Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

Cacao’s Meow logo

A grain of chocolate


“Healthy” chocolate with interesting infusions

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A new-ish SFBA bean-to-bar maker is a throwback to earlier chocolate making with flavored bars that reminded me texture-wise of early Endorfin with their softer, grainy feel. Even their packaging is similar. But Cacao’s Meow is uniquely its own thing.

Stoneground cacao

Carolyn McRae Collen and her husband, Randal Collen, started Cacao’s Meow in 2019 after Randal spent several years developing his own methods and machinery for bean-to-bar chocolate making. In addition to stone-grinding the cacao, which gives it a distinctively grainy texture, his chocolate has a few other distinctions.

Cacao Meow’s beans are single origin from the Bahia region of Brazil. We don’t see a lot of Brazilian chocolate here. And this is the first local maker that I have seen using Brazilian beans exclusively.

Some of Cacao Meow’s flavored bars
Some of Cacao Meow’s flavored bars

Sweet mix

A bigger distinction is their approach to sweeteners. Aiming for healthy but tasty chocolate, all of their bars are 80% cacao, sweetened with coconut sugar, cane sugar, and a touch of monk fruit extract. The idea is to get an 80% bar to taste more like the sweeter 70%, which is more palatable to most people.

Monk fruit is one of those sugar alternatives that chocolate makers are using now to meet market demand for sugar free chocolate; and it’s one of the better ones in my opinion. It doesn’t have that weird cooling sensation that blocks the flavor of the chocolate. Still, it’s not as satisfying as real sugars in chocolate, and it’s hecka expensive — like 6–10x as costly as plain sugar.

If you don’t need to absolutely avoid sugar — just want to limit your intake but still want to enjoy chocolate — I think Randal’s approach to sweeteners is a good one. High cacao percentage chocolate is often bitter. And sugar alternatives aren’t as satisfying/don’t taste the same as real sugar (plus ingesting too much of them has an unfortunate side effect — you can google it if curious). So sweetening 80% with a sugar and monk fruit blend seems pretty genius.

More flavor options

Finally, their flavor menu is interesting. They don’t offer a straight-up single origin bar. (They use Forastero beans, which are not considered the highest quality beans, so probably better mixed with other flavors and not showcased.)

Instead, they have 15 flavors that include more typical ones like Salted Almond to next-level Chili Pepper, with a smattering of extra-healthy combos like Pomegranate & Goji Berries, and culminating in the truly unusual Lemon Mulberry. There is a strong California vibe too with ingredients like figs, apricots, almonds, pecans, and lemons.

They offer a discount on buying 6 or more bars from their site, so after asking for recommendations from Carolyn, we got 6 of their best sellers. The bars were packaged in foil lined kraft paper pouches with cute graphics illustrating the flavors inside.

Cacao Meow bar
Cacao Meow bars weren’t the prettiest I’ve seen

Rough start

While the packaging was attractive, I was disappointed with the bars’ visuals. They are handmade with a custom mold, but the bars had holes and excess chocolate around the edges. Luckily these dings don’t affect flavor.

The first bar I tried was the Tart Cherry Almond. It was an unusual experience. The bar smelled like raisins and tobacco. It had a soft break, and was full of little pieces of almonds. The almond treatment was a good idea. It gave the bar a nice crunch and strong almond flavor. The chocolate itself had a grainy texture, which all of the bars had, so the crunchy bits helped minimize the graininess.

The bar was unexpectedly salty, and while it had a tartness, it didn’t taste particularly cherry to me. It was more of a savory chocolate. It melted quickly — the bars are very thin — with no coolness or other weird sugar-substitute aftertaste. (FYI: Depending on the flavor(s), a thin bar that melts quickly is good for experiencing the full flavor of the bar.)

Fig and Sea Salt
Fig & Sea Salt gave me Fig Newton vibes

I liked the Fig & Sea Salt bar better. The sea salt sprinkled on the back gave a first hit of salt that was overtaken by the chocolate as it melted. Fig was the last experience with a crunchy fig seed texture, but not a pronounced fig flavor. The next piece was better because it had more fig in it.

This happened in more than one bar; the flavor distribution was uneven. The Fig & Sea Salt had visible clumps of fig in it. I liked the pieces that contained more fig. I’d recommend that if your first sample doesn’t seem like the flavor listed, try another one — especially if there are visible inclusions. The bars are infused with flavors (added during the tempering process, as I understand), but some of the bars benefited from inclusions.

I shared the Apricot Ginger Pecan bar with some of my usual tasters. I wondered how they would react to the stoneground texture. They were divided, with one very firmly in the “it’s good” texture camp, a few not caring either way, and a couple preferring smoother couvertures. Taste descriptions included earthy; good ginger flavor — mild, but distinctive; and not enough apricot. A couple didn’t care for the drying sensation afterwards (happens often with higher percentage cacao). And one suggested roasting the nuts for more flavor.

Maple Pecan
Maple Pecan had an authentic maple taste, and there was a nice balance with the pecans

My surprising fav

The bar I liked best, surprising me, was the Maple Pecan. Maybe because I grew up in maple syrup country, I rarely like maple translated into other mediums. But this bar was good. It smelled of maple, and had an immediate, authentic maple flavor.

The addition of finely chopped pecans was great. The bar was a little bitter and grainy, but the small crunch from the nuts and maple pecan flavor minimized that. It reminded me of the texture and taste of fudge. I think the crunchy texture from the chopped nuts is a good way to counter the grainy texture of the stoneground chocolate.

The other 2 bars we tried, Nibs & Sea Salt and Coffee Almond, were good. I liked the crunchy nibs in the first — and like the Fig & Sea Salt — the salt hit immediately, but disappeared quickly. The Coffee Almond had good coffee and almond flavors, but wasn’t very chocolatey. Like the other nut bars, the almond pieces were a good size to cover the graininess.

Final notes

As you have probably guessed by now, I fall into the smoother couverture camp when it comes to chocolate texture. But I still would be interested in trying some of Cacao’s Meow other flavors, such as Peppermint Nibs, Salted Peanut Butter, and the unusual Lemon Mulberry. And if you like the texture of stoneground chocolate, or if you are interested in the health aspects of lower temp chocolate processing (a step or two up from raw chocolate), less sugar, and the inclusion of superfoods like turmeric and goji berries, you should give their bars a try.

Cacao’s Meow bars are available online and in SFBA grocery and specialty food stores, such as Oliver’s Market, Andronico’s Market, Star Grocery, Diablo Foods, and Rainbow Grocery.

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Published January 15, 2022