Judging the 2019 Top Chocolate Bar Awards competition was a little disappointing because the bars suffered from being transported during a record-breaking heat wave in SFBA. We don’t usually have temps in the 90s in June here, and some bars were the worse for it.
Too darn hot
As one of the judges who received the entries at home, I could see that some bars had partially melted or otherwise been affected by the weather. The worst sufferer was from one of my local favs, Cocotutti.
Their entry was one of their CocoQuintet bars, a bar of 5 filled pockets, which had collapsed in the heat 😢. The Raspberry Ganache Filled Bar with freeze-dried raspberry powder covering the back, and more raspberries flavoring the ganache inside, was not as intensely raspberry tasting as usual, and I blame the heat for that.
It still did well in the competition: Cocotutti’s Raspberry Ganache Filled Bar received Gold for Best Texture and Best Bar Design & Art, Silver for Best Ingredient Combination, Bronze for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar and Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 4 stars out of 5.
You can buy CocoTutti confections online, at special events, or arrange a kitchen pickup. Check their website for details.
I decided to take into account the weather in judging this year, since no one could have predicted that our lovely SFBA fog would abandon us for almost a week. So I did not take off points for bars that looked melted or showed bloom. However, I couldn’t tell if taste was affected, except for bars I’ve had before like CocoTutti’s, so some chocolatiers might have lost points from me through no fault of their own.
Even so, the competition was good this year. Out of 36 bars I had to judge, I loved/liked 15, I thought 9 were OK, and I disliked/hated only 12.
Local results first
Of the local chocolate entries, I loved Rainy Day Chocolate’s 69% Belize Single Origin Chocolate bar, which had a good flavor that started a little fruity, then lightly fermented and nutty. It also had a good mouthfeel: not too hard and melted nicely. It ended a little grainy, but it wasn’t unpleasant.
The Belize Single Origin Chocolate bar received Silver for Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Bronze for Best Taste and Best Texture, Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar, and rated 4 stars.
The local entry I thought was OK was The Oakland Chocolate Company’s 70% Blue Mountain Coffee Bar. The coffee taste was good, but there wasn’t enough of a chocolatey taste for me in balance. It was also too hard for me, taking too long to melt in my mouth. On the plus side, its hardness meant it stood up to the heat better than some other entries.
The 70% Blue Mountain Coffee Bar received Gold for Best Taste, Bronze for Best Dark Chocolate Bar and Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.
The Oakland Chocolate Company had another entry, Candied Curry Coconut, which sounded interesting, but I didn’t like the taste. I didn’t taste coconut or curry; instead it tasted like something had gone bad, which I don’t know if it was a result of the heat or if it was a taste that didn’t appeal to me.
The Candied Curry Coconut received Bronze for Most Unique and rated 3 stars.
The Oakland Chocolate Company’s chocolates are available online, at the Old Oakland Farmers Market and the Grand Lake Farmers Market, and some local retail outlets. Visit their website for more info.
The final local company that entered the competition this year was SF’s The Good Chocolate, which is a bar maker that uses natural sugar substitutes instead of sugar. I didn’t care for any of their bars because I don’t like what those sugar substitutes do to the chocolate: They give it a cooling sensation that interferes with the taste of the chocolate itself, so their bars don’t taste chocolatey enough for me.
If you are interested in sugar-free chocolate, I would say give them a try. I think their bars look very nice, they are well made, and their packaging is attractive. And you might like the cool chocolate experience. Other judges obviously liked the bars better than I did. Their 65% Signature Dark Bar received Silver for Best Taste, Bronze for Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Honorable Mention for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar and Best Chocolate Bar. Their Himalayan Salt Bar received Gold for Best Chocolate Bar, Bronze for Best Taste and Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Honorable Mention for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar and Best Bar Design & Art. All 3 of their bars rated 3.5 stars.
You can buy The Good Chocolate online through their website or Amazon, at their kitchen and store (25 Leland Ave, SF), and at various local cafés, markets, and bakeries. Check their website for current locations.
