Thursday, October 3, 2013
Original Beans is a small chocolate company that starts with carefully selected, direct-purchased beans and makes them into single-origin bars. They take special care with all aspects of the sourcing, manufacturing and packaging, as their name might imply. The bars are not easy to find in the United States, but luckily a very good chocolate source has developed walking distance from my office, so you’ll be seeing more of these interesting finds in the coming months and years.
The selection of bars from Original Beans is very small, but quite specific. I chose to review their Original Beans Piura Porcelana 75% as my first. You can read up on the Peruvian Porcelana beans on the Original Beans website and on other chocolate aficionado sites. The history of chocolate is fascinating and many people have become interested in the generic diversity of the trees and their distribution. The Porcelana beans, as a variety of Criollo, are characterized by their white color and distinctive flavor. They’re quite rare and grown in a few small areas in South America, so single origin bars are not common and often limited editions.
The bar features all organic ingredients and is made only exclusively with white Criollo cacao from the Pirua River Valley in the Peruvian Andes. The cacao is 75% and the package says that it’s a 22 hour conch. The ingredients list is simple and short: Direct-trade cacao beans, cacao butter, cane sugar. There’s no soy and it’s vegan and gluten free.
The tasting notes for the bar online are: Vibrant, luscious with kumquat, lime, apricot, raspberry flavours and notes of toasted pecan; wonderfully balanced acidity and lingering finish.
Though the beans are white, the chocolate is brown. The fermenting and roasting of the beans makes them indistinguishable at first glance from any other bean.
The bar is simply and beautifully molded. The segments have a great snap and neutral medium-brown color. The scent is mild, it has some smoky vanilla notes
The flavor is an interesting balance of acid like citrus and tannins, for the most part the flavors I got were black tea and roasted nuts. The texture was smooth and has and excellent melt and lack of grit. It still has a bit of a dry finish that’s sharp from the tannins.
I loved this bar, this is the third one I’ve eaten, I bought the first two over the summer but found they weren’t doing well in the heat so I ate them and waited for it to cool off to do a proper review. The flavor is not too intense but still very satisfying after three or four squares. The cocoa butter balanced out the clean but sweet sugar to make it very munchable for a high cacao bar.
The next bar I picked for review is Original Beans Esmeraldas Milk, which is a 42% cacao bar with a touch of fleur de sel. Like the dark bar, it’s made with organic ingredients. From the photo above you can see that it’s a dark looking bar for milk chocolate, but compared to many commercial milk chocolate bars, I’m inclined to call it a dark milk.
Original Beans is in The Netherlands, and the packaging is largely in Dutch (though the website also in English) while the chocolate is made in Switzerland.
The ingredients list is a little longer than the dark bar, but still short: direct trade cacao, sugar, cocoa butter, milk and sea salt. The tasting notes suggest: Exceptionally velvety with salted caramel, hints of summer red fruits and spice.
The Original Beans website has a feature where you input the batch code from your bar into their website that says:
Unfortunately that feature just takes you to the same page you could browse to based on the name of the chocolate bar. For true transparency and education, I kind of wanted specifics about the harvest that made my bar. What was that year like? Were there special issues that would distinguish that vintage from the previous year or the coming year? Or even just things like how many pounds of beans were harvested, how many bars were made in that batch.
The bar has a roasted, caramelized scent that has a bit of a cheese note to it, something a little more savory. The melt is great, it’s soft and fudgy without feeling too sugary or sticky. The flavor has molasses notes, maybe even a little fennel but a lot of milk. The hint of salt does keep it from tasting too much like sugar, but it doesn’t jump out. There’s a sharpness to the bar, again, that powdered milk cheese-ness that doesn’t quite satisfy me. I’m not a big fan of the powdered milk flavors in some milk chocolates; it’s a personal preference, not an indication of quality.
I also tried the Bolivian Beni Wild Harvest bar, as I was a big fan of Lillie Belle’s Wild Thing, also from wild beans, but found the 66% far too sweet for me.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
If I were to dream big and come up with attributes of an ideal candy bar, I’d probably start with real ingredients. Each ingredient should contribute flavor or texture. It should have real chocolate. It should be organic and fair trade, as ethical as possible. (And if this is a dream, it would be one dollar and sold everywhere.)
