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

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

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Where we journey to the lighter side of chocolate

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alt milk options
Some alternative milk options from Chocolate Covered

I have loved chocolate for as long as I can remember. Of course, as a kid, it was all about milk chocolate candy bars: Snickers, Mars, 3 Musketeers, and Almond Joy were favs. But I ditched them ages ago as their formulas changed, and my tastes changed too. Now I am firmly in the dark chocolate camp.

But things have been happening on the milk side of chocolate — like all the vegan options and alternative dairy types, plus single origins — that I thought I should explore this lighter side of chocolate to see what there is to discover.

As I have before, I asked Chocolate Covered’s Jack Epstein to come up with a variety of bars to try. This time all milk or milk-alternative chocolate. (My only caveat was no sheep’s milk, cuz ugh.) Out of his recommendations, we narrowed it down to 11 bars: 4 dairy milks and 7 made with milk alternatives. Even with all those alternatives, I still missed some, but we did try camel’s milk chocolate.

Throwback

As a baseline, I picked up a plain Hershey’s milk chocolate bar at the corner store. Hershey’s kisses were my introduction to straight-up milk chocolate decades ago, and it remains the quintessential America chocolate with its distinct aroma, slightly grainy texture, and overriding sweetness. The bar was thin with a soft snap, and the taste was a little milky but honestly, it didn’t taste like chocolate to me, and the aftertaste was not enjoyable.

Hershey bar
If this is your idea of milk chocolate, it’s time to expand your horizons

After over a decade of tasting chocolate for this blog, I was surprised that the smell of a Hershey’s bar is still so distinct as to be instantly recognizable. Cacaopod had the same reaction 7 years ago when we were guests on a silly podcast where they attempted a blind taste test, and before it even started, he said he could smell a Hershey bar in the mix.

TCHO Classic Milk
TCHO Classic Milk available for a limited time only

As I understand it, Hershey uses sour milk in their bars because it is more stable, and that is what gives it its unique aroma and taste. Supposedly people who didn’t grow up eating Hershey bars find they taste sour; this bar didn’t taste sour to cacaopod and me, it just tasted like Hershey’s. Maybe all the Hershey’s chocolate we ate growing up altered our tastebuds.

Basic local milks

Since none of the bars I got from Jack were SFBA, I bought a couple of basic local milks too: A See’s Extra Dark and a TCHO 39% milk.

See's Extra Dark Bar
While it doesn’t say milk, it is a milk

The TCHO classic milk chocolate bar describes itself as a creamy milk chocolate with caramel notes. (While I bought this bar in January 2022, it might no longer be available by the time you read this. TCHO announced at the end of 2021 that they were switching to all vegan ingredients for their bars during 2022.)

It was a thicker bar than the Hershey’s with a good snap for a milk chocolate. I caught the caramel taste immediately. It had a slightly sour undertone, and the milk flavor came later. It’s a safe milk chocolate with a smooth mouth feel, but nothing distinctive to make me seek it out except it was a little tangy.

The See’s bar smelled like a See’s candy shop. They call it extra dark, but more accurately it’s an extra dark milk at 62% cacao with milk fat (butter) listed as one of the ingredients.

The bar was thick and harder than the TCHO and Hershey bars. It may be darker, but it was very sweet, just like a See’s bonbon. It was a little grainy and had a floral overtone. I’d describe this as a candy bar, not a chocolate bar.

If See’s is your thing, give it a try; otherwise, I’d recommend skipping this one.

Milks from around the world

The fun began with the order I placed with Chocolate Covered. Since they carry like 1,000 different bars from around the world, I knew they would be able to cover the gamut of what’s happening in milk chocolate today. In the classic milk chocolate category, we tried 2 lighter and 2 darker milks.

dairy milk bars
Dairy milk bars we tried from light to dark
Zokoko milk bar
Zokoko’s premium milk chocolate bar

Excellent light milk

The lightest bar we tried was the 40% milk chocolate from Australian chocolate maker, Zokoko Artisan Chocolate. We cheated here a little — we’ve had this bar before. But we loved it so much that we thought it should be included in a milk chocolate overview.

