Chocolate Covered

Welcome to my new favorite 100 square feet in San Francisco, besides maybe Dandelion’s cafe with a cup of Mission hot chocolate… Chocolate Covered. Thanks, Dave Huston, for the recommendation!

This tiny hole in the wall in the Castro/Mission is packed to the gills with chocolate and reminds me of a more crowded, cozy, and even more extensive Cacao in Portland. Jack, the owner, introduced himself and let me know that he’s been selling bean to bar chocolate since the concept began over 18 years ago! He used to sell every bean to bar chocolate available, but he told me that now there are too many for him to fit into his tiny store. We chatted about homemade chocolate, where we buy our beans, the upcoming FCIA event and Good Food Awards, and the additional activities put on by Dandelion that week.

As Clay Gordon informed me way back when, people in the chocolate industry are awesome. It’s impossible to be a grouch when surrounded by so much deliciousness!

chocolate covered 1 chocolate covered 2 chocolate covered 3

As I walked around the store, I spotted all the big names in small batch chocolate, and more that I had never seen before. I picked up a couple Marou bars and some Askinosie bars and promised to come back another time. Oh yes, we will be back!

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An Oregon Experience

Last weekend, Richard and I had the opportunity to travel to Oregon. The long weekend took us outside of our comfort zone and into a land of beautiful scenery, lots of rain, and delicious chocolate!

We spent one night at a funky off-the-grid community, where we slept in a one-room cabin with a wood-burning stove. We spent another night in a tree house hotel called Out and About Treesort, where we slept in a tree. Both locations had shared kitchens, minimal luxuries, and no cell phone reception. It was amazing to go off the grid and disconnect for a little while!

Richard at the top of Out and About Treesort

Richard at the top of Out and About Treesort

We also checked out Crater Lake in a whiteout snow storm, visited Deschutes Brewery, hiked around waterfalls near Portland, and attended a performance called Cirque Zuma Zuma, showcasing African performers in Bend.

Crater Lake in a snow storm

Crater Lake in a snow storm

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with chocolate. Well, during our trip, we also were honored to visit John Nanci, the Chocolate Alchemist himself, in Eugene.

Chocolate Alchemist's Workshop

Chocolate Alchemist’s Workshop

We also met Sebastian of Cocanu and explored the amazing chocolate museum/store, Cacao in Portland. We picked up Clay Gordon’s book and a craft chocolate tasting kit at Powell Books and brought home some Taza stone-ground chocolate rounds and a Lille Belle Farms (southern Oregon) bar made of chocolate aged in whiskey barrels!

Sebastian of Cocanu

Sebastian of Cocanu

I’ll be posting about our adventures and what we’ve learned from our travels in the days to come. Look out for posts coming on our newest batch of chocolate, on the varieties of cocoa beans we picked up from John Nanci, on updates on roasting and tempering, and on new mystery ingredients we may be adding to our chocolate soon!

Importing Cocoa Beans

My first ever post on The Chocolate Life was a naive call for small-scale farmers to send me their beans. Little did I know that one of the biggest hurdles to starting a “from the bean” chocolate business is obtaining high quality, well-fermented cocoa beans! And collaboration is the best way to a successful importation process.

The difficulty of obtaining high quality beans can actually be considered both good and bad.

Why is it good?

There is a definite shortage of good cocoa beans in the world. Chloe Doutre-Roussel writes in her book, The Chocolate Connoisseur: For Everyone With a Passion for Chocolate, the following:

An estimated 15% of world production:

Good beans (e.g. Crillo/Trinitario hybrid of Trinitario) + good fermentation = good chocolate

Good beans + bad fermentation = bad chocolate

An estimated 85% of world production:

Poor beans (e.g. Forastero) + good fermentation = poor chocolate

Poor beans + bad fermentation = terrible chocolate!

Our friends at Arete reminded us that while we are joining a very welcoming community, not everyone can! Cocoa beans are a scarcity and it’s actually a benefit to the industry that it’s difficult to obtain them.

Why is it bad?

Well, we want to be using good beans, so of course, we’d prefer this process was easier. Plus, in the spirit of Slow Food, we’d love it if delicious chocolate were accessible to everyone. That said, we’re always up for a challenge!

So, how do “from the bean” makers obtain cocoa beans?

There are two options. We can obtain them directly from the source or indirectly.

Obtaining beans indirectly

Obtaining beans indirectly is much easier. This would mean buying beans that someone else has already imported. We’ve done that by stopping by the Grand Central Market in LA, a few small markets in San Francisco, purchasing a bag of beans from Dandelion, and samplers from Chocolate Alchemy. Even our purchase from Piper of Siriana Cacao was an indirect buy, since we did not work directly with the farmers/co-ops/international producers in country.

