Chocolate Connoisseur 2019 Favorites Awards
by Eric Battersby
Yes, yes, we are back for a second, more evolved year of the Chocolate Connoisseur Favorites Awards! In addition to the awards, you’ll also find our 2018 Year In Review content below as well, which includes every chocolate maker / chocolatier we covered in 2018 via an In Focus (subscribers only), On the Chocolate Regular (subscribers only), or Chocolate Shop entry.
Just like last year’s version of our fun Year In Review, rather than simply take a look back on 2018 for nostalgia’s sake, we suggest you use this moment to kickstart your chocolate 2019 with a full-on cacao arsenal — one that includes well over a dozen unique chocolate makers and chocolatiers! Let’s get to it!
Chocolate Connoisseur’s 2019 Favorite Awards
Welcome to the 2nd Annual Chocolate Connoisseur Favorites Awards. As I started things off last year as well, I feel it’s important to note that, as paradoxical as it may sound, I’m not a big fan of awards in this context. Here’s the preface I gave for 2018 —
“In the chocolate world, there will be always be better and worse, for two reasons. First, not all chocolate creators focus on ethics within their supply chain, use the highest quality ingredients, etc. It’s why the chasm between big chocolate and the makers we focus on in Chocolate Connoisseur will likely exist for as long as chocolate itself exists, and there are multiple layers, for which not all chocolate makers will home in on the same aspects.
Second, subjectivity rules chocolate, for each of us, separately. Even here at the magazine, I would never expect Marisa to pick the same chocolate as her favorite as Rene or I would. Respect the individual. It’s a constantly changing, wonderful adventure to try new chocolate on a regular basis, while still enjoying go-to favorites and learning more every day as well.
The fact is, however, that during the year we will inevitably discover favorites, and we will most certainly like to send a little love in those favorites’ direction each year.”
In stark contrast to 2018’s awards, however, we made the process much more formal than last year, just as promised. We originally planned on creating a special award category for all our In Focus participants each year, but because there’s inevitably so much overlap between them and our Chocolate Shop participants, we decided against going that route.
For this year’s Independent Favorite Awards, Rene Zimbelman, Victoria Cooksey, and yours truly served as the judges. All chocolate involved in our 2018 chocolate offers was eligible for an Independent Favorite Award, and each chocolate maker / chocolatier was officially invited to submit samples for judging at the start of the new year here in 2019.
For the National Favorites Awards, Rene and I served as judges, and we simply selected our favorite chocolate from all 2018 On the Chocolate Regular articles, including the Holiday Chocolate category, and let those bars compete. We didn’t taste every single option from each company, so if we missed one of your own personal favorites, feel free to stand up for it in the comments below.
As we noted last year, we’re not looking to compete with chocolate judges at international award shows, nor are we doing this at any cost to the chocolate makers and chocolatiers. It’s free to enter, outside of the costs to ship chocolate samples of course, and our goal is simply to give kudos to those deserving of such.
Now without further ado, let’s hand out some awards!
2019 National Favorites
GOLD: Theo 70% Dark Chocolate Chili Bar
I must confess, when I first glanced at the field for this year’s National Favorites Awards, I wondered if Theo would even fight for a Top 3 finish, let alone compete for Gold. Yet, as the hot smoke cleared, the spiciest of all competing bars, Theo’s 70% Dark Chocolate Chili Bar, stood out as our clear winner.
Rene notes that this bar “offers a smooth mouthfeel, and the spicy chili is just awesome. The spice lingers on the tongue… just enough to remind you that you’re eating chocolate with a serious kick to it. It’ll definitely wake you up!”
I too found this to be a very smooth, spicy chocolate bar that easily stands tall as one of my all-time favorite Theo bars. It lacks the aftertaste some of Theo’s other bars tend to exhibit, but its flavor is also only for palates that appreciate very hot and spicy chocolate.
If you love your chocolate to bring the heat, you will most definitely enjoy Theo’s Gold Award-Winning 70% Dark Chocolate Chili Bar!
