A guide to buying craft bean to bar chocolate

22 January 2024, 07:00 AM
  • When it comes to indulgence, consumers appear to be ‘trading up’, seeking single serve bars that deliver not just on taste, but health claims and ethics too, Speciality Food reports
A guide to buying craft bean to bar chocolate

Chocolate promises so much. But only excellent quality chocolate can deliver on those promises. And it can be difficult, as a retailer, to understand what truly sets artisanal chocolate apart. Is it the percentage of cocoa? The origin of the beans? The method of production? The ‘ethical’ claims stamped on the packaging?

Then there are consumer buying habits to consider. What on earth do they want to stick in their baskets? And, crucially, are they prepared to pay more for a premium product?

As Barry Callebaut’s most recent report highlights higher percentage, functional and sustainable chocolate as key buying factors for consumers, Speciality Food dives deeper into the market to discover what could clinch you those essential ‘treat’ sales this year.

What’s happening on the craft chocolate scene?

The picture painted of the industry by insiders is one of flux. While these are exciting times for craft makers, with superb opportunities to buy incredible beans with unbelievable flavour profiles, there’s no denying the increasing cost of raw ingredients, combined with hikes in the overall day-to-day running of a business, has hit hard. This, in turn, has naturally impacted the price of the finished product.

“Since the first craft chocolate makers started out, there’s been a lot of makers come and go,” says international chocolate judge and chocolate educator Kathryn Laverack. “Today, there are around 50 bean to bar makers here [in the UK], but they are generally very small businesses. 

“It’s a difficult thing to make. It’s also difficult to convince people to pay the price for that better chocolate.” Although awareness of craft chocolate has grown considerably, Kathryn can’t deny it’s a tricky sector to be a part of, with a huge amount of passion, enthusiasm and work required to sustain a profitable, manageable business. “It’s not for the faint hearted. But there is some fabulous chocolate being made here.”

“It’s been tough,” agrees chocolate expert and food innovation consultant Jennifer Earle. “I saw so much growth between 2005 and 2016-18, with people really caring more and understanding more about chocolate, in line with caring more about food in general. Then, during the pandemic, I saw lots of pastry chefs furloughed, going on to make and sell chocolates. Lots of businesses blossomed, and then most of them closed.”

Though she thinks it’s a difficult time for the speciality chocolate industry in the UK, Jennifer says interest in bean to bar chocolate continues to grow, with more people seeking it out. The trajectory for sales may not be what some had hoped but, “People are willing to pay for quality. Though it has to be exceptional.”

Are there any chocolate trends retailers need to know about?

Inclusions and infusions are buzz words in craft chocolate at the moment. “To start off with, most people make plain bars,” says Kathryn, “but then we’re seeing lots of makers extending these ranges with flavoured bars, bon bons, dragees and hot chocolate.” Using local ingredients appears key. “That’s something that’s been very successful, and something we’re seeing more of. It could be anything from working with a local brewery, to picking or foraging. An example is Exe Chocolate in Exeter. Nicola there works with Two Drifter’s Distillery for one bar, and makes another with local seaweed. ‘Local’ is something people understand. We’re coming into it a bit later in chocolate, but it’s definitely making an impact across the board.”

Carlene Cole of Chocolate Seekers, which sources and sells artisan bean to bar chocolate from across the world, has also recognised a shift towards infusions, particularly coffee and chilli. “And I’m noticing more people making tumbles [tossing nuts, seeds, dried fruit etc in chocolate] using craft chocolate. I love Solkiki from Dorset. They do really interesting bars, and try to use local ingredients. They’re making ‘boulders’ and tumbling fruit and nuts. I also love the bar they have infused with fig leaf from a fig tree in their garden, and another made with Somerset brandy. I’ve got a lot of respect for them and what they do.”

When it comes to driving the ‘local’ message home, Carlene has a soft spot for British maker Cocoa Retreat. “They have lovely bars made with local ingredients like Kentish cobnuts and fresh walnuts. We really really like what she does.”

“A positive thing at the moment is that people are focussing more on taste, and that’s what sets the sector apart,” adds Kathryn. 

Being ethical, she says, has also become a major buying factor for those seeking out premium chocolate, with Jennifer noting more people want to ‘tick those boxes’. “If a chocolate is ethical, they feel better about buying it.”

Beyond this, Jennifer, along with Kathryn and Carlene, has seen a defined shift towards higher percentage bars, bought for their purported health claims. “I’m seeing a lot of people choosing 85% to 100% bars,” she explains. “The bestselling tend to be 100%. They are usually made with really good quality cocoa beans, and with 100% cocoa there’s nowhere to hide.” This, Jennifer says, is where you can expose the difference between a supermarket bar and a craft bar. “At tastings I give people award-winning 100% chocolate without telling them. That bitterness they might expect isn’t there, and they usually guess it’s 85% or 70%!”

