The changing world of artisan chocolate

With vegan and low sugar confectionery big talking points of late, Food Spark discusses the challenges and creative avenues of the chocolate arena with two innovative artisan chocolate brands.

11 February 2020
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With Easter imminent, it’s no great surprise to see increasing industry movement in the chocolate space, with two recent developments catching Food Spark’s eye in the past week.

Firstly, top Belgian-French chocolatier Barry Callebaut unveiled a full range of vegan and dairy-free products called Plant Craft, spanning chocolates, cocoa products, nuts, nut fillings, biscuits and edible decorations. It was a notable release for the major chocolate manufacturer, who also announced plans to open Europe’s first fully segregated factory for dairy-free chocolate in 2021.

Only days after this announcement, Nestlé revealed they had discontinued their much-hyped Milkybar Wowsomes brand just two years after launching.

Made with ‘hollow’ sugar crystals that claimed to reduce sugar content by 30% without affecting sweetness, the Wowsomes have reportedly struggled to maintain consumer interest.

According to our colleagues at The Grocer, competing brands’ products, such as Mondelez’ Cadbury Dairy Milk 30% Less Sugar and Mars’ reduced sugar Snickers product, have also found it tough going in the battle for supermarket shelf space.  

With vegan chocolate and reduced sugar both coming into focus in the last seven days, Food Spark sat down with two artisan chocolate producers (one dairy-focused and one vegan) to delve deeper into the changing world of cacao bean-based confectionary, with both Fellow Creatures and Creighton’s Chocolaterie revealing unexpected parallels in their respective mission statements.

Being approachable

Lucy Elliot is the creative director of Creighton’s, a Bedford-based artisan chocolate operation that flies in the face of traditional high-end confectionary perceptions, focusing instead on being approachable and “fun” since launching in 2011.

“We saw a gap in the market for an artisan chocolate that had a sense of fun about it, rather than being overly stuffy and over focused on bean to bar origins,” she says. “We wanted to do fun and approachable with focus on colourful designs and interesting flavour combinations.”

Indeed, creative combinations are key to Creighton’s, who have independent stockists across the country as well as being available in Harvey Nichols and via their website. Elliot oversees a 25-strong range which includes their Cosmic Bubbles champagne flavoured dark chocolate bar with popping candy, and their Five More Minutes – a milk chocolate bar with bacon and toast crumb.

“Bacon and chocolate made sense as many people like salted chocolate - it’s about taking that further in terms of what’s salty and savoury,” explains Elliot.

“The bacon gives a smokiness to the chocolate and the crumbs give it texture. The crumbs are toasted sourdough, dried out and crumbed up with cinnamon. It’s a little along the line of bacon pancakes as a concept.”

Bacon is, unsurprisingly, not on the agenda for Zsolt Stefkovics, founder of Scottish vegan and organic chocolate brand, Fellow Creatures. But, like Creighton’s, the focus is on having broad appeal.

“My main objective for the range was to have something for everyone,” says Stefkovics.

“We created Milkless Hazelnut for the crunch-lovers, Raspberry White for those who are desperate for vegan white chocolate with a twist, Salted Caramel for those who can’t decide between sweet and savoury, Matcha White for the adventurers and our staple Milkless for myself.”

No to low sugar?

Umami is one of Creighton’s predicted chocolate trends for 2020, along with pretzel texture. And their existing pretzel chocolate bar (made with dark chocolate) is one of their limited vegan options, with Elliot saying that while the market has increased, their use of so many non-vegan ingredients makes them more “accidently vegan” on occasion.

But while the popularity of veganism is evident to Elliot (it’s the most searched term on the Creighton’s website), she isn’t surprised that the low sugar chocolate concept hasn’t caught on as expected.

“I feel that people are really discerning about sugar but, if you’re really concerned about it, you’re not likely to buy a chocolate bar,” she says.

“It’s a hard one from a product development point of view as I don’t think a reduction in sugar really matters to people, they’re either going to buy one or not.

“In my experience, lower sugar chocolate still doesn’t taste great in general, especially if you’re expecting a treat! It’s a hard market if you make sugar laden products and then try and get more sales by giving a less sugary product, people will see through it.

Time for texture

Stefkovics says that, in creating Fellow Creatures in the summer of last year, he tasted a “myriad” of different vegan chocolate options, with both he and Lucy agreeing that texture stands out as the key aspect in the current market.

“For me it was very important to achieve a texture that doesn’t melt in the fingers but melts straight away in the mouth without leaving a nasty aftertaste or an oily coating in the mouth,” he explains.

“Texture is key, which is very easy to achieve using dairy. We experimented for over a year with different alternatives, until we settled on a combo of coconut cream and tigernut powder. Most of the other vegan chocolates on the market use rice milk, which is very cheap but creates a chocolate that is far inferior.”

Over the last month or two, texture has emerged as a standout topic in the food development arena, with Lucy Elliot also considering it a top priority at Creighton’s in 2020.

“Texture is massive for me at the moment,” she says. “Anything crunchy and just interesting textures, really. You can do so many interesting things when you look past just the flavour of what you’re eating.”

As an example of texture creativity, Elliot, who says that having ‘dry’ ingredient limitations with chocolate bars is a constant struggle, cites Creighton’s Ramen Bar product, which is an umami milk chocolate with crunchy noodles.

“We wanted to create a bar with an Asian twist. One of my colleagues, who’s Vietnamese, told me that she used to snack on fried, dried noodles as a child like we would a bag of crisps in England,” she explains.

“They have a crunchy, salty texture (and are dry), so I thought that could work in chocolate! The bar also has soya crunchy pieces and umami seasoning from You-Mami. I wanted to put in nori seaweed, but we couldn’t get the shelf life.”

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