My foray into the world of American craft chocolate
Goat Maple chocolate in process at Sazon
PHOTOGRAPHS BY REBECCA MCALPIN
The words left my mouth on Halloween of 2013. “It does not feel like a birthday,” I lamented to my mom. She had flown from France to spend the next couple of months in Chester County with me, and her presence should have been reason enough to celebrate.
“Jonathan got you a cake, Estelle, and I’m here. What more do you want?”
Staring at the candy bowl from the living room couch, I pondered that question. She was right: I had everything I could possibly want. A roof over my head. A loving husband. A sweet daughter and a long-awaited, brand-new baby.
Yet I could not shake the feeling that something was missing. At 35, I was still looking for a purpose that neither my job nor my French food blog was providing anymore. On my next birthday, things would be different, I thought to myself. I would feel accomplished.
This impulse is something of a pattern with me. The following year, 2014, in an attempt to become more virtuous, I decided to perform 36 good deeds by my 36th birthday. Sadly, I did not get past three.
In March 2015, I resigned from a 10-year position in the corporate world. Up in Canada, my friend Nicole and her childhood friend committed to run a 50K race on their shared 50th birthday. The run received national coverage and the two friends crossed the finish line with the support of their family and friends. Now that was an accomplishment. Soon, Nicole was looking for a challenge for her 51st birthday.
“You worked hard,” I said. “Now it’s time to play hard! Why not eat 51 chocolates?”
She dismissed the idea. I thought it was awesome.
It was right before Memorial Day and, after publishing a food survival guide for French expats in the United States, I was looking for a new project. I had witnessed the rise of the US bean-to-bar chocolate movement—that is, bars made from scratch from actual cacao beans, instead of melted and remolded industrial chocolate. Curious to learn more, I gave the idea some consideration.
I loved chocolate. I had time. I needed a purpose.
“Fine, Nicole. I’ll do it.”
That was how, in June 2015, I committed to sampling 37 chocolate bars by my 37th birthday, that Halloween.
My first taste of
bar had made one
thing clear: the
is not a guarantee
The First Bite
Before this challenge, the chocolate I ate came straight from the grocery store. For the past several years, I had resorted to chocolate to help me cope with my deadline-driven job. I would buy several bars on sale at the grocery store, but never spent more than $3.50 on chocolate. I ate chocolate for stress relief, and, yes, I ate it mindlessly.
I had been curious about the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate, but felt guilty at the idea of spending the equivalent of an hour of minimum wage on a three-ounce piece of indulgence. Besides, my first taste of an eight-dollar bar had made one thing clear: the term “bean-to-bar” is not a guarantee of quality. I had decided to stick with mass-produced, reliable and inexpensive bars.
After I left my job, I started wondering what awaited me outside of my chocolate comfort zone. Eating disappointing bars felt like going on bad dates. I wanted “the one,” so I took a leap of faith, grabbed my wallet and headed out to Philter Coffee in Kennett Square. Philter features a small selection of American craft chocolate. Waiting in line, I had many times picked a bar to study its wrapper, looking for a reason to splurge. On the front, next to an illustration, would be the name of a faraway country, along with a high cacao percentage. On the back, there was generally a short list of ingredients—typically cacao beans and cane sugar— and a batch number, stamped or written by hand. There were sometimes tasting notes that made me roll my eyes.
It was the kind of scant information that left me with more questions than answers: What was so special about cacao from Trinidad? I would return the bar to its shelf before ordering a croissant with my latte. The only way to explore the world of craft chocolate, it seemed, was to eat my way through a lot of it. To kick-start the challenge, I chose a half-ounce bar of Twenty-Four Blackbirds Chocolate. Handcrafted in California, the single-origin bar stood out for its light color, subtle citrus notes and complete lack of bitterness—all of which, I would later learn, are noted characteristics of Madagascar cacao beans. This did not taste like my typical dark chocolate at all. I was confused: Did I actually like it?
At home, I jotted my impressions in a small notebook. When I announced my challenge on Instagram, I realized I wanted to share more than tasting notes, and video seemed like a better medium. A quick YouTube search only revealed a handful of bean-to-bar chocolate reviews. I knew what that meant: Sooner or later, my voice would be heard. I had five months and 37 bars to make it matter.
With more than a hundred bean-to-bar chocolate makers operating in the United States, a few orders from chocolate sites could easily have provided enough material for my challenge. However, chocolate felt like such a mysterious food—it relies on a crop you can’t find in a grocery store and requires equipment you can’t pick up in a kitchen shop—that I craved a physical connection with each bar.
I hunted down chocolate at local coffee shops and independent food stores. Who knew that Carlino’s, an Italian-inspired gourmet shop in West Chester, carried so many bars? I accepted my friend Teresa’s offer to bring me bars from Atlanta. Laura, a chocolate-loving barista at Philter, recommended two dark milk chocolates, which I spotted at Gryphon Coffee in Wayne: Nathan Miller’s 55% Buttermilk Chocolate and my very fi rst craft-chocolate crush, the boldly flavored, slightly crunchy 65% Milk & Nibs bar by Acalli. By early July, I had gathered a large enough stash to last through the end of the summer.
In early fall, my not-so-secret wish
to meet a chocolate maker was granted
when an Instagram user named
@chocolatealchemist informed me he was
“Philly’s only bean-to-bar chocolate maker.”
Estelle Tracy, left, with Philter owner Chris Thompson and barista Laura Czarnecki
The Many Flavors of Chocolate
Bar by bar, I was discovering the complex world of chocolate through the lens of American craft makers. It soon became evident that not all cacaos or bars were created equal, and that chocolate was not one single fl avor but a myriad. I began to understand why so many people compared chocolate to wine. I was so glad I hadn’t let one bad bar stop me from exploring this hidden world. Cacao, it seemed, was a magical food. I became grateful for the bean-to-bar makers who made us appreciate its power. With its acidity and long, spicy fi nish, a bar that Potomac Chocolate had crafted from Venezuelan Cuyagua cacao filled me with awe.… Read More