A Chocolate Maker’s Big Innovation

Tcho chocolate package, ground chocolate and cocoa nibs

You may have seen little squares of Tcho chocolate in their brightly colored wrappers decorated with futuristic parabolas of gold and silver. They’re easily found: Starbucks has sold them; Whole Foods sells them now.

Those usually aren’t the stores you visit to track down handcrafted chocolate from bean-to-bar makers, the new wave of chocolate producers that find and blend the rarest and most richly flavored cacao beans. Artisans like Mast Brothers, in Brooklyn, promise that each batch of bars will be different; nothing will be blandly mass-produced. In a video on their website, the lavishly bearded Mast siblings extol the “inconsistency” of their chocolate. Inconsistency generally isn’t what gets you orders from Starbucks and Whole Foods.

But Tcho makes chocolate as interesting as Mast and other tiny producers. The San Francisco company stakes its reputation not on the exotic-sounding varietal names or confusing cocoa percentages the artisans market but on a set of flavor characteristics: chocolatey, bright, fruity, floral, earthy, and nutty. Tcho’s “PureNotes,” illustrated as a pie chart on wrappers, is partly a marketing device. But the chart represents something real. It makes you aware of the range of flavors you should be looking for in good chocolate, and of what you may be missing when you bite into the most dully industrial or ostentatiously artisanal versions.

What sets Tcho apart from other chocolate makers is that it doesn’t just scout the equator looking for cacao farmers it can admire, hoping they’ll grow great beans that might make wonderful chocolate. The company does something new: it provides growers with all the tools they need to have chocolate tastings during harvesting and processing, the crucial period that determines the price a cacao farmer’s crop will command. Tcho combines coffee roasters, spice grinders, and modified hair dryers to equip “sample labs”—pilot plants that produce tiny lots of chocolate right where cacao is grown. The company gives cacao farmers customized groupware so that they can share tasting notes and samples with chocolate makers. In this way, the farmers can bring entire harvests up to the standards of Tcho or any other buyer.

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