SILVER: Alter Eco 70% Deep Dark Salted Burnt Caramel Bar
Alter Eco’s Burnt Caramel bar takes your mouth on a dance, treading the subtle line between sweet, luxurious, organic caramel, and an unusually deep. dark chocolate that nearly betrays its sweet, caramely companion.
I love the first taste of this bar, it’s amazing… but then what you’ll think is a harsh aftertaste kicks in swiftly and dampens the experience. Strangely enough, however, that soon passes and leaves you wanting more… a very unique chocolate & caramel experience. Quite the different bar from Alter Eco, and most certainly worth a try.
Rene also enjoyed Burnt Caramel, noting that the crunch from the caramel, along with the sweetness, adds an enjoyable weight to the tasting experience. She adds, “I really enjoyed this bar however I will say that tasting the caramel in a crunchy bar, versus a more traditional smooth caramel texture, made me long for a creamier, straight-up caramel afterwards.”
BRONZE: Divine 60% Dark w/Pink Himalayan Salt
Rene declared this bar a “rich dark chocolate, perfect if you need a small but intense chocolate fix, because a little goes a long way (and the light salt isn’t overpowering).”
For my part, I’ll be honest, I absolutely love what Divine does to champion some of the best things in chocolate (in particular, the way the company empowers women in cacao), but their chocolate has never been near the top of my “budget bar” list.
Surprise, surprise, however, as although Rene selected this bar for 2019’s competition, it actually wound up positively blowing me away.
So smooth, start to finish, with the best mouthfeel of any bar in this year’s National Awards competition, Divine’s Pink Himalayan Salt bar truly shines.
THE CHOCOLATE SHOP
The Chocolate Connoisseur Chocolate Shop evolved in 2018, as we not only increased frequency, we also introduced our elite Chocolate Connoisseur Premier membership option, automatically shipping every single offer to our members at a seriously substantial discount.
Since many of the chocolate makers and chocolatiers here overlap with In Focus articles around the same time (all part of the Chocolate Connoisseur experience), if we touch on a company here in the Chocolate Shop, you won’t see them repeat in the In Focus section at the end of the article. Now let’s take a closer look at the wonderful participants in 2018’s Chocolate Connoisseur Chocolate Shop…
Pop quiz — which California city serves as home to not one, but two different chocolate companies from last year’s Chocolate Shop?
Not Los Angeles… no to San Francisco… but if you guessed Nevada City then you most definitely qualify as true fan of Chocolate Connoisseur! Yes, both CACOCO here, and Lulu’s Chocolate (which we’ll touch on later), currently call Nevada City home. As you’ll see below in our Independent Favorites Awards, we absolutely adore CACOCO, and for good reason. Here’s my introduction to CACOCO from our In Focus feature on the company in the February 2018 issue:
“Co-founded in 2014 by Liam Blackmon and Tony Portugal, Cacoco promises to transform the chocolate experience, taking your own personal cacao love story to new heights… to a level even bordering on mystical. Liam and Tony believe in the therapeutic properties of chocolate, and chances are, once you try their drinking cacao for yourself, you’ll definitively concur.
Powered by a clear, focused mission, Cacoco delivers on multiple fronts, from an end-to-end high quality product, to ethical sourcing practices, to a penultimate, beyond earth-friendly philosophy that reaches what I’d consider an “earth guardian” level, the company puts forth the extra effort in every single area they find relevant to the mission.
To put it simply, you won’t feel guilty at any point in your Cacoco chocolate adventure.”
If you’ve yet to read that article, click here ASAP to catch up on all things CACOCO. You’ll need to own the February 2018 issue for that ad-free link to work, so if you don’t, simply click here to read the non-subscriber version instead.
The Chocolate Therapist
Despite our partial Colorado roots here at Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine, we’d actually never heard of The Chocolate Therapist, Julie Pech’s bastion of healthy chocolate goodness nestled into downtown Littleton, CO.
