The 2023 Best Vegan Chocolate competition sponsored by TasteTV just confirmed for me what I think about vegan chocolate in general — while good chocolate is a difficult undertaking, making it vegan compounds the difficulties. It is extremely hard to replicate the taste and texture of traditional ingredients like refined cane sugar, butter, cream, and milk. Still there were some excellent entries this year — including from our local chocolatiers — and some other solid entries worth talking about.
As usual I start with our local entries. All local entries earned 4 or 5 stars in my book this time. Whoo-hoo!
aL chocoLat Boutique
New competitor aL chocoLat Boutique, Los Gatos, has been an exciting addition to the local chocolate scene and these competitions with their intricate bonbons. We first tried their bonbons in this year’s white chocolate competition in which I rated their entries 4 or 5 stars. This time was no different.
The pretty Mimosa bonbon was a dome of “milk chocolate” sponge painted yellow and circled by a silver swoosh around the base. Inside the thin shell a bright orange layer was topped by a light brown layer.
This vegan champagne and orange piece had an orange aroma and tasted very orangy with a little buzzy sensation on my tongue. It was also lightly chocolate but mostly orange. I rated this interesting tasty orange chocolate bonbon 5 stars, the highest rating.
In the competition, aL chocoLat Boutique’s Mimosa won Gold for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Taste, and Top Vegan Chocolate; Silver for Best Flavored Chocolate; Bronze for Best Texture and Most Unique, and received Honorable Mentions for Best Dark Chocolate and Best Vegan Milk Chocolate. It was rated 4.5 stars.
The Tahini Crisp was a stunning red bonbon with a single silver swirl activating the piece. Inside the “milk chocolate” shell looked like milk chocolate ganache full of rice crispies.
It had an immediate mild but distinct tahini flavor blending with chocolate. There were little salt hits throughout the piece and it had a good crispy crunch. I thought the tahini chocolate balance worked and I rated it 5 stars.
aL chocoLat Boutique’s Tahini Crisp won Gold for Best Texture and Most Unique; Bronze for Best Taste, Best Flavored Chocolate, and Top Vegan Chocolate; and received Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations and Best Dark Chocolate. It was rated 4.5 stars.
Their 3rd entry Sweet Fig & Walnut was just as pretty with yellow dots on silver and gold swishes looking like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Another “milk chocolate” shell this time filled with a reddish fig jam and pieces of walnut. An interesting touch was the bottom shell had smaller pieces of walnut mixed in the chocolate.
It smelled like fig and tasted like fig but sweeter so the name was accurate. It was full of crunchy caramelized walnuts. With these strong flavors the chocolate was almost not there. I rated it 4 stars just because I’d like a little more chocolate. Maybe if it was in dark chocolate I would have given it 5 stars like their other 2 entries.
aL chocoLat Boutique’s Sweet Fig & Walnut won Silver for Best Flavored Chocolate and received an Honorable Mention for Best Texture. It was rated 4 stars.
You can buy aL chocoLat Boutique bonbons online and at special events. Visit their website for more info.
Veteran SFBA chocolatier and regular Salon competitor Sonoma Chocolatiers uses dark chocolate for all of their sweets, and they have an interesting assortment of chocolate molds, some antique, that they use for their ever-changing line of bonbons. There were no molded chocolates in their entries this time — these were either hand shaped and/or enrobed — but I found all 3 entries to be top tier.
I could smell the roasted pecans in the Salted Caramel Pecan Turtle as soon as I opened the package. It was a good nut and chocolate experience, both taste and texture wise, but I didn’t taste caramel or get any chewy caramel texture so I was slightly disappointed in the soft caramel center. I rated it 4 stars on the basis of the chocolate and roasted pecans.
In the competition Sonoma Chocolatiers’ Salted Caramel Pecan Turtle won Silver for Best Taste and Bronze for Best Texture and Best Flavored Chocolate. It was rated 4.5 stars.
The mini Double Cherry Hazelnut Bar had whole hazelnuts on top and sour cherry ganache inside the dark chocolate shell. It tasted mostly of cherry and chocolate. Hazelnuts were there for the crunch. I rated it 4 stars.