Zokoko calls themselves “Australia’s premium bean to bar chocolate makers,” and from my experience, that is not hyperbole. They make some of the best bars I’ve tried. The Goddess Milk Chocolate is typical of their quality. It’s a smooth, creamy milk with caramel overtones and not too sweet, even at 40%.

I think that might be because the second ingredient after cocoa solids is milk powder, not sugar. The ratio also makes it a very milky tasting chocolate. It’s not just not bitter like a dark chocolate; it tastes like milk.

The balance between chocolate, milk, and sugar was perfect; and the flavor coated the inside of my mouth and lingered. Cacaopod declared it the “best milk I’ve had in a long time.”

I judge it as simply excellent; and I think it would make a good gift for milk chocolate lovers and a good introduction to quality milk chocolate for people who don’t like milk chocolate.

Classic European milk taste in bean to bar single origin

Among its many chocolate options, Zotter Chocolate, Austria, has a line of bean to bar single origin bars called Labooko. These cute 2-packs of little bars cover the globe of chocolate origins including the usual South & Central American and African cacao growing countries, plus the more unusual India. They also include a comprehensive range of cacao percentages from white to 100%.

Labooko 45 bars
If you like a little reading material with your chocolate, Labooko is the way to go

We tried the 45% milk chocolate made from heirloom cacao beans grown in Peru.

The packaging is very attractive with each bar wrapped separately in foil, then both folded into a book-like package with an eye-catching portrait on the cover. Inside it comes with an instruction card that says, “Do not eat” — like those silica gel packs — what kind of chocolate is this? But the card goes on to explain that to enjoy this chocolate you should let it melt in your mouth instead of chewing it. Whew!

The bars embossed with the Labooko logo smelled kind of spicy. They had a soft snap, and —as we followed the instructions — were very smooth and milky tasting as they melted in our mouths.

The label described the taste as creamy caramel with traces of cinnamon and butter cookies ending in caramel and salt. I did taste the caramel and butter cookie but while it smelled spicy, I didn’t get the cinnamon flavor notes. Instead, it seemed a little nutty with coffee and malt overtones and not salty either. It was also not as sweet as I expected for a milk chocolate, so maybe that was what the salt was doing.

I would describe it as a good classic milk chocolate with caramel overtones. Compared to the TCHO, this had more caramel flavor with a little coffee/malted flavors; TCHO had a more fermented/sour flavor.

Award-winning dark milk

The 63% dark milk chocolate bar from bean to bar chocolate maker, Castronovo ChocolateStuart, FL, had won a slew of awards before we tried it. It recently won Gold at the Academy of Chocolate Awards (London), the International Chocolate Awards World Finals, and the International Chocolate Awards Americas Semifinals. Our conclusion was it deserves every one of them.

Castronovo 63% dark milk
If you prefer less sweet chocolate, try Castronovo’s 63% dark milk

The Dark Milk 63% Cacao bar is single origin from Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Columbia. The wrapper said it had notes of fruit, caramel, and nuttiness; and while I didn’t get any strong fruit notes, I agree with the other 2 flavor descriptors. The chocolate had a strong caramel overtone and a nutty aftertaste.

The bar was well made with a medium snap and smooth texture. The taste was unique: savory, not very milky, a little smoky, and caramelized. It’s a not too sweet bar, with a deeper, richer taste than typical milk chocolate, and at the same time the milk made it creamier than a straight dark chocolate: The best of both worlds. Highly recommended.

Argencove Dual Origin 75 bar
A dark wrapper for a dark bar

Super dark milk

The darkest milk chocolate we tried was a 75% cacao from bean-to-bar Argencove Fine Artisan Chocolate, Nicaragua. Wow, a 75% milk?! That’s a mid-range dark chocolate percentage. I had no idea anyone would do a milk that was so dark.

