There are about a million reasons why we eat chocolate.
It makes us feel happy, nostalgic, sexy, pampered, sated. It’s sweet, snappy, silky, complex.
Chocolate. Tastes. Good.
But why do people make it? Why do they fuss with something so notoriously finicky? And why is a product accessible at every corner store increasingly gaining the same local DIY cachet as beer and pickles?
Much like chocolate itself, the answer is complicated.
And it starts with a bean.
We might forget that fact underneath our piles of shiny, crinkly wrappers and torn paper. Cacao beans are what makes chocolate chocolate. The beans come from the pods that grow on cacao trees. After they’re pulled from the white, slimy pulp inside the pods, the beans are dried and fermented.
It’s that temperamental source ingredient that more Washington area chocolate brands are acquiring as part of the growing craft chocolate movement. The catchier label often thrown about is “bean to bar,” but some are shying away from the term as more large-scale operations have appropriated it. By way of a shortcut, though, it tends to apply to small chocolate makers who start from scratch with cacao beans.
That doesn’t mean they all started from a food perspective. “I wasn’t crazy about eating chocolate at first,” admitted Adam Kavalier, who launched Undone Chocolate with his wife, Kristen, in December.
Kavalier, who has a PhD in plant biochemistry, got into chocolate as a scientist. He was studying at City University of New York when he started making chocolate with another scientist in his lab as a hobby, mostly for the technical challenge. At the same time, he began to realize its potential as lab research fodder, and he continued to analyze it while studying cancer pharmacology at Cornell University.
“I loved the complexity of the process. I love building things,” he said. “It was a passion that sort of overtook me.”
Kavalier started looking at the chemical makeup of chocolate using a process called mass spectrometry.
He has placed an emphasis on antioxidants and on determining how the type of bean and the way it’s treated affect the amount of antioxidants that end up in the chocolate.
Antioxidants are “man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage,” such as that associated with cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. Still, there’s no consensus about exactly how antioxidants might work or whether it’s even the antioxidants themselves, rather than other properties of antioxidant-rich food, that may be the reason they’re associated with overall better health.
Through an importer that works with cacao farm cooperatives, Kavalier has sourced beans from Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize and the Dominican Republic. He has found that the Dominican beans are particularly high in antioxidants, with a “full, rich chocolate flavor.” Kavalier has become a more enthusiastic chocolate consumer, crediting his wife and fellow makers with educating him about appreciating the flavors of different beans.
“I want to bridge that gap between hard science and food,” Kavalier said.
He makes all his chocolate in the communal space of Union Kitchen in Northeast. The line includes three 70 percent cacao bars: Nourish, an unadorned dark chocolate; Arouse, spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and chili; and Replenish, seasoned with Himalayan pink salt. Labels on Kavalier’s chocolate include a comparison of average antioxidant amounts in various foods. The data: Two squares (about
When Colin and Sarah Hartman, the married co-founders of Concept C, decided to launch their brand, they had a different health interest in mind: that of the rain forests in Sarah’s native Brazil.
The idea for Concept C started in 2013 when both were in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she in sustainability, he in business.
They decided that chocolate could be a way to help contribute to rain forest restoration. Colin Hartman said that high-quality cacao is closely correlated to healthy rain forests that, for example, include a diverse array of plants. The Hartmans zeroed in on Brazil, not only because of their family ties but also because of the country’s environmental challenges. A fungus ravaged a large portion of the Bahia state’s cacao trees in the 1980s and ’90s, leading to changes in the entire ecosystem and to man-made deforestation.
The Hartmans are now working with a farm in Bahia, home to the Atlantic rain forest, as well as another in the Pará state, which includes the Amazon rain forest. They intend to continue to visit farms they’re working with, to ensure that they’re legitimate operations and are employing acceptable environmental practices.
They’ve also partnered with a nonprofit organization that owns a private reserve in Bahia; a to-be-determined portion of the sale of each Concept C bar will go toward expanding the reserve.
Concept C will operate out of an almost 10,000-square-foot factory on Bladensburg Road in Northeast beginning this summer. The Hartmans are still determining their product line but plan to focus on high-percentage cacao, including a dark milk chocolate and chocolate chips, before expanding into other products such as chocolate-covered nuts or coffee beans and so-called inclusion bars studded with add-ins.
Spagnvola, based in Gaithersburg, has been heavily involved in the sourcing of its beans since it started in 2009. All the cacao it uses is grown on a farm in the Dominican Republic owned by founders Eric and Crisoire Reid.
“There’s no way to create premium, good-quality chocolate without the best beans,” Eric Reid said.
For the best flavor during fermentation, the pulp inside the cacao pod has to be at the right state of ripeness, Reid explained. After that, fermentation and drying need to be consistently well-managed.
“If you receive bad beans, you can’t fix it through the manufacturing process,” he said.
That being said, the challenge of coaxing flavors out of the beans is one reason that chocolate makers decide to start with them (as opposed to chocolate blenders, who combine or repackage someone else’s chocolate; or chocolatiers, who use chocolate to make other confections).
