Top Belgian Chocolate Manufacturers (Belgium Chocolate History)

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People often ask me what makes Belgian chocolate so special. But just because we connect a certain cuisine with a particular nation doesn’t make it the finest, nor does it make all of their fantastic American hot dogs the best. But, the mystique of Belgian chocolate has lasted longer than I have. So I made it my job this year to find out: is Belgian chocolate indeed the best?

Like with my prior chocolate travel guides, I made a point of visiting the major Belgian chocolate companies and hubs and reporting on what to obtain there. But, despite being billed as the top chocolate locations in the world, Brussels and Bruges disappointed. The majority of what I tested was well packed, reasonably priced, and terribly flat and sugary in flavor.

In fact, I had greater success in Amsterdam’s chocolate stores. Yet it made me question how Belgian chocolate came to have such a good reputation in the first place. Unlike the Italians and pizza, the Belgians did not originate chocolate, and theirs is surely not the greatest (spoiler warning), so I looked to the almighty history books for answers.

To go to the Top Belgian Chocolate Brands, click here.

What exactly is Belgian chocolate?

History of Belgian Chocolate

Chocolate is manufactured from cacao beans, which grow in the tropics and, hopefully, will come as no surprise to you, my dear reader. Belgium is not a tropical country, hence cacao cannot be grown there, so all cacao used in Belgian chocolate must be imported from someplace. Cacao was first transported to Belgium from the Americas through Spain. What a European road trip, eh? Cacao was generally drunk as a bitter hot chocolate, which was only available to the upper class as a type of therapeutic beverage.

Chocolate’s history in Belgium may be traced back to the 1600s, when the head of an Abbey in Ghent made the first documented purchase of chocolate. Chocolate consumption has expanded throughout the nation by the end of the century. According to some Belgian chocolate history I read at the Bruges Chocolate Museum, a local chocolatier sold 83 pounds of chocolate to a Mr. Le Gillon in 1693.

According to the same archives, a formal ordinance was issued in 1712 to provide permits to tax cocoa, demonstrating its commerce and worth on the market at the time. Most cacao and chocolate applications were still therapeutic at the time, but when sugar was added to the beverage around the start of the 17th century, hot chocolate became even more popular throughout Europe. Nonetheless, such cacao was thought to have been imported into Belgium through the Netherlands by that time, since the Dutch were fast to compete with the Spanish in the cacao trade from the Americas.

The Dutch also had a strategic edge in Belgium, not only because they were neighbors, but also because the northern half of Belgium spoke a Dutch-variant language known as Flemmish. This allowed merchants to move stuff and communicate with consumers more easily, something the Spaniards couldn’t match.

Belgian Chocolate Production

Belgium was well on its way to building its own well-known chocolate industry by the 1800s. This period in Belgian chocolate history is defined by the formation of several Belgian chocolatiers as well as the creation of many now-famous Belgian chocolate brands, including Neuhaus (1857) and Cte dOr (1883). Several of these firms built a solid reputation for themselves and their goods through time.

This was notably true during the late-nineteenth-century Belgian conquest and colonization of the modern-day Congo (DRC), then known as the Belgian Congo. This power grab enabled the government to import far more cocoa than before, therefore expanding its manufacturing industry. The establishment of a spate of now-famous Belgian chocolate companies, including as Callebaut (1911), Leonidas (1913), Mary (1919), and Godiva (1920), ushered in the twentieth century (1926).

In 1912, one of Belgium’s most notable contributions to chocolate was the invention of the praline (pronounced pra-lee-NUH), the first chocolate with a soft filling. Over the century, the Belgian chocolate industry produced numerous noteworthy contributions to the globe, including the introduction of chocolate spread and the creation of liquid chocolate conveyance.

Belgian Chocolate in the 21st Century

So, what makes Belgium such a well-known chocolate destination across the world? Although though it may be difficult to believe, chocolate has not always existed, and someone had to be the first to introduce it to a worldwide market. The simplest explanation is that Belgians gave chocolate most of its popularity, and as a consequence, they continue to receive a large portion of the revenues. That all began in the decades after WWII.

