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The craft chocolate revolution

Three types of chocolate brownies
At Dandelion Cafe, San Francisco. Photo: Molly DeCoudreaux/Dandelion

Wine experts get loads of respect, with their oenologists, viticulturists, masters of wine, not to mention white-gloved sommeliers. Ever since Starbucks elevated the cup of coffee, "Q graders," the mandarins of the Arabica bean, have achieved similar gravitas. Craft beer has its cicerones.

What's happening: Now, a still-tiny phalanx of fancy chocolate companies, most based in the U.S., think they are on the brink of the same sort of coming of age. Their product has not yet reached the zenith of niche dining — a fancy appellation to single out its best experts. But exotically sourced chocolate may be the new thing in haut cool.

  • A decade ago, there were just a dozen or so small U.S. companies buying and processing cocoa beans for ultra-premium craft chocolates, said Emily Stone, founder of Uncommon Cacao, whom I caught up with by phone from Belize.
  • Today, the number is about 190, according to the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, and 480 around the world.
  • "We're at the beginning of a chocolate revolution," said Megan Giller, author of "Bean to Bar Chocolate." "We now have access to some of the best chocolate that has ever existed, with brands like Dandelion, Patric, and Fruition blowing my mind consistently."

The big picture: Americans spent about $22 billion on chocolate last year, about a 1% increase over 2017, according to the National Confectioners Association. But sales of premium chocolate, about 6% of the market, grew by more than 19%.

  • By comparison, specialty coffees account for some 59% of all of the beverage consumed in the U.S., according to the Specialty Coffee Association.
  • And craft beers are about 23% of U.S. retail beer sales, says the Brewers Association.
  • "We are about 20 years behind everyone else," said Ed Seguine, an authority on flavor in cocoa beans.

But craft chocolate is growing.

  • What craft chocolate is: Premium and fine craft chocolates are made in small batches at small companies with much higher cacao content than the 10%-30% contained in most mass-market brands. The beans come from around the world but mostly Madagascar and South America.
  • An example: Dandelion Chocolate runs a factory and cafe in San Francisco's Mission District, where it serves hand-made baked goods using 70% cacao content (see photo above). It is frequently packed with customers.
  • As of now, the typical customer for craft chocolate are older millennials with above-average income who are concerned about social and environmental issues, said Bill Guyton, executive director of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association.

The growth in sales does not necessarily mean that chocolate is the next Starbucks. But consumers are demanding less-sugary and darker chocolate, says Kristy Leissle, author of "Cocoa" and a professor at the University of Washington, who spoke from Ghana. "For me, the question is how far will this trend go? Will consumers keep on this quest for healthy living through chocolate, and will the big manufacturers and processors continue to innovate to meet this demand?"

What chocolate has going for it:

  • Financial upside: By far, Americans will grab a Snicker's bar or some M&Ms over a bar of fine chocolate. But, for the industry, the best beans fetch a far higher price. In 2015, ultra-premium fine cacao beans were worth $5,000 to $10,000 a ton. Bulk commodity cacao earned just $3,000 to $3,500.
  • And it has a resonance that is missing from the others: "Chocolate is not about food intake," Seguine said. "It's about passion, romance, ecstasy even. It's about memories and shared relationships. Chocolate is not something we need as part of our diet. But it is something our soul needs."