“It’s very few ingredients, and the magic is in how you manipulate them,” said Joshua Rosen, an engineer-turned-chocolate maker who founded Baltimore’s Charm School Chocolate in 2013.
Before they can even start on the chocolate, makers must deal with the vagaries of the beans. Sarah Hartman said she starts by checking the beans’ appearance and quality. Are they the right color? Are they moldy? Sprouting isn’t good because it can contribute a bitter flavor. She also examines whether the bean has been properly fermented, with a well-defined inside that will come out mostly in one piece. Kavalier said he begins by getting rid of cracked beans or “twins” — double beans.
A pest called the cacao moth can feed on the dried beans. That’s one reason why proper bean storage is important, Sarah Hartman said.
And all that doesn’t even take into account the making of the chocolate, a process that requires near fanatical precision to establish great flavor and flawless appearance and texture. Everyone pretty much follows the same steps, even if their equipment is different. (Concept C, for example, will use large-scale European machinery built for chocolate making, while other makers have built their own or adapted tools intended for other purposes, such as the Indian spice grinders Kavalier uses.)
Makers first roast dried cacao beans, then winnow them, which cracks the beans to retain the nibs and discard the shell. Next, they grind the nibs for several days; the mixture starts to look and smell like chocolate fondue as the cacao particles get smaller and the cocoa butter melts. They add sugar, and some then age the chocolate for further flavor development. Finally, they temper the chocolate to form the correct crystalline structure for the best shine and snap, pour it into molds, cool it and package it.
So where can chocolate makers express themselves? There’s the bean selection, of course. But producers can also play around with roasting time and temperature, as well as with the speed and time of the mixing, or conching, process, according to Ben Rasmussen of Potomac Chocolate.
“As a chocolate maker, I have a lot of control over the final flavor,” said Rasmussen, who founded the operation in his Woodbridge home in 2010. Still, there’s only “a certain number of dials and knobs” that he can manipulate.
The availability of more ready-made options has lowered one barrier for entering the market, said Eagranie Yuh, a Vancouver-based writer and chocolate educator who published “The Chocolate Tasting Kit” in 2014.
Yuh said the American “bean to bar” movement began to take off in the late 2000s, and in the next few years more companies starting offering “turn-key machinery.” At the same time, it got easier for makers to buy small batches of beans.
“Suddenly you had the equipment and the ingredients,” Yuh said.
Bigger importers used to not want to talk to operations the size of Rasmussen’s, but “cacao producers and cacao importers sat up and took notice” of small companies, Rasmussen said.
Makers are also communicating directly with cacao farmers through the Internet. That’s how Rasmussen ended up getting cacao from growers in Upala, Costa Rica, and Cuyagua, Venezuela.
Rosen said he works closely with the Maya Mountain Cacao co-op in Belize to obtain his beans. He’s also in the process of talking to other farmers who might be interested in customizing how beans are fermented for Charm School, whose exclusively vegan line includes “milk” and white chocolate bars made with coconut rather than dairy.
Those kinds of relationships are another reason local operations have sought to start with beans, because consumers are interested in the origins of what they eat. “People want to know more about their food and what they’re putting into their bodies,” Undone’s Kavalier said.
That is why he and the Hartmans intend to incorporate a strong educational component in their business plans. Concept C’s factory will be open for tours and will host classes and tastings. The goal is to “let people know that it’s not an easy process,” Sarah Hartman said.
Kavalier said he, too, hopes to eventually move forward on a space that will include a cafe, retail shop, factory and lab for on-site chocolate analysis.
As it did with many edible trends, Washington took a little longer to catch on to craft chocolate, said Marisol Slater, owner of the Dupont Circle chocolate shop Cocova. She and others in the industry have compared today’s chocolate scene in Washington to where craft beer was about a decade ago.
It helps that “people are willing to taste more chocolates and pay more,” Slater said. Most of the local bars sell for around $8 or $9, though Spagnvola’s break the $10 mark; compare that to the many grocery store chocolate candies that are priced at $1 or $2.
But how will the craft chocolate industry hold up as it grows?
“Bean-to-bar makers, that’s really not a sustainable model,” Spagnvola’s Reid said. That is why he and his wife decided to open chocolate boutiques and become chocolatiers as well. In fact, the chocolatier model is what he’d like to see be universally adopted in Europe and the United States. He believes that to ensure quality and the welfare of cacao farmers, chocolate should be made where the beans are grown.
But the growth in local makers is “a good first step,” he said. “At least the bean-to-bar makers are bringing more awareness to consumers about the conditions on the farm.”
Others are more sanguine about the burgeoning industry. “I think it’s exciting that there’s all these chocolate makers in the market,” Yuh said.
The makers don’t see one another as competition. The more exposure, the better.
Ultimately, Rosen said, craft chocolate still represents a small portion of what most Americans eat, vastly overshadowed by products made on a large scale with bulk, commodity cacao.
“We’re not fighting for pieces of this one tiny sliver,” Rosen said. “By having more of us, we’re fighting to make the sliver larger.”
Chocolate shop owner Marisol Slater will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.