Sonoma Chocolatiers’ Double Cherry Hazelnut Bar won Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Texture, and Best Flavored Chocolate, and Honorable Mentions for Best Taste and Best Dark Chocolate. It was rated 4.5 stars.
The hand of the maker was most visible in the hand rolled Lemon Coconut Pistachio Truffles. Imperfect spheres of dark chocolate ganache covered with bright green chopped pistachios were attractive in their wabi sabi-ness.
They smelled coconutty and had an immediate citrus/lemon taste than coconut. The citrus was strong turning bitter, thankfully the bitterness went away as I chewed the pistachios. It had the soft chewiness of pistachios and coconut. Pistachio was a subtle taste — it couldn’t compete with the stronger coconut and citrus flavors. I rated it 4 stars.
Sonoma Chocolatiers’ Lemon Coconut Pistachio Truffle won Silver for Best Texture and Best Flavored Chocolate, Bronze for Most Unique, and received Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations and Top Vegan Chocolate. It was rated 4 stars.
In addition to the excellent local entries this year were some other notables including an entry that surprised me and a most improved competitor.
I thought I would dislike the entry from new competitor Nature’s Garden, Totowa, NJ. When I opened the package of Strawberry Oatmilk Almonds it blasted me back to childhood with a smell like Strawberry Quik.
Thankfully it tasted better — almonds, a little tart strawberry, and the distinct taste of oat milk — why not almond milk instead? Seems like that would be the obvious choice.
I actually liked these. Good whole almonds and the coating was thin so the balance was right. They were mostly nutty and not too sweet. I rated Nature’s Garden’s Strawberry Oatmilk Almonds 4 stars.
Nature’s Garden’s Strawberry Oatmilk Chocolate Almonds won Silver for Best Vegan Milk Chocolate and Best Flavored Chocolate, Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations, and Honorable Mentions for Best Texture, Most Unique, and Top Vegan Chocolate. They were rated 4 stars.
You can order Nature’s Garden snacks on their website.
Lulubee Artisinal Chocolates
New competitor, Lulubee Artisinal Chocolates, Lincoln, NE, submitted 2 pretty, well made bonbons. One I thought was top tier and the second was a good effort.
Continuing the strawberry pink trend from Nature’s Garden’s submission Lulubee Artisinal Chocolates’ Strawberry Rhubarb Bonbon was a tall shiny pink and rose colored dome. Inside the thin dark chocolate shell were 2 layers: dark red jelly layered on top of a dark pink jelly.
Good tart definitely rhubarb was the bottom layer. While visually on top strawberry was underneath supporting the rhubarb flavor. A lot of times people reverse this ratio — maybe they don’t like the assertive tartness of rhubarb. I liked that this piece was so rhubarb-y and I rated it 4 stars.
In the competition Lulubee Artisanal Chocolates’ Strawberry Rhubarb Bonbon won Gold for Best Taste and Best Flavored Chocolate; Silver for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Texture, and Top Vegan Chocolate; and received an Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolate. It was rated 4.5 stars.
You can buy Lulubee Artisinal Chocolates online, at their store in Lincoln, and at other locations around NE.
Chocopunto by Mabel
Return competitor, Chocopunto by Mabel, Dominican Republic, makes bars using local cacao. They first competed in last year’s vegan competition but they didn’t make my cutoff. This year they came back better with 3 bars each in the chocolate bar and vegan competitions and they all made my cutoff. Wow, talk about most improved!
Like the chocolate bar competition, 2 of the 3 Chocopunto vegan entries made it into my top tier, and I found the 3rd one good enough to make my list. The first bar we tried from Chocopunto in this competition was the 55% Dark Chocolate bar made with Dominican Republic cacao. It had a good snap that was harder than I expected for a 55%.
It smelled chocolatey and tasted raisiny with a little licorice before turning nutty and generically sweet. From my description I hope you can tell that the taste was unusual but not bad. The bar had a smooth texture and I rated it 4 stars.
Chocopunto by Mabel’s 55% Dark Chocolate bar won Gold for Best Dark Chocolate and Silver for Best Texture. It was rated 4.5 stars.
At the other end of the cacao range, their 95% Dark Chocolate bar made with the same origin beans had a hard snap and was bitter but not as much as I expected of such a high percentage. It was palatable, generally savory— nutty and a little vegetal.