Sjaak’s Organic Chocolate has been doing just that, with their new line called Eli’s Earth Bars. They’re organic, fair trade and some are vegan as well as being made right here in California. The bar is a nice size, the portion is 1.5 ounces, which is what I prefer for a snack. I picked up all of their bars when they first came out, diligently took their photos, ate them and then tried to find more for the review. It took me 2 years to find them in a store again.
I finally found my Eli’s Earth Bars Dream Big Bar at Erewhon, walking distance from my office. The packaging design is good, it’s attractive but not too weird looking. It looks like there’s a candy bar in there, not some mush of seed hulls and dates.
Caramel and peanut butter topped with whole peanuts and coated in creamy ‘milk’ chocolate. Vegan
The bar looks great. The milk chocolate coating is actually made with rice milk, so it’s not technically milk chocolate since there’s no dairy in it. But the chocolate is still made with real cocoa butter (none of those palm oil fillers). I was thinking the bar was going to be kind of like a Snickers, but it’s actually a bit more like a Baby Ruth.
It’s about 3.5 inches long and 1.25 inches wide. The appearance of the outside looks like chocolate, but it tastes a little, well, odd.It’s smooth, but has a bit of a milky note without thinning out the flavor. Mostly I get a rice, or cereal flavor from it. The caramel center is stiff and a little tough to bite at first, which tears the bar apart. The peanut butter is the right balance of smooth and salty, the peanuts are fresh and crunchy. Aside from the tougher than normal chew of the caramel, the textures go well together. There’s the right amount of sweet, salt and fat going on.
The bar most certainly doesn’t taste like disappointment or shame. It tastes like a candy bar. It’s not healthier, it’s still a candy bar, but it doesn’t compromise on the core beliefs - it’s vegan and organic and ethically sourced.
Gluten free but made on shared equipment with dairy.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
I often think of chocolate making as a northern activity, though the advent of climate control means it can be done anywhere. Still, it’s rare to hear about chocolate factories, even bean to bar establishments, south of the line of the Missouri Compromise. This is why I was so delighted to hear about Videri Chocolate Factory, based in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s the kind of story that makes me think that small batch chocolate may become as common as small batch coffee roasting.*
Videri offered me some chocolate bar samples a few months back, and I’ve been munching on them ever since. They make bean to bar chocolate in their factory that also serves as a coffee bar and cafe. They make a small range of bars, about five at any given time, the varieties I got were Classic Dark, Dark Milk Chocolate, Sea Salt and Pink Peppercorn.
All the bars come in a small box that holds two stacked bars. Though the box packaging is color coded, the bars, wrapped only in foil, are not distinguished in any way from each other. (But once you get to know the product line, it’s easy to tell milk from dark from sea salt.)
I’m starting with the Videri Dark Milk Chocolate mostly because that’s the one that I have the best photos of from wrapper to bar. Each box holds two 1.5 ounce bars. This is genius. I don’t want 3 ounces at one time, even 1.5 ounces is a bit much when it comes to fine chocolate, but at least when you’ve eaten half, it wraps up better. The foil is thick, generous and durable.
Videri Dark Milk Chocolate is 50% cacao. They didn’t mention where the beans were sourced, they are organic and Videri does ethical sourcing and wherever possible. They plan to do more direct trade as they grow, but for now they buy through brokers within the Americas (no African beans were mentioned in their materials).
Videri Dark Milk Chocolate has an odd smell to it, more like a fine smoky cheese than chocolate. The flavor is immediately deep, with a pretty good melt, though it has some more fudgy moments that seem grainy but not chalky. The milk flavors are forward, toasted and toffee-like with the woodsy flavors of the actual chocolate rounding it out. It’s a little tangy, like a goat cheese; there’s a sharpness that lingers for quite a while.
Videri Dark Chocolate is a blend of American beans from Central and South America. It’s 70% and has a light red hint to the brown color. Their ingredients are simple, in the case of the dark chocolate, it’s: Roasted Organic Cocoa Nibs, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Cocoa Butter. There’s no lecithin in their ingredients and everything is organic.
The bar smells lightly fruity, like raisins with a little woodsy note. The taste is immediately sweet on the tongue, which was a little odd for a 70% bar. It’s smooth but has a lightly dry and acidic finish. The overall flavor profile is similar to the smell, some raisin and berry notes with a more rounded oak flavor and a hint of vanilla. The melt is a little thin on the tongue, not at all sticky. It definitely had the notes of Peruvian chocolate for me, which is not a bad thing and I know that these are blends of beans anyway. It was good, but not extraordinary
I threw the pieces of the Videri Dark Milk Chocolate & Dark Chocolate together to show how close in color they are. After all, the milk chocolate is 50% cacao, as dark as a commercial semi-sweet chocolate you might use for chocolate chip cookies.