Another way of purchasing beans indirectly is through one of the many members of the Cocoa Merchants’ Association of America, among other suppliers.

The pros are that this is faster, easier, and often cheaper than buying directly from a cocoa producer. Additionally, it is possible to buy in small quantities (less than 100 lbs at a time).

The cons, on the other hand, are that this way does not build a relationship with the producers and can hide many of the issues related to supply chain that are important to me and many other small-scale chocolate makers. Additionally, this limits the selection of beans to those that someone else is already working with.

Obtaining beans directly

Obtaining beans directly from the source is considerably more difficult, as it requires international trade, minimum orders, and often a direct relationship with the cocoa producers. At the moment, as far as I’m aware, there are two ways to obtain directly: hire a broker to facilitate the sale and shipping process, or take care of that process ourselves. According to our friend Dan at Tabal, hiring a broker is a good idea if the total sale comes out to more than $2,000. (Wow, the most we’ve spent on beans so far was about $25 for 2 kilos from Dandelion!) You can find a list of brokers here.

Alternatively, there are two ways to follow through on the process without a broker: ship beans by a mail carrier like DHL or FedEx, or ship the beans in a shipping container by boat. A colleague on The Chocolate Life, Juan Pablo Buchert of Nahua Chocolate, helped explain to us what a cost structure of shipping beans with a mail carrier would look like:

You can receive the beans at you home, or shop, at an extra cost that is charged by the freight forwarder (FedEx, DHL). They can deal with the customs clearance as well. For example this is the cost structure for a 250 kg (550lb) shipment that we recently sent from Costa Rica to Chicago and delivered to a chocolate shop there:

Air Shipment……………………  $437,50

Charges at origin………………  $386,50 (Customs, pallets confection, pick up)

Charges at destination………… $  297,50  (Doc Handover & Delivery)

Total Shipping…………………….  $1.121,50    ($4.49/kg or  $2.04/lb)

The incoterm selected was DAP – Delivered at Place-  (Not FOB or CIF). Some clients decide to deal with customs clearance themselves and save the Charges at Destination, in this example $297.50. Obviously, this is an example of a large shipment for a home based chocolatier.

Smaller quantities (up to 50 lbs at a time) come in at 2.5 lbs for $22, including shipping, charges at origin, and charges at destination, then it goes up from there.

This also required an FDA-certified facility, USDA registration for the import, a copy of the invoice, and a phyto-sanitary certificate issued at origin.

What should we do about it?

Good question. The difficulty of importing beans prevents many small batch makers from establishing a relationship with the cocoa producers and controlling our supply chain. Facilitating the process involves many moving pieces: international law, trading regulations, and an incredible amount of support both for the farmers (to get their beans from the farm to a shipping port) and for the chocolate-makers (to organize a payment agreement for a shared shipping container).

For that reason, we’ve begun conversations with organizations like Yellow Seed, which seeks to fill the gap between chocolate-makers and cocoa producers. We’ve talked with chocolate-makers like David at Letterpress Chocolate, Eli and Tracey at Bisou, and David and Leslie at Arete, among others about sharing costs to charter a container to California.

This is a service that could revolutionize the small batch industry, so we’re looking forward to continuing the conversation and learning about available options. If you have ideas or suggestions, please leave your thoughts below in the comments. We’re certainly open to learning more!

Visiting local chocolate makers

Last weekend, Richard and I had the privilege of visiting a local chocolate maker’s small-batch space. In the true spirit of Clay Gordon’s philosophy on mentoring, David and Leslie showed us around their space, explained their chocolate-making flow, and shared a taste of their favorite in-production bars. They’ve been transparent in their start up process through an extremely useful thread on The Chocolate Life called “Shared Journey,” which I highly recommend other potential chocolate-makers take a look at.

Granted, Arete is not quite in full scale production mode yet, but their deliberate research and development phase is well underway. Their goal – produce an excellent bean-to-bar product! We learned a lot from our visit and are looking forward to staying in touch with our fellow chocolate-making couple, as both of our operations grow!

First of all, they recommended we join the FCIA or Fine Chocolate Industry Association. This is an organization of people involved in the fine chocolate industry “from blossom to bonbon to bar,” as their website states. Its mission is the following:

The Fine Chocolate Industry Association is the professional non-profit organization supporting the development and innovation of the fine chocolate industry and best practices through: Identifying industry standards for cacao growing, bar and confection production, and the use of quality ingredients. Communicating with consumers, the media, and legislators regarding issues in growing, production and consumption of fine chocolate. Educating chocolate professionals on fine chocolate best practices, ingredients and techniques.

Excellent recommendation!

