Q&A with Megan Giller, author of ‘Bean to Bar Chocolate’
“Chocolate is chocolate is chocolate, right?” asks food writer Megan Giller. In her new book, “Bean to Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution,” Giller answers her own question — with a definitive no. Across more than 200 pages, the Brooklyn-based author chronicles an increasingly popular process that takes small batch producers from raw cocoa beans to finished single-source chocolate, a process that has more in common with winemaking than industrial candy production. In the book, Giller profiles artisanal makers from across the country and includes recipes and tips for chocolate pairing.
Q. What do you mean by “bean to bar”?
A. Chocolate has become this industrial product where we expect it to taste the same every single time. To do that, companies have to manipulate the cocoa beans they’re using and also add some other ingredients. About a decade ago, or a little longer, some Americans started saying,”I really don’t want to eat chocolate like that anymore. I want to see if I can make chocolate without all these extra ingredients and pay attention to flavor and look at cocoa beans like they are wine grapes almost.” So, they stripped out all the other ingredients and just started making bars with cocoa beans and sugar and really focusing on flavor.
Q. What makes this chocolate different?
A. Any of the chocolate bars we eat, even if they’re bought at really high-end chocolate shops, most of those are using chocolate that has been premade by a big company, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are big companies that make really good chocolate like Valhrona. But (most high-end shops) are buying that premade chocolate, melting it down, and adding maybe sea salt and almonds for example, and turning it into their own specialty bar. That’s a completely different skill set than the kind of chocolate I’m writing about where people are really starting with whole beans and roasting and grinding and turning them into chocolate themselves.
Q. When you start with beans from a single region, how does that affect flavor?
A. We have this idea of what chocolate is supposed to be like. Madagascar beans set that on its head. It’s a very fruity, great bean that sometimes can taste like raspberries, sometimes almost lemony or limey. It’s a surprise. There can be lots of nutty flavors. There’s also floral notes. That can be different honeys and flowers and very delicate tastes. It really can go on and on. It’s very rare that (single source chocolate) tastes like one flavor. It is like wine where it can start one way and can change form and finish a different way.
Q. You like to set up chocolate tastings. How do they work?
A. There are lots of ways to do it, but I usually try to include anywhere from three to five chocolates. You really don’t need that much of each one. You can set it up so each one is the same percentage (of cacao solids and butter) but has other differences. Maybe they’re all 70 percent single origin but from Madagascar, Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, something like that. Then you really can taste the difference in terroir between them. Another thing that I think is fun is to try four or five bars from the same maker, then you get a sense of what their style is. You have to start with dark chocolate and then do milk chocolate and then do white. That has to do with the way the milk powder coats your tongue and changes your taste buds a little bit.
Q. How do you use these chocolates in recipes?
A. In my experience, every recipe is better with better quality chocolate. But if you really want to taste the essence of the chocolate and not lose that in a recipe, I think the ones that work the best are the ones with the fewest number of other ingredients. So, even though it sounds a little boring, I have a water-based drinking chocolate recipe in the book. It really is just water and chocolate. But when you heat it up and consume it that way, you can smell all these different things and the texture is obviously different.
Q. You tried to make chocolate yourself, starting with roasting your own beans. How did that go?
A. Not well. A complete disaster. There are so many decisions you have to make at every single turn. You don’t even know you’re making some of them as you take them and all of them could potentially go wrong.
Q. You also dispel the myth that chocolate is a magic cure-all. That must make you unpopular in some circles.
A. It seems like there’s a new study every week that’s like: “Chocolate will reduce heart disease. It will make you invincible.” I wish all of those things were true. But the jury is still out on the hard evidence. There’s a study that is being done that will finish up in 2020 that will really quantify some of that.
Megan Giller will talk about “Bean to Bar Chocolate” at 7 p.m. on Sept. 22 at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge, and on Sept. 23 at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival, Copley Square, Boston.