Belgian chocolate businesses started to look at exporting their renowned products as Europe and other areas of the globe got more developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and even today. Cte dOr even increased Belgian chocolate’s worldwide profile with a huge promotion during the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. For many foreign markets, these brands were often the only luxury chocolates they had been exposed to, maybe other than Cadburys, the worldwide powerhouse.

They formed an alliance as a result of this. Globally minded customers grew to associate these companies and their native Belgium with better quality, tasty chocolates. Since they had not been exposed to anything better, such as handmade chocolate, until recently, most people assumed that Belgian chocolates must be the greatest in the world.

Based on my years in South Korea, I can affirm that this relationship is still strong today, especially in East Asia. Belgium now has over 300 distinct chocolateries (chocolate shops) and produces over 15 million pounds (7 million kg) of chocolate bars and bonbons each year, the majority of which is exported. During a typical year, people throng to the streets of Ghent, Brussels, and Bruges to embark on chocolate excursions and visit the numerous individual confectionery stores that line the streets.

As a result of the public’s long-term exposure to the notion of chocolate, several Belgian firms have now started to innovate in areas other than tastes. They’ve also pushed the boundaries of chocolate consumption, stacking, modifying shapes, and supersizing certain conventional pieces. Seasonal chocolate tastes and innovations have also taken off in Belgium, with Easter and Christmas being two of the most prominent chocolate festivals.

Slowly, the nation is embracing the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate and how the intricacies of diverse cacao origins and processing processes may alter the taste of a chocolate. The issue is that for so long, Belgian chocolate has only been one thing. That has become what people expect of the nation, and it will take some bold and inventive artists to lift the country out of the 1800s.

Belgian Chocolate vs. Swiss Chocolate

On the subject of outdated beliefs, individuals often tell me that they love chocolate so much that they are so finicky that they only eat Swiss or Belgian chocolate because it is the best. Of course, they are well-intentioned, and these chocolate-producing nations have a long history of creating chocolate to give consumers this sense.

But here’s the thing: neither the nation of origin of the chocolate manufacturer nor the country in which the chocolate is created confers any magical attribute on the finished product that makes it the greatest.

Quality is controlled by a complex combination of elements, starting with cacao variety and processing and incorporating apparently little aspects such as humidity in a chocolate factory. Therefore, let us look at how the world got to believe that Belgian chocolate (or French, Swiss, or even German) is the best: smart branding. That’s all.

Now, listen up: the fundamental driving force behind the Belgian-is-best concept is history, notably these nations’ histories as cacao processors and their historical contributions to chocolate creation.

One of these developments has been the regulation of minimum cocoa and milk percentages in chocolate, which has improved the general uniformity of their country’s goods. Moreover, Europe as a whole has been undeniably influential in shaping current world chocolate culture, including the introduction of milk chocolate. To argue today that any one nation creates the greatest chocolate in the world is a matter of opinion over facts.

Any mass-market chocolate from any random nation is likely to be bitter, boring, and excessively sweet. As other nations started producing smooth chocolate for themselves, the concept of Belgium producing the greatest chocolate was devalued. Yet the reputation has endured over the years, even as the definition of Belgian chocolate has been debated (is it based on the area of chocolate production, the location of chocolatiers, style, or technique?).

What is the moral of the story? Branding alone isn’t enough.

Which Belgian chocolate is the best? (Purchasing Suggestions)

I’ve always maintained that the greatest of everything is subjective, but fortunately for you, I have a lot of them. You may read about my suggestions for Brussels and Bruges by clicking on their names, but what if you wind yourself in a smaller town? Here are some pointers for discovering the greatest chocolate in Belgium, no matter where you wind up.

