Have you ever had a sudden craving for chocolate, bought some, and then been sadly disappointed with how it tastes? Or are you still searching for the perfect chocolate? We looked into the many factors in making chocolate to help you find a chocolate made for you. In other words, we took a peek beneath the wrapper.
Chocolate is serious business
Picture a room somewhere in Europe occupied by a small group of people clearly gathered for a tasting. Holding something precious in their hands, they sniff it with studied and thoughtful expressions. They confer in hushed voices. They consider the product’s “terroir”—the environment in which it was grown. The geography, geology, and climate are critical to its taste.
Next they study the product’s appearance: its colors can range from rich reds to deep browns bordering on black. Inhaling deeply, they ponder its aroma, and whether it’s floral, fruity, earthy, grassy, or smoky. And then they taste it with measured precision to determine the balance of acidity, bitterness, sweetness, and astringency.
Think this mystery product is wine? It’s not. It’s chocolate and it’s a $100 billion-dollar industry worldwide.
Who is eating all this chocolate?
Our appetite for chocolate is not only here to stay, it’s growing. It clocked in at 208.15 billion U.S. dollars in 2020. It will come as little surprise that our appetite for chocolate increased dramatically with the advent of the Covid pandemic–nearly 17% between 2019 and 2020. It is estimated that between 2020 and 2025, the size of the global chocolate confectionery market will grow by another 15 billion U.S. dollars.
Who is eating all this chocolate? The Germans top the charts, eating some 24.2 pounds of chocolate per year. They’re followed by the Swiss at 21.34 pounds and Estonia with 19.36. The Americans and French have relatively lighter appetites, respectively consuming 9.68 and 9.3 pounds of chocolate each year.
Find more infographics at Statista
Just as various nationalities tend to consume less or more chocolate, they also have different tastes and preferences that translate into the chocolate-making style or “profile” of each country.
A country’s profile is the sum of its people’s tastes and preferences, its history, where it sources cacao, ingredients like milk and butter, and national standards for quality and consistency. For example, when we think fancy pralines and truffles, Belgium likely comes to mind. By comparison, the French love rich, dark chocolate while the Swiss prefer theirs light and milky.
Chocolate: the basics
There are four basic chocolates: dark, milk, white, and baking or pure.
All chocolate starts with cacao beans, the seeds of the fruit from the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. (“Theobroma” translates as “food of the gods” and whoever first named it knew of what they spoke.) How cacao is combined with other ingredients distinguishes the type of chocolate that you will find for sale.
This chocolate is produced by adding fat and sugar to a mixture of ground cacao (also called cacao mass), cacao paste, or cacao liquor. In the US, at least 15 percent cacao liquor is required, in Europe it’s 35 percent.
Despite the relatively low thresholds to qualify as dark [chocolate], it has become very popular for producers to compete by offering very high percentages. Dark chocolate 50 percent and higher is now commonplace. Swiss company Lindt has even come out with a 99 percent cacao bar. A higher percentage of cacao means less sugar and a more bitter and nuanced flavor.
Just as its name implies, this chocolate is a sweeter, lighter chocolate that also contains milk. The US requires a minimum of 10 percent cacao while in the UK and Ireland, milk chocolate must contain at least 20 percent; in the rest of the EU, the minimum is 25 percent.
White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk. Since it doesn’t contain any cocoa solids, many do not consider it to be a true chocolate.
Baking or unsweetened pure chocolate
This is simply chocolate “liquor” poured into molds that becomes solid when cool. In the US, it has 50 to 58 percent fat, a margin of 4 percent on either side of cacao beans’ natural fat content of 54 percent. A good chocolate will have a balance of flavors: not too sweet or too bitter, not too bland or complex, with no lingering after-taste.
The fermentation process of the cacao beans, much like that of coffee, greatly influences the ultimate taste of the chocolate so that even two lots of cacao beans from the same “terroir” can vary considerably depending on how long they’ve been fermented and how often they’ve been turned, to name just a few variables.
Endless combinations inspire a range of products
If you have traveled to any extent, you know that each country has its own branded chocolate bars. And you probably know that even chocolates by European manufacturers available in North America differ greatly in taste. For example, you would likely be able to taste the difference between a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar manufactured in Europe from one manufactured in North America. Why the difference? Consider the following factors.
