin bar can taste completely different depending on the exact origin of the bean and whether different beans are blended together. That’s before you even get to the variation in other ingredients added.
Thirdly, there is an implied association between single origin and fairtrade - but this isn’t necessarily true. The higher price and ability to trace beans back to origin does increase the chances that cocoa farmers are getting a better deal - but it is not assured. Despite the single origin label, it is still important to check for the Fairtrade logo or research the individual suppliers’ commitment to its growers.
However, despite these complications there is wide consensus that a trend towards more expensive, single origin chocolate, can only be a good thing.
Over the last decades, chocolate has shifted from a coveted luxury into a mass-market sweet. The result is a crushing of prices for growers, a reduction in bar quality and a global shortage of cocoa beans.
Encouraging consumers to eat less, but higher quality chocolate, will help reverse this trend. When I spoke to growers in Grenada I expected them to tell me that global chocolate demand was giving them record prices for their prized crops. Instead, they said that wholesale prices for their beans are still low as middle men and manufacturers expand their profits. These growers see niche, single origin chocolate by boutique chocolatiers as the way to get a much better deal for their beans. The Belmont Estate - one of Granada’s most famous plantations - has already stopped selling to the big confectionary brands on a quest to produce their own single origin bar for export.
Does single origin chocolate taste any different?
So there is definitely something behind the single origin trend - but does this make any difference to the taste experience? There is a good way to find out.
Mackensie and I conducted a blind taste test of four supermarket single origin high percentage chocolates along with two blended varieties. Click here for full details of the chocolate taste test.
What surprised us as amateur chocolate tasters is that even though each chocolate contained the same 4 ingredients (cocoa mass, cane sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla), there were huge variations in how each looked, snapped in the hands, felt in the mouth, and tasted. The subtle flavours of each bar ranged from cherry and red berries, through to charcoal and coffee. So it is clear that not all cocoa tastes the same.
However, when we tried to match the chocolate samples to their countries of origin things became unstuck. Neither of us could match the supposed distinct ‘characteristics’ of each region to the taste of the chocolate. In fact the results showed that the differences in the percentage of cocoa solids (the chocolates ranged from 72% to 85%) was the biggest determinant of taste with the lower percentages tasting more fruity, and the higher percentages more earthy. That said, even as amateur tasters, we could still tell a slight difference in chocolates of the same percentage such as the the Peru 75% (sweet, with a touch of balsamic vinegar) and the Costa Rica 75% (more bitter, with a flavour of red wine).
A bigger blow to single origin came in the comparison to the blended varieties. Neither of us picked the blended varieties as being any more ‘bland’ or of lower quality than the single origin varieties.
Should you buy single origin chocolate?
So to the big question, should you start buying single origin? While spending more, and eating less, seems to be a positive step - it doesn’t necessarily have to be single origin.
Every chocolate is unique so the main thing is to find a flavour you love from a producer who cares how its made. If this means months of trying every boutique chocolate you find, then so be it.