Bonbons and other filled chocolates are lovely sweets, but sometimes you just want a chocolate bar with nothing else. You want the subtle nuances of flavor, the crisp snap of good tempering, and then the rich mouthfeel of melting chocolate. You may detect berry, raisin, coffee, citrus, or smoky notes, and the bar gives you great pleasure.
In New England, there are many chocolate makers. We found 14 who are crafting great bars. Seven are bean-to-bar producers, who import beans and then roast, crack, winnow, grind, conch, temper, and mold their bars. The others purchase processed chocolate (or cocoa) to create their own particular blends. Sugar sweetens most bars, but two local companies use honey.
Chocolate is a matter of personal taste, and everyone who loves it has an opinion. A few years ago, the trend was the darker the better, and many thought that a higher percentage marked on the bar — say, 60 percent — meant you were getting a top-quality product. A high-percentage bar means most of the chocolate is made from cocoa solids (anything derived from the cocoa bean); the rest is mostly sugar. L.A. Burdick Chocolate’s head chocolatier, Michael Klug, says, “It’s nonsense to always say high percentage chocolate is better.” If it’s an inferior bean, having 80 percent of it is worse than 60 percent, he says.
Master chocolatier Richard Tango-Lowy, owner of Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, N.H., explains, “The flavor profile has little to do with the percentage. I can show you a 100 percent that is delicate and mild with no edge, and a 66 percent that will bowl you over.”
Today, much of the focus is on controlling the whole process from bean to bar, using cacao (cocoa beans) from one region to craft single-origin chocolate, and buying cacao directly from the growers. Many chocolate makers pay above Fair Trade prices to ensure a sustainable livelihood for the farmers. Taza Chocolate of Somerville, one of the first bean-to-bar companies in the US, is an industry leader in the commitment to ethical cacao sourcing. Founders Alex Whitmore and his wife, Kathleen Fulton, also reintroduced the centuries-old style of Mexican stone-ground chocolate. The decision to produce a “rustic, gritty chocolate,” says Whitmore, was intended “to make people stop and think about what they’re eating.” To that end, not all consumers like his product. “We’re not for everyone,” he says.
Newer bean-to-bar companies in Massachusetts include Rogue Chocolatier in Three Rivers, Chequessett Chocolate in North Truro, and Somerville Chocolate in Somerville.
Rogue’s Colin Gasko specializes in single-origin, two-ingredient chocolates: just cocoa beans and cane sugar. Other bars usually contain vanilla, additional cocoa butter, lecithin (an emulsifier), and flavorings. He takes a purist’s view and doesn’t add inclusions (the term for add-ins, such as nuts, dried fruit, and cocoa nibs). “I’m trying to highlight the nuances of cacao,” he says. “It’s a wasted effort to make really great chocolate and then throw some nuts on it.”
Another two-ingredient chocolate maker is Eric Parkes, founder of Somerville Chocolate. The former architect started a chocolate CSA in 2012 as “a novel way” to fund his production. CSA members get three bars, reflecting different cacao or slight variations in bean roasts, about every two months.
In Vermont, Andy Jackson of Middlebury Chocolates went so far as to build his own wood-fired roaster; this led to his new Epoch line. He roasts cacao over fruitwood, ages the beans in cocoa ash, and then slowly refines the chocolate at lower-than-normal temperatures to reduce any bitterness. “It’s a long and elaborate process,” says Jackson, but one that yields clean-crisp, mellow, dark chocolate without any harshness.
Also in the Green Mountain State is the three-year-old bean-to-bar Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker, spearheaded by Eric Lampman, son of the founder of 31-year-old Lake Champlain Chocolates. “It’s a new dimension for us,” says Lampman.
The remaining chocolatiers on our list buy blocks of couverture chocolate (it contains a bit more cocoa butter for smoothness and a glossy finish) or cocoa mass or powder, often from large producers such as Barry Callebaut, El Ray, and Valrhona. The crafting skills here lie in melting, blending, tempering, and molding.
With the bean-to-bar movement growing, Klug of Burdick’s, which imports couvertures, weighs in: “Not all bean-to-bar is good. It’s like your neighbor making his own beer.”
For some chocolatiers, the bar is an art form. Ellen Byrne, cofounder with her husband, Christopher Carlson, of Byrne & Carlson in Portsmouth, N.H., has a background in fine arts. “It’s the taste and quality of the chocolate and the visual,” she says. Former physicist Tango-Lowy of Dancing Lion uses unique molds and tinted cocoa butter as paint. “You eat with your eyes first,” he says.
Honey replaces sugar in chocolates made by Apotheker’s of Dorchester and Pure7 Chocolate of Carlisle. “We were trying to clean up our diet,” says Shari Apotheker. “But we wanted it to still be a fancy chocolate and feel indulgent.” Such chocolate won’t be to everyone’s taste — it has a distinct honey flavor and softer, moister texture.
Chocolates are “gastronomic complexities,” says Klug, Burdick’s chocolate maker . When tasting chocolate, he adds, “Try a lot of different varieties to see what pleases you.”
