(This article appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
When you think of where 100 percent pure chocolate might be located, most industry professionals picture their pantry shelves or the baking aisle at their local store. But increasingly, unsweetened chocolate has come front and center, not as an ingredient, but rather as a completed product to sell directly for consumption. 100 percent chocolate is popping up everywhere from display cases in boutique chocolate shops to the checkout line at Whole Foods thanks to some dedicated chocolatiers and their fanbases.
The popularity of higher percentage chocolates has been increasing for decades. With the rise of bean-to-bar and single-origin movements, purer forms of chocolate showcase the nuances of cocoa beans. It became almost a rite of passage for gourmands and chocolate connoisseurs to only snack on 72 percent or above, and the release of bars with 80 percent or greater began to appear. But the push to sell 100 percent has been a more recent phenomenon.
Many brands that ventured into the 100 percent territory focused on the European market at first, where there was more customer demand for higher percentage chocolates in general. Venerable Italian brand Vanini notes that sales of their highest percentage bars are significantly higher in Europe. Based on the success of their best-selling 74 percent with cacao nibs, they introduced both a 91 percent and 100 percent absolute dark last year. Similarly, Iceland’s Omnom Chocolate occasionally releases a limited-edition 100 percent bar from Peru using Gran Native Blanco cocoa beans.
Naturally, there was an eventual leap across the pond to the United States. For example, Raaka, the unroasted chocolate brand from Brooklyn, offers a 100 percent cacao snacking chocolate bar that’s readily found at high-end grocery chains. And Bryan Graham, founder of Fruition Chocolate Works and Confectionery in Shokan, New York, has played around with 100 percent “almost since the beginning” of the company’s journey in 2011. “Honestly, I started making 100 percent for myself,” he confesses. But now, they “have a really hardcore, diehard following” for their bar made with beans from the Dominican Republic, with some avid customers ordering it by the case.
Given the recent movements toward reducing the use of refined sugar and dairy along with fad diets like paleo and keto, it’s a natural step for chocolate makers to explore eliminating these ingredients from chocolate. The key, according to Omnom’s chef Kjartan Gíslason, is to develop something with the right texture and flavor since there is no milk or sugar to rely on for creaminess or balancing out the bitterness. For Graham, it was all about finding the right equipment to have more control over the process and details like conching, temperature and aeration. Tinkering with those steps helps “paint some of those rough edges around the chocolate.”
Both Omnom and Fruition credit Chocolate Alchemy as a major influence in their development and education as they built their businesses. So what does John Nanci, founding alchemist, think of the 100 percent trend? “I would call it more of a fad,” he declares, having seen the cycle of chocolatiers experimenting with it two or three times since the bean-to-bar movement took off. Each new wave of brands wants to “reinvent and rediscover 100 percent,” but he personally believes “at the end of the day, consumers are interested in what they love about chocolate, and that is the fat and the sweet.”
Even chocolatiers with a successful 100 percent business will agree with Nanci that unsweetened chocolate “does not pay the bills.” Diversification does. “My energy is spent on playing with white chocolate. It’s kind of an interesting way of experiencing chocolate without being chocolate,” Gíslason explains. And Graham admits that while the only chocolate they offer in a case is the 100 percent for those “religious” about consuming it, “that’s not to say we sell more of it.”
For those looking to offer 100 percent, educating clients is key. Before the pandemic, Fruition would offer samples to taste so customers would understand what they were buying. “Now we can only use words to convey what’s unique about something,” Graham explains. And if offering a full bar directly to customers seems risky or not worth the effort, remember the 100 percent chocolate trend can be used in other applications. Pastry professionals can benefit from more high-quality unsweetened chocolates on the market to include as a component in and on their desserts. Even Nanci, a non-believer in the 100 percent bar, admits he’s been “pining away for pastry chefs to discover” it as an accent on a plated dessert. Perhaps this fad might be a trend after all.