Ten years ago, I had my first fateful tryst with bean-to-bar chocolate.
I closed my eyes, fought the urge to chew, and let the little brown tile melt on my tongue. Gradually, it released flavours of raspberry, oak and burnt caramel. It was hard to believe that this fudgy chocolate was made using only two ingredients, cocoa beans and sugar.
How was it so luscious without additional fat, so smooth without emulsifiers? I was hooked; a convert in the church of craft chocolate.
Bean-to-bar chocolate is broadly defined as small-batch artisanal chocolate made from premium beans, sourced either directly from farmers or through direct-trade importers, and crucially contains just two ingredients (although some add cocoa butter).
When I moved from New York to San Francisco, I found myself not only in the city credited as the birthplace of bean-to-bar chocolate, but also in the hometown of one of my favourite bars in the world — the Ambanja Madagascar, by Dandelion Chocolate.
Many acclaimed bean-to-bar makers produce a Madagascar bar, and source the cacao for that bar from the Bejofo Estate in Madagascar’s lush Sambirano valley. There, organic cacao farmer Bertil Åkesson dries his beans in the sun using a special method that allows them to retain much of their intensity.
After that, it’s up to the maker to unlock the flavour profile of the bean — budgeting between aroma and aesthetic, time and temperature, refinement and restraint.
Makers seek out beans that are fermented and dried by the farmer, then spend considerable time de-shelling, sorting, roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, conching, blocking, tempering and, above all, experimenting. It is a lengthy, cost-intensive pilgrimage from humble bean to sublime bar.
Most are small businesses, and many do not survive, despite the fact that bean-to-bar chocolate is roughly four times the price of its mass-produced cousin, which is bulked out by sugar, fat and emulsifiers.
Mass-produced chocolate is often homogeneous in flavour, but bean-to-bar can vary in taste as climate conditions affect the profile of every harvest. As illustration, Dandelion used to list its tasting notes for the Madagascar bar as “raspberry, tart yoghurt”. It recently altered it to “mango lassi and chocolate mousse”.
And when I moved from San Francisco to Tokyo, I moved to the only other city in the world where Dandelion makes its chocolate. In my quest to find the best bean-to-bar in Tokyo, I ended up discovering some of the finest chocolate on the planet.
Here are five spots in the Japanese capital that will offer you not only superlative bean-to-bar experiences, but also desserts and drinks that fuse the quality of the bean with the expertise of the maker.
2-1-9 Tomigaya, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 151-0063
Good for: Bold flavours
Not so good for: Smooth, soft chocolate
FYI: The café space is tiny
Here, makers are treating chocolate as a science, pushing the boundaries, showcasing all that a bean can be.
Takatsugu Yamashita, the founder of this Tokyo-based craft-chocolate enterprise, works with a team of 16 people with storied careers, from chefs to sommeliers. Together, they dream, analyse and explore to unlock the most piquant mouthfeel for each bean.
Their bars are made using only beans and sugar, the latter sourced from beets grown in Hokkaido, the northern region known as the farmland of the island nation. The pieces that each bar is divided into differ in shape and size, offering up varying tastes. And the literature on each bar tells you how long, and at what temperatures, the beans were roasted.
The blend of India and Vietnam, which calls up notes of tangerine, and the single-origin Colombia, which will hit you with a strong swish of red grape, are my two favourites. At 61 and 63 per cent respectively, they use less cacao than the typical craft bar. But the roasting, sugar-timing and coarseness stops them from tasting as sweet. And the 80 per cent from Ghana is indeed not bitter at all.
Minimal’s two tiny shop-cum-cafés can be found in the expat-friendly neighbourhoods of Tomigaya and Yoyogi. It also offers a “Cacao Journey” parfait to showcase the versatility of its beans — a tall glass layered with various desserts, from ice cream to meringue, and crumble to cream puffs.
Xocol Stone Ground Chocolate
5-2-1 Fukasawa, Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo 158-0081
Good for: Small individual portions
Not so good for: Variety
FYI: A bit of a walk from the closest subway stop, though a changeover to a bus will get you close
Xocol founder Kanako Kimishima is one of the rarest finds in the global bean-to-bar industry — a female maker. She sells her first-rate stone-ground chocolate discs out of a tiny, beautifully designed brick and bronze-coloured wood store in the laid-back neighbourhood of Setagaya.
