The New American Chocolate Movement

by Meha Desai with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno
November 2013

Recipe

Bean to Bar Chocolate Makers

Cacao Atlanta (2004)
Atlanta, GA

Escazú Artisan Chocolates (2005)
Raleigh, NC

Taza Chocolate (2005)
Somerville, MA

TCHO (2005)
San Francisco, CA

Amano Artisan Chocolate (2006)
Orem, Utah

French Broad Chocolates (2006)
Asheville, NC

Mast Brothers Chocolate (2006)
Brooklyn, NY

Patric Chocolate (2006)
Columbia, MO

Askinosie Chocolate (2007)
Springfield, MO

Black Mountain Chocolate Co. (2007)
Swannanoa, NC

Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. (2007)
Nashville, TN

Rogue Chocolatier (2007)
Minneapolis, MN

Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate (2008)
Arcata, CA

Dandelion Chocolate (2010)
San Francisco, CA

Fresco Chocolate (2010)
Lynden, WA

Potomac Chocolate (2010)
Woodbridge, VA

Raaka Chocolate (2010)
Brooklyn, NY

Ritual Chocolate (2010)
Denver,CO

Fruition Chocolate (2011)
Shokan, NY

Videri Chocolate (2012)
Raleigh, NC

 

Chocolate can be so damn good it’s primal. But no one has ever lost their mind over a Hershey’s bar—or for that matter most of American chocolate, until recently. A new generation of American chocolate makers is turning its back on industrial processes and waxy brown bars for an elbow-deep exploration of bean-to-bar chocolate. And to do it, they’re leaving behind promising kitchen careers, dropping out of school to drive across continents to study the cacao tree, scavenging for the right tools across Europe, and taking a gamble on life—all to heed the higher call of the cacao bean.

Their specialized workshops, which they’ve built from the ground-up, are the fruit of their blind faith in what chocolate can and should be. “Just as with beer, cheese, and coffee before it, chocolate is being reconsidered by artisan producers and by consumers with high standards. Makers are taking a thoughtful approach to sourcing, origin, sustainability, and traditional manufacturing methods, in order to take chocolate to a new level of quality and craftsmanship,” says Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolates, who set up shop in 2006 with husband Dan Rattigan in Asheville, North Carolina. “Most of the world’s chocolate is industrial chocolate made by five large companies, such as Barry Callebaut or Cargill,” says Todd Masonis, co-owner of San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate. “Very few people make their own chocolate. But we are now part of a new American chocolate movement.”

There’s momentum in the movement—the number of bean-to-bar operations has grown at a rate of 63 percent a year since 2004—but without the luxury of industrial processes, these artisans are hands-on at every step. They’re sorting beans for hours, sifting through dirt, debris, and the occasional button or bolt. Hallot Parson and Danielle Centeno of Durham, North Carolina’s Escazú have a pile of the nuts, nails, and pebbles they’ve collected over the years (they deserve a good manicure). And that’s just the beginning. To get the final dram of dreamy, creamy ambrosia the beans must be roasted, winnowed, conched, tempered, flavored, and meticulously molded. There are no short cuts.

Gift Set: Patanemo, Venezuela 70 percent; Cumboto, Venezuela 70 percent; Ambanja, Madagascar 70 percent

Gift Set: Patanemo, Venezuela 70 percent; Cumboto, Venezuela 70 percent; Ambanja, Madagascar 70 percent

Dandelion Chocolate - San Francisco, CA

Dandelion Chocolate - San Francisco, CA

Chocolate Makers Jael and Dan Ratigan of French Broad Chocolate Lounge – Asheville, NC

Chocolates from Chocolate Makers Jael and Dan Ratigan of French Broad Chocolate Lounge – Asheville, NC

White Jasmine, Strawberry Balsamic, Mole Negro.

White Jasmine, Strawberry Balsamic, Mole Negro.

Since most chocolate-making gear is designed for large producers, artisans have to go to great lengths to secure and/or build their own equipment. “There were limited options for machinery when we started,” says Parson. Across state lines in Nashville, Tennessee, Scott Witherow of Olive and Sinclair lost thousands of dollars buying faulty equipment before ordering his prized melangers in Spain, sight unseen. Parson and Centeno traveled to Spain to find their 1930s melanger and a Roure Ball Roaster from the 1920s, originally designed for roasting coffee beans. Masonis, too, had to modify a coffee roaster to roast his cacao beans. At French Broad, in true MacGyver-style, Dan built the vibrating classifier, winnower, and cooling cabinet himself. “We’re all in this because we love chocolate,” he says—presumably not because he wanted to become a mechanic.

