December 12, 2018

Fine & Commercial Chocolate: Do You Know The Difference?


Is there a difference between fine chocolate and its commercial counterpart? Of course there is. You can probably taste it when you sample a smooth Ecuadorian fine chocolate versus when you bite into a commercially made bar.

But what sets the two kinds of chocolate apart? Read on to find out more about the ingredients, production, and processing of both kinds of chocolate.

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Fine cacao pods growing on trees

Trinitario cacao pods on a tree in Bahia, Brazil. Credit: Var Chocolates

What Is The Difference Between Fine & Commercial Chocolate?

Chocolate can be broadly separated into two categories: fine and commercial. Both are made with cacao that has been fermented, processed, and combined with other ingredients to make a sweet treat. But they have different ingredient lists and very different backgrounds.

You probably recognise commercial chocolate. It’s what many of us grew up eating as a treat and what we see in supermarkets worldwide. This low-cost chocolate is produced and distributed on a mass scale and is made with bulk commodities cacao.

In fine chocolate, it’s more selective. Just like with coffee, the beans used will dictate the quality and flavours of the chocolate. Let’s take a deeper look at how the two types of chocolate differ.

Fine cacao beans split down the middle

Cacao beans that have been split for quality inspection. Credit: Casa Lasevicius

Different Ingredients

One of the most obvious differences between commercial and fine chocolate is the ingredients list.

Take a look at the back of a bar and you’ll see that commercial chocolate usually includes a high percentage of sugar to other ingredients. Commercial chocolate also often includes non-essential ingredients like lecithin and vanilla extracts, and sometimes artificial flavours.

None of these ingredients are bad, but it’s worth noting that because the aim is to have a standardised product, they are added in part to homogenise the flavours of the cacao.

In fine chocolate, you’ll probably see fewer ingredients listed and they’re more likely to be of higher quality. Sugar is also an ingredient in most fine chocolate, but it is generally used in smaller amounts and is used to highlight particular flavours in the cacao.

Ingredients for a chocolate bar and chocolate pieces. Credit: Tiny House Chocolate

And when you see “cacao” as an ingredient, it can mean different things depending on whether you’re considering a commercial or fine chocolate bar.

Bruno Lasevicius is a co-owner of Casa Lasevicius Chocolates. He tells me that, in fine chocolate, the selection of raw ingredients must be very particular.

“Fine chocolate is characterised by the use of special cacao, with better-quality beans sourced and produced on a much smaller scale,” he says.

“When selecting cacao for fine chocolate, the sensorial analysis is the most important control instrument. Not only the taste of the fresh bean, but also the analysis of the cacao liquor.”

Learn more in Understanding The Ingredients List on Your Fine Chocolate Bar

Chocolate bars and cacao beans. Credit: Casa Lasevicius

Different Aims in Production

Cacao for use in commercial and fine chocolate have different paths even at the genetic level. The cacao species that are most valued in fine chocolate have gone through a long process of genetic improvement by selection. Farmers choose and prioritise beans with good flavour and aroma, and place less emphasis on productivity and disease-resistance.

Because of this fragility, only a small amount of fine cacao is produced and it requires a lot of attention during production and processing. This makes it more expensive.

Bruno tells me that “cacao for fine chocolate requires much more care, time, and money for its production. That is why most cacao farmers’ crops ultimately result in commercial cacao. Just a few cacao producers have enough capacity to deliver fine cacao beans.”

Fine cacao plants growing in Brazil

Cacao plants in Bahia, Brazil. Credit: Casa Lasevicius

In comparison, commercial cacao is selected for its yield and resistance over flavour. In fact, unique flavour can be considered a bad thing for commercial cacao. Bruno tells me that the homogenization of cacao into one consistent product can become difficult if the different beans have “too much information”.

And just like with coffee, the variety of plant, environmental conditions, and production choices have an impact on the character and flavour of the cacao. Bruno says that in some cases the terroir, or soil conditions, has a greater impact on cacao quality than genetics.

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Harold Formeau ferments fine cacao almonds. Credit: Casa Lasevicius

Fine Cacao Processing

To make chocolate, cacao beans must be fermented and dried. The fermenting process is one of the most important factors in the final quality. Different varieties of cacao require different fermentation processes to allow a desirable flavour to develop properly.

Bruno explains that each type of cacao has a different protocol of fermentation and drying and that this depends on the genetic material (for example, the amount of cacao butter) and the physical characteristics of the beans.

Fermentation boxes at Cooperative Fortaleza del Valle in Ecuador. Credit: Casa Lasevicius

Fine chocolate manufacturers look for plantations with high-quality plants and practices. These are farms where choice of plant variety, pod selection, fermentation, and drying are all done with the end flavour in mind.

If the beans aren’t properly dried, they can spoil in transportation. Throughout production and processing, the emphasis is on maintaining the high quality and highlighting the individual characteristics of the cacao.

Learn more in A Step-by-Step Explanation of Cacao Harvesting & Processing

Drying bulk cacao beans in Bahia, Brazil. Credit: Pedro Magalhães

Commercial Cacao Processing

In commercial chocolate production, the emphasis is on volume at a low price. The goal is to achieve a large amount of consistently flavoured chocolate.

Cacao from different sources is grouped together and sold as bulk commodity cacao. Because the flavours will be homogenised in the production process anyway, it is not worth trying to maintain individual nuances.

For this reason, there is much less emphasis on preserving the sensory qualities of the beans and the production is simplified.

Sacks of fine cacao beans at Cooperative Fortaleza del Valle, Ecuador. Credit: Casa Lasevicius

It’s possible to make both commercial and fine chocolate using the same variety of cacao beans from the same farm. The difference is in how the beans are managed. From cultivation to the selection of ingredients in the final chocolate bar, the priorities and techniques are different.

The quantity of chocolate produced and price of the product are the regulators of quality in chocolate.

Now you understand how fine and commercial chocolate are made, why not take a look at the ingredients list, origin, and price point of a few bars and decide for yourself which you’d prefer to sample?

Enjoyed this? Check out What’s The Difference Between Cacao & Cocoa?

Written by Hazel Boydell.

Feature image: Different types of fine chocolate bars. Credit: Associacao Bean to Bar Brasil.

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