New England chocolate bars
APOTHEKER’S of Dorchester makes five varieties of honey-sweetened chocolate (79 percent), including Classic Dark, Cashew & Sea Salt, and Cherry & Almond ($8.49). Husband and wife Russell and Shari Apotheker use unsweetened cocoa mass from a family cooperative in the Dominican Republic and Tupelo honey from Florida. www.apothekerskitchen.com
BLUE BANDANA CHOCOLATE MAKER of Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington, Vt. currently crafts three bars, one of which is an 82 percent Madagascar made with wild peppercorn that grows near the cacao. Chocolate-maker Eric Lampman is a fan of the saying, “What grows together goes together.” ($8 each or $22 for three-pack) 750 Pine St., Burlington, Vt. 802-864-1807, www.lakechamplainchocolates.com
Ellen Byrne of BYRNE & CARLSON in Portsmouth, N.H., decorates artisan bars ($8-$14) with candied pansies and violets, dried fruits, nuts, and more. A selection of small tasting bars ($4 for 50 grams) includes a Venezuelan 74 with cacao nibs, smoky chipotle 72, and caramelized white chocolate. 121 State St., Portsmouth, N.H., 888-559-9778, www.byrneandcarlson.com
Partners Katherine Reed and Josiah Mayo opened their bean-to-bar CHEQUESETT CHOCOLATE in North Truro, earlier this year (it’s also a cafe). They blend two varieties of Trinitario cacao and make six (70 percent) dark bars ($8), in flavors such as Cacao Nib, Sea Salt, Blueberry Ginger, and Pure Dark. 8 Highland Road, North Truro, 774-538-6249, www.chequessettchocolate.com
In his beautifully designed bars, master chocolatier Richard Tango-Lowy of DANCING LION CHOCOLATE in Manchester, N.H. says he brings in “other flavors to bring out the nuances in the chocolate.” Bars range from $11-$22; tasting kits ($15) include a small square of each bar. 917 Elm St., Manchester, N.H., 603-625-4043, www.dancinglion.us
Chocolatier and pastry chef Andrew Shotts of Rhode Island’s GARRISON CONFECTIONS makes a half-dozen bars ($6), including white chocolate with lime, dark chocolate with dried blueberries, and salted pistachio. The extra dark 91 percent bar, says Shotts, “is made with a lot of vanilla and has a lot of taste.” Central Falls, R.I., 401-725-0790, www.garrisonconfections.com
L.A. BURDICK CHOCOLATE sells seven single-origin bars and blends a few chocolates to create the classic Burdick (68 percent) blend. Bars are $9-$13; there are also packs of 7 ($65) and mini bar packs ($36).) 220 Clarendon St., Boston, 617-303-0113; 52 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-491-4340; and 47 Main St., Walpole, N.H., 603-756-2882, www.burdickchocolate.com
Bean-to-bar maker Andy Jackson of MIDDLEBURY CHOCOLATES crafts chocolate ranging from 65 percent with Tahitian vanilla bean and 67 percent with sea salt to his new Epoch bars (77 to 88 percent) made from roasted, aged, and slowly ground cacao ($6.95-$16). 7 Frog Hollow Alley, Middlebury, Vt., 802-989-1610, www.middleburychocolates.com
In Carlisle, PURE7 CHOCOLATE owners Julie MacQueen and Carrie Raho purchase unsweetened cocoa from Ecuador and blend it with cocoa butter, honey, and flavorings for bars ($6.99) such as Salted Almond, Raspberry, and Salted Licorice. Despite the high 85 to 87 percent cacao, honey keeps the chocolate from tasting bitter. www.pure7chocolate.com
ROGUE CHOCOLATIER of Three Rivers makes two-ingredient, labor-intensive bars that are sleek, unmarked, and unadorned. They’re on the thin side, with a crisp snap and rich mouthfeel ($8-$18). Availability depends on production; look for bars made from Jamaican, Venezuelan, and Ecuadoran cacao. www.roguechocolatier.com
SOMERVILLE CHOCOLATE makes single-origin, two-ingredient bars ($8-$9). Perhaps the most unique is an applewood-smoked Dominican (65 percent) with nuances of smoky campfire. www.somervillechocolate.com
Traditional Mexican-style stone-ground chocolate disks and bars are the specialty of TAZA CHOCOLATE in Somerville. Founder Alex Whitmore says, “Anything with sea salt and almonds in it sells like crazy,” as do the darkest 85 to 95 percent bars. 561 Windsor St., Somerville, 617-284-2232, www.tazachocolate.com
At VICUNA CHOCOLATE, a factory and cafe in Peterborough, N.H, the newest bean-to-bar maker in the area, chocolate maker Neely Cohen imports Bolivian cacao to make five (70 percent) stone-ground bars ($9), including Maras Salt, Yellow Chili, Coffee, and Cocoa Nib. 15 Main St., Peterborough, N.H., 603-924-2040, www.vicunachocolate.com
Chocolate maker Jonathan Walpole of WINNIPESAUKEE CHOCOLATES in Wolfeboro, N.H., calls himself a “fondoir” or melter, as he works with couverture chocolates to create over 20 unique bars ($5.95). In dark, milk, or white, with inclusions such as dried berries, seeds, spices, and nuts, the chocolates are named for sites in the Granite State’s Lakes Region. 53A North Main St., Wolfeboro, N.H., 603-569-4831, www.winnipesaukeechocolates.comLisa Zwirn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.