Argencove’s Dark Milk Chocolate lists only 4 ingredients: cacao, sugar, milk powder, and cocoa butter; and identifies the cacao as coming from Nicaragua and Columbia. Argencove has their own cacao orchard in Nicaragua, so maybe some of the beans used in this dual origin chocolate came from there but it doesn’t say on the label. And since they use the term “orchard” on their website instead of “plantation,” maybe they aren’t producing enough cacao yet themselves for this couverture and are keeping their cacao for their single origin dark bars.

The bar was initially off-putting because it had a weird smell — like a mix of chocolate and pencil shavings. It was a thin bar with a soft snap. It melted quickly for a dark chocolate but not like a milk. It didn’t coat my mouth like a milk does.

And it tasted like a dark chocolate: fruity, a little fermented, and a little bitter. It didn’t taste like milk chocolate to me at all, but then it had a creamy finish (just like the package described) and a slightly milky aftertaste. I found it weirdly interesting.

More exotic milks

Turns out there are a lot of animals besides cows that can be milked, including goats, sheep, yaks, water buffalos, horses, reindeer, donkeys, camels, and moose (good luck!). But the resulting milks are mostly used for things like yogurt and cheeses. I couldn’t find any chocolate made with milk from yak, water buffalo, horse, reindeer, donkey (but it exists), or moose; but Jack saved the day with goat and camel milk chocolates.

Askinose Davio 62 bar
I love Askinose’s craft paper chocolate bags tied with raffia

Great goat milk

At a glance, you wouldn’t know that the Davao Philippines 62% dark milk chocolate with sea salt from Askinosie ChocolateSpringfield, MO, contains goat’s milk. You would have to read the ingredients list on the back of the package to see goat’s milk powder mentioned.

I’m not sure why they don’t feature this info more prominently. The bar is really good — as in Good Food Awards good — and is one of their best sellers. Probably they see labeling it goat milk as turning off potential buyers.

They also don’t explain why they decided to use goat milk for this bar. Their milks seem divided between cow and goat milk, but they don’t share their reasons.

In any case, it was a nice dark milk. The goat milk was not unpleasant, but I could tell it was a different kind of milk, making the bar more savory, grassy, herbaceous. It was kind of caramel, like package said, and the sea salt was subtle. It wasn’t a salt-forward taste but I think it helped modulate the sweetness.

It got more chocolatey as it melted, which I liked. The goat milk worked well with the cacao choice. As cacaopod described it, the tones are deeper, and it was less sweet than cow’s milk chocolates.

I don’t know if it was the beans or the goat milk, but I prefer this to lighter milk chocolates. And it tasted more like dark chocolate than the Castronovo dark milk, but wasn’t as bitter as the Argencove 75%.

Al Nassma camels milk bar
Ready to expand your milk chocolate horizons?

Camel milds

Probably the most unusual bar in this bunch was the Camel Milk Chocolate bar from Al Nassma, Dubai, UAE. The packaging is pretty cool with a camel silhouetted against a setting sun on the front and a mix of English and Arabic on the back.

I had no idea what to expect as to the taste, but this bit on the website: “For the traveller Al Nassma is the treasured memento of Arabia. For others it is the refined ambassador of Arabia and a valuable gift to show appreciation.” gave me Korean kimchi chocolate vibes. Like it’s more about being unusual than tasting good.

So I got some friends to try it with me cuz I wasn’t going to suffer alone.

In addition to camel milk powder, the bar’s ingredients lists 36% cocoa, so this was the mildest milk chocolate we tried. And the bar was a light milk chocolate color. Interestingly it had a high MOR (i.e., a hard snap), which was surprising. Usually milk chocolates are softer than dark chocolates with less of a snap.

The ingredients list also included honey, along with the expected sugar, cacao mass, cocoa butter, and vanilla. I wondered aloud why honey and sugar; cacapod said it made sense because a lot of Middle Eastern cuisines use honey for sweetening.