Both have interesting traits to them and both are pleasing. Yet even after months of sitting with these bars (I ate the first set of the pairs of bars back in March and April and the second set in July and August), I still don’t find myself drawn to these to.
Videri Pink Peppercorn is made with 60% cacao. The back of the bar is sprinkled with the crushed actually pink peppercorns. The scent is immediately forward with the peppercorn brightness - a sort of mix of balsamic pines and pencil shavings.
The woodsy notes of the beans Videri uses are complemented by the pink peppercorns. The small particle size of the peppercorns was appropriate, I didn’t find myself gagging or crunching on one and wondering about my teeth. They’re lightly spicy and warming with an earthy note without lighting up my throat or covering up the cocoa notes.
Videri Sea Salt Dark Chocolate is 60% cacao, so just a little less cacao and more sugar than the Classic Dark. And then it has the addition of a little sea salt mixed into the bar (it’s not sprinkled on, like the Pink Peppercorn). The flavor profile is similar to the Dark. It’s woodsy, though less fruity. The salt actually moderates the sweetness well. The melt is quite good, I preferred this bar of the set and found it the most munchable.
* Regarding small batch chocolate coming as common as small batch coffee ... I see the issues of scale and customer base within that statement. People generally drink one or two or even three cups of coffee a day, but rarely eat more than one chocolate bar a day.
I like where Videri is going, though I could use a bit more distinctiveness and richness in the bar. I don’t know if that’s the beans themselves, they way they’re roasted or the level of cocoa butter. But that’s just a personal preference, what I enjoyed about the bars was the fact that they were blends and tasted very accessible and easy to eat. I would love to visit their shop and watch the chocolate being made, as that sounds like half the fun of the chocolate being made in small batches. (My bars were marked Batch 134.)
Monday, August 5, 2013
Boiled candies, or hard candies, are considered kind of ordinary in most situations. They’re not most people’s first choice, in fact, in most lists of candies, they’re often down at the bottom along with raisins and toothbrushes (basically, not even qualifying as candy). It’s sad, because there are good hard candies and boiled sugar candies can be some of the most beautiful of all candies out there.
Cut Rock is a tradition of candymaking that goes back at least 150 years. It’s a simple concept, different colors of hard candy are layered together and then pulled or rolled out to shrink the design and then cut into easy to eat pieces. (To make swirled lollipops, the centers are plain but the ropes of candy are wrapped into a disk and a stick is inserted.)
Raley’s Confectionary in Florida is one of the new artisan companies to bring this tradition back, and their twist is to use natural colors, flavors and organic/fair trade sugar. (I’m not sure about the glucose syrup that’s mentioned in the ingredients label, but not on the website.) Since all he makes is hard candies, it’s vegan and gluten free (though he does make some nut items, so check before you order if you have an allergy).
If you want to see more about how it’s made, Raley did an educational video that addresses how scaling is important when creating the designs to make cut rock. And of course here’s a more generalized video that shows the whole process from start to finish:
Wes Raley (seen in action above) offered me some samples and since it’s summer, which I high season for hard candies, I accepted them. It then took a long time to get through the whole set: Emoticon Mix, Root Beer, Cappuccino, Pomegranate,
The SA Emoticon Mix is a good place to start because it demonstrates the array of forms and designs that can be created and also includes a wide variety of flavors. Of course I don’t know what those flavors were supposed to be, since there was no key, so I can only guess. I know one was lime, and another was blueberry. The interesting thing about this version was how the diameter varied.
The center, as you may have seen in the video, is an aerated hard candy. This makes it white and the pulling of the hard candy also allows Raley to incorporate the flavors. It makes it crunchy without any of those annoying sharp voids that some hard candies get.
Each piece is a mere half in across, yet the wire thin brown “steam” coming from the little mugs is perfectly proportioned to the little cups of coffee.
The flavor on this particular candy is a little milder than the vivid and fruity Emoticons.
The coffee flavor is a bit mild and thin for my tastes. It was toasty and less sweet, but more like a brown sugar candy than a true coffee with a bit of foamed milk experience. That said, it was one of the first bags I finished.
