I know this area is becoming known for its chocolate makers. It seems like every time I look, there's another new brand. But terminology on the labels is kind of confusing. What is cacao anyway? And what percentage should I expect in high-end chocolate?

I know this area is becoming known for its chocolate makers. It seems like every time I look, there's another new brand. But terminology on the labels is kind of confusing. What is cacao anyway? And what percentage should I expect in high-end chocolate?

— Judy H., Central Point

Much like baking, making cheese and curing meats, making chocolate has a firm footing in the "artisan" realm. Throw in jargon such as "single origin" and "bean to bar," and buying chocolate can be as complicated as pairing wine with dinner.

Cacao are the seeds (or beans) of the Theobroma tree. Cocoa is what you get by processing cacao beans, first into chocolate liquor, then into cocoa butter, a pure fat.

Cacao or cocoa content (terminology depends on the company) tells consumers how much of the chocolate came from the beans. The remaining percent represents other ingredients, such as sugar. In general, the higher the percentage, the "darker" and less sweet a chocolate will be, but the number doesn't necessarily speak to overall quality.

Single-origin implies that manufacturers know the beans' provenance and chose them for specific flavor profiles. Much like "terroir" describes wines, the growing conditions and soils that yield cacao can be detected in a chocolate's taste. But similar to winemaking, there's a school of thought that blending beans creates more complexity and minimizes flavor defects.

As with any food, good chocolate comes from favorable growing conditions, expert drying, fermenting and manufacturing, as well as conscientious handling every step of the way. Really fine chocolate should be enjoyed as is, not cooked or added to other ingredients.

Send questions to "Since You Asked, A la carte" Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; email to youasked@mailtribune.com.