The new American chocolate maker can be described as making chocolate from scratch in small batches and often from beans they have personally sourced. By controlling their entire supply chain, they have the opportunity to tease out the rich and varied flavors of chocolate.
As Jim Greenberg, co-president of Union Confectionery Equipment, points out, the bean-to-bar movement is a reaction by chocophiles to the deep inconsistency that exists between mainstream U.S. chocolate and that found in Europe and Latin America.
“The European products are highly refined and emphasize bean quality and highly refined manufacturing techniques,” he says. “The Latin products are far more raw in their refinement, but completely adherent to local and traditional practices of manufacturing.”
Greenberg points out that the bean-to-bar movement doesn’t seek to displace the mass market chocolate products, but rather to offer an alternative noted for high-quality and artisanal characteristics that also are eco-friendly and Fair Trade-focused.
But sourcing direct comes with challenges. It is much more time consuming. Cacao Atlanta’s Kristen Hard admits spending six weeks a year sourcing ingredients. And to ensure steady supplies means shouldering more responsibility for the growers’ welfare and the environment. It is not uncommon for artisan chocolate makers to pay up to two to three times above the fair trade price for their beans. Shawn Askinosie, Askinosie Chocolate, goes a step farther by offering profit sharing with his growers through a program he calls Stake In the Outcome.
That’s not to say that melter/moulder chocolatiers are any less talented (see sidebar). The fine chocolate landscape has been blessed with scores of professionals who have as much passion and creativity as chocolate makers. But the process for chocolate makers is much more complicated, one that can yield an astonishing array of flavor outcomes.
For Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate, the drive to excellence comes down to “listening to the cacao, respecting the cacao and using my skills to bring out the most interesting and delicious flavors. This is beyond the current fixation with cocoa content, how much vanilla to add, etc.”
Art Pollard of Amano Artisan Chocolate notes that, “Consumers have been blown away by the amazing array of flavors that can be achieved with high quality chocolate. People who normally don't like dark chocolate or even chocolate at all love what we have been able to do to bring out the true flavors of the cocoa bean.”
The trend started back in 1997 when Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger established Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. Using a few kitchen appliances and 30 types of cacao beans, the two tested multiple combinations before perfecting a unique blend that highlighted the true flavor of cacao instead of masking it with sugar and other flavors.
Gradual acceptance soon turned into growing demand, which spurred a host of other industry and non-industry artisans to try their hand.
Under Gary Guittard’s leadership, Guittard Chocolate Co. established an origins line of chocolate under the Etienne name. Former antique glass owner Steve DeVries - upon picking up a cacao pod on a whim- found himself establishing DeVries Chocolate in 2005.
Many others followed - Joe Whinney, Art Pollard, Alan McClure, Alex Whitmore, Jacques Torres, Shawn Askinosie, Tim Childs, Kristen Hard and Scott Withrow, to name a few - all committing to the tricky task of sourcing premium cocoa beans and then lovingly crafting products from scratch. In June 2008, several of these passionate chocolate makers created their own association, the Craft Chocolate Makers of America (See the Jan. 2009 issue of Candy Industry), to promote and protect their craft.
Their hard work has gotten national recognition. Two chocolate makers - Askinosie and Olive & Sinclair - won prestigious SOFI awards at the 2010 NASFT Fancy Food Show. Amano has won a dozen awards in national and international competitions, as well.
In an effort to recognize and affirm their efforts, Candy Industry has spoken to several of these trailblazers, asking for their comments on this New American Chocolate Maker movement.
Alan McClure, Patric Chocolate
The most important thing for me is flavor. Early on, I wondered: What results in the best flavor - the French processing method, the Italian or something altogether different? I decided to study chocolate-making methods in great depth to decide for myself and, of course, to taste as much fine chocolate as I could - hundreds of bars by now.
I have also read as much as possible, experimented and read some more. I really approached things methodically. Also, Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate was a great help early on, as both of us approach flavor development from a very scientific point of view. Of course, I understood that flavor is very subjective, and that led me to realize that there is a huge space in America for something quite different in flavor and texture. Something that comes across as different, a new American chocolate style. This is beyond the current fixation with cocoa content, how much vanilla to add, etc.
How can I take what’s at the core, the foundation of great chocolate, great cacao and let that shine as much as I possibly can? I really want to bring flavors to people that they haven’t tasted before. It’s interesting, new, delicious; maybe even refreshing, to give cacao justice.
Admittedly, making great chocolate depends upon more than great beans. It depends upon [such techniques as] great fermentation, drying and roasting, and I use my scientific understanding of flavor formation to effect positive changes.
But it still comes down to listening to the cacao, respecting the cacao, and using my skills to bring out the most interesting and delicious flavors. If I do this properly with every chocolate, then every one will be different, but great in its own way, and certainly well worth its $6-7 price.
Of course, within this dance of flavor, there is room for blends as well as single-origin chocolate. My best-selling product, for example, is a blend of cacao formats, the solid, crunchy cocoa nib, and finished, conched, smooth chocolate. Due to its popularity and unique qualities, this October it will be renamed the “In-NIB-itable Bar." At the same time, three more new chocolates will be released that each focus on cacao's flavor in new and different ways than I have done in the past.
I am trying to continue to move American chocolate into interesting directions with each release. There will be a Dark Milk Chocolate with about 60% cacao solids and more milk than sugar, a very rare thing; a 70% Signature Blend of four different origins of beans; and the "PBJ OMG" bar, which is dark chocolate with natural peanut butter refined into it, and that has less sugar in it than a 70% chocolate bar, yet tastes sweeter and fruitier than the related pure dark chocolate bar.
