Megan Giller still remembers her very first bar of craft chocolate. It was a single-origin Madagascar bar, made by Patric, that she stumbled onto at a chocolate shop called Cacao in Portland. She was instantly obsessed. “My mind was blown,” Giller told Smithsonian.com “I was surprised by all of the fruity flavors in there. The chocolate was better than anything I had ever tasted, and it was being made in America, from scratch!”
That first experience inspired her to launch Chocolate Noise in 2013, a project dedicated to highlighting the best craft chocolate makers around the country. Each week she profiles a new chocolatier on her website and Instagram account, focusing specifically on "bean-to-bar" makers – those who oversee the entire process from sourcing and grinding the beans to molding the final bars. Her project has since spurred a book, published last year, that explores what she calls "America's craft chocolate revolution."
The difference between craft chocolate and commercial chocolate here is an important one, she says. Craft chocolate starts with high-quality whole beans sourced directly from farmers. The focus with bean-to-bar chocolate is on flavor, while commercial chocolate focuses on consistency. Because of the scale and shelf-life requirements, commercial chocolate is also often made with lower quality beans, Giller says, and has a lot of preservatives.
Giller's research and discerning palate have earned her spots at the judging table for several chocolate competitions, including the International Chocolate Awards. “To win a competition, a chocolate bar needs to contain impeccable ingredients that have been treated with care in order to bring out delicious flavors and textures,” Giller said. “The best ones also surprise you in some way.”
Giller shared with Smithsonian.com her favorite five chocolate makers in the country and what makes them special.
Dandelion; San Francisco, California
Traditionally, chocolate is made in a European style with cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla. Todd Masonis, owner of Dandelion, steers his chocolate away from that style and makes what Giller calls a quintessential American-style bean-to-bar chocolate—which uses only two ingredients, cocoa beans and sugar. Dandelion also stands out from other chocolate makers by having a sole person dedicated to working with the farmers growing their cacao. The job title? "Bean Sourcerer." Giller's pick for best bar: Mantuano, Venezuela.
Raaka; Brooklyn, New York
Hey everyone! This is William from @raakachocolate. On behalf of Raaka, I'm really excited to take over Chocolate Noise today to show you what we're all about. At the factory, a skilled team of chocolate makers handcrafts every bar, whether that means loading winnowed, sorting beans, operating the roll mill, pouring by hand, or topping by hand. This is @chefhectorhernandez. He comes from Puebla, Mexico, and has been with us for two years. Besides being a great chocolate maker, he's also an incredible chef. . . . #mouthfulofchocolate #chocolatenoise #beantobar #beantobarchocolate #brooklyn #rawchocolate #darkchocolate #vegandessert #veganchocolate
Raaka's chocolate is probably the most unique of Giller's selections. Head chocolate maker Nate Hodge departs from traditional chocolate practices and makes his bars with unroasted beans, lending what Giller calls a "wild flavor" to the finished product. "They make single-origin bars but almost always pair the beans with other ingredients that they think will bring out those flavors in interesting ways, so you get unusual chocolates like bananas foster," Giller told Smithsonian.com. Giller's pick for best bar: Pink Sea Salt.
Dick Taylor; Eureka, California
Last post of the day from Dustin Taylor of @dicktaylorchocolate. Machinery becomes an extension of a skilled operator, allowing them to achieve a high degree of precision and repeatability. Here, Jeremy refines the mixture of liquor and sugar into flake prior to dry conching. Once fully refined, the chocolate will have the best possible flow and texture. ・ ・ ・ #chocolatenoise #beantobarchocolate #beantobar #mouthfulofchocolate #craftchocolate #cacao #cacaolove #chocolatelove #chocolateliquor #conching
Like Dandelion, Dick Taylor's owners, Adam Dick and Dustin Taylor, use only cocoa beans and sugar in their bars. The team puts a lot of extra care into the time and process of creating a smooth and beautiful piece of chocolate, and that dedication spreads throughout the business. Even the packaging and labels are self-designed and letterpress printed by hand. Giller's pick for best bar: Vietnam.
Askinosie; Springfield, Missouri
Askinosie's beans come from only a handful of farmers—ones that owner Shawn Askinosie visits at least once a year to truly involve them in the business. Farmers working with the company receive a share of the profits, and Askinosie encourages and helps them to create their own business plans. Giller's pick for best bar: Dark Milk Chocolate with Fleur de Sel.
Ritual; Park City, Utah
Ritual's process for making chocolate involves a time-tested piece of equipment: they use an antique conche from the 1800s. Chocolate maker Robbie Stout bought the conche from Steve DeVries, one of the original bean-to-bar makers in the U.S., who picked it up in Germany where it had been sitting in a barn for around 20 years. The machine's purpose is to homogeneously spread cocoa butter throughout the chocolate while also heating everything up to ensure the best flavors come through in the finished bar. As a result, Ritual's chocolate is silky, smooth and flavorful. Giller's pick for Ritual's best bar: the Bourbon Barrel-Aged.