In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.

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chocolate Dear Grist:

So what’s the deal with this “bean to bar” thing I hear about with chocolate? People are calling chocolate the Next Bean (coffee apparently being the equivalent of last season’s fashion), but is it really worth my time — and money — to pay attention to where my chocolate comes from and how it was treated?

Thanks!
Crocker

Dear Crocker,

The tasty, trendy treat of which you speak is chocolate made by a single producer, right from the beginning, starting with those cacao pods filled with improbable goo and ending with the foil-wrapped bars of delight.

To get the fuller gist of it, we’re going to play foodie buzzword bingo: Some of today’s most sought-after chocolate is not only bean-to-bar, but also artisanal and crafted in small amounts or microbatches, right here in America. This chocolate may also be single-origin — that is, unlike most commercial chocolate, which blends beans from all over,  single-origin chocolate hails from one country, region, or even plantation. It is produced by passionate, if not obsessive, chocolate makers — not melters who liquefy pre-made chocolate to make chocolate candy and other delights.

Some of these chocolate makers travel to the tropical chocolate lands, even to specific cacao plantations, to source the finest cocoa beans. They then ferment, roast, and grind  the beans into a very small quantity of unadulterated bars that allow chocolate lovers, perhaps for the first time, to fully experience chocolate terroir (the French word used by wine lovers to describe the sense of place embodied in flavor).

Is this kind of chocolate really the Next (Big) Bean?

Yes, says John Kehoe at TCHO, a new San Francisco bean-to-bar company. Kehoe pointed out that chocolate is on the same trajectory as specialty coffee, which has evolved to a point where consumers now care about country of origin.

“Cocoa is going through a similar pattern,” he told me. “We’re discovering that cocoa in Venezuela is different than the cocoa in Ecuador, or different from the cocoa in Africa.”

Now on to your pragmatic question: Is it worth your time and money?

When it comes to flavor, yes. For you, and only you (never for myself!), I did my very own unscientific blind taste test, comparing microbatch bean-to-bar chocolate bars with high-end remelted bars of a similar cocoa content (70 percent).

The intense flavor of the microbatch bars hit me like a comic book POW!, whereas the other high-end bars ended up tasting flat, like baking chocolate. Fearing that I might have fallen prey to wine-style snobbery, I roped my Hershey-loving and bluntly honest second-grader into the tasting (imagine the difficulty in getting her to do this).

“Oh, it’s good,” she mooned over a dark chunk made by Patric Chocolate. “It’s fruity! And sorta nutty!”

But, taste of course, isn’t everything; there are ethical and environmental reasons to consider when it comes to chocolate. Most chocolate, like most everything else that’s sold, bought, or processed, comes from a handful of consolidated corporations sometimes pejoratively known as Big Chocolate. It is no surprise then, that in producing vast quantities of cocoa, developing-country farmers often receive poverty-level wages to tend vast monocultural swaths of pesticide-laden cacao trees that screw up local ecosystems.

If that’s not enough to leave a bitter taste in your mouth, this will: Big Chocolate has reneged on its agreement to abolish its use of child labor in West Africa. For this reason, a growing number of conscious consumers are reaching for certified organic, fair trade, and Rainforest Alliance chocolate.

In the case of bean-to-bar, can you have your delectable product and enjoy it in good conscience, too? Try Theo Chocolate, which scores the hat trick of being organic, fair trade, and bean-to-bar. But don’t discount other bean-to-bar chocolate makers who may not be officially certified in the above ways, but sustainable nonetheless.

If you are as serious about the taste of chocolate as you are about its potential problems, it’s worth sussing out your bar’s backstory.

TCHO’s website (the only place non-Bay Area residents can buy that chocolate at the moment) didn’t tout any organic or fair trade seals. But after a few clicks of a mouse, I quickly learned that their social mission is to go “the next step beyond fair trade by helping farmers by transferring knowledge of how to grow and ferment better beans so they can escape commodity production to become premium producers.”

Kehoe, who is the farmer relations and sourcing director at TCHO, explained that his firm works directly with cooperatives and farmers in Ghana, Peru, and Madagascar.

“We’re trying to bring technology and innovation to the field,” he said. “We’re really trying to do some interesting things, not just pay a premium and make sure that the certification documents are in line. We’re actually working with farmers.”

He told me that much of the cocoa they use is certified organic, but not all of it. “It has to be of premium quality first,” he said, and explained that TCHO’s take on sustainability includes the concept of “economic sustainability.” (In other words, if the chocolate is not delicious, no one will pay a premium price for it, and therefore the farmers won’t get premium wages — you get the picture.)

Because I’m suffused with the warm fellow-feeling that comes from eating chocolate, here’s a time-saving tip: Some of these producers are so small that it’s hard to find them at all. Here’s a list of bean-to-bar makers I found on a blog written by Alan McClure, the founder of Patric Chocolate.

Once you find them, be prepared to pay up. Compared to most chocolate bars, the bean-to-bar stuff, especially microbatch, seems pricey. (I paid about $8 for a 1.75 ounce bar.) You can keep your costs down by savoring tiny amounts of this stuff (and summoning a lot of willpower not to snarf the whole bar).

Don’t take this advice lightly. I ate way too much one evening (specifically it was a Mast Brothers dark milk chocolate with cocoa nibs), and ended staying up into the wee hours of morning sending giddy emails, organizing my pens by color, and singing show tunes. Remember: Friends don’t let friends eat too much dark chocolate before bedtime.

Thank you, dear reader — the pleasure was all mine.
Lou