Grapefruit is one of several citrus flavors from Raley’s. The pieces are well made, a yellow rind and a pink sectioned interior sell the look. The outside is sweet and mild, but the aerated fruity center is tangy and nicely flavored. It’s a little zesty, only a slight hint of bitterness and quite tart at times.
Here’s the real gem of all the varieties I tried: Lemon. This piece was yellow with a shiny yellow rind, white pith and yellow sections. Unlike the grapefruit, which was flavored on the inside, the outside was also flavored. So the rind was a gentle and sweet lemon, but the inside was extremely tart, zesty and juicy.
These were absolutely adorable. The design is unlike most of the others that cut rock makers create, it has no jacket. Instead the flag’s stripes go right to the edge. It’s a complicated design, enough of the elements, colors and ratios are there for it to say “American Flag” even though it’s round.
The flavor is fun, the blueberry is sweet and has a good berry flavor and the strawberry is light and floral.
Root Beer was one that I was truly looking forward to, mostly because Raley doesn’t use artificial colors and one of my complaints about Root Beer Barrels is the aftertaste from the dye known as Red #40. This definitely did not have any aftertaste, but it didn’t have much of a forward taste either. It was exceptionally mild, like the Cappuccino. There was a hint of wintergreen bite, but not bite of tartness, no earthy ginger rooty flavors either. It was toasty but not like Root Beer.
But the candy was adorable, with the frosty mugs on a crunchy background. So I may have been disappointed that it wasn’t like I wanted it to be, but I still managed to eat the whole bag.
I give the fruity flavors a 9 out of 10 and the drink flavors an 8 out of 10 (they designs on those were especially good). The packages were stand up, zippered gussets. Each came with a little silica gel package inside, so even though I opened them (and resealed) they all stayed pristine. Some hard candies can melt and deform in the humidity or high heat, but these looked as good today as they did about a month ago when I got them.
Monday, May 6, 2013
Lillie Belle Farms of Oregon has introduced the Lillie Belle Stella Blue Milk Chocolate which is a dark milk chocolate base of 50% cocoa solids mixed with Rogue Creamery’s Powdered Blue Heaven Cheese. Lillie Belle has been making a Smokey Blue Cheese truffle for some years, so the idea of a solid bar should not be a shock to anyone.
The bar’s packaging and name is a full homage to the Grateful Dead. The ingredients include organic chocolate, organic sugar, organic cocoa butter, powdered buttermilk, powdered nonfat milk, blue cheese (made from raw milk, salt and penicillin bacteria).
The bar is beautifully molded. It has an ideal set of ratios, though the bar is not segmented (which I usually prefer) - it’s thick but not difficult to snap apart, but it also has a small footprint so the bar doesn’t take up much space in my bag.
The bar is less smoky smelling than I expected, it really just smells like a chocolate bar with a strong woodsy and less sweet/milky note. The melt is excellent, the texture is smooth with only the slightest grain to the cocoa solids. After the immediate chocolate notes, there is a hit of sharpness ... I can’t quite say that it’s salty so perhaps it’s umami.
There’s no cheesy component to it, it doesn’t have that sort of moldy smell or sort of metallic note that some blue cheese have. Overall, it’s just a less sweet, slightly savory and dark milk chocolate bar.
I enjoyed it, especially since it was both a milk chocolate bar and pretty dark. I don’t know if I would reach for this regularly but I do have to say that it mixes well with nuts but not with other sorts of candy that has more berry notes to it.
Since the ingredients list is so small and it’s all bean to bar, I feel pretty good about the ethical sourcing. The bar is made in a facility that also processes nuts, soy and of course it contains milk.
Friday, May 3, 2013
Trader Joe’s always selects their confectionery products with a bit of an atypical flair. Sure, they have some organic mints in tins at the check out counter, but they’re also offering these Trader Joe’s Organic Gingermints as well.
The tin is cute and bold, featuring orange and salmon accents and some wasabi-green highlights. The mints are Kosher and made with organic ingredients, gluten free and vegan. The steel, hinged box holds 50 “mints” though they’re really just ginger flavored ... no peppermint or spearmint flavors in there.