Now on to the competition winners, if I were in charge:
Top flight bar
A bar that wowed me on looks alone was St. Croix Chocolate Company’s Peanut Butter and Wild Grape Jelly Bar. It was a giant bar — 6-1/2″ x 3-1/4″ — with a pretty custom mold of a bird resting on a branch.
The bar was cradled in a green cardboard tray that contrasted beautifully with the milk chocolate. The bar had a crack in it that must have occurred in transit, but the tray kept it together.
The tray was wrapped in a dark brown sleeve embossed with St. Croix’s logo and featuring a square window so you could see the chocolate inside. According to my notes, the custom mold was made by a local artisan, and the sustainable packaging was handmade in the Philippines.
And it might have been gilding the lily, but the back of the bar was covered with a repeating transfer pattern of the company logo.
It was also a thick bar — 1/2″ — with a layer of peanut butter and a layer of jelly inside. Since it was a milk chocolate bar, it suffered a little spread and warping from the heat. The peanut butter’s oiliness could have also contributed to the bar’s extra softness.
When I opened the package, I could smell the peanut butter before I smelled chocolate. I took that as a good sign. And it did have a good peanut butter flavor, so big plus there. I wasn’t as wild about the jelly — there was too much of it for me. It was more like a kid’s version of PBJ; I prefer a stronger peanut butter-to-jelly ratio.
Also note that while the custom mold is really pretty, it’s not designed for breaking off pieces. You will need a knife.
Still it was an impressive bar. This is the second time I’ve encountered St. Croix Chocolate’s beautiful chocolates, and I’ve been stunned both times. I look forward to what they do next.
The Peanut Butter and Wild Grape Jelly Bar received Gold for Best Ingredient Combination, Most Unique, Best Bar Design & Art, and Best Chocolate Bar; Silver for Best Milk Chocolate Bar; Bronze for Best Flavored Bar; and rated 4 stars.
St. Croix Chocolates are available online or at their shop in Marine on St. Croix, MN.
Panache Chocolatier, in Kansas City, MO, is another repeat competitor (truffle competition and white chocolate competition) whose entries I look forward to. They entered 2 dark chocolate bars in the competition.
Their Smoked Chocolate Bar had nibs in it, which gave it an interesting texture. It tasted extra chocolatey, but was pretty sweet and not smoky until the end, when it tasted a little like hickory smoke. It also had a coconut-y aftertaste. An interesting but unexpected experience.
I loved their Black Pepper Pistachio Bar, starting with its looks. It’s a very attractive bar with half pistachios and smaller bits strewn on one side, then drizzled with chocolate. Like the Smoked Chocolate Bar, it was a little too sweet, but I liked that you could taste the pistachio, the salt was just right, and I enjoyed the sensation of some black pepper hitting the roof of my mouth.
The Smoked Chocolate Bar received an Honorable Mention for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar, and rated 3.5 stars. The Black Pepper Pistachio Bar received Gold for Best Ingredient Combination; Silver for Best Taste, Most Unique, Best Flavored Chocolate Bar, and Best Chocolate Bar; Bronze for Best Bar Design & Art; and rated 4 stars.
The Black Pepper Pistachio Bar is available on Panache’s website.
Lemon vs milk
Theo Chocolate’s competition entry, Lemon 45% Milk Chocolate Bar, reminded me of the time a friend ordered a cup of tea at a diner. It came with a slice of lemon and a small pitcher of milk. He squeezed the lemon in, then added the milk, which curdled instantly.
I learned then that not everybody knows that you can have one or the other, but not both in a cup of tea. And now I was confronted with a chocolate bar mixing the 2. I wondered if it could be a version of curdled milk tea — people have submitted weirder things in these competitions (cigar flavored, collard greens in the ganache, Jamaican jerk caramels come to mind).
Thankfully, it was not a daringly experimental bar, but instead wonderfully lemon flavored. The lemon taste was immediate, starting light and continuing all the way through, while becoming more intense. The milk chocolate was the background and was a good tasting milk chocolate. I actually preferred this to the usual lemon/white chocolate combos, because they often lack any chocolate flavor and taste like sweet lemon cake icing.