The actual tasting was anti-climatic. Everybody basically liked the bar. It was a sweet milk chocolate (expected with that ingredients list) and slightly sour. People’s only sticking point was that it didn’t melt like other milks — that high MOR kept it intact, and we had to chew it to get it started — and then had to keep chewing. One taster described the texture as glutenous; it held together even when softened by the heat in our mouths.

While I don’t think I would buy this again for enjoyment (too sweet, not that delicious), I could see giving this to people who want to be more adventurous in their chocolate tasting without worrying about them cursing my name.

Vegan milks

Finally, we tried a bunch of vegan “milk” chocolate.  These were all single-ingredient substitutes, such as coconut milk instead of dairy milk, but there are also alt-milks that combine 2 or more alternatives aiming for a suitable milk-chocolate-without-the-dairy taste.

Stonegrindz package interior
Stonegrindz package interior was a surprise visual treat

Coconut & ginger

Because coconut milk chocolate is so ubiquitous now as a vegan safe chocolate, I decided I wanted to try a flavored coconut milk instead of a plain bar.

The small-batch chocolate maker, Stonegrindz Chocolate, Scottsdale, AZ, has a Crystallized Ginger coconut milk chocolate bar that is infused with ginger and lemongrass, and topped with bits of crystallized ginger.

The 55% cacao bar had a soft break and an immediate ginger flavor from the big piece of crystallized ginger sitting on the piece I tried. A little ginger heat came later, then salt.

It was not a super chocolatey bar. Ginger and salt were the dominant flavors with a milky undertones. I didn’t taste coconut, which can be really pronounced in coconut milk chocolates. And I didn’t really notice lemongrass, except it was kinda herby tasting.

Artisan du Chocolat bar
Surprisingly, the Artisan du Chocolat bar didn’t break on the lines

It’s a distinctive bar. My only quibble is that I would have like it better if the ginger pieces were smaller and spread more evenly for a more consistent experience.

Almond joy

The 40% almond milk chocolate bar from Artisan du Chocolat, London, was very interesting. With only 5 ingredients ( sugar, almond powder, cocoa butter, cocoa beans, and soya lecithin), it was nutty with slight overtones of cinnamon reminiscent of Christmas cookies.

It had a soft snap; and the texture was smooth. It was milky and creamy, but not strongly chocolatey with a little powdery aftertaste.

Personally, I think it would be better with whole almonds added to push it more into a nut bar because it tasted more like almond milk than chocolate, and that was the taste that lingered. I would go with that.

It was a good bar overall, but definitely a flavored milk chocolate bar. You wouldn’t mistake it for a traditional milk chocolate.

If you like almond milk or just almond flavored treats in general, you will probably enjoy this bar.

Mission Oat bar
Mission Chocolate wraps all of their bars in pretty wallpapers

A tale of 2 oats

We got a couple of oat milk bars from Chocolate Covered, one with inclusions and one plain. They were definitely 2 different experiences.

The Oat Milk, Brazil Nuts + Sea Salt bar from Mission ChocolateBrazil, included locally grown Brazil nuts and cacao. Mission Chocolate’s founder Arcelia Gallardo trained as a bean to bar maker at Dandelion Chocolate before moving to Brazil where she makes bars that focus on locally grown ingredients.

Jack included a Mission Chocolate bar the last time we did a Chocolate Covered tasting, which we enjoyed as a savory dark bar, so I was looking forward to trying one of their milk bars. Like the dark bar, it was a very thin square of chocolate with a good snap.

I was disappointed that the Brazil nuts were chopped extremely fine, and the small soft nuts did not hold their own — I couldn’t taste them at all. Instead, the bar had an odd taste I attributed to the oat milk: a sweet/savory taste like a grain. In the end it was very oat-y and salty, with the soft nuts acting more as a texture like oat grains. It was also surprisingly bitter for a milk chocolate.

My recommendation to the maker would be bigger pieces of nuts, less salt, and maybe more sugar(!?). This one was not a winner for me, but if you aren’t as hung up as I was on having Brazil nuts in a bar (something I haven’t seen before) and you like oat milk, this might be for you.

