Interview with Carol Morse, Founder & Maker, Acalli Chocolate (New Orleans, Louisiana)

Carol Morse, maker and founder, Acalli Chocolate. Photo credit: Erin Krall.

“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.

The original line-up of Acalli Chocolate bars. Photo credit: Carol Morse, Acalli Chocolate.

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!

Carol Morse, founder and maker, Acalli Chocolate. Photo credit: Erin Krall.

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!

Park Morse, Carol’s brother, at work making chocolate. Photo credit: Carol Morse, Acalli Chocolate.

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!

The latest (delicious!) additions to Acalli Chocolate’s original line of bars. Photo credit: Carol Morse, Acalli Chocolate.

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.

Park and Carol Morse in front of a fermentation box in Tabasco, Mexico, summer 2015. Photo credit: Acalli Chocolate.

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!

The Doing

“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”

– Allen Ginsberg


I have blogged, mostly in French, for most of my adult life. Work during the day, blog on the evenings, this had long been the way. The practice taught me some of my most important lessons about the creative process, lessons that I am glad I learned early on.

When I create, I do it for myself first. My job as creator is to get a piece out to the world and move on to the next one. Sure, accolades are great but, be warned, they won’t feed your soul. Do it for the doing, do it because you can no longer hold it in. Your job is to pour your soul into the world. It’ll feel so good when you do.

From the moment I committed to my 37chocolates challenge, I knew that my videos would not reach a large audience. I was OK with that. My job was to review those 37 chocolates by Halloween 2015. Now, I won’t lie, there were times last summer I wondered why I was bothering about those reviews when nobody seemed to care. Right then, an anonymous commenter would share kind words on my YouTube channel or someone shared one my videos. Of course, this made me happy. But, ultimately, the motivation to go to 37 could only have come from within. So, remember, do it for the doing, and do it for yourself.

Finding Bean-to-Bar Chocolate in the Philadelphia Area

Taza Chocolate bar from my local Whole Foods Market

If you live in a small town like I do, you may have a hard time gathering a large selection of craft chocolate from a wide range of makers. However, with a little curiosity, you may be surprised at the number of bean-to-bar chocolates you’ll be able to find close to your home. For instance, did you know that many independant natural stores carried lesser known chocolate brands right in the candy aisle? Your local coffee shop may also offer a nice selection of bars right by the register, make sure to check it out.

To me, the quest for craft chocolate is part of the fun: I love the thrill I get from finding a bar I had spotted months earlier on Instagram (I am looking at you, Askinosie’s licorice bar.)  I have now been looking for bean-to-bar chocolate locally for over a year now and, while I still have a lot more places to explore, here a list of my favorite craft chocolate purveyors in the Chester County & Philadelphia areas. A word of caution: this is a non-exhaustive, kind-of-subjective list, which I will update as I go. In the meantime, I’d love to know where you shop for chocolate, both in the Philadelphia area and beyond. Leave a comment to let me know!

Carlino’s – both Ardmore and West Chester locations, PA

  • Ritual Chocolate (their 75% Balao bar and 60% Novo coffee bars are excellent).

Gryphon Coffee – Wayne, PA

Malvern Buttery – Malvern, PA

Philter Coffee – Kennett Square, PA

The West Chester Ice Cream & Coffee Bar – West Chester, PA

Kimberton Whole Foods – Multiple locations

Martindale’s Natural Market – Springfield, PA

Whole Foods Markets – Multiple locations

Sazon Restaurant – Philadelphia, PA

Shane Confectionary – Philadelphia, PA

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A Chocolate Cake in Istanbul

imageThe first thing people notice about me is my French accent. This usually makes them curious about what brought me to the US (work) and they smile when I tell them why I stayed (love). While they usually are interested in the love story (it started at the cafeteria), some people feel so intimidated by the idea of talking to a French person, they’ll start sharing their knowledge about wine (which I know nothing about) or cheese (which I don’t eat).

The truth is, my family is from Turkey, I spent every summer of my childhood by the Aegean Sea, and I was not exposed to French home cooking until my teenage years.

My last trip to Turkey was five years ago, when I took my American husband to Istanbul so he could visit Hagia Sophia and the Palace of Topkapi. Our last day in this beautiful city coincided with his birthday so we each had a piece of this chocolate cake. It was sweet and delicious, just like I’d like to remember that city.

What is Bean-to-Bar Chocolate? (2/2)

Back in December 2015, the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate was put on the spotlight after Scott, a Dallas-based blogger, published of four-part exposé demonstrating that the Mast Brothers company had not always been a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker. To meet early demand, Scott explains, the company used premade chocolate known as “couverture chocolate” instead of making it from the actual beans. While there is nothing wrong with using industrial chocolate in confections, the Mast Brothers had claimed to be bean-to-bar maker from their very early days. The chocolate scandal, which was relayed on national media, triggered a series of reactions that made one thing clear: there is a lot of confusion around what being a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker actually means.

If you are not clear on the concept yourself, take a moment to read the post I wrote to define the concept of bean-to-bar chocolate. However, the real challenge does not lay as much in explaining the concept as in determining why it matters in the first place. In this post, I’ll explain why the concept came to matter to me as a consumer.

