Skip to content

What is bean to bar chocolate and why is it so expensive?

December 15, 2018

A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates and a vase

I’ve had an epiphany about chocolate – and it’s probably due to my expectations being so low. If I was banned from eating chocolate ever again I’d be a little sad, but not distraught, whereas if lemon was verboten I’d panic then go into continual mourning. Let’s just say, unlike the rest of the planet, I don’t worship at the altar of chocolate.

When I got an invite to a Pierre Marcolini event I’ll admit that I accepted because my sister-in-law was in town and she more than makes up for my un-sweet tooth and chocolate insouciance. I knew that she’d love it. Want to interview Pierre? Why not? I prepared questions about sustainability, the threat to rain forests and child slavery.

The surfaces of the Gaggenau kitchen showroom were covered with shiny, shapes in serried rows. Most were for tasting but it seemed rather sacrilegious to disturb the symmetry.  Pierre arrived, bounding around like a very tall, enthusiastic school boy with slightly crazy hair and a beaming smile. He apologised again and again for his bad English and asked me not to video the interview “my bad English. It is possible in French?” Sadly ‘non’, as I didn’t do my homework or anything much than daydream during lessons.

We soon sunk into the sofas and nattered about Pierre’s favourite topic in the whole world (in a heavy French accent). I’ve met many slightly maniacal, utterly obsessed people in food over the years (being a food nerd myself makes me drawn to them) and Pierre fitted well into that category.

He says he was always into chocolate and that his life is like a holiday as he still loves it so much.

Bean to bar

Understanding how chocolate is made is key to knowing why Pierre is confident that his is of the highest quality – in fact some of the best in the world.  In the early days of his career he made chocolate like all the other chocolatiers in Belgium who would use couverture (high quality tablets of untempered chocolate that’s high is cocoa solids) made by specialist bean converters to produce their ranges. He realised that although there were different shapes and additions, the chocolates all tasted the same as the makers all began with the same raw ingredient. “I decided that this was ridiculous”. Regulations changed, allowing vegetable fats into couverture, so Pierre started sourcing to ‘bean to bar’ which is the foundation of his dedication to quality.

But what exactly is bean to bar? It means buying the cocoa beans direct from the producer, and over-seeing every process including roasting and grinding the beans right up to making the finished chocolates. But nothing in chocolate is clear-cut and terms aren’t standardised or binding. Many big manufacturers of chocolate source from bean to bar as they buy large quantities or even own chocolate estates. This is not a guarantee of quality even though the phrase is often used in artisanal chocolate making and Pierre is credited with being the first to do this.

roasted cocoa beans

Different beans that have been roasted

Meeting the cocoa growers in person

What sets Pierre Marcolini apart is that he visits the cocoa farmers himself to inspect the quality and choose the right beans which he then ships and roasts himself in Brussels. His 80 ‘artisans’ turn the beans into the finished items. He explains that, like grapes, the cocoa beans develop character and flavours depending on exactly where they are grown. So another chocolate term ‘single origin’ usually means it comes from one country but could be any estate. Pierre seeks out growers who are producing exceptional beans, often in remote areas. He was very excited about a plantation in Madagascar he’s been to recently, right by the river, that takes a small plane to get there.

It’s this direct approach that guarantees the quality that’s his holy grail and his growers are in fourteen countries including Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Peru, Ecuador and Vietnam. Through long-term relationships with the producers he ensures that working conditions and wages are protected. He always offers farmers more than the current trading price (up to seven times the market rate for the right beans). This is unusual in a business where many workers don’t earn a living wage, child labour is rife and deforestation are big issues. “I create the tablet of chocolate so it’s necessary for me to view and see the conditions of the workers. The price you pay for the chocolate environmentally is very important. The relationships are important,” he asserts. This does mean that Pierre’s chocolates are some of the most expensive in the world.

Bean type and terroir

Another element is the type of cocoa bean used. There are four main varieties: Criollo, Trinitario, Nacional and Forastero. He says the best cocoa tree is Criollo, “The quality is wow.”

Again this is not cut and dried. “People in Belgium often rate the quality and taste by the percentage of the different cocoa bean varieties. The flavour is not determined by the percentage of the beans in each mix, the difference is in the quality of the specific cocoa tree and the country it comes from, and the terroir.

We keep coming back to wine when talking about sourcing the cocoa beans. In wine, terroir refers to how a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect affect the taste of wine. In somewhere like Burgundy, small vineyards can be right next to each other but have very different flavours due to the nuances in the underlying soil and rock. Pierre says that you might drink a glass of red wine and not know that it comes from a certain vineyard, has a certain percent alcohol or know the grape variety – but you know you are enjoying the flavours. This is the same with chocolate; you might not know the variety of beans or the country of origin but you can taste the difference in quality.

This was my light bulb moment and suddenly chocolate had got a lot more interesting.