More and more customers are asking for 100% chocolate at the market events Carlene attends, with the retailer saying they actively visiting her with the intent of buying darker chocolate. “It’s not only for health benefits, but also because people are trying to improve their diets and eat less sugar, and these bars appeal to them. It’s interesting, because we didn’t see this when we started.”

Consumers, say the experts, are investing in good quality chocolate not just for its taste, but also to treat their mind and body, which represents a shift in buying habits. Jennifer says the bar format, as a self-purchase, has taken off. “With a bar there’s a bit more of a sense of value. Paying £4 to £6 to treat yourself. If you walked into a chocolate shop, it would be hard to buy three chocolates for that nowadays. People are still buying gifts, but really the industry needs them to be purchasing for themselves to make it viable.”

How to buy bean to bar chocolate

This is a “very people-orientated industry” says Kathryn, who adds that retailers need to find and work with makers who align with their own values. But also, they need to find products they and their team actually like, and can easily recommend. 

“There are key things to look for when tasting. First, do you enjoy it? And do you understand how to taste and assess it? You can ask your local craft maker. They will usually be happy to teach you how to taste.”

A starting point, she suggests, is finding a single origin bar that you like, then exploring different makers’ takes on that origin. “Try them all, and see how they differ, and notice which ones you like best.”

Kathryn says you also have to become a ‘bean geek’. “You need to know where the beans are from, who is growing them, what’s happening in the chain. Then you can pass all that information onto the consumer so they can make an informed choice. Good makers should be able to, and should want to, tell you about their chocolate.”

“You need to be interested in transparency and ensuring makers are aligned with your values,” says Carlene. “There’s a lot of terms around chocolate, and many of them are not protected, so you need to have the conversations around methods and the farming and the co-operatives to understand this better.”

“If a bar says ‘ethical’ or Fairtrade or Cocoa Horizons, it will tend to be a confectionery-type chocolate made using bulk cocoa. It might be more ethical than others, but not as much as craft bean to bar chocolate,” says Jennifer. Craft makers might not make a huge deal about ethics on their labelling. “But they will have a story, and relationships with farmers, growers, and people on the ground. That’s why talking to them and learning everything you can before you buy is so important.”

It’s not always an easy sell, Kathryn continues, adding that having good point of sale materials and well-versed staff is key to relaying those messages and justifying the higher price craft chocolate commands. “Lack of point of sale and awareness is one of the biggest problems – and retailers can play a big part in helping with this,” she says.

Beyond knowing the origins and processes involved when sourcing bean to bar chocolate, Jennifer advises paying closer attention to the ingredients list. “You want it to say cocoa beans, cocoa mass, or cocoa liquor, but cocoa beans are best. Then there will be sugar, and it may have cocoa butter. Lots of makers will add extra cocoa butter for a nice mouthfeel.” Be a touch wary if you see soya lecithin or sunflower lecithin on the label, she continues. “The bar could still be award-winning, but it’s less and less common for craft makers to use that now.”

A red flag for Jennifer is the addition of vanilla which, she says, has historically been added to darker chocolate bars, often to mask the bitterness caused by inferior beans. “It was in almost all dark bars to give a consistent flavour and it almost became the dominant taste. A bar made using good quality cocoa shouldn’t have any flavourings if it’s a plain bar – even white and milk chocolate. It’s true that most makers add vanilla to white chocolate, but you can find bars without it, and those people making it are truly skilled.”

White chocolate is ‘growing up’, Kathryn says. “It’s made from the cocoa bean, using the cocoa butter. If it’s made from fine beans, you can create a fine white chocolate.” It’s time, she adds, to steer away from bars made with non-deodorised cocoa butter, with the deodorisation process taking away the essential cocoa flavour, leading, often, to more flavourings being added.

“Chocolarder makes two absolutely amazing white chocolate bars – a pure white and a blonde with Madagascan cocoa butter and toasted milk powder. Both have high percentages of non-deodorised cocoa butter in. Sometimes I do tastings with this type of chocolate and ask people to close their eyes. It tastes a bit like milk chocolate, and that’s down to the quality of the beans.”

Beyond fine whites, which are well worth investigating, Kathryn has a penchant for unrefined chocolate, which is making waves in the market for its purity, and unique texture. If a bar has been processed in this way, it should say so on the label, she points out. “Mouthfeel is important. It’s about flavour delivery. A chocolate made on a small scale can have a bit more texture and be a bit more granular than one made on larger machinery.”

We’ve gotten used to, Kathryn says, having that really smooth mouthfeel from Belgian and Swiss chocolate, “but a bit of texture can support the flavour. Unrefined chocolate is usually very simple. Just a few ingredients that you can almost taste separately.”