A Hershey’s milk chocolate in the US contains about 11 percent cacao while a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar in the UK meets the required minimum standard of 20 percent. In contrast, Belgium’s Cote D’Or milk chocolate boasts a minimum 35 percent cacao solids. This means that “supermarket”’ chocolates—those bars that beckon when you are checking out at the cash register—will have a less intense flavor in the US than chocolate produced in Europe.
Origin of the beans
Traditionally, American chocolate has been made from South American beans while Europe has relied on its former African colonies. Bars made from Madagascar beans, for instance, tend to taste fruity while Ecuadorian chocolate tends to be much earthier.
The lower cacao requirements of American chocolate mean that more sugar is added. The US is known for its lighter, sweeter milk chocolates—although this is rapidly changing with the explosive growth in artisanal chocolates—while Europeans tend toward more intensely flavored chocolates due to their lower sugar content.
When adding cocoa butter and cream to their chocolates, Americans and Europeans differ in both the amount and the fat content. European chocolates, with their smoother, richer flavor, use European butter and cream, which has a higher fat content. To achieve this smoother chocolate, Europe also uses more cocoa butter, further accentuating taste differences.
How to choose your forever chocolate
The chart below should help you identify what is in your chocolate by the country of origin’s chocolate characteristics. Keep in mind, however, that some companies that began as simple chocolate companies have expanded to become huge conglomerates that now license other companies to produce chocolate in their own countries.
For example, Nestlé, founded in Switzerland by Henri Nestlé, which you know as the source of those delectable morsels in your chocolate chip cookies, is now the largest food and beverage company in the world with over 2,000 brands, including everything from cosmetics to baby food to pet care.
If you pick up a Dairy Milk in North America, the second most popular chocolate bar in the UK, you can bet it wasn’t made in the UK. Cadbury has chocolate factories all over the world and each one has slightly different local takes on the product. In the United States, the Cadbury Dairy Milk products aren’t even made by Cadbury; they’re made by Hershey’s under a licensing agreement. (For a taste, smell, and feel test of the UK versus US Diary Milk Bar, read Candy Blog.)
Origins and style
To make sure you are getting chocolate from the country of origin, the packaging should say “Product of (country name)” or “Made in (country name)”.
There are chocolate shops that specialize in European chocolate made there and Amazon ships chocolate from the country of origin so you can be sure that you are getting chocolate made in that country. It will be more expensive than chocolate from your own country and you’ll have to wait longer to get it but the chocolate heart wants what the chocolate heart wants.
A chocolate trip across two continents
There are more than 2,000 chocolate shops in Belgium. With the creation of the praline (a chocolate shell with a soft center) in 1912, Belgium established a reputation for the best chocolates in the world. (Its creator, Jean Neuhaus, is Belgium’s most famous chocolatier although he was born in Switzerland.)
The country’s love of chocolate goes back to the 19th Century, when cacao was shipped home from Congo, its newly acquired African colony. This West African cacao is known for its classic cocoa taste. One of Belgium’s most famous companies, Godiva, was bought by the Turkish business Yildiz in 2007 and the chocolate is now produced in North America as well.
The Swiss prefer creamy milk chocolate, otherwise known as “Swiss chocolate.” They enjoy their own chocolate so much that they consume more than they export. The Swiss have contributed much to chocolate as we know it today.
In 1819, François-Louis Cailler created the first chocolate bar.
Later, in 1875, his son-in-law added milk to chocolate to reduce costs and benefit from abundant Swiss dairy, as well as to make it more appealing. His neighbor, Henri Nestlé, supplied the condensed milk, and together they created the first milk chocolate.
Chocolate making continued to evolve with Rodolphe Lindt inventing the manufacturing process of conching in 1879. Conching refines and reduces the size of the cocoa and sugar particles to create a smoother consistency.
Chocolate first arrived in France from Spain in 1615, when Infanta Anne of Austria introduced the chocolate drink to her new husband, Louis XIII of France. The French court embraced this new sweet and a taste for chocolate spread quickly throughout Paris and greater France. (It probably didn’t hurt that it became known as an aphrodisiac.)