  • Bonbons here are called pralines, and are almost all sold by weight, but if you buy only a few then the price is per chocolate (often a limit of 3 or 4) before the method shifts to weight. Buying this way is preferable to picking out a prepared box, because this way you can pick & choose flavors.
  • There are lots of different types of pralines unique to Belgium, including Cuberdon and Manon, though I also saw a huge number of chocolate-covered massive marshmallows, and Speculoos & Speculaas chocolates. I’d consider the latter more regional flavors, along with Avocaat (Eggnog). All of these are worth trying at least once!
  • Look for the names of chocolates in both French and Flemmish; most shops have both printed on there. If you can’t sort out the flavor and nobody speaks English, try using the Google Translate camera function to get a better idea.
  • When buying prepared boxes of chocolates, make sure you look for a manufacture date on the bottom, and don’t buy any filled chocolates more than two weeks after the manufacturer date.

Is Belgian chocolate pricey?

That may be, but it isn’t normally. Purchasing Belgian chocolates in Belgium is based on the weight of each individual chocolate. Most Belgian chocolate producers indicate a price per 100g, with prices average approximately 6 ($7USD) per 100g (3.5 oz. ), although you may purchase as many or as few as you like at that price. Even the greatest Belgian chocolate can’t match with a few dollars worth of Neuhaus or Marcolini on Brussels’ Grand Place.

Notable Belgian Chocolate Manufacturers

Godiva, Neuhaus, Wittamer, Marcolini, Leonidas, Galler, Cte dOr, Belcolade, Callebaut, and Marys Chocolaterie are some well-known Belgian chocolate brands. To be honest, I had never heard of most of these companies until moving to Asia some years ago. The comment exemplifies the mystery surrounding what Belgian chocolate is.

Even after over a decade in the chocolate business, I couldn’t identify more than one Belgian chocolate brand until this year. When a chocolatier boasts that they utilize Belgian chocolate in their goods, it is not always from one of the more visible Belgian chocolate firms. The corporation has often obtained chocolate that was theoretically manufactured in Belgium, although from the lowest components available.

Regrettably, no matter how much sugar is added, you can taste the quality of the components in the final result. Yet, in Belgium, you will be surrounded by renowned chocolate selections, all of which are far cheaper than anyplace else in the globe. Although I nearly always advocate visiting a local, independent chocolate producer, if you do decide to visit Neuhaus or Marys, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the cheap pricing (see above).

Bonbons vs Pralines against Truffles

What is the difference between a truffle, a bonbon, and a praline? They’re all chocolates, but can’t those terms be used interchangeably? No, not exactly.

As previously stated, Jean Neuhaus created the praline in Belgium over a century ago. A praline is essentially a filled chocolate, with filling possibilities ranging from nut butters and liqueurs to ganaches and jellies. Nevertheless, this term might be misleading since there is also a sugary pecan delicacy known as pralines (popular in New Orleans) and a sweetened nut paste known as pralin, which is a popular filling for chocolates.

The word “bonbon” is much older and is thought to have originated in French. According to legend, the term derives from the repetition of the French word bon, which means “good,” and its earliest use goes back to the 1700s. A bonbon (bonbon de chocolat) must include at least 25% chocolate and may come in an almost limitless variety of tastes, according to French legislation. Outside of Belgium, bonbon is the usual word for such chocolates.

Truffles, on the other hand, are more specialized in their scope than pralines and bonbons. Truffles might be ganache-filled bonbons or just ganache wrapped in cocoa powder or another topping. In Belgium, the word bonbon is not as widely used, and most people refer to any filled chocolate as a praline and any rolled ganache as a truffle.

What Could Be Better Than Belgian Chocolates?

For those wondering where to purchase Belgian chocolate online, if you still want a well-known brand, you may buy NeuhausBelgian chocolate online, which is my selection for the best mass-market luxury chocolate. But if you happen to be in Belgium, I prefer Pierre Marcolini (not available in the US, unfortunately).

Meanwhile, for those just seeking for wonderful chocolate from across the globe, I’ve compiled a list of places to purchase handmade chocolate online, which includes fantastic stores from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Check out any or all of those selections, and remember to spare some chocolate for yourself!

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