Stone Ground What Now?

Chocolate. Yes you heard that right. Evidently it’s a new trend in the world of confectionery: gritty though not necessarily darker “Mexican style” chocolate bars. The story was in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday but I just came across it this morning. It’s here, but behind the WSJ paywall. Here are the lead paragraphs if you’re wondering what this is all about:

Craft chocolatiers are using ancient techniques of the Aztecs and Mayans to create a dairy-free, low-fat product with a consistency a bit like crunchy dirt. Some chocolate lovers can’t seem to get enough of it.

This type of chocolate, sometimes called Mexican-style or stone-ground chocolate, is earthier, spicier and generally made with less sugar than sweet, creamy, European-style chocolate.

With Mexican-style chocolate, cocoa beans are roasted and shelled to yield edible cocoa-bean “nibs,” which get ground into a coarse liquor and then mixed with sugar. Most makers temper the product, raising and lowering the temperature before pouring it into molds.

Grinding, often done with stone disks, is the crucial step that creates the characteristic texture.

“We are seeing this return to chocolate-making roots,” says Carla Martin, a Harvard University lecturer in the department of African and African American Studies who specializes in the study of chocolate.

Nice work if you can get it! Anyway, the odd thing about all this is that that those coarse Mexican chocolate disks you find in grocery stores aren’t meant to be eaten like candy. You use them to make silky smooth drinking chocolate. The story notes the distinction but fails to observe the way in which it undermines the whole “chocolate returning to its roots” narrative being created here. There’s nothing traditional or authentic about eating gritty chocolate bars. No self-respecting Aztec or Mayan would ever have chomped down on a hard mass of sandy ground cacao for fun. If I were one of their modern-day descendants I’d be insulted! But then you hit the key paragraphs:

Though most stone-ground chocolate adds sugar, it doesn’t typically add cocoa butter, yielding a less-processed product than what European-style chocolatiers make with conching machines, which knead chocolate to create an evenly blended bar.

That is a major reason stone-ground chocolate has become popular with young entrepreneurs: It doesn’t rely on pricey refining equipment.

Which is another way of saying that a lot of “stone ground” chocolate is the product of inexperienced chocolate makers who don’t have much equipment or know-how. So instead of talking smoothness and quality they shift the terms of the conversation to “processing”, “refining” and “ancient techniques”. What was once coarse and gritty is now “authentic” and “stone ground”. That deserves a Clio award.

But it seems to me there’s a real business problem here beyond the advertising slight-of-hand. A big part of the stone ground trend appears to be about lowering the bar to entry (no pun intended) to get into the chocolate industry. The trouble I see is that some of these entrepreneurs are lowering the bar so far that just about anyone with a food processor and some ring molds could conceivably do what they’re doing.

Forgive me for sounding cranky here, but in truth my first reaction when I read this story was: what a crock! But I have to admit I’ve been wrong before. And really, who am I to interfere with budding chocolatiers trying to make a buck? Maybe I need to just pour myself another cup of strong tea and get with the stone ground program. Here’s to nibs in your teeth!

21 thoughts on “Stone Ground What Now?”

  1. Joe, I generally love your attitude about food, and I can never thank you enough for teaching me how to make laminate dough and so many other pastry components, but as someone who lives practically down the street from the Taza factory in Somerville (I don’t work for them; I’m just a fan), I feel that I must provide an alternative to your assessment of stone ground chocolate.