Today France has a strong vibrant artisanal movement. Tablets are the largest category of chocolate in France.
Germany is the largest export of chocolates in the EU, accounting for some 30% of total EU exports.
The Germans produce the four classic types of chocolate in a style often compared to the Swiss and Belgians. Although its taste is not as sophisticated as the French, Germany excels at innovation and selection. For example, their Ritter Sport bar—with more than 40 varieties—is square so that it fits better into pockets and sports equipment.
Other well known German chocolate brands include Halloren, Schogetten, Stollwerck, Sarotti and Ritter Sport.
In 1828, Coenraad van Houten invented the cocoa press to produce cocoa powder that would easily dissolve in liquids. This “Dutching” process improved the solubility of cocoa powder even more and allowed greater variation in taste and color.
Van Houten’s father was credited with developing the method of removing fat from cacao beans by hydraulic press around 1828, forming the basis for cocoa powder.
These developments greatly expanded the use of chocolate, which had been mostly used as a beverage in Europe until that time.
Dutch process lowers acidity, increases solubility, enhances color and smooths flavor and is now the basis for the production of all chocolate. Famous Dutch brands include Droste, Verkade, Van Houten and Tony Chocolonely. Droste reports that “…about 40 percent of women and 15 percent of men have a regular need for chocolate.”
Perhaps Italy’s most enduring contribution to the evolution of chocolate was its introduction of hazelnuts to cocoa. The story goes that, during the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s, cocoa became extremely difficult to import from South America and expensive when it could be found. This pushed chocolate makers in Turin to seek a solution.
Since the region grew hazelnuts and had a plentiful supply, the chocolatiers substituted hazelnuts for some of the expensive cocoa in their chocolate-making.
The result was a success. It cost less and was delicious. Caffarel made some of the first cocoa-hazelnut confections in the shape of little hats called gianduiotto. To this day, these are still the traditional chocolates of Turin. Much later, Pietro Ferrero of the Italian candy company, Ferrero, invented Nutella, the popular cocoa-hazelnut spread.
For years, chocolates in the UK tended to be mass-produced and dominated by milk chocolate bars–think the ubiquitous Cadburys Dairy Milk bar introduced in 1905.
In 1969 Cadbury merged with Schweppes, then demerged in 2008. In 2010 Cadbury became part of Kraft Foods—now Mondelēz. And while the Dairy Milk bar is nearly synonymous with Britishness, production of many versions has been migrating to Poland. Check the back of the wrapper before parting with your cash.
In many ways the UK chocolate industry is closer to American than European chocolate in its traditional reliance on using a lower percentage of cacao, higher percentage of sugar, and willingness to substitute up to 5 percent in vegetable fat in lieu of cacao butter. Angus Thirlwell, co-founder of the British high-end brand Hotel Chocolat, laments:
…two world wars and rationing were to blame for diminishing the cocoa content of British chocolate. People had got used to that taste and sugar was 10 times cheaper than cocoa. British chocolate has never really recovered. British chocolate brands have been taken over by American companies and they are increasingly pulled towards the orbit of the American approach to chocolate.
This has been changing in recent years as sales of mass market chocolates have slipped and an appreciation for crafted chocolates has led to the rise of the artisanal chocolatier.
The United States
For decades, the United States candy landscape was entirely dominated by large, monolithic chocolate companies, such as Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey’s. They continue to be the number one, three, and six producers of chocolate in the world in terms of revenue, respectively. And almost all the chocolate they sold in previous decades was of the milk variety.
The more bitter dark chocolate was thought not to match American consumers’ tastes.
While that may have been true, once, and milk chocolate may still reign supreme, dark chocolate is gaining.
The premium chocolate market is popular in the United States, as consumers prefer to treat themselves with bite-sized chocolates–so they can control how much they are consuming. Dark chocolate is consistent with the ‘clean eating’ trend in the States as dark chocolate offers numerous health benefits.
The US craft chocolate industry is booming as consumers reject cheap sugary and flavorless mass market chocolates in favor of artisanal chocolates. The artisanal “bean-to-bar” scene is huge, with more than 500+ producers introducing consumers to real chocolate flavors.
Good news for chocoholics everywhere.
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This article was updated on November 15, 2021. It originally appeared on February 27, 2018.
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