IT’S ALMOST DINNERTIME, but Lauren Blanco seems way more interested in dessert as she sets the table for her company’s holiday gathering. Dozens of colorfully wrapped and meticulously arranged chocolate bars are the centerpiece of the long conference table she’s fussing over. And while Lauren cooked up a giant pot of gumbo for the night’s festivities, there isn’t a bowl or spoon in sight. Instead, at each of the five place settings sits a slab of cool granite ready to receive one or two squares from each of those chocolate bars. And the wine glasses on the table? They’re meant for palate-cleansing water, not wine. At least for the first half of the evening.

This chocolate tasting Lauren is organizing for her staff is not meant as a holiday treat. On the contrary, it’s a last order of business before they all tuck into that year-end celebratory gumbo. Lauren’s company is Hello Cocoa, a 2-year-old, Fayetteville-based business that cranks out small-batch, bean-to-bar craft chocolate, and this tasting, she tells me, is meant to help her, her partner and their staff gauge where their bars stack up against their competition.

I’m overcome with envy as I stare at the artful display of bars before me. A born chocolate lover, I got swept up in the craft-chocolate movement about two years ago. And while I’m still in the figuring-it-all-out stage, I know enough to know that underneath each of those wrappers is a unique chocolate-tasting experience. No one bar is like the other, which is kind of the whole point of bean-to-bar chocolate. I get that just as there are countless ways to describe the nuances of a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, there’s a plethora of different ways to describe the chocolate stacked on the table. Woody, spicy, smoky, banana-y, citrusy, floral, grassy, astringent, bitter, grainy—these are just a few of the ways I’ve heard craft chocolate described in the past.

And when the stuff is good … Man, it’s good. On the outer edges of Lauren’s chocolate arrangement, I spy some Patric Chocolate, a Missouri-made bar that I know to be among the best. It’s all I can do not to snag a square when Lauren takes a phone call. But while I’m quite sure there are some out-of-this-world chocolate bars on this table, I’m also willing to bet there are some real duds, too. In the two years I’ve been sampling the craft stuff, I’ve certainly had my share of bombs. The only way to really tell the good from the bad is to taste it, and at $6, $10, sometimes $15 a pop, it can be hard to take a chance on an unknown bar, which gets back to why I’m so dang jealous as I look down at that sea of chocolate.

But envy isn’t the only emotion that this treasure trove ignites in me. As I consider the trouble and expense Lauren and her crew have gone through to amass this assortment of bars, I become even more curious about the artisanal movement they’re caught up in. More than ever, I want to understand the story behind the bars.

LIKE ANY GOOD MOVEMENT, North America’s craft-chocolate craze comes complete with forefathers: Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger, to be precise. Steinberg, a doctor, and Scharffenberger, a winemaker, began making chocolate under the shingle of their Berkeley-based company, Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, in 1997. Steinberg had learned to make chocolate during a short stint as an intern in Lyon, France, which at the time was ground zero for craft chocolate.

The chocolate Steinberg and Scharffenberger made turned many a head, and in 2005, they sold their business to Hershey. Nothing can take the wind out of the sails of an artisan movement like a mammoth conglomerate, but luckily, Hershey’s takeover of Scharffen Berger didn’t signal the end of artisan craft chocolate in the United States.

By 2005, a small handful of folks had become so inspired by what Scharffen Berger had pulled off that they, too, started their own craft-chocolate-making operations. DeVries Chocolate, Patric Chocolate, Askinosie Chocolate, Amano Artisan Chocolate and Taza Chocolate are among the makers that rode that initial wave of bean-to-bar craft chocolate in the U.S. And just as Scharffen Berger had done, these folks and all those who’ve come after them aspire to make high-quality chocolate, an endeavor that inevitably begins with more careful and conscientious sourcing of the cocoa beans (or “cacao” beans, the preferred term in craft-chocolate circles) used to make the chocolate. Trading directly with farmers gives these makers an assurance that the farmers are paid a fairer price than what they’d garner if their beans ended up on the factory floor of one of the giant chocolate conglomerates. The country where the cacao beans come from is typically stamped front and center on the packaging of these bars.

When we hear “bean-to-bar,” our imaginations tend to conjure up a Brooklyn hipster cranking out small-batch chocolate in his Greenpoint living room. But all chocolate—even, say, Hershey’s—comes from a bean: the seed of the cacao tree, which only grows in a narrow band of Earth 10 degrees north and south of the Equator. The idea behind craft chocolate is that where a bean grows, how it’s grown and harvested, and the way in which it’s processed into chocolate all have a role to play in how it’s interpreted by our taste buds.

While craft chocolate is still a very small morsel of the $98 billion worldwide chocolate industry, today there are more than 200 producers in North America alone. And it’s only been in the past five years or so that the industry has really gotten its legs. That’s according to Sunita de Tourreil, a craft-chocolate curator, educator, retailer and sometimes crowd fundraiser for makers. Today, Sunita operates the Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, California, where she sells a selection of what she considers to be the best craft chocolate on the market right now.

It’s Sunita who really helps me understand how craft-chocolate-making differs from the mechanized process of the larger industrial players. When it comes to craft chocolate, she explains, a human being is the most important part of the process. Sure, there are machines involved, but the human palate and touch are the most important tools in the endeavor. Indeed, real, live humans sort through the cacao beans separating the desirable from the chaff, and real, live humans are on site to then coax and cajole the chosen beans as they’re roasted, winnowed, ground, tempered and ultimately molded into a bar ready to be stylishly wrapped and sold for around 10 times that of your average Hershey or Mars bar.

“The idea is there are hands involved,” she explains. “There’s a human interaction with the product.”

And with craft chocolate, the ingredient list is short, sometimes boiled down to just two ingredients: cacao and sugar. And typically, the bars are made in small batches.

But be warned: Mass-produced-commercial-chocolate companies are starting to hijack terms like “bean-to-bar” and “artisanal chocolate” on their packaging. If what you really have a hankering for is a small-batch, craft bar, the only surefire way to know for certain that’s what you’re getting is to research the company before you spring for that bar.

IN THAT SPIRIT, A WEEK AFTER New Year’s, I drop in on Preston Stewart, the head chocolate maker at Hello Cocoa, for a steaming cup of … mulch. OK, it’s not mulch so much as it is “cocoa tea,” a deeply chocolatey concoction made when the outer layer of the cacao bean is peeled away and discarded after the beans are roasted, leaving the inner bits, or cacao nibs, to be made into chocolate. One day last spring, Preston had asked himself a question about all that discarded debris: Will it tea? Turns out, it sure will, so much so that it was a hit at last season’s farmers’ market and is now for sale for $10 on the Hello Cocoa website.

“What was something we once gave away as mulch,” Preston says proudly, “is now a nifty revenue stream.”

Preston, who’s in his early 30s, is thoughtful and friendly and utterly obsessed with chocolate. When he’s not making the stuff, he’s reading books and taking online classes on the topic. As I sip my tea, he tells me that before he got into the chocolate-making business, he’d studied chemistry at the University of Arkansas, and, after spending a couple of years working for a biotech lab, realized he was way too social a creature to be stuck in a lab alone running experiments. Just as he was contemplating a career change, an old college pal, Charles Davidson, was looking for some like-minded folks to partner with him as he rebooted the craft-chocolate business he’d started in 2014.

That initial craft-chocolate business, Forgotten Chocolate, had been an offshoot of Davidson’s nonprofit, Forgotten Song, which aims to help citizens of war-torn countries pick up the pieces of their lives and start viable businesses. It was while doing work for the nonprofit in Uganda that Charles first encountered cacao farmers and caught the bean-to-bar bug. Along with Lauren Blanco, who already worked at Forgotten Song, Preston became a full-fledged partner in the revamped company, which ultimately morphed into Hello Cocoa in 2015. (Charles recently transitioned out of the business after a move to Washington, D.C.)

Once I’ve finished my tea, I ask Preston if I can see where the magic happens. He gamely gives me a hairnet and leads me out of the office side of the space and into the chocolate-factory side of things.

That brownies-in-the-oven smell that I’d first encountered upon entering Hello Cocoa’s digs is even more pronounced in this area, which, at first blush, looks like any restaurant kitchen I’ve ever been in, with stainless steel everywhere and a giant sink in the back. But upon closer inspection, I begin to notice that where ranges and ovens and refrigerators should be stand a number of contraptions that I can’t quite identify.

Our first stop is a table loaded down with cacao beans. A few burlap sacks swollen with the seeds are grouped together next to the table. Finishing off the cacao-bean tableau is a proud wall display of half-a-dozen empty sacks from places like the Dominican Republic, Uganda and Venezuela.

After Preston shows me how to sort the good beans from the bad beans, a task that my slightly OCD brain really gets into, we get into a discussion of how exactly these beans made it to this table.

Right now, he and Lauren are using a third-party company to source their beans, he explains. “We haven’t really delved into the agricultural side of the chocolate business yet,” he tells me. “At our scale, it’s just not feasible. Our focus right now is more about just exposing people to good chocolate.”

Preston’s admission echoes a conversation I’d had earlier in the week with Sunita. She’d explained that while there’s a desire within the maker community nowadays to direct-source cacao beans on romantic trips to far-flung places, the reality is that making craft chocolate is time-consuming and expensive. And even makers have the time and resources to take those trips, there’s a real lack of guidance at this point to help them figure out what cacao will actually translate into high-quality, flavorful chocolate.

“Direct sourcing trips make for a nice story,” Sunita had said, “but it’s not clear that that is the best way for a chocolate maker to be spending their time. And if I look at who’s making the best chocolate right now, are they going to origin to get their beans? No, they are not. They’re putting everything into all the steps and getting better all the time at every single step to make great chocolate.”

After my sorting stint, Preston takes me through the rest of his chocolate-making process. From the sorting table we move to the roaster, then over to the “winnower,” a doohickey that separates the bean’s outer shell from its inner goodness. Then it’s off to the grinder or melanger, a stainless-steel vat inside which automated stones are methodically grinding all those nibs down into a liquid substance. Preston will ultimately add a little sugar and cocoa butter to this stuff before tempering it and pouring it into molds.

Holding up one of the transparent plastic molds, he begins to divulge some of his more nitty-gritty chocolate-making worries, the things that can keep a chocolate maker up at night, like the pros and cons of adding cocoa butter versus not adding cocoa butter, and “conching” versus not conching. Conching is a process that agitates and aerates the chocolate, which helps give the chocolate a smooth, melty mouthfeel. The rub? Conching slows down the process and can make the whole endeavor more expensive. Because he’s not able to conch at the moment—conching is in the five-year plan, he explains—Preston adds cocoa butter to Hello Cocoa’s chocolate to help give it a smooth texture.

Some in the bean-to-bar world frown upon this, maintaining that it makes the end product less pure. (Sunita explained the whole cocoa-butter debate to me this way: While it might be more difficult and might take a different set of skills to make delicious bean-to-bar chocolate with just beans and sugar, at the end of the day, in her view, it’s more important to make good chocolate, and there’s no shame in adding a bit of cocoa butter to get there.) The other Arkansas-based chocolate maker who offered me a peek behind his chocolate-making process—Little Rock’s Nathaniel Izard (see page 46 for more on his operation)—goes the no-cocoa-butter route.

Cocoa butter dilemma aside, after going the rounds with Preston, learning how he Willy Wonkas his bars to life, I can certainly wrap my head around the sticker shock that comes with their purchase. To overcome this, many businesses like Preston’s and Nathaniel’s are starting to transition from bean-to-bar to bean-to-bonbon, bean-to-truffle, bean-to-baked-goods … you get the picture.

Nathaniel actually went that route from the beginning with his Hillcrest store. And it didn’t take him long to discover a way to add to his lineup of single-origin and flavored bars: caramel confections. As for Hello Cocoa, Preston shares with me that they, too, are on the cusp of opening a brick-and-mortar location at the Eighth Street Market adjacent to Brightwater, the new iteration of Northwest Arkansas Community College’s culinary school in downtown Bentonville.

At the new space, which will likely open this June, coffee drinks (including cocoa tea!), bonbons, truffles, baked goods and even cocktails will be on offer, Preston tells me. And there will be plenty of opportunities to collaborate with the folks at Brightwater, which is adding a bean-to-bar chocolate- making class to its curriculum.

“We came to realize that chocolate production and just selling bars was kind of a grind,” Preston explains as we make our way back into the office. “We think where we really thrive is hosting parties and just, in general, having people around and interacting with the public over chocolate.”

AND THEN IT HAPPENS. Back in the office, Preston’s pulling out a big bag of half-eaten chocolate bars, a few of which bare labels I remember spying a few days back on that chocolate buffet table of dreams. He begins dropping them one by one onto the conference table. He’s wanting to give me a better understanding of some of the ins and outs of what I’d seen back in his factory, and I’m like, Yessss. Clapping my hands together, I let out a squeal. Apparently, this is what it takes to make me regress back to my 5-year-old self.

First there’s the one that tastes like gasoline because the beans were dried with smoke instead of just the rays of the sun. Then there’s the one that was obviously “conched”—it does taste freakishly smooth, almost gel-like. Then there’s that lovely bite of Patric chocolate: It’s ubersmooth and it’s got this deep toffee, caramel-y taste to it. And then there’s a sampling of chocolate from Madagascar, a place where some of the best beans grow, Preston tells me. (Also on his five-year plan: a Madagascar-sourced bar.) “Mmm … fruity,” I catch myself saying out loud, starting to feel every bit the craft-chocolate aficionado.

So did you figure out where you guys stood after your tasting last week?” I ask after an interesting bite from a maker based in my home state of Louisiana.

“After trying all of these, I would say we’re in the upper half,” Preston says in his typical thoughtful manner. “There were some that were, in my opinion, clearly better than ours, but then also quite a few where I thought, This isn’t that good, yet they’re charging almost double what we charge.”

To make his point, he hands me a couple of bites of those bars. “Yep. Chalky, waxy, bitter,” I say.

As I make my way home loaded down with a few Hello Cocoa bars for an Arkansas chocolate tasting I’ve got planned and a bag of cocoa tea that I just couldn’t resist, for perhaps the first time ever, I feel like I’ve gotten my fill of chocolate for the day. But I know that the next time I peel off a wrapper and take a nibble, I’ll be in for an experience.

When you see what all goes into making a local piece of craft chocolate, surely it just tastes all that much sweeter.