Like all Theo Chocolate bars I’ve had before, the chocolate was good and the bar is well made. Their bars are also organic and fair trade and other ethically good stuff. Bonus is that Theo’s bars are distributed nationwide, so you might be able to find this bar locally yourself to try.
Theo’s Lemon 45% Milk Chocolate bar received Gold for Best Milk Chocolate Bar, Silver for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar and Best Chocolate Bar, Bronze for Best Ingredient Combination and Best Taste; and rated 3.5 stars.
Simply delicious chocolate
As someone who works in marketing, I admit the packaging for the Honduras Chocolate Company bars gave me pause. It looks like souvenir chocolate packaging — with its postcard pix to remind you of where you went. And on top of that, the copy highlights that it contains only 2 ingredients: cacao and sugar, which could also mean the focus is not on making something delicious, but to hold down costs on something no one plans to eat.
Luckily, I was wrong, and the chocolate is very good. The promise of never bitter was a little over the top — these are dark chocolate bars, bitter is an inescapable part of the flavor profile — but they are not intolerably bitter. Unless you don’t like dark chocolate at all, I think you will find they are not too bitter, even the 80% bar.
What I really liked about these bars is that they are a chocolatey chocolate. They are well made with a good snap. The 80% was a little rougher textured than the 70% and 75% were, but not objectionably so. They are a little astringent, but the chocolatey taste overcomes any of these slight criticisms.
Wha I also found interesting was the 80% was the best. Usually, as the cacao content increases, the chocolate becomes harder and more bitter, less palatable. More about experiencing the “health benefits” of chocolate than the pleasure. In the case of the Honduras Chocolate Company’s 80%, it did taste very dark but not too bitter; and it had a more complex flavor that the other 2 with banana overtones. I liked all 3 bars, but I liked the 80% the most.
The 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate Bar received Bronze for Best Taste; and rated 3.5 stars. The 75% Cacao Dark Chocolate Bar received Bronze for Best Dark Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars. The 80% Cacao Dark Chocolate Bar received Gold for Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Silver for Best Taste and Best Texture, and Bronze for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.
Honduras Chocolate Company bars are distributed in the US, but not on the West Coast — and curiously, according to their website, not in Honduras itself. You can order their bars online.
Too humble chocolate
Maverick Chocolate Company, Cincinnati, OH, submitted 3 entries, a white, a milk, and a dark chocolate. Each of the samples I got was just a couple of plain squares broken off a bar, sealed in a clear envelope, with the bare minimum of info on the label. This is a shame because I checked their site, and their packaging is attractively whimsical with stock images of old flying machines. I felt slightly disrespected getting the barely-above-anonymous treatment. Plus it meant no pix for this review.
As for the chocolate itself, I didn’t like the first 2 entries — too sweet — but I did like the 80% Tanzania Dark Chocolate. It was a raisiny, fermented tasting chocolate, with a smooth texture, and not bitter.
Maverick Chocolate’s 80% Tanzania Dark Chocolate received Gold for Best Taste and Best Texture, Silver for Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.
Bean-to-bar big time
Like Honduras Chocolate Company, Waialua Estate submitted 3 entries and I liked all 3.
While Waialua Estate produces single-origin chocolate, unlike most bean-to-bar makers, it’s part of a giant conglomerate. The company was created when Dole (the pineapple people) and Waialua Sugar (who harvested and processed cane sugar on Oahu) needed to diversify in the late 1990s due to global agricultural competition. They planted coffee and cacao where there used to be sugar cane and pineapple plantations.
Waialua’s packaging has a refined luxury look and all the bonafides — single-origin location, cacao percentage, even tasting notes. But there’s also a large-enough-to-be-noticeable-first Dole logo on the back. It creates this tension between expectations of a high-end single-origin bar and supermarket chocolate.
Luckily, Waialua Estate bars fall on the high-end side. The bars are embossed with a pretty mold that includes their logo. The bars themselves have a good snap and very smooth texture. The only nod to supermarket chocolate is that they run a tad sweet.