    I don’t know about other stone ground brands, but this company at least has been in the game for years now, and isn’t trying to just cut out the expensive part of chocolate manufacturing by not buying conching machines. There is still plenty of machinery in use in their factory – roasters, winnowers, tempering machines, and the granite grinders. The chocolate bars they produce are for eating straight (although you can turn them into hot chocolate if you wish), have incredibly strong flavors, and don’t require picking nibs out of your teeth after eating. I can’t get behind the WSJ paywall, so I don’t know if the article mentions it, but because of the production method, flavorings aren’t limited to oils and extracts; entire cinnamon sticks, or chili peppers, or vanilla beans, or salted almonds are added in with the beans as they are ground, resulting in a very different sort of flavor than you usually find in chocolate bars. Also, although the amount of chocolate that I use requires that I buy most of my chocolate more economically (hello Trader Joe’s pound plus bars), I do like that Taza makes the effort to get top quality beans directly from the farmers. I can’t make all my shopping decisions based on the moral sourcing of ingredients (especially with tricky commodities like chocolate), but I like it when I can, and it’s difficult to get better than direct trade. So although you can’t talk about smoothness when assessing these bars, you can certainly talk about quality and flavor. It’s the theory of starting with a few high quality ingredients and letting their inherent flavors stand out.

    Stone ground chocolate has increased the options for what sort of chocolate we see on the shelves of our stores, but not by just churning out inferior product and lowering the bar. It’s different than what you’re expecting if you’ve never had it before, but it’s still chocolate, it still uses quality ingredients and production methods, and my attitude has always been that having more varieties of chocolate to choose from isn’t a bad thing.

    If I knew your address, I’d send you a Taza sampler to try to change your mind on stone ground chocolate. It would be the least I could do for someone who made me realize that a food processor is the perfect place to make fondant.

    -Elizabeth

    1. Hey Elizabeth!

      Thanks very much for a very thoughtful comment. I’ve never eaten Taza chocolate though I have seen it on store shelves. I trust you when you tell me it’s good eating. If you like it then you like it, there’s nothing to dispute there. And if there’s a market for chocolate lovers like yourself for this sort of product then more power to them. May they live long and proper.

      I have no idea how that specific company markets their products. The WSJ was clearly summarizing the marketing message a lot of these sorts of companies put out, comparing their techniques and products to the Mayans and the Aztecs. Even so, I call that a whopper!

      But I’ll try some one of these days I promise. Mrs. Pastry is a big chocolate lover and will probably welcome them in the door. Cheers and thanks again!

      – Joe

    2. I’ve never tried Taza, though I’ve also seen it on store shelves. You’ve certainly piqued my interest, and since I’m shopping tomorrow I’m going to buy a bar to try. Almonds ground into the chocolate sounds lovely since I like both very much. So far I’ve enjoyed almost every chocolate I’ve tried, from the very creamy Lindt Lindors to a gritty, smoky bar imported to Alaska from somewhere in Eastern Europe in the 70s. From one Joe reader to another, thanks! ^^

      1. And there’s your first convert, Elizabeth!

        Thanks Jeannine! Let me know what you think.

        – Joe

  2. It’s been quite sometime since my self-imposed silence on this blog, but chocolate – I guess I can’t keep my big mouth shut!!! The way to get around the pay wall is to search for “stone ground chocolate taza” on Google and then to filter search by “news”. You get access to the full article for free that way, though I’m guessing you only get it once. The way around that last problem may be to browse “Incognito” on Chrome or “InPrivate” on IE (this kills the tracking and other cookies after you close the browser). Of course, WSJ may also make a record of your IP address in which case, the aforementioned “trick” may not work. Happy New Year and I’ll do my best to keep my big mouth shut for the remainder of this year so long as you promise not talk about chocolate 😉 !

    1. Thanks, Chocoholic! The weakness of the WSJ paywall has always been search. If you can find it on a search engine you can go right in and read it. Nice to know that hasn’t changed!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

      PS – And what’s with this “self-imposed silence” thing? Knock it off! I need comments, so please come back and bring your big mouth with you!

  3. This whole deal intrigues me, not because of the method or it’s alleged heritage but because they might take more care in crafting their product. Generally stuff that people make because they care about it & do it carefully is better than what we call ‘mass produced’. When speed & expense are the drivers it shouldn’t be surprising that the quality is not the best. Usually though, when something becomes ‘hot’ everyone wants in on it and – just like that – speed & expense are the drivers while pretending to do it just like the people who care and the results are now more expensive for the same poorer quality as before.

