From specialty coffee to specialty chocolate

Zhu Jing
When you look a bit closer you learn a new term: Bean-to-Bar, a movement in the world of specialty chocolate. This trend is now rising in Asia. Let's investigate!
Zhu Jing
From specialty coffee to specialty chocolate
Mateo Jimenez Posada

In Colombia, a farmer shows some cocoa beans to a consumer. 

Vagabond Coffee Roasters is an independent coffee brand in North London that offers specialty coffee and specialty chocolate bars. The chocolate bar packaging reveals not only the percentage of cocoa solids contained in each bar, but the country and even the farm from where the cocoa beans originate.

When you look a bit closer you learn a new term: Bean-to-Bar, a movement in the world of specialty chocolate. This trend is now rising in Asia. Let’s investigate!

Bean-to-Bar Movement

Back in 2001, the European Commission authorized up to 5 percent vegetable fat other than cocoa butter in chocolate (1). This new regulation shocked many chocolatiers such as the founder of Pierre Marcolini (2).

“I did not want to loose quality and decided to master the entire production process after that,” Marcolini said.

However, every coin has two sides.

This helped push forward the Bean-to-Bar movement, as more chocolatiers started to make their own produce.

Similar to the Seed-to-Cup initiative in specialty coffee, the Bean-to-Bar movement meant a chocolatier made chocolate from scratch — from roasting cocoa beans, which are fermented and dried on the farm, before being shipped to them.

“The specialty chocolatiers that claim to be Bean-to-Bar are really doing it, seeking good beans worldwide,” said Colombian Mateo Jimenez, a coffee producer, lawyer and director of operations of Amativo (3) in China.

From specialty coffee to specialty chocolate
Mateo Jimenez Posada

Criollo porcelana white specialty cocoa beans compare to CCN51 variety. The CCN51 is the purple one, more bitter and astringent than the Criollo. 

Almost two decades later, more independent chocolatiers around the world are more sensitive to this approach and are now making chocolate from scratch, from roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering to moulding.

Quality is always crucial in food, that’s why the quality of raw ingredients matters.

Bean-to-Bar chocolatiers buy cocoa beans directly from the origin. For example, Pierre Marcolini buys native cocoa beans from five different planters: Madagascar, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and Cameroon, who all respect a sustainable engagement. As part of its sustainable development approach, the brand pays collaborated planters three times more than the stock market.

“None of the farmers are working with children in their plantations (in line with UNICEF and International Labour Organization’s definition). Such a practice allows the planters to work in the best conditions and send their children to school,” Marcolini said. “It is a real long-term commitment based on trust and confidence.”

So on the consumer end, what makes specialty chocolate different from other chocolate? The answer is flavor. Single-origin chocolate has unique flavors.

Take wine for example, the most important factor is the terrior. The microclimate of a region, including the soil and weather, impacts on crops greatly, which will give taste specifically to the beans.

“You can also make a link with tea; Longjing Tea from Hangzhou, for example, has a specific flavor we cannot find anywhere else,” said Marcolini.

In the past year cocoa has been mentioned in many reports associated with coffee, which is regarded as another crop that farmers could turn to for sustainable development, or indeed making a living when the C Price — the trading price of arabica on the ICE Markets and Exchanges — collapsed.

Many origin countries actually produce both cocoa and coffee beans.

Jimenez from Colombia believes cocoa is “very similar to the gifts from nature we are able to craft nowadays: coffee, wine, beer and even cheese.”

In his home country Colombia, the wide biodiversity is naturally rich with many different terriors.

“The Andes Mountains Range in the middle, the Amazon rainforest and the impact of two oceans,” Jimenez said.

“That’s why in Colombia, you are able to find different cocoa flavors, depending on variety, microclimate and processing that the community use.”

From specialty coffee to specialty chocolate
Courtesy of Pierre Marcolini

Pierre Marcolini selects and sorts cocoa beans on the farm. 

Bridge the gap

In the consumer market, specialty chocolate is still a relatively new term and sector, especially to Chinese customers. But more and more people are becoming connoisseurs and looking for exquisite tastes.

“Nowadays, people are more and more aware of taste, which is great,” Marcolini said. “They are keen to learn and discover new flavors. It is also important to explain where each product comes from and the know-how behind it, etc.”

He is right. Consumers like Eva Chen from Shanghai loves chocolate but has no idea about the difference, apart from sweetness and cocoa solids.

“It’s great to learn about single origin chocolates though it is really hard to taste the difference at first,” she said.

 “If you sample three or five chocolates from different origins at the same time, you will get it quickly.”

The tip from Chen is not to bite the chocolate but to let it slowly melt in your mouth, tasting it using different parts of your tongue and feeling the difference.

Meanwhile, consumers are getting curious and care about what they purchase, how the product is produced, processed and packaged.

“Today’s consumers are more aware of their own health, habits and global issues,” Jimenez said.

“When they get to know cacao and its health benefits, plus all what it can contribute to producer communities, they are instantly ‘caught’ by it.”

Now, he works with partners in both Shanghai and Seoul to promote specialty chocolates.

In Seoul, Tree-to-Bar uses cocoa beans from Colombia for a wide range of products, cocoa nibs, chocolate, granola, etc.

When it comes to Chinese customers’ taste preferences, Marcolini said, “We know quite well our Chinese clients now. We use very little sugar, at the opposite of a candy bar. This is very appealing in China.”

“Your patrimony is so rich. Recently, I created a limited edition collection of Grand Cru chocolates paired with exquisite Chinese teas such as oolong, Pu’er and Smokey Lapsang,” he added.

“The world of tea and that of chocolate are very similar.”

The journey of discovering different flavors in chocolate is interesting and rewarding.

Now, you can find a few specialty chocolate shops in Shanghai.

For example, Slowww Melt is a specialty chocolate shop, the first of its kind in Shanghai and probably in China.

You can find a range of Bean-to-Bar chocolate bars, hot and cold chocolate beverages, chocolate desserts and cakes. The owner Leo Huang hopes to take people on a ride to explore the world through food, especially chocolate.

So you can watch chocolate-making through a glass lab in his store, taste cocoa in roasted ribs or simply sign up for workshops, which are held on a regular basis to promote specialty chocolate.

You can try cakes to feel different chocolate intensity. If you have kids, this would be a great place to take them for a sweet adventure. 

Tasting notes of cocoa beans

Both the variety of cocoa beans and plantation are important. For example, a Trinitario from Terruno de Baracoa in Cuba can have woody notes with a hazelnut flavor while a Trinitario from a plantation Mava in Madagascar features a sharp taste and floral/red berry flavor. The Forastero beans from Cameroon can have a tasting of citrus fruits and earthy notes while there is an extraordinary intensity in the beans from Cameroon that gives body and depth to the chocolate.

Shops to try specialty chocolate

Slowww Melt

Address: 1206, Yuyuan Rd

Time: 9am-7pm (Monday to Friday); 9am-8pm(Saturday and Sunday)

Nibbo Bean to Bar Chocolate

Address: 644 Weihai Rd

Time: 8am-8pm (Monday to Friday); 10am-8pm(Saturday and Sunday)


(1) The Chocolate Directive (Directive 2000/36/EC) allows the addition of up to 5 percent of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter, the cocoa butter equivalents (CBEs), in chocolate. (

(2) Pierre Marcolini is one of a few chocolatiers to roast his own cocoa beans. In order to unearth the finest cocoa beans, be they Criollo, Trinitario, Nacional or Forastero, he scours the planet himself to source them directly from growers in a range of countries.

(3) Amativo is a green coffee bean company on sourcing, developing and distributing Colombian coffee under a direct and sustainable trade model. In the meantime, they sell cocoa beans produced on the collaborated farms.

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