Even the Hawaiian Milk Chocolate has a nice snap for a milk, and a taste that runs to caramel with a banana candy overtone. It has a good caramel/chocolate flavor balance, and while it’s soft as expected for a milk, it’s not too soft.
The 55% Cacao Hawaiian Cocoa Nib Bar has a more pronounced banana overtone. It’s fruity, with lots of crunchy nibs to counteract its sweetness.
The 70% Cacao Hawaiian Extra Dark Chocolate is a harder chocolate than the other 2, although calling 70% extra dark elicits a chuckle from me. Marketing to the mainstream, I think. It’s a good, strongly fermented chocolate, with a slight banana overtone, and ends with a fruity (maybe pineapple?) note. It had a good melt and a long aftertaste.
Waialua Estate Coffee & Chocolate Hawaiian Milk Chocolate bar received Gold for Dest Milk Chocolate Bar, Bronze for Best Taste and Best Texture; and rated 4 stars. The 55% Cacao Hawaiian Cocoa Nib Bar received Silver for Best Taste; Bronze for Best Texture, Best Dark Chocolate Bar, and Best Chocolate Bar; Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 4 stars. The 70% Cacao Hawaiian Extra Dark Bar received Silver for Best Texture and Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 4 stars.
Chocolate with a mascot
Black Mountain Chocolate, a Winston-Salem chocolate maker, had 2 entries in the competition. Their packaging is cute, but with a wilderness park gift shop vibe. Both bars are 70%, use mostly organic ingredients, and are custom molded with the company’s logo.The
The chocolate has a fermented/wine taste, which I liked, and was slightly astringent. I liked the sea salt bar a little better than the plain, but be aware that the salt is sprinkled unevenly on the bar, so some bites are much saltier than others.
Black Mountain Chocolate’s Signature Dark Chocolate Bar received Bronze for Best Bar Design & Art; and rated 3.5 stars. The Sea Salt Dark Chocolate Bar received Bronze for Best Taste, Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.
Black Mountain Chocolate is available online and at retailers in the South. Check their website for locations.
Edible raw chocolate
Dieter Meier, a Swiss chocolate maker, was another 3-entry competitor this year. While I didn’t like their highest cacao entry, of the other 2, the 80% was OK and I liked their 75% Guatamala Cacao.
Dieter Meier’s Oro de Cacao line is raw chocolate produced with a patented process that they claim results in a more flavorful chocolate that maintains more of the natural aromas of the cacao. This process made for one of the best white chocolates I’ve ever had, and also makes raw milk and dark bars more palatable without the need for additives like vanilla.
I am not a fan of raw chocolate: I don’t care for the gritty texture, or that without roasting, the chocolate has grassy or vaguely vegetal overtones. However, the Dieter Meier Oro de Cacao line is not as gritty as other raw chocolates. Compared to traditional chocolate, it is grainer and like most raw chocolate, not as chocolatey tasting. Instead, the 75% Guatamala Cacao had more flavors going on with a funky, earthy overtone and a more nutty than chocolatey taste.
It makes a good interesting case for raw chocolate. Unfortunately, Dieter Meier chocolate is not available in the U.S.
The Oro de Cacao / Chocolat Dieter Meier – Dark Chocolate Guatemala 75% received Bronze for Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.
In addition to my winners, there were also some bars that were interesting and worth noting:
St. Croix Chocolate Company Lemon S’presso bar
St. Croix Chocolate Company’s Lemon S’presso Bar was an interesting log decorated with a single coffee bean. It had an unidentifiable crunch and tasted like lemon curd (which is a good thing, not like the lemon-curdled milk tea mentioned above), strongly at first, then faded but lingering afterwards. I didn’t taste espresso, just lemon and chocolate.
It received Gold for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar and Best Chocolate Bar; Silver for Best Ingredient Combination, Best Taste, Best Texture, Most Unique, and Best Bar Design & Art; and rated 4 stars.