These bars aren’t for everybody. “But this is a different way of tasting and experiencing chocolate, adding a whole new dimension to it.”

Finally, Carlene says choosing award-winning chocolates can be helpful in making a buying decision. “I might look out for people who’ve won maybe for a few years running. That is a mark of quality really. But be aware that if this is the only way you source your chocolate you might be missing out on some great bars, because not everyone can get to the awards, and some makers don’t agree with them.”

The experts’ favourite craft chocolate bars


Kathryn is a huge fan of one of the UK’s first craft makers, Duffy’s Chocolate, from north Lincolnshire. “His Indio Rojo bar is made with beans from Honduras and it’s consistently remained at the top of my list. It’s a very deep, intense chocolate flavour, with notes of raisin, and then a coffee finish.

“I’d also recommend Luisa’s from Nottingham. If you’re looking for a flavoured bar, her Solomon Islands and Sicilian Orange Pieces is a winner. I love orange in chocolate. It is one of my favourite combinations.

“For milk chocolate, I would say to try Solkiki from Devon. Their bars are all vegan as well. They do an amazing Ecuadorian bar with cashew milk, and a salted caramel dark milk with Peruvian cacao.

“But my favourite, favourite maker is from Canada – Soma. They do an Old School Milk chocolate made with cocoa beans from Venezuela, milk powder and cane sugar, ground together. It’s very granular, but the smell alone for me is incredible. The taste and overall craftsmanship is outstanding.”


“I love Chocolarder’s chocolate infused with gorse, and their rosemary chocolate. I like the Belize from Tosier, and the Pump Street Panettone bar is delicious. Then Chocolate Tree do a gianduja bar made with just hazelnuts, dark chocolate and sugar. It’s really creamy and interesting. 

“I also love Bare Bones Chocolate. Their 60% Honduras and 40% Salted White are amazing.”


Carlene is also a supporter of Soma, with a particular love for their rarely available bar infused with cherry and crumbled with Amaretti biscuits. “Their chocolate is outstanding!”

New to Chocolate Seekers this year is Mission Chocolate, which has been popular with customers. “They are based in Brazil and the founder uses Brazilian cocoa, but also has a biome project, so she tries to use local fruit and nuts too. And she makes some Brazilian dessert-type bars. They’ve sold really well.

Qantu from Canada is fabulous as well. It’s all Peruvian. The bars are quite expensive, but so good – especially their Tresor Cache.

“Another favourite is Cacaosuyo. They have a brilliant bar with nibs in that I absolutely love. It is just gorgeous. It’s also Peruvian and tastes so different to what Qantu make. That’s what’s so interesting about bean to bar chocolate – the flavours can be completely different across a country or region.”

Editor’s Picks

70% Vietnam Tien Gang, Bullion Chocolate: A lightly textured, excellently crafted bar with fragrant hints of honey, stone fruit and toasted butterscotch.

30% White Chocolate Buttons, Islands Chocolate: Some of the most delicious white chocolate we’ve tried. These oversized buttons hit with a big punch of pure cocoa flavour that is never overpowered by vanilla. A pinch of salt prevents them being too sweet. Great for snacking or baking.

Wild Gorse Flower 50% Milk, Chocolarder: A runaway success for the craft brand, infused with hand-picked Cornish gorse which imparts a delicate taste not unlike coconut.

Nan’s Stash, Fatso: We love the offbeat branding, which stands out on the shelf. Beyond this, the sustainable dark chocolate bar also packs a punch in flavour, and brims with buttery biscuits, peanuts and chewy toffee pieces.

Old School Milk, Soma: A brave, rarely made take on chocolate using traditional methods, and only three ingredients. The bar has a crunchy, knobbly, cookie-like texture, and a richly milky, sweet taste, balanced by excellent quality cocoa.

Quillabamba 70, Orfeve: An indulgent Swiss-made bar crafted with Peruvian beans. Fruit takes a back seat here, allowing the toasty, nutty, creamy hints of coffee to come through, before you get a hit of blueberry.

Single Origin Vraem Peru, Meybol Cacao: It’s incredible to think there are no inclusions in this bar, which is juicy, tangy and bright, with tart bites of lime and passionfruit.


more like this
  • Trending chocolate and sweets: 50+ stocking ideas

    30 October 2023
    Looking for sweet new ideas to stock? Speciality Food’s latest edition of Confectionery & Chocolate Buyer highlights key trends and product categories you need to know about
  • Why buying ethical chocolate matters

    23 October 2023
    Consumers are becoming ever more savvy, often making purchasing decisions based on sustainability and elevated quality – especially when it comes to chocolate
  • Trend Watch: Barista-grade Hot Chocolate

    28 October 2022
    Drinking chocolate is following in coffee’s footsteps. The future is craft and bespoke says Sally-Jayne Wright
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing