Utah is at a pivotal moment in chocolate-related history: We are about to unseat Oregon from their premier position in having the highest per-capita number of artisanal bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the nation. I talked to six of our local bean-to-bar makers and toured three of their facilities and it’s apparent that Utah may, in fact, be the most perfect spot on the planet for making chocolate.
To start with, Utah has an unparalleled combination of a readily accessible shipping and distribution nexus in Salt Lake City, along with an excellent local market for artisanal desserts—since our dominant culture abstains from common epicurean pursuits like fine wines and coffees, chocolate provides a natural outlet for LDS-observant foodies to get their gourmet on.
Less obvious but just as important is our dry climate and high altitude. Every chocolatier I talked to emphasized the importance of climate: Evaporation of moisture is key in several steps in chocolate-making, and too much humidity will cause the tempering chocolate to “seize” or “swirl,” ruining the texture.
What about the chocolatiers themselves? What makes a person who can make really great chocolate?
Bean-to-bar chocolatiers are a special breed of “Renaissance people”—broad-minded, creative, fastidious and absolutely passionate about every aspect of their trade.
“For one thing, you have to understand flavor,” says Art Pollard, founder of Amano Chocolate and widely acknowledged as godfather of artisanal chocolate in Utah. “The public is really starting to awaken to good quality chocolate, and Hershey’s is in a lot of trouble!” Pollard co-founded Amano in 2006. The award-winning company was the first bean-to-bar chocolatier in the state, and was on the front edge of this phenomenon in the nation.
Amano is the only chocolate I sampled that includes whole vanilla bean as part of the flavoring, and Pollard emphasizes the tradition behind this choice: “Vanilla has been in chocolate from the very beginning, from the time of the Mayans and the Olmecs, and it’s a standard ingredient in European chocolates today. It’s a real flavor enhancer with the chocolate in the same way that salt and pepper enhance the flavor of steak.
“It also helps to have a scientific mind, and a really good mechanical sense,” Pollard says. “You’re dealing with a lot of machinery, and most of it isn’t well-supported. You have to be able to troubleshoot and fix it yourself as much as possible.”
The necessity of the do-it-yourselfer streak was echoed by Scott Querry of Solstice Chocolate, operating out of two small rooms in an entirely solar-powered estate on the west side of Salt Lake City. Querry showed off the two modified Indian spice grinders which grind and mix his globally sourced beans into the chocolate used in Solstice’s 70% cacao single varietal bars, using beans from cacao growers from Uganda and Tanzania to Bolivia and Madagascar. The resulting chocolate is transcendent. “I’m a big tinkerer, and I love fixing and building machinery. A lot of this equipment was never designed to make chocolate, so you really have to know what you’re doing with it.”
Querry came to chocolate as a sort of professional hobby after retiring from a career as an air traffic controller. “I’m extremely curious about everything, and that’s how I got into this. I just had to know, how is chocolate made? A good chocolate maker is a self-starter and a lifelong learner. There are no schools that teach this.”
Similarly self-taught chocolate makers Anna Davies and Robbie Stout of Ritual Chocolate, originally a Denver-based company, moved their operations to Park City last year. “Robbie and I loved chocolate, but I wouldn’t say I was knowledgeable,” she says of her entry into barsmithing. “I grew up on Cadbury’s! We were getting into good coffee and fine cheeses, but when we finally started researching chocolate it felt like we were uncovering this world we didn’t know existed—the process, the history—and when we tried some really good quality single-origin chocolate…the flavors! It was a point of no return.
“When we finally went down to a cacao plantation and realized the amount of work that goes into growing the beans, we were just amazed and we said to ourselves that we really had to do justice to all this effort, to keep all these amazing flavors and to really serve the cacao farmers the best we could.” Doing justice to the beans, working with cacao farmers and honoring their efforts by paying a premium for their crop, and maintaining complete traceable transparency in the route from farm to bar: Every chocolatier I talked to emphasized the importance of this.
Millcreek Cacao Roasters
For Millcreek Cacao Roasters, farm-to-bar direct trade is a key aspect of their business. Co-owner Dana Brewster talked to me not just about working closely with their cacao farmers, but also about the Heirloom Cacao Preservation project and how important this designator is for chocolate in general and for artisanal chocolatiers in particular. “Part of our mission is to buy direct from farmers. We have learned so much from them, and when you have that kind of relationship, there’s so much passion shared. All our bars right now are all heirloom designated Arriba Nacional cacao. This heirloom project matches genetic code with flavor profile to create a database for fine flavored cacao, and it’s vital because a lot of traditional cacao is being displaced. Farmers are getting incentives to grow more prolific varieties. So we’re going to them and saying we’ll buy your heirloom beans, and you set the price—that way we’re preserving that heritage.”
Chocolatiers also need to be creative, outside-the-box thinkers. Another Millcreek differentiator is their “aroma infused” method of flavoring their chocolate: “Chocolate is very porous,” Brewster explains, “and it will pick up the flavor of whatever it’s sitting next to. We cure batches of our chocolate for several weeks next to natural aromatics, and this proprietary process gives our bars wonderful subtle flavors that nobody else can really copy.”
For sheer creativity, no other Utah chocolatier—and perhaps no other chocolatier on Earth—can approach A.J. Wentworth of The Chocolate Conspiracy. His honey-sweetened unroasted cacao bars are completely unique. “I chose to use honey because it’s the only sweetener on the planet that’s not processed,” he says. “If I’m taking cacao beans, which are one of the most mineral-rich amazing foods…why would I want to mix them with something as dirty as refined sugar? Honey is incredible—it’s antibacterial, anti fungal, full of enzymes and B vitamins, and it’s one of nature’s most complete foods. And it’s really difficult to mix it with chocolate, which is part of the attraction for me in developing the process! I’ve told industry people what we’re doing, and they’ll straight up tell me it’s impossible, but it’s not, because we’re doing it. The industry also tells you that cacao beans have to be roasted, and they’re wrong. You totally don’t have to.” This iconoclast of the chocolate world has even made a chocolate bar with beans that weren’t fermented. “They came with skins and a little bit of the dried fruit still on them, and we ground them skins and all,” he says. “The chocolate was wonderful!” The Chocolate Conspiracy has hewn a niche for itself among the palates of foodies nationwide, and is distributed as far away as London.
Creating a niche is another skill mastered by Utah chocolatiers, and Eric Durtschi of Crio Brü is an expert at it. A chiropractor and the son of a candy maker, Durtschi became interested in the health benefits of chocolate and began developing the world’s first brewed cacao in 2007. “I wanted to create a drink with all the benefits of cacao, but with none of the fat or calories of traditional chocolate,” he says. For a time he worked with Art Pollard of Amano, and then went on to found Crio Brü in 2010. He travels all over the world to meet directly with cacao farmers, sometimes buying their entire crop for a year and teaching them the specific methods of fermentation and drying that Crio Brü products need. “These processes spike the theobromine content of the cacao,” he says, “and this is proven and third party tested. Heirloom cacao is very important to us, and our sources in Venezuela, Ecuador, Ghana and the Dominican Republic are all part of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation project.” Crio is currently also developing an artisanal chocolate bar which will hit the market next year.
With the rise of “foodie” culture in the Salt Lake area, and taking advantage of our unparalleled chocolate-making climate and geography, Utah’s chocolatiers are poised to take the world of artisanal chocolate in a perfect storm of delicious cacao. This holiday season, don’t miss out on these toothsome treats. They are locally made with pride, and they support ecological heritage, ethical hiring, and sustainable farming practices worldwide.
Products sampled: Ocumare, Montanya, and Chuao Reserve 70% dark chocolate bars
Tasting notes:The only chocolate we tasted that was flavored with whole vanilla beans, Amano bars are an aromatic conversation on the tongue. Compared with chocolate-only bars, they are complex and inviting. The vanilla integrates completely differently with each varietal and really points up the contrast among the characters of the different beans—if you enjoy intricacy of flavor, Amano is for you.
Products sampled: Sambirano Madagascar, Bundibugyo Uganda, and Palos Blancos Bolivia 70% dark chocolate bars
Tasting notes: This tiny-batch chocolate is sublime. Each varietal we tasted was completely unique, and a total revelation to the palate. Not only does the Sambirano (a rich reddish-brown) look completely different to the Bundibugyo (a dark burnt umber), but you can taste the terroir, the very geography and climate that goes into growing each bean. We also particularly liked the recyclable, easily reclosable packaging which allows you to keep each Solstice bar fresh while you savor it over several days.
Products sampled: 74% cacao Dark Bar, Maca Bar, Blackberry Ginger Bar, Mint Chip Bar, Chocolate Milk Mix
Tasting notes: These bars are not like any other chocolate bar you’ve ever tasted. The honey flavor is inextricably entwined with the cacao and it’s at least as assertive over the character of the bar as Amano’s vanilla is. The maca bar is very well-integrated compared to any other maca bar we’ve tried, and will appeal to those particularly interested in the health benefits of cacao. We especially liked the Conspiracy’s chocolate milk mix, which includes organic mesquite, vanilla bean and pink salt, and we recommend that you try it made with coconut milk.
Products sampled: Belize Toledo, Marañón 2013 harvest, and Ecuador Balao 75% cacao bars; Novo Coffee Anyetsu 65% cacao bar
Tasting notes: These bars are a “drier” kind of chocolate, without the cocoa butter that other makers we sampled added to their product, but the flavor is no less intense, though it takes a little longer to build on the tongue. Differentiation between the varietals is clear, and the character of each bean comes through cleanly. The coffee bar is an absolute delight, with a lovely rounded mocha flavor and none of the grittiness or sharpness of flavor we’ve come to associate with similar bars from larger-batch manufacturers.
Millcreek Cacao Roasters:
Products sampled: 78% cacao Chuno Nicaragua bar (unreleased), 70% Arriba Nacional Ecuador bar, Mint and Orange 70% aroma infused bars, Hot Mole 70% bar, Himalayan Pink Salt 70% bar, and pure Cacao Tea.
Tasting notes:The pure Cacao Tea was a much milder brew than the Crio Brü. It is a delicate tisane rather than a brisk coffee-replacement and will appeal to those looking for a relaxing afternoon beverage. All of the bars were outstanding; the Chuno bar will add a phenomenal product to their line, and the Himalayan Pink Salt bar was perfectly proportional in flavor and completely beyond reproach for lovers of salty chocolate. The aroma infused bars have a subtle depth to them that we have not encountered elsewhere in flavored chocolate. The Hot Mole bar has an exquisite three-way balance of heat, spice, and earthiness without the brashness you may find in other pepper chocolate bars.
Products sampled: Cavalla Ivory Coast brewable cacao, Maya spiced brewable cacao
Tasting notes: We like the different effect of the brewed cacao as contrasted to coffee. It gives you a lively feel without the caffeine rollercoaster. It has a great chocolate flavor without being overwhelming, and not sweet at all unless you put sugar in it. The Maya spiced version is great; the cinnamon and pepper add a nice lift to the flavor, although by itself it might be a little strong for some people. We liked mixing it half and half with the Cavalla. We look forward to Crio’s entrance into the chocolate bar market in 2016.
A chocolate-making primer
Making fine chocolate starting with a sack of cacao beans and ending up with a silky-smooth bar of gourmet tablet is no simple feat, but the basic steps are easy to follow:
1) The beans come from the farm fermented and dried. At harvest, workers split open the cacao pods and dump the fruit-coated beans into fermentation boxes. The beans ferment for a few days before being spread out in the sun to dry. Then they are weighed into sacks and shipped to chocolate makers here in Utah.
2) The chocolatiers sort, inspect and roast the fermented and dried beans. Just as with coffee beans, this can be done as a light or dark roast, and the type of roasting will affect the ultimate flavor of the chocolate.
3) After roasting, the beans are cracked into “nibs” and winnowed, removing their papery husks. Often the husks are reserved and used to make chocolate “tea,” or sold to distilleries to flavor various alcoholic products. Husks can also be used as garden mulch.
4) The cacao nibs are ground. Grinders are large pots with two rotating stone cylinders and a flat stone base inside. The grind may take three or more days to complete. No water is ever added—the chocolate becomes liquid just from the action of the grinding stones and the heat of the friction inside the grinder, which may reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Some chocolate makers will add a little extra cocoa butter or vanilla beans to the grind. This unsweetened chocolate is known as “chocolate liquor.”
5) Conching: the chocolate liquor is mixed and kneaded (possibly for days) to reduce particle size even further, and sugar is added during this step. A dark chocolate advertised as “70% cacao” is 70% chocolate liquor/cocoa butter and 30% sugar.
6) After conching, the chocolate is tempered—stirred while being heated very carefully, then cooled and reheated. Tempering affects the final glossiness. Awell-tempered bar will break with a satisfying snap.
7) The chocolate is poured into molds, cooled, turned out and inspected for quality, and if it passes muster it’s wrapped and sent out for distribution.