Bean-to-bar craft chocolate – the taste test

12 February 2016

Chocolate bar

Bean-to-bar chocolate is the growing trend amongst those looking for a more small-scale and ethical indulgence. It comes from small scale craft producers who buy in the raw cacao beans – often from single estates where the bean variety, growing environment and working conditions are known – and carry out every stage of the process themselves.

The result should be high quality chocolate with a more distinctive edge than industrial-made blends. Like the variations in a fine wine, you can get to know the distinctive qualities of each bean variety. The skill of the producer in getting the right bean roast (and doing this consistently, batch after batch), and controlling the other variables to best effect, is what determines the quality of the final product. Every variable will change the taste. And that’s what makes it a dynamic, interesting phenomenon.

Craft producers can produce some mighty fine chocolate for those looking for something of value

Which is fine for the chocolate snobs – the ones who will look down their nose at any industrial chocolate and could, with a blind tasting, tell you where it came from and whether it has had a hint of vanilla added – but what about the rest of us? I love chocolate (of course) and particularly dark chocolate with rich grown-up flavours. So how would the relatively unrefined palate of the amateur enthusiasts find the bean-to-bar revolution?

It’s an important question, because if there’s one thing this new trend in chocolate isn’t – it’s cheap. The bars that we tasted were between £5.50 and £7 – approximately £1 per 10g of chocolate. So is it worth the extra?

Joining me in the taste test was Charlotte Österman, Sustainability Advisor at VINCI Facilities (but tasting chocolate in a personal capacity!). Charlotte joined the ranks of what I call the progressive sustainability-minded professionals following a course on CSR in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is where we originally met. If listening to me for a combined seven hours talking about CSR didn’t put her off, then I knew she had the strength and resilience for this particular trial!

The chocolate bars
The contenders - Damson Chocolate, Duffy's, Mast Brothers

The chocolate

We sampled three different brands of bean-to-bar goodness. In alphabetical order, they were:

  • Damson Craft Chocolate – Madagascar 70%, from Sambirano Valley, Äkesson Estate
  • Duffy’s – Panama 72% Tierro Oscura
  • Mast Brothers 73% Blend

 Two of these are British producers. The third – the slightly controversial Mast Brothers – are a US brand, but the bar in question was made at their shop in London.

If you missed the controversy around the Mast Brothers, you might want to listen to my podcast on the episode. The short version is that the marketing-conscious brothers, whose brand has become a runaway success for this sort of product, have been harshly judged by many in the chocolate industry. Their product has been dismissed as poor quality. Their integrity has been called into question. We won’t go through it all again here. The podcast is well worth a listen if you’re interested. But, precisely because of all the fuss, we had to include one of their bars to try it for ourselves.

Chocolate making
Chocolate being made at Mast Brothers, London

They do, however, successfully convey the process effectively at their store in London. When you first walk in, you’re confronted by the cacao bean sacks. And, whilst the store itself is Apple-inspired in terms of its simplicity, behind a large window you can see the chocolate being made. You can’t help but feel close to the process. 

Incidentally, Charlotte wasn’t aware of any of that when we carried out the tasting. So her tasting, at least, was not affected by knowledge of what people thought we should think!

As for the other producers, Duffy’s is one of the most successful British bean-to-bar producers, and has won a fair number of awards. And Damson Craft Chocolate is Dom Ramsay, who has written chocablog.com for eight years, and has now turned producer himself. His bars have already won bronze awards at the Academy of Chocolate Awards, so even if it’s early days, he’s clearly one to watch. 

The rules for the tasting were simple. We had to describe what we tasted, and then rank them in our order of preference. It’s a matter of personal preference, of course, and our pick wouldn’t necessarily be your pick. However, we did reach agreement on our ranking very easily.

The tasting

First off, it’s worth noting one thing before we go any further. All of these products were good, at least to our taste buds. The requirement to identify a ranking in no way suggests there was any kind of ‘good-to-bad’ scale going on here.

Also – did we choose the right three? I chose ones that would be quite similar – simple 70% approx dark chocolate. It seemed as good a way as any to get some sense of comparative quality. 

First off, we tasted the Damson bar. The chocolate was distinctively fruity, with berry flavours and perhaps not so much of the bitter overtone that you associate with dark chocolate. It was the most individual of the three in that regard – the one that you could most obviously say had different characteristics because of the bean variety.

The Duffy’s bar was quite different. Charlotte said she got tastes that were woody, tobacco and leather, something like smoky wood or ashes. She said the woodiness made her think of Ikea (well, she’s Swedish, what can you expect? Incidentally, the tasting notes also mention the leather, so you have to give her top marks for picking some of these flavours out. She was much better than me at this). There was a hint of vanilla.

It was certainly more complex – elements of liquorice were there as well. And that mature bitterness in the aftertaste.

Finally the Mast Brothers bar. Note, that out of the three this was the only one that was a blend of beans rather than a single variety. Here, Charlotte detected marzipan, strawberry and we both agreed it had the taste of some kind of liquor – maybe rum.

It was the one out of the three that was most similar to good quality supermarket-bought chocolate, which I suppose isn’t so surprising since it was a blend. Some of the critics who have slammed Mast Brothers in recent months have said their chocolate tastes ‘chalky’. We didn’t get that with this particular bar.

Charlotte with the winning bar
The winner of our three - Duffy's

So how did we rank them? All three were good, and we would definitely happily eat any of them. However, our preference went thus: Duffy’s took the first prize. Lovely, rich, complex chocolate that was something special. Second, was the Mast Brothers bar. Third, Damson.

That probably says more about our preferences than it does about quality. We had the Damson Madagascar bar, which confirms on the taste notes on the website the intense fruitiness of the experience. We could, instead, have opted for the Nicaraguan Chuno 70% with more of a nutty profile, and that might have placed it differently in our ranking system.

So two conclusions from this. One – craft producers can produce some mighty fine chocolate for those looking for something of value. Two – for all the criticism of the Mast Brothers from some of the critics, their product neither stood above nor below the other ones we tasted.

Is bean-to-bar chocolate worth the extra money? Yes, if you want to get closer to the actual process that is chocolate and get to see some of the different complex flavours that there are from the natural bean. If you just like to stuff chocolate in your mouth and chew for the vaguely chocolatey hit – then no.

The chocolate (none of these are affiliate links and, of course, nobody paid money for this review).

Damson Craft Chocolate

Duffy's

Mast Brothers

This post first appeared on my other blog, the Respectful Business Blog.