Like the 55% it had a smooth texture. It had a drying sensation afterwards. If your upper limit is 85% you could enjoy this one. I rated it 4 stars.
Chocopunto by Mabel’s 95% Dark Chocolate bar won Gold for Best Dark Chocolate, Silver for Best Texture, and received Honorable Mentions for Best Taste and Top Vegan Chocolate. It was rated 4.5 stars.
It looks like their website is currently under construction but keep checking it to see if they offer international sales online.
Worthy of mention
After the top tier entries were several other good entries you might find interesting.
Lulubee Artisinal Chocolates
First time competitor Lulubee Artisinal Chocolates’ second entry, the Almond Caramel Crunch Bonbon, was an attractive
tall dark brown dome with white and gold daubed on top.
Like their Strawberry Rhubarb Bonbon, it was well made with an evenly thin shell. Inside the shell a whole almond sat between a layer of ganache on the bottom and caramel on top.
It had a slightly sugary texture, and the initial taste was all chocolate, then caramelized almond and a little salt. I didn’t rate it higher because it was too sweet for me and the almond tasted a little burnt. I rated it 3 stars.
Lulubee Artisanal Chocolates’ Almond Caramel Crunch Bonbon won Silver for Best Taste, Bronze for Best Texture and Top Vegan Chocolate, and received an Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolate. It was rated 4 stars.
Chocopunto by Mabel
The 3rd entry from Chocopunto was a 60% Coconut Milk Chocolate bar. It was another well made bar with a good snap and smooth texture.
It was very bitter for a 60% and had a slightly drying sensation like you experience with higher cacao percentage dark chocolates. It wasn’t horrible just unexpectedly bitter to start. It got better as the coconut milk kicked in as the piece melted.
It was a raisiny chocolate with a definitely coconut milk flavor and a coconut chocolate aftertaste. I rated it 3 stars.
Chocopunto by Mabel’s 60% Coconut Milk Chocolate bar won Silver for Best Texture and Best Dark Chocolate, Bronze for Best Vegan Milk Chocolate and Top Vegan Chocolate, and received an Honorable Mention for Best Taste. It was rated 4 stars.
Sandhill Chocolate Company
New competitor, Sandhill Chocolate Company, Orlando, FL, makes bean to bar chocolate and also entered 3 bars in this year’s bar competition that all made my list. They entered 2 in this competition and one of them made my cutoff.
Sandhill Chocolate Company’s 50% Oat Milk and Sea Salt used Tanzanian chocolate. The bar had a medium snap and smooth texture.
It took longer to melt than I expected for a 50% milk chocolate with the salt hitting immediately then a little caramel taste appeared as it melted. It had a definitely oat milk savory flavor and was a little coffee-ish tasting too. I rated it 3 stars.
Sandhill Chocolate Company’s 50% Oat Milk & Sea Salt won Silver for Best Texture, Best Vegan Milk Chocolate, and Best Flavored Chocolate, and Bronze for Best Dark Chocolate. It was rated 4 stars.
You can buy Sandhill Chocolate bars, candied nuts, and chocolate drinks online, at their factory store, and some FL farmers’ markets.
MFG Toffee & Bark Company
We were first introduced to new competitor MFG Toffee & Bark Co. of Baltimore, MD, in this year’s white chocolate competition in which they submitted a latte inspired toffee that was pretty and tasty and made my top tier recommended list.
MFG Toffee & Bark Company’s California Strawberry Coriander Bark was a dark chocolate bark packed with pieces of freeze dried strawberries and decorated with dried rose petals. It was sweet with a subtle strawberry flavor. It was also a little perfumy tasting from the rose petals and coriander.
I thought a more intense strawberry flavor would be better and personally would ditch the rose petals. I rated it 3 stars.
MFG Toffee & Bark Company’s California Strawberry Coriander Bark won Silver for Best Flavored Chocolate and received Honorable Mentions for Best Taste, Best Texture, Most Unique, and Top Vegan Chocolate. It was rated 4 stars.
You can buy MFG Toffee & Bark Co. confections online.