The ingredients are simple:
They’re rather creamy looking, just slightly off white which could be from the maple syrup or ground ginger root. They’re also very gingery. They’re smoother than Altoids, less of a chalky quality to them. When I let it dissolve, it was a little syrupy instead, kind of like a slippery elm lozenge. Mostly I crunch them, which means that I get a big kick of the ginger immediately. They’re sweet, but it’s more earthy and clean with a lingering heat from the ginger. They’re spicy, but the burn doesn’t accumulate, so I didn’t have trouble eating three or four in a row.
I suspect that these are just repackaged VerMints which are also made in Canada and have the same agar and gum tragacanth ingredients, but that’s fine with me these are certainly easier to find. Trader Joe’s also sells a straight Organic Peppermint tin as well.
Friday, April 19, 2013
Theo Chocolate is the first organic and certified ethically source chocolate company in the United States. I first tried them when they launched in 2006 and have been pleased with the diversity of confections. They make solid chocolate bars, smaller “candy bars” with inclusions and flavors as well as a line of bonbons and caramels. It’s a great fusion of classic chocolate making with new flavors and social responsibility.
One of their new bars is Theo Chocolate Salted Almond Dark Chocolate (with 70% Cacao). It’s a simple blend of dark chocolate beans and almonds with a touch of sea salt.
Note that the bar packaging has changed in the past few weeks, so the new ones won’t be bright pink, look for these. The bar is organic, vegan, soy and gluten free though it’s manufactured on shared equipment with products containing milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts & other nuts. The cacao and sugar is sourced through Fair for Life (which assures the social responsibility of the sourcing).
The bar is simple, just a series of long segments, there’s no splashy custom molded design here. From flipping the bar over, I can see that the almonds in pieces, not whole (which is fine with me).
The scent of the chocolate is deep and woodsy with notes of coffee. The snap is good and the molding is excellent without any bubbles or voids (which can be an issue with inclusions).
The flavor of the chocolate is strong, it’s a little acidic and has strong coffee notes along with some smoke. The sugars are forward (along with a little of the salt note) and the chocolate has a slightly dry and olive finish. The almond bits are well distributed, fresh and crunchy with a nicely roasted flavor.
Overall, an extremely satisfying bar. The cocoa profile was a little dryer than I like, not quite as buttery as I prefer my texture, but the nuts and just the right hint of salt make this exceptionally easy to eat for a 70% bar.
Friday, March 29, 2013
The world of candy bars has changed a lot in the past 100 years, since the first mass-produced combination bars appeared in stores. At first local candy companies made bars that were distributed regionally. Eventually, after World War II, candy bars became national brands. You could find a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, Snickers bar or a Butterfinger at most candy stores though there were still plenty of local brands.
Today the candy landscape is dominated by just a few international brands, and the new upstarts that are found on the fringes fit into a different niche now. They’re special interest bars. These are the bars that incorporate local ingredients, fit into special manufacturing concerns like allergens, or in the case of the Eli’s Earth Bars from Sjaak’s Chocolates, they’re vegan (made without any animal-derived ingredients).
The new line of bars is interesting, because they’re not quite versions of already-popular candy bars. The Celebrate Bar is A delicious coconut caramel topped with whole almonds surrounded by chocolate. That doesn’t sound like any other candy bar on shelves today.
How did they make it vegan? Well, here’s the pretty short list of ingredients:
I’ve had two of these bars now. The first one I photographed and ate. Then I searched months and months to find them in stores again. Both bars looked the same, a long chewy plank of coconut caramel topped with whole almonds and then covered in a vegan milk chocolate. The milk chocolate is made without any dairy ingredients (but in a shared facility, so not appropriate for those with allergies) but uses real cocoa butter.
The chocolate itself is chalky and has a soft cereal note to it. The cocoa flavor is lacking, but overall it’s a pleasant coating. It’s kind of like how I feel about hot cocoa made with water instead of milk; I’ll drink it but I wouldn’t choose it. The chewy center is quite good, a very dense coconut and caramel combination. The caramelized sugar notes are missing, but the texture is great.
It’s an interesting bar and I had to throw my expectations about the milk chocolate out the window. This is not really a vegan milk chocolate, it’s just a very mild chocolate - the rice milk makes it something different in both intensity (which is what milk does to chocolate) and texture (which is kind of sad). I would probably prefer this bar with a true dark chocolate coating, but I understand the goal here was to make it with a milder chocolate. It still doesn’t match up to the expectations I have for milk chocolate, but if I toss those out and just experience this, I was surprised at how much I liked it. (It’s similar to how much I like Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, even though they don’t use a real chocolate coating.)
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.