Kimishima uses only cocoa beans and sugar, but keeps all her bars at a consistent 72 per cent cacao content. She offers three varietals from Peru, split into three separate products, expertly culling unmistakably unique notes for each (a step beyond many makers whose “single-origin” chocolate might in fact be sourced from multiple farms in one region). Xocol’s Peru Marañón, for example, hints at toasted walnut with an elderflower finish, while its Peru Amazonas is evocative of citrus.
The highlight is the hot chocolate, made from her favourite bean — the Peru Marañón. Get the intense version with the water, not milk. And spring a few extra yen for her peerless raspberry marshmallows, also made on site.
4-14-6 Kuramae, Taito-Ku, Tokyo 111-0051
Good for: A long menu of drinks and desserts
Not so good for: The queue can get big on weekends
FYI: The Ambanja Madagascar bar is not made on site — it’s flown in from San Francisco
At the Tokyo outpost of San Francisco maker Dandelion, each type of bar has its own chef who determines how it will be roasted and is responsible for the flavour profile of their offering. Every bar made in Tokyo has been perfected to suit the Japanese palate, offering a flavour profile that is at once distinct from, and yet reminiscent of, its American counterpart.
Almost all of the chocolate is made at the store in the Kuramae neighbourhood, which is fast becoming a hub for artisans. Fat hessian sacks of cacao beans squat amid the aroma of freshly tempered chocolate and beside an array of baked goods. Upstairs is a beautiful wood-panelled café designed by Seiji Horibuchi, who brought Dandelion to Japan. There you can sit at a glass-top table (perhaps with a 70 per cent cacao frozen hot chocolate), and peer through the floor to watch the magic happening in the kitchen below.
The chef’s tasting tray offers the perfect tour of Dandelion’s endeavours. It begins with a chocolate financier made from a Honduran bean and moves to a creamy pistachio and Guatemala-bean crème brûlée. That’s followed by a citrus meringue tart using beans from Belize, then a profiterole that splendidly summarises the Tanzanian bean, and concludes with a gelée of Brazilian cacao pulp capped with raspberry sauce.
Craft Chocolate Works
2-7-4 Ikejiri, Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo 154-0001
Good for: Stone-ground texture
Not so good for: Variety in flavour profiles
FYI: Just one outdoor bench for seating
Situated in the family-friendly area of Sangenjaya, this industrial-chic store may be small but it manages to house its own chocolate kitchen (walled off by glass for the voyeuristic customer).
Media-shy owner Seita Takeuchi, a former barista and patissier, offers a range of 10 or so chocolate bars in pastel-hued wrappers, all neatly lined up on a wooden table under two bright ceiling lamps. Craft does add cocoa butter, which affords a rounder taste to its otherwise coarse stone-ground chocolate.
The bar that stood out the most on my visit was the white cacao Peruvian Ayabaca. “White” beans are mutations that occurred when cacao trees were left undisturbed for hundreds of years. Their fat is usually softer, making for a more buttery chocolate. They also have fewer bitter anthocyanins, resulting in a mellower taste. Bars made entirely of white beans can cost a pretty penny more.
You must not leave this little shop without trying the soft-serve ice cream, made using Jersey cow milk from a ranch in Kagawa prefecture. Go for the chocolate swirl (a mix of chocolate and milk), which will allow you to taste the airy delight with and without their cocoa, topped with a tile of their chocolate.
Green Bean To Bar
2-16-11 Aobadai, Meguro-Ku, Tokyo 153-0042
Good for: Subtle, earthy flavours
Not so good for: Bold flavours
FYI: Nihonbashi is home to big department stores (lots of shopping)
This is perhaps the best-known bean-to-bar store in Tokyo, with one location in the buzzing commercial district of Nihonbashi and another in hipster Nakameguro along the Meguro river. The earthy undertones of its chocolate bars are a crowd-pleaser for the Japanese palate.
It offers a wide range of delicacies. The flourless chocolate cake served with salted whipping cream and raspberry purée is nice after a day of shopping. The umami-filled eclair with a thin bar of chocolate that holds its own between airy whipped cream and rich choux pastry is comfort even when you are not in need. The staff couldn’t tell me where the beans were from, but if you go, the chocolate scone with cacao nibs and orange zest will serve you well the morning after a night out.
Do you have a favourite bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Tokyo? Tell us in the comments
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