It’s a passion that you can taste in their chocolates. “Our customers care about the food they eat. People appreciate good chocolate, and handcrafted chocolate tastes better,” says Jael, who buys all her ingredients—berries, fruits, flour, eggs, honey, herbs—locally. “We started our company with no business plan!” After a trip to Costa Rica, the Rattigans realized that life in the vanilla Midwest wasn’t for them. So they dropped out of graduate school, packed their lives into a 40-foot vegetable oil-powered school bus, and drove south to Costa Rica (having just found out that Jael was pregnant). In Puerto Viejo de Limon, they opened a café and dessert shop, Bread & Chocolate. After studying cacao cultivation and refining their chocolate recipes, they moved to Asheville (on the same meridian as Puerto Viejo), where their second son was born and they started French Broad Chocolates. At first, they made truffles out of their home kitchen, selling them online and at farmers markets. When they finally established a brick and mortar store, they thought they were “setting up a sweet, cozy chocolate shop.” Today, their Chocolate Lounge gets more than 300 customers each day, and, after umpteen fines from the local fire marshal, the Rattigans had to hire a bouncer to regulate the door. “It blows our minds,” says Jael.

The Rattigans are not alone. Last year Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri, received an honorary doctorate recognizing his contributions as a community leader and an entrepreneur. Witherow, who started making chocolate in 2009, and gave away the first 300 pounds for free, now sells his Southern-inflected chocolates in 200 Whole Foods stores and 48 states, as well as in Singapore and Selfridges in London. He’s never made a sales call. Parson and Centeno started above a wine store in Beaufort, North Carolina, and now supply to Whole Foods in North Carolina and Atlanta.

Chocolate making on a small scale can be a wild ride. The old-guard industrial behemoths (some of whom have switched out cocoa butter with something called PGPR) flippantly blend beans with different (chemically-enhanced) flavors to achieve consistent (read: boring), standardized bars. Bean-to-bar makers, in contrast, rely heavily on their purveyors to provide distinct beans that have been properly dried and fermented. And so terroir, as with wine, is fundamental in chocolate. “I think it’s great to really care and understand what we buy and where it comes from,” says Dominique Ansel, of cronut fame. Controlled fermentation practices in the cacao curing process are the mode du jour of craft chocolate making.

Chocolate Makers Sam and Star Ratto of Videri Chocolate Factory - Raleigh, NC

Chocolate Makers Sam and Star Ratto of Videri Chocolate Factory - Raleigh, NC

Videri Chocolate Factory - Raleigh, NC

Videri Chocolate Factory - Raleigh, NC

Escazú Artisan Chocolates—Raleigh, NC

Escazú Artisan Chocolates—Raleigh, NC

PASTE CAPTION

The transformation of the cacao bean and various items from the field received with the cacao beans

Chocolate Maker Scott Witherow of Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. - Nasvhille, TN

Chocolate Maker Scott Witherow of Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. - Nasvhille, TN

Caramels from Chocolate Maker Scott Witherow of Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. - Nasvhille, TN

Caramels from Chocolate Maker Scott Witherow of Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. - Nasvhille, TN

Many of the movement’s pioneers, some former chefs, others self taught, have a penchant for tinkering and a familiarity with manipulating flavors. Fortunately, “[our patrons] are willing to try more unusual combinations,” says Parson, whose tobacco-cane syrup chocolates and black garlic dark chocolates are favorites with Escazú’s regulars. Parson and Centeno also make a Tamarind-Habañero chocolate and a Spain 1631 bar, based on the first recorded recipe for chocolate. Witherow ages some of his beans in whiskey barrels and offers a salt and pepper-buttermilk white chocolate bar. At Videri Chocolate Factory in Raleigh, North Carolina, you’ll find pink peppercorn chocolate. The Rattigans serve an Indian kulfi truffle. And at Askinosie you can ask for toasted hemp seeds with your dark chocolate. “True chocolate lovers would rather get an interesting bar, which is rich in cacao, with nuances of fragrance. There is indeed a niche developing in this business,” says Eric Bedoucha, executive pastry chef and owner of Financier Patisserie in New York City.   

The new American chocolate movement is only just being unmolded. As with the craft brewing and roasting renaissances that preceded it, the bean-to-bar movement’s passionate artisans are changing the way we eat and experience a long-loved but mistreated confection. If you remember the first time you had a cup of Counter Culture coffee or sipped a Sierra Nevada after a lifetime of drinking Bud Light, this is the equivalent moment for chocolate. These are the people who are devoting their lives to restoring dignity to a craft—and permanently unwrapping chocolate’s sumptuous, primal power.