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

messy bar

Good ‘n messy


Some of these entries required gloves

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I got to be a judge again for the 2020 Top Chocolate Bar Awards, sponsored by Taste TV. It’s always interesting, and this year was no different, with a repeating theme of messy chocolate, and one bar I hope to never meet again.

Bull in a china shop

The first bar I tasted for the competition started the messy theme. Baetz Chocolates’ Return of the Bison bar had a rather wild, messy look to it with a heavy application of blue brush strokes and white splashes on the bar. There was also a little purple luster, molded chocolate bison roaming loosely over the top of the bar in the package.

Baetz Bison bar
Baetz Chocolates’ Return of the Bison bar, AKA Call of the Wild

The package said it was a 64% chocolate with cacao nibs, dried wild blueberries, and dried black currants. And the back of the bar was liberally sprinkled with all 3. That was all fine and something to look forward to, but that blue coloring on the front came off on my hands every time I handled the bar. I don’t know why because usually I have to hold chocolate in my hands a little while before I risk colors or chocolate residue getting on me. This bar however was like it was shedding color.

Baetz Bison bar back
Bison’s back looked delish

I liked the crunchy, fruity additives on the bar, but didn’t like the chocolate itself. It was unusually bitter for a 64%. Turns out it’s even in the name, “Extra bitter Guayaquil chocolate.” Talk about truth in advertising. I’m not sure why they chose an extra bitter chocolate to pair with tart fruits. The bison on top was a milk chocolate, which was maybe supposed to be the thing to take the edge off the bitter/tart big bar, but it wasn’t enough. Kudos though for the big crunchy cacao nibs.

Baetz Chocolates’ Return of the Bison received Gold in the competition for Most Unique and Best Bar Design & Art (non packaging); and Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Texture, Best Dark Chocolate Bar, and Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 4 stars.

Baetz Etherial box
Etherial Bar inside its slide-top box

Looking up

Baetz’s other entry, the Ethereal Bar, was way prettier. It was a half cylinder bar with a sparkly luster dusted dark chocolate shell. And it was in a beautiful wooden box with the chocolatier’s name embossed on the sliding top. Cacaopod immediately called dibs on the box.

Baetz Etherial bar
Baetz’s glittery Etherial Bar unboxed

The bar itself was filled with a white ganache that was purple hued due to its wild salal berry, honey, and vanilla inclusion. I’m not sure if it had the same dark chocolate as the Return of the Bison bar, but the shell was bitter. And I don’t know what salal berries taste like, so I can’t say if this bar tasted like them. I’d say the bar was chocolaty tasting but it didn’t have a strong berry flavor.

Baetz Chocolates’ Ethereal Bar received Bronze for Best Texture, Most Unique, and Best Bar Design & Art (non packaging); and an Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.

Baetz Chocolates is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can place an order through their website. Or visit them next time you are in Edmonton.

Panache Smoke Chocolate Bar
Puff of smoke rising on bar

The next competitor, competition veteran, Panache Chocolatier, from Kansas City, MO, had 2 entries also, and one of them was messy too.


Panache’s Smoked Chocolate bar revisited a theme in their 2020 White Chocolate entry: Smoked White Chocolate. They tweaked it for this entry by adding a dark chocolate shell and increasing the smoke taste, so much so that the first flavor was strongly smoky vs. the smoked white chocolate bonbon in the other competition that was fruity first, with a hint of smoke at the end.

The bar was attractive with a white chocolate smudge on top of the dark chocolate like a wisp of smoke. Breaking off a piece revealed the light brown colored smoked white chocolate interior. For a mostly dark chocolate bar, it was surprisingly soft and sweet.

Panache Chocolatier’s Smoked Chocolate Bar received Honorable Mentions for Best Dark Chocolate Bar and Best Flavored Chocolate Bar; and rated 3.5 stars.

Messy chic

Panache’s other entry, the Columbian Gold Bar, was very pretty with edible gold leaf splashed over the staggered honeycomb mold on the front of the dark chocolate bar.

