A very short answer is:

Tree-To-Bar is a special type of chocolate which the chocolate maker grows the beans themselves and uses said beans in their own products. This allows for a greater level of control over quality and flavor.

To answer the question in greater detail, we must first understand how chocolate is made, its supply chain and various impacts the chocolate maker can have on the product.

I/ How our chocolate is made

II/ How is Tree-To-Bar chocolate different from other kinds of chocolate?

There are 3 main categories and 1 sub-category of chocolate in the world, based on the sourcing of material:

Also known as industrial chocolate, this is how almost all of the world’s chocolate has been made. Dried cacao beans of many origins from all over the world are gathered at a large factory where they are processed into blocks of chocolate. A chocolatier would then melt down these blocks of chocolate, add their own touch to it, then temper and mold it for distribution and consumption.

The role of the manufacturer of bulk-to-bar type starts at the finishing stages of the chocolate. Since it is sourced from all over the world, bulk-to-bar is almost always available with a high consistency in quality thanks to standardized industrial production chain. However, this also means that unique bean varieties can be lost in the crowd. Moreover, since the sourcing is done through traders who are driven towards purchasing in large quantity, which can be disadvantageous to small farmers.

  • Pros: high in quantity, consistent in quality, provides many variations as well as choices
  • Cons: cost driven, difficult for small farmers to keep up, unique flavors get drowned out by mass volume. The chocolate maker has almost no control over the bean source, how it’s cultivated, fermented and processed.

The ever-growing awareness of consumers in recent years has given rise to bean-to-bar chocolate, sometimes called small-batch chocolate.

With bean-to-bar, the chocolate maker goes straight to the source: the farmers themselves. They purchase beans from the farmer or fermentery and process the beans into chocolate themselves. They can omit the traders and middle-men then offer the farmers a much better price. Simultaneously, they can afford to be more selective, buying only from farmers with quality products, who can provide fair work conditions for their employees and their family.

Bean-to-bar makers may apply traditional chocolate making methods and equipment such as a small batch roast oven and stone miller.

The role of the chocolate maker in bean-to-bar starts at the processing stage. Even though most traits of the cacao bean have already been established, they can still heavily influence the outcome of their products through their choice of suppliers, through the roasting method of the beans, and processing method of the chocolate. Bean-to-bar products that are made from a single source of origin is called Single Origin Chocolate.

Though not fully documented, it is estimated that only 1% (probably less) of the world’s chocolate is artisanal bean-to-bar.

  • Pros: Fair pricing for farmers, different sourcing of beans can still offer few variations and choices, able to bring out the genuine flavors of the cacao beans through hands-on processing.
  • Cons: small quantity, possibly inconsistent quality since it is heavily dependent on a few farmers, fermenters and the condition of fermentation, the chocolate maker still has almost no control over the cultivation, fermentation and production of the beans.

This is the middle ground that lies between tree-to-bar and bean-to-bar where the chocolate maker also doubles as the fermenter. This allows the chocolate maker a great deal of control since they can develop and apply their own fermentation techniques and recipes, creating a batch of fermented dried cacao beans that is signature to the chocolate maker. This difference in flavor precursor development by the chocolate maker will carry over during processing.

The role of the chocolate maker in pod-to-bar chocolate starts at the beginning of the post-harvest stage. The chocolate maker buys fresh cacao pods from farmers, then ferments, dries, and processes the beans themselves.

The reason pod-to-bar is a sub-category is due to its rarity to the point of almost unheard of. Because of logistical difficulties of transporting fresh cacao pods, chocolate makers would rather opt for bean-to-bar instead, having the farmers do the fermentation and drying while the chocolate maker takes care of the processing.

  • Pros: fair pricing for farmers, different sourcing of cacao pods and fermentation techniques can showcase the skill of the chocolate maker, relieves the burden of fermentation from the farmer.
  • Cons: small quantity, difficult to keep consistent quality since it is heavily dependent on the chocolate maker. Logistics is a huge hindrance due to the need of transporting fresh pods for post-harvest treatment within a short time frame. Although given a great deal of control, the chocolate maker still has almost no say over the cultivation stages.

This is considered to be the 1% within the 1% since less than 0.01% (probably much less) of the world’s chocolate is tree-to-bar. For tree-to-bar, the farmer is the chocolate maker. This reduces the entire supply chain into a single point. Since the farmer and the chocolate maker are one and the same, they have full control of what to plant, what to fertilize the cacao trees with, how to take care of their employees, their trees, what to spray, how to ferment, dry, store and process the cacao. In short: they have complete control of the production chain.

By default, tree-to-bar is at least Single Origin if not Single Farm. This puts the burdens of responsibility, quality, consistency, and standards solely on the farmer/chocolate maker. It requires the farmer/chocolate maker to have in-depth knowledge of the entire supply chain, which includes: cultivation practices, post-harvest protocols, and chocolate processing know-how.

  • Pros: When done right, the flavor is unique to that bar of chocolate since it is completely dependent on the farm that the cacao came from as well as the skill of the chocolate maker. This also encourages farmers to take control of their product by broadening their knowledge of the supply chain. The farmer takes full responsibility for their product which pushes them towards good practices that positively impact the environment and their community. This means that the farmer bears the financial risks as well as rewards for the work and allows them to constantly strive for higher standards.
  • Cons: Relatively high cost due to small quantity production, extremely limited quantity, and consistency is dependent on farmer/chocolate maker’s skills as well as weather, climate and other environmental factors.

III/ What makes Stone Hill’s Tree To Bar Chocolate special?

One question that was raised to us is that: If direct sourcing is the issue, then any farmer can start producing chocolate and any chocolate maker can purchase a cacao farm, and their chocolate would be considered tree-to-bar. That doesn’t necessarily mean all tree-to-bar chocolate is good.

This is true. Making chocolate is not incredibly difficult, making good chocolate is. And while producing tree-to-bar chocolate is by no means easy, not by a long shot, producing good tree-to-bar chocolate is a monumental task.

Here at Stone Hill, we are extremely proud of our cacao beans and its products. We would like to think that our efforts and love shine through and many would agree. However, to answer if it’s good according to your own taste, we believe that you should try a bar of Stone Hill Dark Chocolate and be the judge.

Meanwhile, let us show you what makes Stone Hill Tree To Bar Chocolate special:

  • Variety collection: With over 50 cacao varieties, Stone Hill Farm currently holds the largest private collection of cacao varieties in Vietnam. Some of these possess unique flavour profiles but due to low survivability and high technical demands, they are not available for public circulation. With a strong technical background in agriculture and cacao farming, Stone Hill manages to cultivate some of the most uncommon Trinitario and Forastero varieties, creating a blend with a signature composition not found anywhere else in the world.
  • Pesticide-free agriculture: Stone Hill Farm utilizes bio-control as the primary method of pest prevention. We raise ant colonies on our cacao trees by providing food and shelter for the ants. In turn, whenever the trees are harmed by pests (mainly Helopeltis), the ants will swarm out, attack the pests and protect the cacao trees. This allows us to farm cacao with absolutely no pesticides.
  • Biochar and fertilizer application: Due to the barren and poor soil condition of the terrain, Stone Hill Farm uses compost fertilizer which mixes organic with composite fertilizer. To make sure we maximize its potential, we combine it with charcoal. This allows the fertilizer to be dispense gradually over the course of months instead of getting washed away by rain within days or weeks. The charcoal we use is primarily biochar which is created via a process of anaerobic burning that leaves behind negative carbon footprint.
  • Customized primary fermentation recipe: A fully developed fermentation recipe must put into consideration the types of beans, their sugar content, the season that they’re harvested in, moisture level, their ripeness, storage duration, the weather and temperature during the period of fermentation, etc… At the same time, a fermenter must be flexible to the changes that occur as fermentation progresses and adjusts the recipe according to external factors and conditions. Due to our special cacao bean variety composition, Stone Hill has to create very specific fermentation recipes to bring out all the best flavour notes.
  • Slow-drying technique: The drying process is equally as important as the fermentation process. If not dried properly, all the hard work during fermentation can be spoiled and our efforts wasted. To accompany our customized fermentation recipes, Stone Hill has developed our own slow-drying technique. When dried too fast, the bean shell can harden too soon, trapping all the acidity that developed during fermentation inside the beans, hence imbalance the flavour profile. If dried too slow, the cacao beans face high-risk of molding, over-fermentation, and even rotting. With Stone Hill’s slow-drying technique, we allow just the right amount of acidity and certain off-flavours to dissipate, all the while preserving the cacao beans in excellent condition for storage and processing.
  • Secondary fermentation: This stage of fermentation is unique to Stone Hill cacao beans. Similar to the “racking” stage of wine fermentation, cacao beans secondary fermentation allows them to fully reach their optimal potential. Since the ideal primary fermentation only takes the fermentation rate to 75-85%, it is assumed that the remaining 25-15% will take place automatically during drying and storage. However, the cacao beans are still very sensitive to environmental factors during this stage and can be influenced by the condition of their storage. By storing the cacao beans in optimal condition for an additional 2 to 6 months, we can maximize the fermentation rate while allowing all the flavours to settle in.
  • Customized roasting recipe: A thorough roasting recipe for cacao must put into consideration the moisture level, fermentation rate, variety, bean size and the base condition of the beans. An under-roasted batch will taste underdeveloped, too astringent and flat in flavor. An over-roasted batch will taste overly bitter with all the flavour notes gone, drowned out by the taste of smoke and burn. It is one of the shortest stages of chocolate production but a mere 20 to 30 seconds can make all the difference in the roast. As with our fermentation recipes, they are detailed while at the same time, flexible for adjustment by the roaster, depending on the state of the beans as they progress through the roast.
  • Traditional stone milling: While many chocolate makers have moved on to steel ball millers, the stone miller is still considered the industry standard for flavour development. Unlike a ball miller that can grind cacao nibs into cacao mass within a few hours, a traditional stone miller will take days. All our work of preserving subtle and unique flavour notes comes down to this. During the many days it takes to slowly mill the cacao down, our stone miller allows the cacao mass to fully express all its flavour notes that have accumulated through all the stages.
  • Pure, original chocolate taste: The balancing of flavours in our chocolate all occur naturally entirely through each stage. Aside from the traditional sugar percentage, we do not use carbonate, flavourings or any artificial enhancement or chemicals to affect the final taste. What you shall savour in the end is the pure, original taste of Stone Hill beans, fully expressed in the chocolate.
  • Handcrafted in Vietnam: The human touch is one constant factor throughout each stage of our chocolate making. We cultivate the trees on our farm, then manually harvest, break, ferment, dry, select, and clean our cacao beans. Every batch of roasting and milling is carefully supervised and adjusted, every bar of chocolate is hand poured and hand wrapped. Every single bar.

We put a lot of love and care into our chocolate, and with each bar so meticulously crafted, all we hope is that our effort will shine through the products which you enjoy.