In a 2017 article, Sharon Terenzi, The Chocolate Journalist asked if price was the best indicator for quality chocolate and made a good argument for it being the most reliable one. I agree, that if you are looking at bars in the £6 plus range then it is more likely to deliver on taste and also on the other criteria I have learnt to judge my chocolate on: transparency and craftmanship.
But what about the middle ground – the £4 – £5 range? Early on in my chocolate journey, I came across a bar made by Original Beans. Craft chocolate at £3.95? After everything I had learnt about fine chocolate, I was sceptical. Why was Cocoa Runners selling chocolate for less than £4? Menakao bars from Madagascar too, at just £3.95. I have since learnt that they are indeed fine bars, but to help you understand what you can buy at this price point, I have taken two £4 bars to see how they compare, firstly in terms of transparency, craftsmanship and then in terms of taste.
As a comparison to the Original Beans bars, I have chosen a brand I came across more recently, Love Cocoa, marketed by James Cadbury the great-great-grandson of Cadbury’s founder, John Cadbury.
At £4, the Love Cocoa bars are beautifully packaged in plastic-free packaging, demonstrating the brand’s sound environmental principles. They also champion a one bar = one tree scheme, working with cocoa farmers in northern Cameroon to plant 500,000 trees in partnership with Trees for the Future.
This is all great, but as fine chocolate lovers we also want transparency. We want to know as much as we can about the beans, where they are grown and who grows them. We want to know about the supply chain and how much the farmers get paid.
The website tells us they are making chocolate in a way that is “loved by you, the planet and its people”. Their packaging clearly states that their chocolate is ‘slave-free’ and they share in their ancestor’s ambition to make something “absolutely pure, therefore the best”. They make artisan chocolate bars using the finest South American cacao, in this case simply single-origin Colombian and Peruvian chocolate (we are told no more).
The Original Beans bars start at £3.95 with their 42% Esmeraldas milk bar and 70% Virunga bar. We don’t need to look very far to find out about their cacao: the rare Arriba beans from the Esmeraldas Coast, Ecuador’s last Pacific cloud forest; and the Amelonado beans grown in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga Park. We can meet the team on the website, and find out how they are involved directly with the growers, working with their communities to create sustainable incomes and preserve the biodiversity of the places where they live and grow cacao. The prices paid in relation to the market and ‘fairtrade’ prices are clearly displayed and their ‘one bar: one tree’ system means they pay farmers an additional amount to plant cacao or neighbouring shade trees. 
As soon as the pod is cut from the tree, the skill of the farmers, fermenters and makers all influence the taste experience of the bar. Chocolate makers come in different sizes but they will control, influence or understand every part of the process, to deliver the required flavour. The alternative method of making chocolate is taking pre-made chocolate, called couverture and melting it down to mould into bars or filled chocolate. The work of a chocolatier rather than a chocolate maker.
Love Cocoa’s bars are handmade with love in Great Britain and are manufactured in a family-run factory. They claim nothing more and tell us nothing more. The ingredients vanilla extract or natural vanilla and soya lecithin might make some chocolate aficionados frown but are acceptable, and there is no palm oil or any other such nasties. The ingredients state either Colombian milk chocolate or Peruvian dark chocolate, indicating that they are made from pre-made chocolate. We may see images of owner James Cadbury with a chocolate-covered whisk, but there is no reference to how the chocolate is made.
Original Beans is a private-label chocolate maker. Their ingredients are minimal with no use of lecithin or vanilla, just a touch of fleur de sel in the milk bar. They select the beans and growers themselves and then the bars are made from the bean by the makers at Max Felchin, one of Switzerland’s oldest manufacturers, who express the natural flavours of the beans.
Now to the taste test; we are looking for a taste experience we judge as being good. This is of course highly subjective depending on your taste preferences and experience.
First the milks:
Love Cocoa 41% Colombian
The aroma is a combination of vanilla and nut skins; the taste experience is a little better: a cool mouthfeel from a good dose of added cocoa butter. The vanilla and sweetness are too overpowering for me, but there are hints of caramel in there too. I’m not reaching for the next piece although I should add that my husband loved it!
Original Beans 42% Esmeraldas
Gentle caramel aromas, silky smooth melt delivering rounded notes of caramel and hazelnut with sweet peaks, just a hint of salt and a comforting chocolate aftertaste. Still a little sweet and not complex or demanding, but a deliciously sensory experience.
Now the dark bars:
Love Cocoa 70% Peruvian
Chocolate and vanilla appear again in the aroma, but more promising this time. The melt a little reluctant, the base chocolate notes have flashes of fruit; there’s a slight dryness in the aftertaste. It had interest and there was a flavour journey. I would try it again just to see if it got any better.
Original Bean 70% Virunga
Cocoa and tobacco in the aroma, creamy mouthfeel, chocolate brownie, more chocolate brownie, then a touch of astringency and acidity that calm into coffee and fruit – plums maybe – and a mellow, earthy finish. Quite straightforward, but an altogether more natural taste experience.
The Love Cocoa dark bar fared better than the milk. I was pleasantly surprised by the Peruvian, but it just didn’t have quite the same overall effect. My son however, who has quite a good palate, preferred it.
If taste is as critical as we say, then even though my palate prefers the flavour of the Original Beans bars there will be others who will judge the Love Cocoa bars more kindly. The biggest difference between the two comes down to the ethics of fine chocolate.
If you wish to spend £4 on a bar that has a decent taste and a proportion of the cost goes into environmental sustainability and philanthropy then explore the range of Love Cocoa bars. If, however, you wish to spend £4 on a bar with an interesting sensory experience, with a proportion of the cost contributing to the sustained livelihoods of the people who grow the cacao and the protection of rare varieties and eco-systems, then explore the Original Beans range.
I would choose Original Beans every time; once I learnt more about the founder Philip Kauffman’s aims for cocoa growers and their forests, I was no longer sceptical about the price, but frankly in awe that he could achieve so much at such a low price point.
James Cadbury is heading in the right direction, but how lovely would it be if at some point, he too discovered the promise of the cocoa bean and used his marketing skills to promote a chocolate business that really does make something “pure and absolutely the best”.
So, you absolutely can buy a fine chocolate bar for £4, but only if you look past the packaging and labels, to find out exactly what you are buying.