The back side was dusted with brute cocoa powder, giving it a reddish tinge but also making for a seriously messy experience. There was no way to handle this bar without needing to wash my hands afterwards.

Panache Columbian bar
Panache Columbian Gold bar was a beautiful mess

The loose cocoa powder had 2 plusses though: #1 It gave the bar a stronger chocolate smell; and #2 It gave an immediate hit of chocolate flavor when I put it in my mouth because it didn’t need to melt first to be tasted.

The bar also broke messy due to the irregular mold design and its soft ganache filling. If you like to strictly ration your chocolate intake by breaking regular squares off a bar, forget it with this one.

In spite of the mess, this was one of my favorite bars in the competition.

Panache bar back
Columbian Gold bar’ red-hued cocoa-dusted back

The thin layer of dark Columbian chocolate ganache in the dark chocolate couverture shell had a very chocolatey flavor with nutty and coconut overtones, and it wasn’t bitter. The initial hit of chocolate from the cocoa powder just added to the overall chocolatey-ness of the whole experience, and the gold leaf was a nice lux touch.

Panache Chocolatier’s Columbian Gold Bar received Gold in the competition for Most Unique and Best Bar Design & Art (non packaging); Silver for Best Taste, Best Dark Chocolate Bar, and Best Chocolate Bar; and Bronze for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar; and rated 4.5 stars.

Panache Chocolatier’s website is currently under construction, and they ask that you call or visit their shop. Check their website for details.

Clean & neat

Michaels bar cross section
Bourbon Caramel Pecan Barre’s cross section

The next 2 entries were from SFBA chocolatier, Michael’s Chocolates3-5 cup chocolatier. The Bourbon Caramel Pecan Barre was similarly shaped as Baetz’s Ethereal Bar, but it had a more subtle one-color luster on a very shiny bar. The dark chocolate bar was layered inside with pecan ganache layer topped with semi liquid bourbon caramel.

It was totally yummy with light bourbon and pecan flavors melding with caramel and dark chocolate. Michael is very good at balancing flavors so you taste them individually and blended together too. I recommend this bar.

Michael’s Chocolates’ Bourbon Caramel Pecan Barre received Gold in the competition for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Taste, Best Texture, Best Flavored Chocolate Bar and Best Chocolate Bar; and an Honorable Mention for Best Bar Design & Art (non packaging); and rated 4.5 stars.

Michaels hazelnut bar back
So much hazelnut!

The Caramelized White Chocolate with Crunchy Hazelnuts looked tasty, a golden blond chocolate with lots of toasted hazelnut bits scattered over the back of the bar and going all the way through. It had a good snap for a white chocolate and smelled chocolatey too. It started savory, evoking a roast turkey and gravy sensation to me, which was weird. But then the crunchy bits of hazelnuts asserted themselves, thank goodness, and I got over the initial read.

Michael’s Chocolates’ Hazelnut Crunch Bar received Silver for Best Texture and an Honorable Mention for Best Chocolate Bar; and rated 4 stars.

Michael’s Chocolates are available online and in some local shops in SFBA (check the website for locations). Plus they deliver for free in SFBA.

Cool chocolate

Good Chocolate Himalayan Salt
Most chocolatey non-sugar bar

The other SFBA entrant in this year’s competition, The Good Chocolate, makes bars that use sugar alternatives: Primarily erythritol, but also mesquite powder and stevia.

I don’t like these substitutions because they cause a cooling sensation as the chocolate melts on your mouth which is the exact opposite of the normal chocolate warm mouthfeel. I think it interferes with the chocolate taste and makes it fade quickly, so it’s not a satisfying chocolate experience. Of their 3 entries, the only one I would recommend is the 65% Dark Himalayan Salt. It’s very salt forward and very cooling but it was the most chocolatey tasting of the batch.

The Good Chocolate’s 65% Dark Himalayan Salt received an Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolate Bar.

The Good Chocolate is available online in their own store and on Amazon. They are also available at some grocery stores in SFBA. Check their website for locations.