    A few years ago I discovered a chocolate bar at a local Latin mercado that makes the drink you mentioned. I really like the cinnamon infused one, the others not so much.

    1. Very good point, Frankly. Indeed I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bringing a new product to market. To your point they may treat the chocolate even better than conventional bar makers do…up to the point they process them. I’m not impugning the product, just the marketing!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  4. Also too on top of all that:
    A big deal was made out of a recent study that supposedly showed chocolat can extend your life. You probably would not be surprised to hear that Hersey’s paid for that study. What may be surprising though is that they tested unprocessed cocoa nibs because the heat involved in processing destroys the chemical compounds that produce the desired results. So that Mars bar is not gonna do it for ya, sorry.

  5. While I think the Clio award might be a bit much for this movement, I have to say that there do seem to be some significant advantages for new chocolate makers who go this route over the refined chocolate route. And pushing a flawed historical narrative makes these companies seem a little too eager to tap into consumers’ desire for authenticity.

    I also have to say that I find stone-ground chocolate very unpleasant for eating. I’ve tried several of the offerings from Taza, and I can’t get past the grittiness and the lean mouthfeel. I do like the flavors they offer, and I think brands like Taza make a fine, if expensive, Mexican chocolate drink. I’m pretty snobby about chocolate (at least among my crowd) and I’d take a Hershey’s with Almonds over the most carefully crafted bar of stone-ground bar chocolate any day.

    1. Shall I take it you’re on the “con” side of the argument, Catherine! 😉

      Yes this is pretty much Mrs. Pastry’s attitude as well. You two would get along great. Me, I’m not opposed to the product per se, just the outlandish claims!

      Cheers and thanks!

      – Joe

  6. Like some of the other commenters, I’ve tried Taza right at their factory, and I was not impressed. It’s not so gritty that you get nibs between your teeth – though that would give some texture – it’s more grainy or sandy. I much prefer a smooth bar of European style chocolate with a smooth texture and great temper. Actually, the Taza chocolate always seems sort of bloomed.

    I’ve no info on historical authenticity, but the narrative seems a little confused to me. To get from bean to a chocolate like Taza (or just about any other comparable brand, I’d think) involves fermentation and drying and roasting (maybe?) and grinding and mixing and melting and packaging…like so many of our beloved pastry ingredients, chocolate is heavily processed. I’m alright with that, and I’ll take my chocolate processed one step further with a nice conching step!

    1. Hey Evan!

      Well said. And yes as with any food the question is: how many steps after picking do you get before food X officially becomes “processed”? One? Two? Three? A very interesting question indeed. Thanks for the comment!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  7. When visiting Sicily a few years back, I stopped by my family’s old hometown of Modica where they have been making bars in this old format for years. I tried quite a few of them and bought a couple and I was never a fan of the texture (sandy is the right word, like eating granulated sugar), though some of the fresh citrus flavors were very nice. I have also been to Oaxaca, Mexico where you can walk into a store and say “I want this, this, and this ground into my chocolate in these ratios” and they do it right there. I am in agreement with Joe about the authenticity marketing message insofar as the old way was to use chocolate for drink (and for that matter sauce) and often (wait for it) NOT as a sweet. In another way, this method is authentic to the Sicilian technique which came from Mexico originally.

    All that to say I wish Oaxaca was next door to Southern California because nothing, and I mean nothing, is like walking into a room overflowing with bags and barrels of freshly roasted cocoa beans. And nothing beats a good chocolate con pan de yema. If only the nasty drug cartels would get out of the way and make importing cocoa beans to the US way easier.

    That’s it. I’m moving.

    1. You and Mrs. Pastry can rent a house together, because she’s ready to move there as well. We have one of those plastic bags filled with custom-ground chocolate…well, when I say filled I mean there’s maybe three or four ounces left. She was just there in October and will be heading back. She claims for work, but I know better.

      Cheers and thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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