Single-origin chocolate is on the rise, prized for its distinctive flavor and rich personality. From humble cocoa bean to decadent bar, this definitive guide tells you why you should be buying this irresistible chocolate.
Single-origin chocolate showcases the terroir, or unique environment, of a place while also telling a story about the people who made it. Full of complex and provocative flavors, a single-origin bar, which simply contains cocoa beans from one country or geographic region, elevates chocolate to a place many of us have never previously imagined. Whether from a small-batch maker or multimillion-dollar confectionery, single-origin bars are becoming a common sight on shelves these days.
We've created this in-depth guide to teach you everything you need to know about single-origin chocolate, from what it is, how it’s made, how to buy it, and more. We'll also give you a closer look at the single-origin industry by profiling a top maker, Shawn Askinosie, and his small-batch chocolate company Askinosie Chocolate. With a strong emphasis on sustainability, environmental impact, and community betterment, Shawn has been making single-origin bars far before they hit the mainstream. To him, they are an inseparable part of the bean-to-bar movement and perfectly embody transparency between farmer, producer, and consumer. Let's take a closer look at this special type of chocolate.
What is Single-Origin Chocolate?
You may have seen the word “single-origin” associated with coffee, and it’s no coincidence. Single-origin coffee and single-origin chocolate capture the same idea—both source beans from one country, region, or even plantation. Conversely, some chocolate bars are blends, combining cocoa beans from several different origin countries.
All chocolate starts as cacao seeds—or cocoa beans—that are tucked inside pods of the cacao tree. The tree’s scientific name, Theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the Gods,” evoking chocolate’s ancient origins in Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. The massive, evergreen cacao tree thrives in hot, humid weather and grows in countries along the Tropical Belt that roughly follows the Equator. This area includes Central and South America, Africa, and South Pacific islands such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and the Philippines.
With one type of bean in your chocolate bar, it's easier to pick up on a flavor profile that belongs to a certain geographic area. Even so, two bars from the same country or two neighboring countries can taste completely different. According to Shawn, there are three major factors that determine a single-origin bar's flavor:
- Terroir: Environmental factors such as soil, amount of sunlight, rainfall, average temperature, and elevation.
- Post-harvest Techniques: After the cocoa beans are harvested, they go through fermentation and drying, two crucial steps where the methods the farmers use can directly impact the bean’s flavor.
- Roasting and Conching: For the chocolate makers in the factory, roasting and conching the beans are the best opportunities to develop flavors at the end of the process. The beans must be roasted at the right temperature for an specific amount of time, while conching is a process that evaporates remaining off-flavors.
What are the Ingredients in Single-Origin Chocolate?
Single-origin bars typically contain no more than three basic ingredients—cocoa beans, cane sugar, and additional cocoa butter for a creamier texture. Here’s a breakdown of each ingredient:
- Cocoa Beans: Also called cacao beans, there are three main types of beans used to make chocolate today, Criollo, Forastero, and a hybrid of the two called Trinitario. These beans naturally contain a fat called cocoa butter, and cocoa solids. The cocoa bean is the heart of the chocolate bar, and is the main driving force behind its flavor.
- Cane Sugar: Often sourced as carefully as the cacao beans, sugar balances cacao’s natural bitterness. The amount of sugar determines the overall sweetness of the bar. The cacao percentage, which should be on the packaging, tells you the ratio of sugar to cacao.
- Cocoa Butter: Some chocolate makers add extra cocoa butter to give their bars silky-smooth creaminess. Some companies outside source cocoa butter, while Askinosie makes their own from scratch from the same cacao bean they use for chocolate liquor.
How Do You Make a Single-Origin Chocolate Bar?
Ethical sourcing is a key characteristic of single-origin chocolate, so it’s important to follow the bean the bar process from start to finish. Many craft chocolate makers, including Askinosie, practice close collaboration with cocoa farmers through Direct Trade, a process that eliminates middlemen such as importers and exporters. Shawn makes routine origin trips to the cocoa farms and shares a portion of the company’s profits with the farmers. Below, we break down chocolate-making in eleven steps:
1. Sourcing Cocoa Farmers: Without cocoa farmers, there wouldn't be chocolate. Shawn believes that better cocoa beans—and resultantly, better chocolate—stem from closer relationships with the farmers.