Secondly, they told us the story of taking the online Ecole Chocolate-Making Course. They were surprised when so much of the course involved buying and tasting other makers’ chocolates. Now, they understand the incredible value of building out one’s taste in order to understand what kind of chocolate they wanted to make. We’ve heard this before – eat lots of chocolate – and we’re not going to argue!

When we asked how they work together as a couple, they laughed. Leslie is full time while David continues his full-time job and helps out on evenings and weekends. It turns out Leslie focuses on tempering while David focuses on the roasting. And overall, they just seem to have that excellent vibe of partners. That magic factor that we’ve read about in other partner-pairs like Mish and Rob of Making it Anywhere and Jill and Josh of Screw the Nine to Five. The bottom line – divide the labor and respect each other. Seems pretty logical, doesn’t it?!

Finally, we learned about their flow from one part of the process to the next: from their bean room where they store and sort the beans, to their beautiful oven for roasting. From a rapid cooling device to the cracker and winnower. From there to the sieve, separating out the nibs of appropriate size. Then back to the oven, where the nibs and Premier Wonder Grinders are heated at a low temperature to soften the initial refining process. (Yep, we were delighted to see a few of our very own Premier Wonder Grinders lined up in their shop!) Next, into the whirling melangers which work continuously for days at a time. They often add heat lamps at certain points in the process to increase the temperature as well. Finally, out to a small temper machine or to the large granite table where Leslie tempers the chocolate by hand, and into their almost finalized molds.

Many parts of their flow are hand-designed or modified from the original use of their machines or devices. We’ve noted that in the industry of small batch chocolate-makers, there are few tools made especially for batches of 2-3 kilos. And as a result, there are many creative engineers and artists in the business who rig up their own tools, including Richard and David, among others!

We look forward to staying in touch with David and Leslie and to meeting other chocolate makers, near and far, as we learn more about the industry and how Root Chocolate fits!

Clay Gordon on making chocolate at home

For those of you just joining us, we’re now diving into part two of a feature on Clay Gordon. Clay is the author of Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate, and founder of TheChocolateLife.com, the largest community focusing solely on chocolate in the world. The Chocolate Life is probably the most valuable resource I’ve used as I make my foray into the world of chocolate making.

Yes, I had the opportunity to chat with Clay about his life, chocolate, and advice. For the first part of this series, visit Living the chocolate life, where I introduce Clay and his contributions to the chocolate industry. Here, we’ll look into his advice both for making chocolate at home and for starting a chocolate business.

Making Chocolate at Home

I’ve already provided a recipe and some ideas for making chocolate at home, and Clay adds his spin. First of all, he reminds us to have fun with it. This is one of his favorite themes. And secondly, he recommends you taste other chocolate to develop your personal preference and sharpen your tastebuds.

Clay doesn’t have to tell me twice! I’ll write about my visit to The Chocolate Garage in another post, but just know that you can taste and buy some absolutely delicious chocolate if you happen to be passing through Palo Alto on a Wednesday evening or Saturday morning.

Starting a Chocolate Business

For those interested in starting a chocolate business, he has a few valuable nuggets of advice as well. To start, follow the advice for those making chocolate at home. Shouldn’t be too hard!

Second, start being scientific. He says, “Your best friend is your notebook, write down everything.” Clay appreciated the documentation and experimental process Richard and I have cited in our chocolate-making process so far. Check out our posts on roasting, sugar, and different origins to see the many variables we have played with so far.

He also recommends taking time to develop your craft. In other words, practice, practice, practice. Developing the skills to be able to repeat the same chocolate within a harvest will show that you truly understand and can implement the chocolate-making process with integrity. (Caveat: The next harvest is a completely different story and should not necessarily produce exactly the same chocolate as the previous one) And at the same time, know what you like and decide what your point of view is as an artist.

As far as actual process, he has one overarching recommendation: don’t pigeon-hole yourself. That applies to ingredients, roast times, conch times, origins, blends, final products etc. Starting with four ingredients – cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, and lecithin – is actually easier than starting with just two. Once you dominate making chocolate with four, try removing lecithin, then eventually remove the cocoa butter. This is something we clearly need to work on. Additionally, there’s no “right” roast time or conch time. Try many options and settle with the one you like best. Don’t limit yourself to one origin or even just single-origin chocolate. Try blending roasts, origins, conch times, etc. And finally, go beyond the bar. There’s no reason to only create chocolate bars. What about kisses, bark, balls, bonbons, etc.? Trial and error in the process will lead to your signature chocolate.

And finally, with regard to business practices, Clay recommends operating like a craft brewery. Start marketing and sales within a one-hour-drive radius. Once you build up a customer base and a positive cash flow, expand to your state, then national, then international, etc. He warns against thinking that Whole Foods is the holy grail. Start with local markets and move up slowly.

