Chocolate just made sense for Ben and Vinnie Celani, brothers and co-founders of High Life Farms, Chesaning, MI.
On top of cultivating cannabis in Michigan and California, High Life Farms has launched its own line of chocolate edibles, crowned by the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-infused Royal Chocolate Bar it introduced in April 2020.
“We chose chocolate bars as our first in-house edible offering really due to three reasons,” says Vinnie Celani. “First, we are huge chocolate fans ourselves, so it always helps to make something you are passionate about. Second, chocolate is a great canvas for experimentation — you can try almost anything out from a flavor perspective. Third, it is very easy to scale from a manufacturing perspective if you have success with a flavor type or product.”
Chocolate is one of the most beloved confectionery applications, but its popularity isn’t the only draw for edibles manufacturers. Its fat content makes it conducive to incorporating cannabis oil and it offers a consumption experience that is precise, discreet — and above all — enjoyable.
“Both chocolate and cannabis are known to have medicinal benefits as well as feel-good effects, and the fat in chocolate helps make the fat-soluble cannabinoids more bioavailable, making cannabis and chocolate a perfect, not to mention delicious, combination,” Vinnie Celani says. “They really go hand in hand in enhancing each other's effects.”
Glenn Armstrong, COO, Coda Signature, Denver, agreed, noting the presence of anandamide — also known as the “bliss molecule” — in chocolate. This naturally occurring cannabinoid is found in the human brain and nervous system and plays a role in feelings of overall well-being.
“THC’s chemical structure is similar to the brain chemical anandamide and can interact with endocannabinoid receptor sites making it possible to carry a signal through the cell wall, kind of like having a key to unlock a door to the brain,” he said. “(It’s) a blissful match made in heaven.”
Quality products start with quality ingredients. Papa & Barkley, Eureka, CA, which uses fresh-pressed, solventless rosin, strives to make its confectionery edibles as natural and clean-label as possible, says Guy Rocourt, chief product officer.
In November 2020, the company introduced two THC-infused Releaf Chocolate bars — Milk Chocolate and 66% Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt — that are non-GMO, Whole Plant Full Spectrum and soy-free. The dark chocolate variety is also vegan-friendly.
With help from Jonah Ginsberg of Humboldt Chocolate, Papa & Barkley’s bars earned Fair Trade certification, meaning they’re made with responsibly and sustainably sourced ingredients.
“Now we have the Fair Trade certification right on pack,” Rocourt says. “The chocolate, all the other ingredients — that’s an important brand pillar for us, as well as being all-natural, clean, solventless.”
In terms of processing, one of the challenges of working with chocolate involves tempering — the controlled process of heating and cooling chocolate so cocoa butter crystallization occurs. It leaves chocolate with the shine and snappy texture desired in high-quality pieces.
Stephanie Gorecki, VP of product development, Cresco Labs, Chicago, pointed to the importance of tempering to prevent bloom, which appears as whitish spots on chocolate’s surface that are unappealing but completely safe to eat.
Cresco Labs reintroduced the Mindy’s THC-infused chocolate bar line in December 2020 with new packaging and bar shape to bring the per-piece cannabinoid dosage down to 10 mg per piece from 12.5 mg.
“The standard dose size has consistently been 10 mg per piece since the adult-use cannabis program began in Illinois,” Gorecki says. “The new bar design is made to ensure each chocolate bar break contained a familiar 10 mg per serving.”
Testing for even cannabinoid dispersion throughout the mixing process is also critical.
“We mix our chocolate for a set period of time and pull samples from various spots in each batch to ensure uniformity prior to molding and applying the decadent toppings,” Gorecki says. “We have a team of analytical chemists and analytical equipment in-house to ensure uniformity prior to our products going out for third-party lab analysis.”
Furthermore, maintaining a consistent temperature during processing and storage is key for preserving the texture and quality of chocolate products, Ben Celani says.
“Operationally, maintaining a balanced kitchen environment is extremely important,” he says. “If temperature and humidity get out of whack, there can be some undesired results like sugar blooms or slow tempering. We have actually installed the same environmental measurement tools that we use in our grows.”
Armstrong says Coda Signature will study both the cannabis and conventional markets as chocolate flavor trends continue to evolve,
“We see market opportunities to celebrate more international flavors and textures, as well as acknowledging the deep rich history of chocolate as a celebrated source of energy and well-being,” he says. “We are also seeing a return to classic flavors that our customers can immediately connect to and where we can really focus on quality ingredients at a competitive price point.”
Coda Signature offers a variety of chocolate bars in adult-use and medicinal dosages, including Caramel & Corn, Cream & Crumble, Snap & Spice, Salt & Nibs, Coffee & Doughnuts, Maple & Pecan, and Fire & Orange.
Lauren Gockley, Coda Signature’s director of innovation, says inspiration for the company’s chocolate bar line comes from different sources.
“Sometimes, it is trying to capture a moment in time, like sipping fresh coffee after taking a bite out of a cinnamon sugar cake doughnut in our Coffee & Doughnuts bar,” she says. “Other times inspiration can come from a unique ingredient that one does not normally associate with chocolate, like sour cream blended with a spiced crumble, lemon and white chocolate in our Cream & Crumble bar.”
High Life Farms has found inspiration in seasonal flavors. Ben Celani said the company launched a Pumpkin Spice Latte variety of its Royal Chocolate Bar for the fall, followed by a Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride bar for the winter.
This year High Life Farms has introduced a milk chocolate Red Velvet bar for Valentine’s Day and a white chocolate Mint Cookies & Cream bar for St. Patrick’s Day. Each features 20 5-mg pieces, for a total of 100 mg THC.
“We find value in taking desserts or other confections that people love — that may have nothing to do with chocolate in its traditional form — and tying it back to a flavor profile in a chocolate bar,” Ben Celani says. “We almost want the customer to have to wonder what it’s going to taste like because it may be different then what they are used to, then prompting them to take a chance on us.”
High Life Farms also offers the King Bar, which has 200 mg THC, and Crown Jewels, which are individual chocolate pieces with 10 mg THC. The company is also experimenting with enrobed chocolate products, along with other varieties of edibles.
Cresco Labs and the Mindy’s Edibles brand also launched a seasonal variety of its chocolate bars last winter — Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark. The line also includes indulgent flavors such as Chocolate Almond Toffee, Milk Chocolate Peanut Brittle, and 1:1 CBD/THC Caramelized Chocolate Marshmallow Graham.
Gorecki says the brand’s flavor-forward, culinary approach comes from James Beard Award-winning chef Mindy Segal.
“She was hands-on with the initial development of these chocolates, and we continue to carry her original recipes forward,” she says. “With the versatility of chocolate, the sky's the limit. We’d love to hear from our customers on what flavors they like to see in an limited-time offering or seasonal flavor.”
While Papa & Barkley’s chocolate bar offerings include classic milk and dark varieties for now, Rocourt says he’s been playing with floral and fruity combinations. However, he emphasized cannabis notes will always be part of the flavor equation.
“We 100 percent will never try to mask the flavor,” Rocourt says. “We are a cannabis company. If you want some cannabis products because you need efficacy for whatever ails you, that’s what we’re serving up. So yes, it may taste and smell like cannabis.”