2. Harvesting: Once the cacao pods are ripe, the farmers harvest the seeds, or cocoa beans, from the cacao trees.
3. Fermenting: This post-harvest technique is the first step in coaxing flavor and richness from the beans.
4. Drying: After the beans ferment, they are dried for one to two weeks in direct sunshine or inside facilities. This step also causes the beans to take on their familiar brown hue. Now, they’re ready for the long journey overseas.
5. Importing: Companies like Askinosie who utilize Direct Trade are actively involved in the transportation of the cocoa beans from their native countries to factories in the United States. This involves inspecting every bag of beans upon arrival to ensure quality has been retained throughout the trip.
6. Roasting: Once the beans arrive at the factory, they’re roasted to further develop their flavor. The optimal roasting temperature depends on the bean's origin. Askinosie uses a roaster from Columbia and checks the beans at various intervals to prevent over-roasting. If the beans are roasted too far, then the bar will take on an unpleasant aroma and flavor.
7. Winnowing: The roasted beans are fed into a machine called a winnower that removes their tough, outer hull. The resulting product, called cocoa nibs, is the bean's inner “meat.” The nibs, which are pure cacao with no added sugar, are completely edible at this point but their bitter taste is overwhelming for most.
8. Making Chocolate Liquor: Using a chocolate refiner, the nibs are ground into a gritty paste, then heated until they become a thick liquid called chocolate liquor. (Note: chocolate liquor doesn't actually contain alcohol). At this point, Askinosie adds pure cane sugar and their housemade cocoa butter to the chocolate liquor.
9. Conching: Next, the chocolate mixture is placed in a conche where it's rolled, churned and heated for finishing touches. This is also the last opportunity to control the flavor of the chocolate before it's packaged.
10. Tempering and Molding: Tempering chocolate, or heating it to an optimal temperature and allowing it to cool, is a crucial step in making the bars shelf stable. This step also gives the bars a smooth, shiny finish and a satisfyingly clean snap. Afterwards, tempered chocolate is poured into molds and cooled.
11. Packaging: The wrapper is often the first impression consumers have about the chocolate, so detail is important. Askinosie uses compostable paper and materials from the same biodegradable bag that shipped the beans from their origin site to the chocolate factory.
How to Buy Single-Origin Bars:
From ingredient lists to flavor profiles, there are several factors to consider when shopping for single-origin chocolate. Here’s how to make sure you’re choosing the right bar for your needs.
- Ingredients: The highest-quality bars do not need more than three ingredients—cacao, sugar, and cocoa butter if additional amounts have been added.
- Percent Cacao: This number refers to the amount of chocolate liquor or cocoa mass in the bar. The higher the number, the more bitter the bar will taste.
- Origin Country or Region: This is especially important to note, since two bars from the same origin country but different regions can taste completely different.
- Tasting Notes: Here’s what to expect on the sensory end when sampling a piece of the bar. The notes are a guide, so don’t be surprised if you pick up on flavors or aromas that aren’t listed.
- Ethics Statements or Certifications: Many companies promote ethical, environmental, or dietary causes by featuring certification seals on their labeling. You may see seals such as USDA certified Organic and Non-GMO Project certified GMO-free. It’s crucial to note that some companies may use all-organic ingredients but are not able to afford costly certification processes.
How to Store Them:
Single-origin bars, along with all chocolate, has a relatively long shelf life, but will ruin easily if not stored properly. Chocolate is temperature and light sensitive, so make sure to keep it in a cool, dry, and dark place. Room temperature is best, but if you must store the chocolate in the refrigerator, carefully wrap the bar in plastic and place inside an airtight container. Excessive moisture in refrigerators can cause bars to discolor, a process called sugar bloom.
Learning about single-origin chocolate is one thing, but the best way to truly understand it is to taste it. There’s a plethora of single-origin bars out there, and if you’re not sure where to start, we're here to help. Our Single-Origin Chocolate Tasting Guide does the work for you, offering our top picks and showing you how to taste like a pro.