In the US, the little squares of Tcho chocolate in their brightly coloured wrappers decorated with futuristic parabolas of gold and silver have started popping up everywhere. Starbucks has sold them and organic grocery chain Whole Foods sells them now.
Those usually aren’t the stores you visit to track down handcrafted chocolate from bean-to-bar makers, the new wave of chocolate producers that find and blend the rarest and most richly f lavoured cacao beans. Artisans like Mast Brothers, in Brooklyn, New York, promise that each batch of bars will be different; nothing will be blandly mass-produced. In a video on their website, the lavishly bearded Mast siblings extol the “inconsistency” of their chocolate. Inconsistency generally isn’t what gets you orders from Starbucks and Whole Foods.
But Tcho makes chocolate as interesting as Mast and other tiny producers. The San Francisco company stakes its reputation not on the exotic-sounding varietal names or confusing cocoa percentages the artisans market but on a set of f lavour characteristics: chocolatey, bright, fruity, floral, earthy, and nutty. Tcho’s “PureNotes”, illustrated as a pie chart on wrappers, is partly a marketing device. But the chart represents something real. It makes you aware of the range of f lavours you should be looking for in good chocolate, and of what you may be missing when you bite into the most dully industrial or ostentatiously artisanal versions.
What sets Tcho apart from other chocolate makers is that it doesn’t just scout the equator looking for cacao farmers it can admire, hoping they’ll grow great beans that might make wonderful chocolate. The company does something new: it provides growers with all the tools they need to have chocolate tastings during harvesting and processing, the crucial period that determines the price a cacao farmer’s crop will c o mmand. Tc ho combines coffee roasters, spice grinders, and modified hair dryers to equip “sample labs” – pilot plants that produce tiny lots of chocolate right where cacao is grown. The company gives cacao farmers customised groupware so that they can share tasting notes and samples with chocolate makers. In this way, the farmers can bring entire harvests up to the standards of Tcho or any other buyer.
This is a huge change. Just as some coffee growers have never drunk coffee made from their beans, some cacao growers in remote areas have never tasted chocolate made with theirs. (Since chocolate is much harder to make than coffee, some may have never tasted chocolate at all.) Teaching them to recognise the f lavours in fermented, roasted, and ground cacao beans, and then understand how they can adapt their growing processes, will be Tcho’s lasting contribution to chocolate making – even if hair dryers and spice grinders weren’t quite the tech the company had in mind when it opened a factory and shop on a historic pier in San Francisco’s Embarcadero, in 2007. all-important concept in coffee and wine. Fermentation is as important as roasting or even factory production. The process lasts five to seven days, and the temperature and humidity at which it takes place and the frequency with which the beans are turned for aeration determine the f lavour profile a roasted and ground bean will ultimately possess. The goal is not only to avoid defects but to develop complex f lavours. Tcho leaves the roasting to big producers with finely tuned machines. The company receives the cocoa liquor, the paste made from ground roasted beans, in big blocks that it melts, mixes with cocoa fat in various blends and stirs. Long, slow mixing is part of the chocolate mystique. Really long: 24 to 36 hours of slow stirring in a vat that is called a conche for the rounded bottom that allows liquid chocolate to be rolled back onto itself, which incorporates air and makes the texture smoother.
Conching can iron out harshly acidic notes. But the artistry is in creating a creamy mouthfeel and preserving the acidic notes the chocolate maker does want: the