Rene inadvertently stumbled upon a selection of The Chocolate Therapist’s chocolate while visiting nearby Glenwood Springs, and that one chance morning encounter turned into a very fun In Focus article, plus a great chocolate offer for our readers to boot.
Julie’s love for sun, skiing, and healthy eating and living, eventually led her to her life as The Chocolate Therapist, beginning with a book she wrote in 2005 titled, The Chocolate Therapist: A User’s Guide to the Extraordinary Health Benefits of Chocolate.
Indeed, a huge part of Julie’s motivation for creating The Chocolate Therapist brand stemmed from her passion for health, as she hoped to inspire that in others as well —
“When I was a kid, M&Ms and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were two of my favorites. I didn’t get into amazing chocolate until I was an adult. But once I became a “snob,” which I say in the most loving way, there was no going back! And my target market now consists of people who are leaving M&Ms behind, like I did, in order to experience healthy and delicious chocolate.”
To read all our coverage of Julie’s own chocolate adventure, click here to read the article in our March 2018 issue. If you don’t own that issue, click here to view the preview version instead. You’ll learn a little more about the chocolate below too, as one of Julie’s flagship creations just may have found its way into our awards this year as well…
Wei of Chocolate
In a rare issue containing two In Focus features, our March 2018 issue also showcased the inspiring chocolate journey of meditation guru Lisa Reinhardt, founder of Phoenix-based chocolate company Wei of Chocolate.
“Imagine taking two full minutes to enjoy just one big bite of chocolate… with your eyes closed…
I realize this may sound nearly impossible for any chocoholics out there (“Wait, you want me to wait how long before I take another bite?”), but I’m willing to bet your perception will change when you consider one important benefit – you actually enjoy the chocolate for a longer duration.
Ask Lisa Reinhardt, however, and you’ll realize her push for two-minute chocolate breaks extends way beyond simple duration… into meditation.”
Although Lisa grew up in a small town with more cows than people, south of Buffalo, New York, after college she soon traveled the world, from Paris to Singapore to Malaysia to Thailand, Taiwan, Tibet, and India, including time at a monastery, where she served as secretary to the head monk. Lisa learned the Tibetan language, and she loved doing traditional meditation retreats.
Eventually returning to life in the states, and actively seeking a way to bring meditation into the lives of more people, Lisa discovered the potential of chocolate as a conduit, and soon after, she created Wei of Chocolate. For much more on Lisa’s incredible path to chocolate and meditation for all, click here to read the original article in the March issue. For the full free version (not ad-free), click here.
Terroir Chocolate (MN)
Josh and Kristin Mohagen’s Terroir Chocolate, of Fergus Falls, MN, served as our final “chocolate” chocolate offer before the hot summer weather kicked in last year.
For this cacao couple, their chocolate adventure actually began on their honeymoon in San Francisco… during a chocolate factory tour. They tasted four distinctly different single-origin chocolate pieces… noting the corresponding citrus, nutty, chocolaty, or fruity flavors. As Kristin realized chocolate held complexities like that of wine and coffee, the terroir, she was hooked…
When they walked out after the tour, she told Josh —
“That’s what I’m going to do – I’m going to MAKE chocolate.”
For Kristin, a year spent in the French Alps sealed her chocolate fate —
“Eating fresh baguette from the market each morning… pairing wine with dinner each evening… her time in France inspired a true desire to bring back home to Minnesota some of the beauty in food she encountered during her travels. Enter Terroir.”
We’ve yet to write an In Focus article on Terroir, but you can see all the details of their May-June 2018 chocolate offer right here.
Although we unofficially declared 2018 The Year of Drinking Chocolate here at Chocolate Connoisseur, another, inadvertent focus for 2018 ended up being the preponderance of couples working together in the chocolate world, as once again, a husband and wife duo entered the Chocolate Shop.