Wildwood bar
Almost too pretty to eat

Pretty, good chocolate

New competitor, Wildwood Chocolate, from Portland, OR, submitted a very pretty dark chocolate bar with an all-over embossed image of cacao flowers in a simple open sleeve package that displayed the entire face of the bar.

The Cardamom and Honey Caramel with Sea Salt was a layer of firm caramel in a thin coat of 70% dark chocolate with sea salt crystals scattered on the back. The chocolate had a nice dark color.

The bar was well made with a good chocolate flavor. The first taste was salt, then chocolate, and finally the chewy honey caramel. The cardamom was too subtle for me, more like a flavor enhancer than cardamom forward as the name implies. It appeared briefly at the end and disappeared fast. On the other hand, the salt held all the way through but didn’t linger. Caramel was the strongest and longest lasting flavor.

This was another instance where messy translated to good. The bar’s beautiful mold didn’t have handy demarcation lines for breaking, and the caramel layer got squishy and messy when breaking off pieces from the middle of the bar. But such a pretty, tasty bar earned no demerits for that.

Wildwood Chocolate’s Cardamom and Honey Caramel with Sea Salt received Gold for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar, Silver for Best Ingredient Combinations, Most Unique, Best Dark Chocolate Bar, Best Bar Design & Art (non packaging), and Best Chocolate Bar; and Bronze for Best Taste and Best Texture; and rated 4.5 stars.

Wildwood Chocolate is available online and nationwide at grocery and specialty stores. Check their website for current locations.

Strong & stone ground

17 Rocks 85%
It says Sweeter, but the bar is 85% & savory

New entrant, 17 Rocks Chocolate, from Australia submitted several of their single origin, traditional stone ground chocolate bars to the competition. The one I liked best was their darkest. The 85% Dark Chocolate bar used beans sourced from Papua New Guinea, and even though it had a high cacao percentage, it had a soft snap due to being stone ground. While it was bitter, it wasn’t bad. It was savory, not fruity, with slight coffee and tobacco overtones, and felt a little drying at end.

Seventeen Rocks’ 85% Dark Chocolate received a Gold for Best Dark Chocolate Bar, and rated 3.5 stars.

You can buy 17 Rocks Chocolate’s complete line of stoneground chocolate online. Or visit their factory in northeastern Australia and save on the shipping charges.

Moser Roth packs
Surprisingly better than average

Grocery store surprise

The biggest bars in the competition were from Moser Roth Privat Chocolatiers, a German chocolate maker I had never heard of before. Each approx. 4″ x 9″ package totals 4.4 oz. of chocolate. Opening the pack reveals 5 individually wrapped minibars, which are handy for snacking and sharing.

Moser Roth submitted 3 bars, and I liked them all even though these are clearly not artisan chocolate. They don’t list percentages or origins; instead these are couvertures aimed at the mass market.

Moser Roth opened
Reclose-able packaging

As such, the Dark Sea Salt was not a very dark bar; it was sweet not bitter. It had a good snap and a mild chocolatey taste; I would’ve sworn it was a milk chocolate if it didn’t say otherwise on the package. It had a smooth mouthfeel with little grains of crunchy salt to perk it up. It received a Silver for Best Dark Chocolate Bar, and rated 4 stars.

The Milk Extra Creamy was not kidding. It had a soft break and an immediate milk flavor (as opposed to milk chocolate flavor). The smooth and not too sweet milk chocolate melted nicely, filling my mouth with its mild milk chocolate flavor. It received a Gold for Best Milk Chocolate Bar.

The Toffee Crunch was another milk chocolate bar with a soft break. It had an immediate caramel toffee flavor, and was a satisfying experience with small crunchy toffee bits in smooth chocolate. It received a Silver for Best Texture and Best Flavored Chocolate Bar, and an Honorable Mention for Best Milk Chocolate Bar, and rated 4 stars.

These are very good comfort-food chocolate bars. A decent couverture, well made, in a variety of flavors, and nothing too strong or sharp. Classically German chocolate.

