“So. Much. Flavor.”
Those were my thoughts as I sampled the Milk & Nibs bar by Acalli Chocolate last summer. The brand had been recommended to me by Laura, a chocolate-loving barista, soon after I committed to the 37 Chocolates challenge. I was looking for recommendations and she was happy to share hers. She jotted down the names of four makers on a piece of parchment paper before commenting on each brand.
“Acalli. I like what she does in New Orleans.”
That was a first.
I was not aware of any female chocolate-makers. I obviously had to learn .
A few weeks after that conversation, I found myself in Wayne, Pennsylvania, trying to escape the scorching heat with my friend Teresa. We pushed the door of Gryphon Cafe and, as I ordered an ice latte, my eyes caught the sight, on the elevated counter, of a small orange box with the name of that Louisiana maker – Acalli Chocolate. The bar, a combination of 65% dark milk chocolate, was sprinkled with cacao nibs. I was intrigued.
After we picked our drinks, Teresa and I sat down, we breathed a sighed of a relief – cool, at last. I opened the orange box, inside which was a thick cellophane wrapper that I unsealed to reveal a dark piece of chocolate. I cut the bar into squares, one of which landed on my tongue.
“So. Much. Flavor.”
That day, I finally understood what craft chocolate was about.
Soon after I posted my video review of Acalli Chocolate’s Milk & Nibs bar , I connected with Carol Morse, founder of Acalli Chocolate and we spent a couple of hours on Skype getting to know each other. Unlike other makers, who fall into chocolate by wondering how chocolate is made, Carol became curious about chocolate after finding herself on an actual cacao plantation. How cool is that? I found her story so interesting that I invited her to share it with you. In this article, Carol answers a few of my questions about her background, her brand, and what’s next for her company.
Thank you, Carol for sharing your chocolate story.
1) When we first talked last year, I was surprised to learn that you have a PhD in Anthropology. How did you make the switch to becoming a full-time chocolate-maker?
I don’t have a PhD, but anthropology was my college major. I also have a background in economic development, as I worked in micro-finance before I made chocolate. So the full chain of chocolate making – from cacao and the people that grow it to the final bar – lets me combine a lifelong love of chocolate with an interest in people and the work that they do.
My husband is an archaeologist (he is pursuing his PhD), and three years ago we spent a summer in Guatemala while he studied a Mayan language and I worked remotely for a California micro-finance nonprofit. We visited Maya Mountain Cacao in Belize and I met Guatemalan chocolate-makers. I was just fascinated by everything, and when I got back to the U.S., I ordered small equipment and cacao from John Nanci (I don’t know what I would’ve done without his Chocolate Alchemy website!) to begin making chocolate at home. The Chocolate Life was also a really helpful forum for me when I started out – so many chocolate-makers offering advice and guidance.
In 2014, I visited the Norandino Cooperative in Northern Peru, and was impressed by both their work and cacao. I began buying from them shortly thereafter.
2. What is the origin of the name Acalli?
The name Acalli (ah-CALL-ee) means “canoe” in Nahuatl (the Aztec language that also gave us the word “chocolate”). It seemed appropriate as a name since canoes connect people even across great distances, and were an early method of transporting cocoa beans. I also just think it’s a pretty word and one that evokes the spirit of travel and a sense of adventure. My husband is an anthropologist and linguist, so he helped come up with it!
3. When I think of New Orleans, I think about hot and humid: what challenges does that climate pose for a chocolate-maker?
I’m constantly learning about the impact of climate on chocolate here! I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I started, but I do feel like I understand chocolate better because of the time I’ve spent figuring out why things go wrong. Humidity is a big issue – I have a humidity monitor in my workshop and it rarely reads below 50% relative humidity. It’s often above 65 or 70…and I have learned that you can temper in those conditions, contrary to popular belief! Summers are also difficult when it comes to keeping the temperature down, especially for tempering and molding. But like anywhere, I guess you just figure out what works for the conditions you have. I definitely get nervous making summertime deliveries, but I appreciate ice packs more than ever before!
4. You just added two new bars to your existing bar line-up. Could you tell us a bit more about your chocolate?
Of course! I’m currently buying all of my cacao from the Norandino Cooperative, and it’s a big cooperative that spans several regions of Peru. I started out last year with three bars. Two are made with beans from six communities in the Tumbes region of Peru, and one is made with beans from the community of El Platanal in Chulucanas, Peru.
The bars that I just released are smaller “tasting bars,” and they’re darker, with an 81% cocoa content. They’re made with a blend of the Tumbes and El Platanal beans, and sweetened with local Louisiana sugar. The combination is so fudgy and rich, with a hint of molasses from the sugar. One bar is plain, and the other is topped with nibs and sea salt. I’m a little obsessed!
5) There are over 150 bean-to-bar chocolate-makers in the US today. What sets Acalli apart?
A big tenant of business model is sourcing in person. I’m not the only one doing that, but it was something important to me from the beginning, especially in light of my anthropology and development background. I want to pay a price that treats cacao as a value-added specialty product, not a commodity. Because there is a huge amount of work that goes into cacao production: cultivation, harvesting, fermenting, drying… I want to acknowledge all the work that has been done by the farmers before I even receive the beans.
6) What’s next for Acalli?
Launching the new little bars has been such an exciting way to close out the summer! I’ll be expanding those into more retail locations, and we’re slowly starting to move toward prime drinking chocolate weather, which is great. I quietly introduced some drinking chocolates late last winter and I’m eager to start offering those in a more visible way.
My husband Luke, my brother Park and I (that’s the entire Acalli “staff,” with Park helping with production and Luke doing a lot of the web and social media work) all visited about twenty farmers in Mexico last summer to pursue Chiapas and Tabasco as potential bean origins. I’m hoping to introduce a new Mexican origin some time soon. I’ve been roasting sample batches of Chiapan beans this week, so that’s been an exciting project also!