This time, Ricardo Trillos and Anelith Ortega took center stage, co-owners of Cao Chocolates in Miami. The Venezuela natives moved to the United States back in 2004, but when the economy tanked in the US, Ricardo lost his job and wound up fully chasing the chocolate dream, following a passion that had been brewing as much more of a hobby than an actual profession. Necessity once again, however, became the mother of invention, and as Ricardo notes “Unexpectedly, a couple of calls from people inquiring about chocolates for a baby shower and a wedding made me think about keeping on with chocolate-making while finding a job.”
Now, nearly a decade later, that job is still Cao Chocolates, a company that puts out phenomenal bean-to-bar chocolate, including an extreme rarity — a bar with cacao grown in the USA.
For Cao, simplicity is key:
“We believe in flavor and quality. We do not compromise our bars with a lot of ingredients. Simplicity is key. It’s important for people to understand food is simple, and when we add too many ingredients, flavors can change.”
For much more on Cao Chocolates, click here to read the full In Focus ad-free article on the company in our August 2018 issue, or, if you don’t own the August issue, click here to read Rene’s extensive preview.
Cultura Craft Chocolate
If you’re a longtime Chocolate Connoisseur reader, you likely remember Cultrua Craft Chocolate not only from their late 2018 chocolate offer, but from their 2017 In Focus feature as well. Run by Denver native Damaris Ronkanen, Cultura masterfully connects America with Mexico, something we can all appreciate in today’s strange political climate. As Damaris says —
“For me, chocolate-making is a love letter to my heritage, a way of connecting my hometown of Denver with my family traditions in Mexico.”
In 2018, Cultura crafted a rather ambitious three-part chocolate offer for Chocolate Connoisseur readers, including brand new alcohol-infused bars that unfortunately didn’t hit production in time for the offer as Damaris originally planned. That said, the Cultura Drinking Chocolate Trio still served as the perfect chocolate treat for a cool Fall day, and Cultura’s Chocolate Insect Collection arrived just in time for Halloween, so I’d say it all worked out just fine.
FINE & RAW
FINE & RAW rounded out our Chocolate Shop entries for 2018, a place near and dear to my heart, straight outta Brooklyn. First, however, FINE & RAW’s founder, Daniel Sklaar, participated in an In Focus interview that serves as one of my all-time favorites to date. In yet another great chocolate journey —
Daniel began his chocolate journey far, far away from the bustling NYC streets of Brooklyn, where his chocolate dream eventually became a reality.
He spent his early years in South Africa, growing up in Johannesburg, then eventually moving to Cape Town for school. Let the grand ocean divide fool you not, however, as chocolate knows no boundaries.
Strangely enough, yet another chocolate maker who worked in finance before taking the plunge into chocolate, Daniel’s story is one you will not want to miss. In addition to the wonderful narrative behind FINE & RAW, they also put together an outstanding Chocolate Connoisseur Sampler for our NOV-DEC offer, a special request from one of our Chocolate Connoisseur Premier members (yes, membership does have its privileges), which you can view here.
Chocolate Shop 2019 Favorites
Once again, the Chocolate Connoisseur Favorites return with a category dedicated to our Chocolate Shop entries for the year. If we featured a chocolate maker’s or chocolatier’s offer in the Chocolate Shop in 2018, its chocolate qualified for these awards. We didn’t receive samples for every single chocolate, however, so not every Chocolate Shop entry actually competed here. Let’s dive in!
GOLD: CACOCO 80% Extra Dark Drinking Chocolate
For both segments of Chocolate Connoisseur’s 2019 Favorites Awards, nothing even came close to the score and rave reviews given to CACOCO’s penultimate chocolate offering, its 80% Extra Dark (formerly named Midnight Mystic). We all positively adored Extra Dark, to the point that two of the three judges actually gave the drinking chocolate a perfect score (the only perfect score entrant for 2019).
Victoria noted that, “when made with water, notes of marshmallow, cocoa, semi-sweet chocolate, vanilla and light salt” shined through. “When made with milk, cocoa increases, marshmallow notes decrease, and it continues with light salt, cocoa and vanilla notes.”
