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FCIA Member, Alan McClure from Patric Chocolate presents a thoughtful dissertation from the chocolate maker's perspective.

What is Fine Chocolate?

By Alan McClure, Chocolate Maker of Patric Chocolate

The term “fine chocolate” gets thrown around quite a bit, both online and in print, but what does it really mean?  If we take the word “fine” to literally refer to the fineness of the cacao and sugar particles within the chocolate, which is a reasonable thought given the importance usually placed upon texture in fine chocolate products, then we must expect that any manufacturer of fine chocolate should have the necessary machine(s) available to refine and conche said chocolate until it has a very smooth texture - something that we can objectively refer to as “fine.” 

However, there are many mass producers that also manufacture chocolate with fine particle sizes, so there must be more to fine chocolate than that.  Additionally, there are companies with products on the market that have taken a different approach to fine chocolate, feeling that cacao has, up to this point, been too processed, and have, therefore, created products with varying amounts of refining and conching, using processes that seem to fly in the face of traditional ideas--based primarily on French practices--concerning fine chocolate.  This being the case, though texture is usually still quite important to fine chocolate makers, it seems that the definition of fine chocolate must move beyond the issue of texture.  I suggest the following three-part definition:
Fine chocolate is produced by a chocolate maker, relatively small in size, who:

  • Makes every effort to source the best quality cacao
  • Has a vision for how to get the best out of such cacao, and carefully and consistently applies that vision using specialized machinery, chosen specifically for the task, in order to create an intriguing and delicious product
  • Effectively conveys to the chocolate-loving public, both through delicious flavor of the product and the philosophy underlying it, the relevance of said product

It will be useful to briefly look at each of these three points.

Quality Cacao:

Various fine chocolate makers will certainly have differing views on many aspects of fine chocolate manufacture, but quality cacao is one issue that many makers can generally agree upon. For example, when looking at the difference between a mass-producer of chocolate and a small or micro-producer of fine chocolate, the fine chocolate maker’s relative focus on quality cacao, as opposed to bulk cacao, is apparent.  However, not all companies handle this issue in the same way. Some source directly from farmers, estates, or co-operatives, some work even more closely with the farmers, either directly, or through a hired agent or agronomist, some buy cacao from brokers who specialize in “flavor” cacao, and some use a mixture of all of these practices. 

Though there is not full agreement between chocolate makers on just how far one must go in sourcing cacao to get the best quality chocolate, it is generally believed that the more direction the chocolate maker can give to the farmers or co-ops that are growing, harvesting, fermenting, and drying her cacao, the better and more consistent the end product will be.  Additionally, since happy farmers will undoubtedly care more about the product with which they are working, it also is fair to posit that paying more for each pound of cacao than market rate, or even Fair Trade rate, and rewarding farmers for excellent cacao with investment in tools, such as better fermentation boxes and drying floors or solar dryers, to help them create still better quality cacao, might be a path that fine chocolate makers should consider. 

In fact, many fine chocolate makers claim that this is the only path towards consistently increasing product quality, and so are attempting to work toward this often difficult goal.  Whatever the cacao-sourcing decision, however, what we do with such cacao, as directed by our personal visions for quality products, is equally important.

Vision and Follow-Through: 

Each manufacturer of fine chocolate takes this aforementioned cacao, and uses processing methods, which stem from the unique vision or philosophy of what fine chocolate should be, to create interesting, flavorful, and sometimes surprising products.  These differences add to the beauty of the fine chocolate market, and in fact are necessary to keep fine chocolate consumers from growing bored with copy-cat products.  Though many people may enjoy Valrhona, for example, would such people really want to find that every new bar released by another company was created in the same style of this French chocolate maker?  Where would the art and the vision be in such chocolate? 

Rather, it is better when new companies each focus on what is personally important to them in terms of flavor and texture, adding a distinct and fresh vision to the field. This variation in vision is what creates excitement in the fine chocolate market when each new bar is released.  It allows us to look forward to seeing what happens over the next 5-10 years, as we hope to taste, and of course enjoy, interesting products from new and relevant companies.  We can call such growth in the fine chocolate market “creative growth,” and so long as such growth is occurring, then we need not worry about the palates of fine chocolate lovers becoming tired and bored, and we need not worry about saturating the market with fine products, as people will continue to clamor for more!

This is why, following the pattern of the Napa Valley revolution in terms of fine American wine, it is not necessary for micro-producers of fine chocolate to worry that serious new companies will put those of us already in existence out of business.  The more excellent-quality chocolate that is made worldwide and the more people who have access to such chocolate, the better off all of the small chocolate makers will be. This is because the increase in exposure of people to fine chocolate will result in an inevitable education regarding appreciation of fine chocolate, and a larger percentage of chocolate lovers will be able to distinguish between the quality products of such small and micro-producers and those of the mass-producers that simply pretend.  Speaking of education, this leads us to our next point.

Conveying the Fine Chocolate Vision: Education

Since our products, which are hopefully interesting and exciting, do not conform, in terms of flavor and texture, to those currently being manufactured by chocolate mass producers, or to those of each other, which due to different visions is bound to be the case, then it is up to us to educate the consumer about the merits of such products.  This education extends far beyond simple marketing, and must include substantial detail about how our processes result in exciting and delicious products.  This education will allow the realm of fine chocolate to expand into new and interesting frontiers as long as we are open and honest with the public about our actions. 

A great deal of transparency in this education is equally important, as this is what will differentiate the true chocolate artisans from those companies that are simply looking to make a quick buck off of a growing trend in fine chocolate.  As much as we would like to believe that consumers will immediately know the difference between a lower quality, single-origin bar in pretty packaging, manufactured by a large, publicly-traded company, and a bar of the same origin manufactured by a creative and conscientious chocolate maker, that does not necessarily make it so. 

Thus, we must work both single-handedly and as a group, for example through organizations such as the FCIA and other related organizations yet to be formed, in order to bring such important information to the public.  Cordoning ourselves off in our own separate corners will not only negatively impact our own companies, but will also negatively impact the fine chocolate market in general.  Through cooperation in education, we can make a difference that will impact us all: farmers, chocolate makers, chocolatiers, and fine chocolate consumers.

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