Moser Roth bar
Individual Moser Roth bar

Turns out the bars are made for Aldi Grocery Stores. I was shocked because I have been in a couple of Aldi stores and didn’t like the experience. They are kinda depressing looking, maybe a step above a dented-can grocery outlet, not a place I would expect to find decent chocolate. But if you shop at Aldi, I can recommend the house chocolate bars. You can also find Moser Roth Privat Chocolatiers bars on Amazon.

Who is this?

Petes entries
Minimal labeling from a mystery chocolatier

Repeat competitor and mystery chocolatier For Pete’s Sake Chocolate submitted 3 entries. I call them a mystery chocolatier because they have no online presence and not even an address on their labels. I have zero idea who they are or where they are, but I like some of their chocolate and would recommend it if I could.

Petes Coffee
Pete’s coffee bar shattered before I even opened the package

This time they had a coffee-flavored dark chocolate that started earthy, became floral, and ended with a coffee candy flavor. It was very hard and shattered a bit when breaking off pieces to sample, so it was another messy bar in this competition.

Their second entry, a cherry-flavored dark chocolate, smelled good but had a cherry-soda flavor due to its being flavored with cherry extract instead of dried cherries. It brought back childhood memories of Smith Brothers cough drops. It got better as the chocolate asserted itself over the cherry extract.

Their third entry was an interesting 60% dark milk chocolate that used caramelized cane sugar and unrefined panela sugar for sweeteners. It started bitter, but sweetened up as it melted and had a slightly smoky/savory taste that was unexpected for a milk chocolate.

Both the Los Tres Colombianos Coffee & 68% Dark Chocolate and the Dark Chocolate Cherry received Bronze for Best Dark Chocolate Bar and an Honorable Mention for Best Flavored Chocolate Bar, and rated 3.5 stars.

The Half Light Milk Chocolate received Silver for Best Milk Chocolate Bar and rated 4 stars.

What were they going for?

Finally, I have to talk about the worst bar in the bunch and other unfortunate experiences. There are a couple of repeat competitors who I can only conclude don’t really like chocolate. They tend to use unusual ingredients, which is not bad in itself, but I don’t believe they actually try to make their combos work. It is to the point now that when I see their entries, I shudder in dread anticipation.

I won’t name them — you can figure it out if you want — but if I could give them some advice, I would say #1 spend the money for a decent couverture. If you start with inferior chocolate, it’s not going to get any better with whatever you add.

#2 After you invest in good couverture, don’t add crap to it. And that includes palm oil, palm kernel oil, any partially hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial colors and flavors. Garbage in, garbage out doesn’t only apply to data.

#3 Taste your product before you put it out into the world. If you do not like chocolate enough to be your best taste tester, why are you even doing this?

Breakfast bar

This time around there was a handful of ghastly tasting bars, but I will only discuss one to give you an example of what I am talking about. The bar was a milk chocolate bar according to its ingredients list, but it looked like a dark chocolate. No percentage was listed.

Scary bar
I hesitated to unwrap this scary-looking bar

It was liberally covered in dried fruit. But the fruit was so dried, it looked like it had been mistreated — dark, hard, and shrunken — it reminded me of Medieval art, which freaks me out so much I zoom through those galleries in a museum with my head down until I arrive at the safety of the Renaissance.

I did not want to try this unappetizing chocolate, but I take judging seriously, so I took a piece that included parts of the desiccated looking dried fruits on top. To start, it was bad chocolate with a sugary, grainy texture. But worse than that it tasted like hard boiled eggs, then bitter grapefruit.

“Healthy” chocolate is a significant trend in chocolate today (witness The Good Chocolate mentioned earlier), but decorating a subpar bar with superfoods that don’t taste good in themselves is a mistake. And if they were going for a breakfast bar, I suggest sticking to cereal.

You can read the entire list of this year’s Top Chocolate Bar award winners on the International Chocolate Salon site.

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Published November 8, 2020