Rene found the “dark richness a perfect blend,” with “none of the flavors overpowering one another.”
For my part, although I’ve tasted drinking chocolate many times before, I’ve never tasted such a deep, dark, delicious variety. I must say, CACOCO’s Extra Dark will most certainly wake you up in the morning!
The notes of vanilla are very, very slight, whereas, as one would expect, the Himalayan Salt makes its presence known immediately. I made mine with two parts hot water, one part organic half & half as a personal preference, and wow, just… wow!
Definitely one of the best drinking chocolates I’ve ever had. If you adore dark, dark chocolate, then this deep, luscious cacao will easily be one of your favorites. Congratulations to CACOCO for a well-deserved Gold in this year’s awards!
SILVER: The Chocolate Therapist’s Dark Chocolate Wine Pairing
In contrast to CACOCO’s Gold Medal Extra Dark, The Chocolate Therapist’s Dark Chocolate Wine Pairing Collection ran into a bit more variance in scoring, with some strong divisions. Despite the differences, however, this collection still received enough love to push it all the way up to Silver in this year’s Independent Favorites Awards.
As one of the judges who loved most of this box, I think the crucial key to enjoying this flagship collection from The Chocolate Therapist is simply to remember why Julie herself created it — to pair with wonderful wines. To fully enjoy these selections, you positively must work in the wine as well.
With that mindset in place, we enjoyed the majority of this collection, although the Chai chocolate easily stood out as best of the box, with pairing suggestions of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Gewurztraminer.
I envisioned a Syrah, even though Zinfandel is my favorite wine, pairing nearly flawlessly with this chocolate. Rene felt this chocolate offered the perfect amount of chai, a subtle spicy and sweet mixture of spices that would pair excellently with multiple red wines.
The other standout, which came as quite a surprise, was the Black Cherry chocolate, suggested for pairing with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ruby Port, Cabernet Franc, or Syrah. I felt this strong chocolate (strongest of the collection) would pair best with a Ruby Port or Cabernet Sauvignon. and Rene praised it as “the best black cherry chocolate” she’s ever tasted!
Congratulations to The Chocolate Therapist on scoring 2nd place in this year’s awards. I hear many popping corks in our future!
BRONZE: CACOCO 60% Rich Dark Drinking Chocolate
Although not quite dominating the awards here like the Extra Dark, CACOCO’s 60% Rich Dark tastes still scored quite highly, obviously well enough for the elite drinking chocolate maker to land two of three awards here in 2019!
For my part, Rich Dark lacks the deep chocolate kick of the 80% Extra Dark, and I also found myself missing the salt and, to a lesser extent, the vanilla of the Extra Dark, especially since the cinnamon and nutmeg in this variety are quite overshadowed by the lucuma.
Both this variety and the 65% Golden Dark likely have higher health benefits than the superb-tasting 80% Extra Dark, however, courtesy of the turmeric in Golden Dark, and the lucuma here in this Rich Dark.
Rene found it difficult to discern the cinnamon and lucuma within this mixture, but still found it to be a delicious blend, while Victoria found notes of light brown sugar, cayenne, cinnamon, cocoa, sweetness and a touch of black tea.
Despite the variety of interpretations here, we all agreed on the high level of quality omnipresent in all three of CACOCO’s submissions.
We hoped you enjoyed reading Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine in 2018 as much we enjoyed writing it for you. Remember, if you missed any of it and want to catch up after reading through all of our year in review, you can pick up all 12 issues from 2018 for only $4 via the link below, or at the start of this article above.
In the meantime, congratulations once again to all of our 2019 Chocolate Connoisseur Favorites Award winners, and we’ll see you back here in early 2020 for the next round of awards with a full 2019 wrap up!
Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine’s
2018 Complete Collection
Brand new this year, we’ve created a super-low price bundle of everything Chocolate Connoisseur published in 2018, if you don’t yet own all of the great content we cover below with our 2018 Year In Review.
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