The Horchata entry was another bare-bones entry: a piece broken off a bar with no packaging beyond a clear envelope and plain label. This label at least included ingredients, but no company name. Weird. The piece itself was embossed with what looked like a section of a map. It might be a really cool looking bar, but I couldn’t tell from the rough hunk of chocolate I received. The taste was OK, a cinnamon-y chocolate. The label described the piece as non-dairy milk chocolate, and the ingredients list included soy milk and toasted rice. But it wasn’t a crunchy piece, so I’m assuming the rice was ground up in the chocolate — or they gave me too small a piece to have any rice crispies included. But no piece is too small to not include your company name. I can’t vote for you if you don’t include your company name.
The Chocolate Fetish Peanut Butter Crunch Bar
The Chocolate Fetish piqued my interest by putting the words “peanut butter” and “crunch” in the title of their entry. Crunchy peanut butter is my thing. But then they tried my patience by making the crunch in their Peanut Butter Crunch Bar pretzels — boo! Pretzels are boring white-flour food, the emptiest of empty calories. The bar is OK, not peanut-buttery enough for me, but I liked the salty ending.
The Peanut Butter Crunch Bar received Gold for Best Texture, Silver for Best Ingredient Combination and Best Chocolate Bar, Bronze for Best Milk Chocolate Bar and Best Flavored Bar, Honorable Mention for Best Bar Design & Art; and rated 3.5 stars.
Wild Sweets Single Origin Ecuador Camino Verde 70%
I was excited to see the single-origin location listed on Wild Sweets’ Ecuador Camino Verde 70% bar. I remembered that beans from the same region were used for some of the chocolate I’d recently enjoyed at Dandelion Chocolate’s new tea salon, Bloom. And I liked their packaging, which also reminded me of SFBA’s Dandelion and the handmade paper wrappers on their bars.
Similarities ended there however. The chocolate started with an earthy, mushroom taste, which I didn’t like. As the chocolate melted in my mouth, it got better as the taste changed to chocolate ice cream, and ended with a roasted chocolate taste. It was a well-made bar with a good texture and good melt, but that initial taste was weird.
Wild Sweets By Dominique & Cindy Duby Single Origin Cocoa Bean To Bar received Bronze for Best Dark Chocolate Bar and Best Bar Design & Art, Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.
Delysia Chocolatier Green tea blueberry hibiscus chocolate bar
Delysia Chocolatier had 2 entries I thought were OK. Their Green tea blueberry hibiscus chocolate bar had a good green tea flavor, but the other flavoring bits, blueberries, mint, and dried hibiscus petals were scattered too thinly through the bar so it was an uneven experience. And some of the hibiscus pieces were as hard as twigs, which was off-putting.
It received a Bronze for Most Unique; and rated 3 stars.
Delysia Snack Mix Chocolate Bark
The other OK Delysia entry was their Snack Mix Chocolate Bark. It was a semi-sweet bark that included peanuts, peanut butter, and pretzels. As with The Chocolate Fetish’s Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, the pretzels were a poor choice. Put more peanuts in there, I say, and maybe some savory spices.
It received an Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 3 stars.
I do want to mention the clear plastic boxes Delysia uses for their bars. They are sturdy and more importantly, they seal well and simply, so they are easy to open yet retain the bars’ freshness. When I opened the Green Tea bar, it smell like sweetened matcha green tea, and when I opened the Snack Mix bar, it smelled strongly of chocolate. Delysia gets high marks from me for their packaging, even if what’s inside is uneven.
Dieter Meier 80% Peru
The last bar I thought was OK was Dieter Meier’s 80% Peru Cacao bar. From his Oro de Cacao line, it’s raw, but a high-end raw, so not too grainy, the texture is more like sludge. It’s astringent and not very chocolatey, but if you are interested in high-cacao percentage raw chocolate, this is one to try. (You just need to travel to Switzerland to do it.)
The Oro de Cacao / Chocolat Dieter Meier – Dark Chocolate Peru 80% received Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolate Bar; and rated 3 stars.
Visit the 2019 Top Chocolate Bar Awards page for the full list of official winners.