“New” competitor, 7th Heaven, is really another chocolatier rebranded. Previously known as Panda Chocolate I’ve seen them a couple of times before in these competitions and they made my cutoff once before. This time, I thought their White & Cookies Chocolate Treat Bar was good enough to make my list.
It didn’t look likely to make my list. Cookies & Cream isn’t my thing, white is not my preferred chocolate, and when I opened the package the bar was a spotted gray chocolate — definitely not the bright white with pieces of cookie inside as pictured on the package.
I enjoyed its sugar and cookie crumb crunch. It wasn’t too sweet and it tasted like Oreo cookies. A little bit of nostalgia and I wasn’t mad about it. I rated it 3 stars.
7th Heaven’s White & Cookies Chocolate Treat Bar received Honorable Mention for Best Texture. It was rated 3.5 stars.
7th Heaven’s bars are sold online and in some stores around NYC.
Return competitor but first-timer in my list, Playin Choc, Southend-on-Sea, UK, makes bean to bar chocolate from Peruvian cacao. Previously I didn’t like their cacao and found the coconut in the bars overpowering. This time everything looked the same but the taste was much improved.
PLAYin CHOC’s Organic Peruvian Dark Chocolate smelled raisiny which was an immediate improvement over the too strongly coconut previous iteration. It started out a little bitter but not bad and mostly tasted chocolatey. It had a drying sensation afterwards. I rated it 3 stars.
In the competition PLAYin CHOC’s Organic Peruvian Dark Chocolate won Silver for Best Dark Chocolate and received an Honorable Mention for Best Texture. It was rated 4 stars.
PLAYin CHOC’s Organic Peruvian M.lk Chocolate had a soft break and smelled like coconut and maybe brown sugar? It had a slightly grainy feel and mostly tasted like coconut — it wasn’t very chocolatey. I thought it was improved but now it has an unusual licorice/bitter/molasses taste. The label lists the same ingredients as last year so I don’t know where that flavor came from. Still I thought it was acceptable and I rated it 3 stars.
PLAYin CHOC’s Organic Peruvian M.lk Chocolate won Gold for Best Vegan Milk Chocolate. It was rated 3.5 stars.
You can buy PLAYin CHOC chocolates online.
Experimental chocolatier and competition veteran, Delysia Chocolatier, Austin, TX, entered a bonbon set that I thought was good.
Delysia Chocolatier’s Cosmic Delight contained 2 outer space themed truffles. The Galactic Caramel Espresso Chocolate Truffle was a typically Delysian thick shelled bonbon with the dark chocolate shell containing a
liquid caramel on ganache inside. It had a nice combo chocolate and light espresso flavor. The caramel was not enough to make an impression and although the description mentioned a “celestial saltiness” the piece was not salty.
The second piece in the set, Meteoroid Spiced Citrus Chocolate Truffle, was a dark chocolate shell holding a dark chocolate ganache flavored with chili peppers and orange. The shell was thinner than usual for Delysia but I wouldn’t call it a thin shell.
It tasted like orange chocolate at first which was quickly followed by chili heat. The heat built until it obliterated the orange — it was that hot. Orange chocolate made a faint reappearance but heat dominated.
I rated the set 3 stars. In the competition Delysia Chocolatier’s Cosmos Delight won Gold for Best Flavored Chocolate and received an Honorable Mention for Best Dark Chocolate. It was rated 4 stars.
I also liked Delysia’s Cardamom Pistachio Rose bar which they entered in both this and the chocolate bar competition. I rated it 3 stars.
Delysia Chocolatier’s Cardamom Pistachio Rose Dark Chocolate Bar won Silver for Most Unique, Best Dark Chocolate, and Best Flavored Chocolate; Bronze for Top Vegan Chocolate; and received Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations and Best Texture. It was rated 4 stars.
Delysia chocolates are available online and at their shop in Austin.
Good job everybody
I was glad to see Chocopunto and PLAYin CHOC improved their chocolates over the past year. And the rebranded 7th Heaven seems to have reformulated their chocolates to American tastes. And while I never know what to expect from Delysia, one of the most experimental chocolatiers out there, I was happy to see some thinning of their shells.
I was happy to see our local entrants do so well this time and to find some new stars out there in the wider vegan chocolate universe. While my article only covers my average and above choices, you can view the full list of winners on the International Chocolate Salon site.