Pump Street Oat
Pump Street Oat

Better bar

The other oat milk bar we tried, the 60% Ecuador Hacienda Limón Single Farm Oat Milk bar from Pump Street Chocolate, UK, was much more my speed.

For one thing, they used cacao from Ecuador, which is better quality than Brazilian cacao. (Ecuador cacao is generally Trinitario or Nacional, higher grades of cacao; Brazilian is Forastero, considered the lowest grade of cacao.)

So the bar started out with a good chocolate flavor; It wasn’t fruity or fermented tasting, it had more of a nutty flavor. The bar had a slightly grainy texture but was still pretty smooth. It had a very hard snap, but it melted just fine.

I liked the oat milk flavor in this bar; it was subtle, but the chocolate had a grainy, oat-y flavor in addition to the grainy texture. It was not very sweet; it  tasted more like a savory dark chocolate than a milk.

This is a good and distinctly different milk chocolate. Recommended!

Crushed Velvet bloom
Crushed Velvet sugar bloom

Rice & nibs

The last bar we tried was a rice milk chocolate from Cocoa Parlor, Laguna Niguel, CA. According to their website they make “organic plant-based chocolates,” i.e., everything is vegan including their milk chocolates. They have a range of milk chocolate bars, all using rice power as a substitute for dairy milk.

We tried their Crushed Velvet 41, a 41% cacao bar with added cacao nibs. I was immediately disappointed with this bar: It had bloomed and was an unappealing grayish color with tracks of recrystallized sugar running over it.

Bloom doesn’t affect flavor, but I didn’t like the flavor either. There was a weird clash between the sugary sweet couverture and the smoky savory nibs. And the chocolate was slightly grainy, but that could have just been the sugar crystals.

Finally, this was not a creamy milk chocolate like most of the other bars we tried. This was more of a sweet milk chocolate/candy bar. I don’t drink rice milk but I do remember it from when I used to eat cereal and used rice milk for that. It was thinner and sweeter than cow’s milk, and I think it is the same experience in chocolate. I will stick to other, fattier milks in my chocolate for a less sweet, more satisfying experience.

Missed this time

Even with all this variety, we did miss some cow-milk alternatives, such as cashew milk, alternative milk mixes, and “milk” derived from legumes such as chickpeas, fava beans, adzuki beans, and lentils —although I am not sure how much chocolate is being made with these yet.

There were 2 alternatives to dairy milk chocolate not in this tasting that we have tried before: soy milk and sheep’s milk, both of which seem to be extremely scarce. Here are recaps about those 2 just to complete this article.

Panda bar back of package
That is one long ingredient list

Soy milk

In the 2021 TasteTV vegan chocolate competition, one competitors’s “milk chocolate” entries included tofu (AKA soy bean curd) as an ingredient. The tofu was the first item listed in the breakdown of ingredients (13 total) of the “soy beverage powder” (soy milk) that replaced dairy milk in their bars.

I can’t say based on these bars whether or not I like soy milk chocolate. The bars were smooth, but super sweet and not very chocolatey. They were candy bars, not chocolate bars. And they were a gray-brown color, which I attribute to the soy milk because I haven’t seen it in other milk/milk alternative chocolates, not an appetizing color. I can’t recommend these bars, but I would be open to trying someone else’s take on soy milk chocolate.

Sheep’s milk chocolate

While I didn’t care for the soy milk chocolate, I detested the sheep’s milk chocolate I tried because it tasted like it had gone bad. Beyond gamey. Something I don’t want to experience again.

Surprisingly to me, when I told Jack no sheep’s milk chocolate for me, he said he didn’t have any at the time anyway to sell me. It looks like the chocolate maker whose sheep’s milk bar I tried before doesn’t make them anymore. And a quick Google search came up empty for any alternatives.

I can’t say that my negative review had anything to do with it, but I think maybe most people who tried it agreed with me, and it wasn’t a money maker. I also understand that milking sheep is no fun and not very rewarding, so maybe the hassle isn’t worth the result when they add it to chocolate.

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