I thought I knew chocolate. I’ve certainly loved chocolate since I first tried it, like most people—but lessons learned from an up-and-coming Latvian chocolate company have flipped my cacao-based worldview upside-down. Turns out, bean-to-bar and increased knowledge of the depth of chocolate will do that. Imagine for a moment talking about chocolate the way you would about wine. If you’re not, you certainly should be.
The bean-to-bar concept, as a trade model, on its own has become popular in recent years as companies and consumers have demanded more transparency and better quality in their chocolate experience. By controlling the supply chain from farmer/source of the beans, all the way through roasting and creation of the final product, a chocolate manufacturer has much more mastery and command over the entire process, often leading to a more superior, cleaner bar of chocolate.
Where can you find such taste-bud-blowing chocolate to sample? Choco_laade—a play on the Latvian word “šokolāde”—is an excellent place to start. Katerina & Oleksii Dudarenko founded the bean-to-bar company in Riga to bring artisanal chocolate philosophy to the Baltic state.
Upon arrival at Choco_laade’s Riga facility, I was presented with something I’d never before been offered—100% dark chocolate (Ecuador, not for retail sale). Bracing myself for a bitter assault on the senses, I placed it on my tongue and let it melt in my mouth (as you should when tasting chocolate). The chocolate danced across my taste buds, with notes of berries, followed by a nuttiness, and finally a lingering floral aftertaste flooding my senses. This made me realize I had a LOT to learn about the magical world of chocolate.
If the description above surprised you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The market is saturated with $0.50 chocolate bars, the likes of which can make the quality and price-tag of a $5 bar particularly astonishing. Fortunately, many chocolate makers are heavily involved in consumer education to spread the message of their sustainable practices and bean-to-bar philosophy. After all, knowledgeable customers become repeat customers.
Instead of asking yourself why you should purchase a more expensive bar of chocolate over one that costs much less, ask how it is that that bar can be so cheap.
“Read the ingredients!” says Katerina.
Turn over that chocolate bar. Is the first ingredient sugar? Is it an amorphous and mysterious “cacao mass” from who-knows-where? Is there soy lecithin?
“Cocoa butter is expensive, so, to cut costs, a lot of companies don’t use it and opt for the cheaper lecithin to keep bars together and give them that nice ‘snap,’” says Katerina.
In addition to using mass-produced or filler ingredients, the chocolate industry has other dark secrets.
The cacao industry has been tainted with child labor and slavery since the beginning. In 2019, Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestle all broke their promise to end child labor practices. Godiva, Ferrero, and Lindt aren’t doing much better. Cacao from the Ivory Coast (producers of over a third of the world’s cocoa) and Ghana still heavily rely on slavery and child labor.
Part of the bean-to-bar philosophy is understanding the sourcing of beans, working sustainably along with farmers, ensuring that child labor is not used, and that practices are otherwise ethical. Currently, the beans that Choco_laade sources come from areas and farms where child slave labor is not used and where relationships are more deeply established between the farmers and the exporter. This results in a much better and higher-quality product, suitable for tasting at higher percentages.
“At first we wanted all of our chocolate to be about 85% dark chocolate, but then we understood that the chocolate world is huge and that beans vary and have their own unique flavor; they can’t be treated the same,” explains Oleksii. Just like wine, coffee, or beer, chocolate flavors differ based on region of growth, elevation, weather, sun, and soil.
Guatemalan beans, for example, are bitter and sour at 85%, but completely dreamy with an espresso finish at 71%.
Choco_laade’s bars adhere to the bean-to-bar philosophy of clean, real ingredients. They start with the raw cocoa beans, roast them, and add cacao butter and coconut blossom sugar. This fascinating latter ingredient contains magnesium, iron, and zinc, which pair well with the minerals in the chocolate, not to mention its glycemic index, which is far lower than that of regular sugar.
Currently, their assortment consists of Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, Ugandan, and Venezuelan beans, but they soon hope to include an intriguing Indonesian bean that offers notes of banana!
Wondering where to begin your tasting adventure? It depends on you and what you want from your chocolate. Oleksii and Katerina recommend starting with the higher percentages and working your way down until you find your happy place. They also have a good ‘starter bar’ with coconut milk and coconut shavings for a more milk chocolate experience (this “makes it more kid-friendly,” says Katerina) while still keeping with their vegan principles.
From Choco_laade’s collection, start with the Ecuador (85% but also good at 100%, available for special order) and the 78% Uganda. The latter is my personal favorite of theirs, ripe with notes of dried fruit—cherry and apricot spring up across the tongue, fading to a lingering plum. Or, to really get the full range of what regional chocolate can offer, try all four! They’re all currently sold online by contacting the company via Instagram @choco_laade, checking out their brand-new website at www.chocolaade.com/ or heading to Rocket Bean Roastery in Riga at Miera iela 29/31, where the bars are sold alongside freshly roasted specialty coffee.
You can also find their products at:
Rocket Bean Coffee House – Dzirnavu iela 39
Bowl31 – Dzirnavu iela 31
Mr.Fox – Dzirnavu iela 34A
Soyka Secret Garden – Antonijas iela 22