Harking back to his philosophy on TheChocolateLife.com, Clay requests those of us making chocolate at home and those of us considering opening a chocolate business, to share our journey. He asks that we open our recipe and financial books and be mentors to those around us. That is definitely the philosophy we adhere to here at www.RootChocolate.com and we encourage you to do the same!

Thank you, Clay, for your incredible contribution to Root Chocolate and to the chocolate industry as a whole!

Clay Gordon on living the chocolate life

“You never know when a small decision will have a profound impact on your life.” – Clay Gordon, the world’s first international chocolate critic

Clay is the author of Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate, and founder of TheChocolateLife.com, the largest community focusing solely on chocolate in the world. The Chocolate Life is probably the most valuable resource I’ve used as I make my foray into the world of chocolate making.

Clay’s philosophy is to do what you love, keep it light, and support your family while doing it. With this guiding principle, he went from a corporate lifestyle to becoming a full-time chocolate consultant, critic, and machinery designer and salesperson. And he made this change not in the past decade when Tim Ferris of The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (Expanded and Updated) and other lifestyle proponents have popularized this notion, but back in the 90s. Clay’s chocolate expertise goes back more than 20 years. It is clear, when discussing the ins and outs of chocolate, that he knows what he’s talking about.

Yes, I had the opportunity to chat with Clay about his life, chocolate, and advice. In this two-part series, I’ll start by expounding on his entry into the world of chocolate and the community he’s organized and inspired. Then in the next segment, I’ll dive into his advice both for making chocolate at home and for starting a chocolate business.

The quote at the start of this post is Clay’s introduction for how he got into the chocolate business. Concluding a business trip to Cannes in 1994, Clay found himself with a few hours to spare and some extra francs to spend before heading to the airport. As he wandered around, he found a small gourmet chocolate shop and bought 6 Bonnat chocolate bars. Upon returning home, he held a dinner party and pulled these out for dessert. Everyone had a different favorite for a different reason, similar to our recent tasting party. Little did he know, this was the first of many single-origin chocolate tasting parties he’d hold in the next few years.

In a flash of marketing genius (which was his area of expertise), he realized that while there were professional critics for almost everything, there were none for chocolate. He delved into research at local libraries, took on an apprenticeship with Michel Cluizel, found a mentor in Gary Guittard, and finally started chocophile.com in 2001, which was a professional review board for fine flavor chocolate. Having found chocolate in a function of entrepreneurship rather than initial passion for chocolate, Clay quickly realized his luck.

Chocolate is an amazing career! The industry is full of happy people who know how to have fun, and his place in it all allows him the lifestyle he was hoping for. He told me, “If you’re working with chocolate and not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. There are very few real jerks in the chocolate business, which I think is fabulous.” He believes that the true health value of chocolate is when people eat it, they sit down, relax, and destress for a few minutes. Plus, this career is “something I want to do until I’m not able to get out of bed. I need to be able to support myself and my family and I want to have fun doing it.”

This leads us to the next chapter in Clay’s contributions to the chocolate industry: TheChocolateLife.com. Its original purpose was to get enough people together, so between all of them, they would know all the answers that people want to know about chocolate.

From my own experience, TheChocolateLife.com has been an incredible resource. I’ve posted questions and received answers from experts all over the world. I’ve read the details of other people starting to work on their own “home brew” chocolate and of people making moves on starting their own company. I’ve even been contacted by farmers and organizers in cacao-producing countries to discuss building a relationship longer term. I’ve connected with bean-to-bar producers here in the Bay Area and even toured a factory. And my overwhelming response is to agree with Clay – there are very few jerks in the chocolate industry. It’s an incredibly welcoming environment where people share “open source” ideas and suggestions. I can’t recommend it highly enough for those serious about chocolate!

The title of TheChocolateLife.com was inspired by Ricky Martin’s Living La Vida Loca, which evolved into La Vida Cocoa, which translates to the chocolate life. The philosophy behind the chocolate life is that the ability to “connect to people with passion will inspire others to connect with theirs, regardless of whether that passion is chocolate or not.” His new goal is to help other people succeed. He gave an example of international pastry contests, where the chefs are some of the best in the world, but they are not there just to win. Instead, most of them get to a point in their life when they’re professionally accomplished. And the next step of what they’re doing, the way they ensure their legacy, is about how many people they’ve mentored.

Clay is taking on the international pastry chef mentorship equivalent in the chocolate industry. He provides consulting services to chocolate start ups, manages TheChocolateLife.com where chocolate-makers and chocolate-loves share their passion, and serves as a mentor and motivational speaker. He’s living the chocolate life!

Check out our next post on Clay’s advice for making chocolate at home and starting your own chocolate business.