Drinking with chocolate

As we were talking about wine I asked Pierre about a good match with chocolate. He recommends those from the southern Rhone made with intense Syrah and juicy Grenache grapes to drink with dark chocolate. “Chocolate and coffee is very good, or lapsang souchong or green tea.” He recalls a famous tea club in Shanghai where they paired five of his chocolates with five different teas. “Fantastic!”

White chocolate is notoriously looked down upon by chocolatiers. Pierre says “It’s not chocolate in my opinion as it’s sugar, milk powder and cocoa powder, but I combine it with flavours like passion fruit, yuzu and mango. Wow, so amazing.”

The interview is over. We pose for a quick pic and Pierre laughs and shouts “Sally. Look!” as he discovers one of the Gaggenau wine fridges behind a promotional board.

The pleasure of tasting

It’s time to taste.  The filled chocolates are good but, especially after my newly found knowledge about the beans and origin, the chocolate bars (tablets) or ‘Carré Chocolat’ really pique my interest and tastebuds. The smell, texture, mouthfeel, melting point, layers of flavour and finish – it’s just like wine tasting (except there’s definitely no spitting).

There is Conquis – Cocoa Flower, Ensorcelé – from the Terruño de Baracoa estate in Cuba,  Fasciné made from Hacienda Puerto Romero in Los Rios, Equadorand Exalté made of rare Gran blanco beans that grow on the Las Pampas plantation in Peru (details below*).

Boxes of Pierre Marcolini Dubai chocolates

There are milk, white and filled versions and low-sugar recipes (so you can eat them every day apparently) and chocolate containing quinoa and rye.  But the plain, dark squares are the ones that fascinate me and I keep nibbling and comparing – they are incredibly intense and different in taste.

Feeling as though I’ve overdosed completely and craving a week of salad to balance the amount of chocolate I’ve eaten, I take a stroll around the room to view displays of his ‘artistic collaborations’. Pierre has worked with designer Tom Dixon making striking pink boxes stamped ‘London’ swooned over by Wallpaper as much as food reviewers. Pop art, pouty lips, kohl-rimmed eyes and witty phrases made limited edition boxes created with fashion designer Olympia Le Tan into collectors’ items.  Most recently he has created a Victoria Beckham range – chocolate hearts naturally. And there’s a bespoke ‘Dubai’ box that I predict will go down a storm.  There’s definitely clever marketing behind his brand which has made it so successful, but he deserves credit for being at the forefront of a movement to reconnect makers with the origins of their products and understand the value of the whole process.

We stand in front of the Christmas display for ages admiring the chocolate baubles and utterly gorgeous Advent calendar that’s a thing of beauty based on a fairground carousel. We’re absolutely thrilled when presented with one on our way out.

My conversion is complete – I’ve developed a daily bean-to-bar chocolate habit.

A large box with drawers of A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates showing heart-shaped ones

Pierre Marcolini’s new shop opens in The Dubai Mall in December 2018

*Conquis – Cocoa Flower made with Nacional from Equador, Forastero from Cameroon and Trinitario from Cuba (85% cocoa solids), Ensorcelé – made with 100% Trinitario beans from the Terruño de Baracoa estate in Cuba (78% cocoa solids)**,  Fasciné made of Nacional beans from Hacienda Puerto Romero in Los Rios, Equador (78% cocoa solids) and Exalté made of rare Gran blanco beans that grow on the Las Pampas plantation in Peru.

**Judith of Mostly about chocolate describes the taste of Orient de Cuba here.

Other chocolatiers I like: Although not much of a chocolate eater, I’m a chocolate giver and have ordered presents from the Hotel Chocolat website in its very early days and it always goes down a storm. They now grow their cocoa on a plantation they own in St Lucia and are committed to a very detailed and impressive ‘engaged ethics‘ programme.

In Dubai we are lucky to have a small chocolate maker Mirzam who roast their own beans and produce their chocolate from bean to bar. You can actually see them do it through their glass sided production area at their shop in Al Quoz. The flavours are stunning – figs, star anise and cinnamon; rose; white chocolate with saffron to name a few. The bars look beautiful too as they commission artists to design the wrappers.

A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates

So did you know there was so much behind chocolate growing, sourcing and making? How far on the chocoholic scale are you?

  1. December 16, 2018 1:51 am

    As you know, I am like you in my love of savoury over sweet. But I have grown to appreciate good chocolate as you describe. I will flirt with added flavours (I love the sound of those from Mirzam), but always come back to the purity of a couple of savoured squares of dark chocolate. A simple, but as you have detailed, complex pleasure. Fabulous writing.

    • December 18, 2018 3:33 pm

      Thanks Kellie – we have a lot in common! A couple of squares of very dark chocolate savored VERY slowly is the way to go.

  2. December 18, 2018 1:39 am

    Great post, Sally. I love chocolate, and I learned a lot from your post. Beautiful pictures too. Off to get some online. Cheers!

    • December 18, 2018 3:34 pm

      Cheers indeed. What do you think of the wine matching tips? What would you drink with chocolate?


  1. What is bean to bar chocolate and why is it so expensive? — My Custard Pie – Mediarteducation

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: