I Tried TCHO’s New Vegan Chocolate Bars

Berkeley confectionery will be 100% animal-free by 2023

Photo credit: Thomas Smith

IIt’s official: TCHO is going vegan! The famous chocolate company based in Berkeley, Calif., announced late last year that it would soon be making all of its chocolate animal-free. The transition begins this year and is expected to be complete by 2023, a TCHO spokesperson told me in an email.

This is a huge change for TCHO. The local company provides delicious chocolate squares that consumers can buy at fancy places like Whole Foods Market, but they also supply chocolate for professional kitchens. Their line of professional chocolates is set to go vegan in early 2022. TCHO’s consumer chocolate will follow soon after.

Going vegan didn’t just mean removing a few animal ingredients from its bars. Instead, it took a wholesale rework of TCHO’s entire product line to both eliminate animal products and also to update packaging, reveal new flavors and improve the work of TCHO on sustainability and sourcing fair trade ingredients. The company was certified as a B Corp in 2021, which means it is officially created to benefit people rather than just generating profits. Last year, TCHO also started buying exclusively fair trade cocoa.

The vegan movement is therefore part of a larger trend within the company. TCHO focuses on improving sustainability and helping communities, while ideally making great tasting chocolate at the same time. As a preview of their cow-free future, TCHO sent me some of their new vegan chocolate bars to try.

Try TCHO Vegan Bars

When you hear “plant-based chocolate,” your first thought might be “why would it be animal products in chocolate in the first place?” That’s a fair point. Cocoa is a plant, after all, so shouldn’t all chocolate already be plant-based?

It turns out that’s not always the case. First, there is milk chocolate, which TCHO has always excelled in creating. TCHO’s dark milk chocolate is unique and appreciated. Many chocolate bars also use other animal-based ingredients, such as whey protein, which is derived from milk. Some chocolate concoctions also work in other dairy products. Ganache uses heavy cream, for example, and fudge often uses sweetened condensed milk. There are tons of animal-derived ingredients lurking in many chocolate bars, including many of TCHO’s best sellers. This is why change is so important.

Dark milk flavor from TCHO. Photo credit: Thomas Smith

In the box I received from TCHO were six different vegan bars. Each of them featured new streamlined, bold and colorful packaging. Gone are the naturalistic gradients and subtle colors of TCHO. There are bold vibrant hues, a playful square format, sans serif fonts and eye-catching names. A bar containing local almonds is called “AWW Nuts!”, and a Peruvian chocolate bar with fruity notes is called “Born Fruity”.

Inside each box are nine pieces of chocolate, wrapped in three tearable (and apparently compostable) wrappers. The inside of each box also features beautiful photographs and information about the communities that grow TCHO’s cocoa. All packaging is designed to be sustainable and recyclable. Again, this is part of TCHO’s transition to more sustainable practices overall.

Photo credit: The author.

At least two of TCHO’s new bars appear to be deliberate attempts to replace its dairy-based milk chocolate and caramel flavors. “Toffee Time” is a sweet chocolate bar made with cashew butter, coconut sugar, oat milk and cocoa. The bar offers small pieces of vegan caramel. As a dairy-based bar, it has a subtle, sweet chocolate flavor paired with deep notes of caramel and a pleasant crunch from the embedded chocolate chunks. Especially with the cashew butter blended in, I wouldn’t know this one was dairy free unless you told me.

TCHO’s “Choco Latte” takes a similar approach. This bar is a collaboration with Blue Bottle Coffee, a Bay Area staple, and features oat milk and roasted coffee beans. It tastes a bit like a cappuccino turned into a chocolate bar, so the name seems apt. Here again, dairy substitutes are convincing. It’s not quite TCHO’s dark milk bar, but it’s a nice homage to that cow-adjacent flavor, with an added caffeine kick.

Other bars in TCHO’s vegan line do not attempt to replace dairy ingredients. Rather, they look at the company’s new emphasis on single-origin chocolates from fair-trade communities. “Holy Fudge” is made with organic Ghanaian dark chocolate. “Born Fruity” is a bit more tangy and less sweet, showcasing the deeper, more complex notes of its Peruvian-sourced dark chocolate. “Dark Duo” was one of my favorite bars, combining the shell of Holly Fudge with the center of Born Fruity. It’s a well-balanced, complex bar, and yet a little sweeter and easier to eat than the two bars from which it is derived.

“AWW Nuts!” is also tasty and contains local almonds made into creamy butter and enhanced with Pacific sea salt. I don’t like big chunks of nuts in my chocolate bars, and it’s more like eating a cup of peanut butter than crunching on some almond brittleness. The new TCHO flavors are tasty and I love the bold and vibrant packaging. These are definitely made to stand out on store shelves in a market that has become pleasantly saturated with excellent chocolate options.

However, going 100% vegan is a big risk for TCHO. This means automatically canceling several of the company’s most popular flavors, and trying something completely new at once, the company has probably invested a ton of capital in a new factory in Berkeley. Some customers are likely to be angry when they learn that TCHO’s popular milk-based flavors are about to disappear. Chocolate hoarding is definitely a possibility.

TCHO recognizes these risks, but says the shift to vegan chocolate production is essential to accomplishing the company’s broader mission. “Reducing our dependence on dairy products is one of the fastest ways for TCHO to lessen our impact on the environment. While it’s not an easy transition for us, we know it’s the right one,” said Josh Mohr, vice president of marketing at TCHO in the documents sent to me. “From the beginning, TCHO has been committed to working with our agricultural partners on the ground, improving farming techniques, improving soil conditions and doing what we can to help minimize deforestation – it’s all about the ‘a plant-based model.’

The move to Alt-Milk

The move also has the potential to open up a whole new category of chocolates, which TCHO has dubbed “alternative milk chocolate.” These bars (of which Choco Latte and Toffee Time are examples) seek to replicate the experience of eating milk chocolate, but without the dairy.

Compelling, less cruel, and more sustainable vegan alternatives to animal products of all kinds are great right now, so the timing seems right for TCHO. You only have to look as far back as Impossible Meats, or, well, oat milk in general to see why there’s a lot of potential in the “alt-milk chocolate” concept. If TCHO succeeds in creating an entirely new category of chocolates that are milk-but-dairy free, their vegan evolution could have wider implications for the entire chocolate market.

“Removing dairy and focusing entirely on plants opened up a whole new world for us,” said Brad Kintzer, TCHO’s chef chocolatier and president of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, a trade group. “We are proud of the unique flavor profiles we have created. Our alternative milk is an entirely new cocoa experience.

Look for new bars from TCHO when they launch over the next year and slowly replace the company’s remaining offering of animal-based bars. TCHO’s move seems very much in line with his Berkeley and Bay Area origins. Hopefully the company’s dark milk followers don’t get too mad and TCHO’s new cow-free chocolate finds a receptive audience here by the bay.

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