Playing with perception of sweetness and how that relates to balance of flavor and aroma perception - i.e. what happens in the human brain as much as the mouth and nose - is something that has become very interesting to me. There is a world of cacao and chocolate flavor out there that Americans have yet to experience. I hope that I can play an important role over time in introducing it to them.
Art Pollard, Amano Chocolates
I have been fascinated with making my own chocolate since the mid 1990s. This long journey started when I was working at the Physics Department at BYU (Brigham Young University) where I was designing and building machinery. I made an off-hand comment one day about how it would be fun to make my own chocolate. My co-workers said I couldn't do it. Being a die-hard foodie, it made me all the more determined not only to make my own chocolate, but to make the very best chocolate possible. It was not long before I began designing and building my own machinery to make my own chocolate.
Consumers have been blown away by the amazing array of flavors that can be achieved with high quality chocolate. People who normally don't like dark chocolate or even chocolate at all love what we have been able to do to bring out the true flavors of the cocoa bean. We also get quite a few customers who prefer authenticity. There are many companies that say or imply that they make their own chocolate. Because of this, we attract a lot of consumers who love the fact that there is an actual artisan who truly makes the chocolate that they are enjoying.
Scott Witherow, Olive & Sinclair Chocolate
Olive & Sinclair started about a year ago, September 2009. From the beginning, we started by making our own chocolate. I come from a pastry background, where making things from scratch is part of the creation process. For me, it’s just like how anyone would like to get started. If you enjoy drinking craft beer, then you start to wonder whether you can make something like this. How would I do it? What would be my take on this? You start messing around with it. That’s how it went down with me. I like the hands-on process.
Our philosophy is making small batches, with an emphasis on that part of method that you can taste. I have been getting inspiration from Southern cooking, such as using classic Southern seasonings like brown sugar (gives robust molasses-like tones) or salt and pepper (the basis for our Salt & Pepper bar that won a SOFI this year).
Also, we stone-grind our beans like you do making traditional grits. It’s the only way to eat grits, and I thought maybe the same for chocolate. All this gives a Southern-style chocolate that our customers love. There is a waiting list.
Our top sellers are the Mexican-style bar (with cinnamon, cayenne chili and unrefined sugar), which starts with a huge cinnamon note and ends with a hint of heat, and the Salt & Pepper bar.
Kristen Hard, Cacao Atlanta
In the past, chocolate was over-processed and over-produced, even dumbed-down in order to make it attractive and cheap for the masses. Chocolate was just chocolate. But since 2004 or 2005, people started paying attention to cacao’s flavor profile, its genetic heritage. If you protect its integrity and don’t over-process it or dump lots of sugar or lecithin into it, you can really taste exquisite flavor nuances between beans.
I look at this challenge like the wine industry does: different beans - like different grapes - provide completely different sensory experiences. For example, a Venezuelan Porcelano will taste totally different from a Venezuelan Patinemo or Dominican Hispaniola or Madagascar bean. Each bean evokes a different experience.
My mission is to give people that opportunity, that experience, when they taste my products. We not only make bean-to-bar products, but also bean to ice cream, bean to truffles, bean to whatever we decide to work with.
One of our best-selling products is the Salami di Cioccolate, chocolate salami. We include on our wrappers such information as its origin, bean name, flavor profile, percent cacao, even altitude. As an aid to the consumer, I hope the chocolate industry moves to some sort of standard labeling to give the consumer the right information.
New products include blueberry and beet, Laphroaig scotch whiskey with ginger and lemon curd truffles. Many of the ingredients are locally sourced and fresh.
Our big challenge is trying to get a producer’s attention when you are only sourcing a half container-load of beans, when other manufacturers will place orders for several containers.
Shawn Askinosie, Askinoise Chocolates
Since the start of the company in 2007, I have been passionate about making chocolate, cacao beans and with the farmers growing those beans. All our products are bean-to-bar and sourced directly from growers. We profit share with them and open our books to them so they understand the profit-share calculation. I am not interested in Fair Trade certification; we are “beyond Fair Trade.”
For my little company, chocolate is a means to an end, a vehicle whose real driver is to engage people, whether 10,000 miles away or one mile away. In the morning, I get up and think not about making chocolate, but about what lives we might positively impact today. Our commitment has grown to create www.chocolateuniversity.org.
We use only two ingredients: cocoa beans and organic sugar. We try not to interfere with the purity of the flavor and honor what the farmers have grown. Our constraints are the long lead times due to direct trade. We can’t call a broker in New York City and expect a delivery the following week. I must be a really good forecaster of demand and live with the consequences.
For example, in 2010, I underestimated demand and ran out of beans by September. After much effort, I was able find additional supplies.
Consumers Want Info, Adventure
As Guittard points out, “Consumers are interested in knowing where their food comes from, how it is processed and most importantly, what its ingredients are. And they want to know why one product may taste different from another.”
Given that demand, the craft chocolate market will expand, and chocolatiers will specialize in specific niches, says Clay Gordon, noted author of “Discover Chocolate” and the creator and moderator of TheChocolateLife.com.
Gordon says that the “overall market for high end chocolate is growing, so these craft chocolate makers will differentiate themselves based on the origins of the beans they choose and whether or not they choose to blend.
“Another key point of differentiation is whether or not a chocolate maker presses his or her own cocoa butter and grinds their own cocoa powder,” he continues. “In order to make a true origin chocolate, any added cocoa butter has to come from the same beans.”
Gordon ultimately believes that “any city or town that is large enough to support a craft brewer or brewpub is also large enough to support a craft chocolate maker.”
“When people start to taste chocolate with flavors unlike anything they have ever experienced, they start to get it,” McClure says in the Packaged Facts report. “[Next] they want to learn more, taste more, and there is no turning them back.”