This chocolate bar by Cacao Atlanta has clear dark cherry notes

Before I started my 37 Chocolates challenge last year, the only chocolate I ever had came straight from the grocery store. For the past several years, I had resorted to chocolate to help me cope with stress at my deadline-driven job. I would buy 12-packs  of Theo Chocolate bars on Amazon (dark chocolate with cherries and almonds was a favorite), Endangered Species from the grocery store (I had a soft spot for the blueberry inclusion variety) or the 71% dark chocolate by Valrhona that I would stock up on at Trader Joe’s (I still really enjoy this bar). I would not spend more than $3.50 on a bar because I could not justify spending so much money on chocolate I would eat for stress relief purposes and, if I am really honest, mindlessly. In addition, I had already been disappointed by $8 bars marketed as “bean-to-bar” chocolate, which had then made one thing very clear: the term bean-to-bar is not a guarantee of quality. At that time, I made the decision of sticking with mass-produced but reliable and inexpensive bars than taking the risk of getting disappointed again.

Now, to be fair, all of the chocolate I ate at that point was technically bean-to-bar. However, I had noticed that the phrase typically found its way on the wrappers of handcrafted, smaller batch chocolate that you find in gourmet stores and independant coffee shops. As a consumer, I typically interpret that phrase as a justification of a higher price tag, since it’s a lot more work to make chocolate from scratch (i.e. from the beans) than it is to melt and remold industrial chocolate.

Time went by, I left the stressful job and started growing bored with my chocolate selection. While it felt safe to have a list of go-to brands and bars, that first bite of Twenty-Four Blackbirds Madagascar chocolate made me wonder what awaited me outside of my chocolate comfort zone. I had noticed the explosion of American-made, small batch chocolate and, surely, I thought, some of these bars had to be good. Plus, there seemed to be something about the whole “single origin” chocolate, even though I knew nothing at the time about the difference between Guatemalan or Peruvian cacao. Although I felt guilty at the idea of spending the equivalent of one hour of minimum wage into a 3-oz piece of indulgence, I grew increasingly curious and related the likely prospect of eating disappointing bars as the inevitable bad dates leading me to “the one.” So I took a leap, opened my mind (and yes, my wallet), and never looked back.

Nightswimming, a beloved dark milk chocolate by Map Chocolate

Today, I mostly eat bean-to-bar, small batch chocolate and, while I still enjoy the occasional bar of Valrhona, here’s why there’s no going back.

First, I really appreciate knowing where my food comes from. Most small batch makers will disclose the country of origin of the cacao, some going as far as mentioning the name of the region or the actual estate where the cacao is from. Remember that 40% of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa, where the practice of child slavery is unfortunately still common on some plantations. When you buy industrially made chocolate, the odds are that the cacao used in the blend comes from West Africa.

Next, I learned to appreciate the concept of single origin chocolate, which is not commonly found in grocery stores. While my chocolate-making friend Robert Campbell swears by cacao blends, some single origin chocolates have completely blown me away. For instance, I love the light citrus notes of Madagascar chocolate, have fallen hard for the strong caramel notes of the Castronovo Sierra Nevada bar, and will never forget the distinct cherry notes of this Patanemo bar by Cacao Atlanta.

Finally, I discovered that some makers truly master the craft of making chocolate, going through every single step of the process, from the sourcing of the beans to the molding of the bars, with intention and care. These women and men know how to coax the flavors of each cacao, so the flavors will shine when hitting the tongue. Sometimes, the skilled maker is also an artist  who will infuse the bars with her or his vision of the world. In the right hands, the craft of making chocolate is elevated to the rank of art. Some bars will thus bring us to our knees and make our heart beat faster. And, sometimes, the chocolate will find such an echo in our soul that we may shed a tear. This is what Map Chocolate does to me. That is what an artfully crafted piece of chocolate can do to you. $8 for a piece of art? That’s what I call a steal.

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Interview with Chris Thompson, Owner, Philter Coffee, Kennett Square, PA

Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

With its modern decor, studious atmosphere, and inspired coffee menu (you should try the gran-all-in-one), Philter Coffee is the type of coffee shop you’d expect to find in a big US city. Lucky me, the shop is actually located an hour away from Philadelphia, in a small town called Kennett Square, right here, in Pennsylvania.

Climb the single step, push the heavy door, and you’ll be welcomed by the sound of a little bell, the smell of espresso, and the smile of a soft-spoken barista. On weekdays, I order a latte, sometimes a cappuccino, and settle at one of the thick but smooth wooden tables. From my favorite table, you can hear the orders (“it’s my first time here!”), spot the regulars, and peek at the craft chocolate selection.

Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

As previously mentioned, Philter Coffee was where the “37 Chocolates” challenge truly started. My first bite of Twenty-Four Blackbirds Madagascar chocolate sparked my curiosity for craft chocolate, so I started working my way through Philter Coffee’s bean-to-bar chocolate selection.

Very early, Chris Thompson, owner at Philter Coffee, took an interest in my challenge. As my passion for chocolate grew, I started sharing my stash with him. Because he really appreciates chocolate, I have enjoyed sharing tasting notes with him and geeking out about specific bars or makers (“you should try their Belize!”, “there’s too much cocoa butter in this one”). While I already I have such conversations on Instagram, there’s nothing like having them face-to-face with another chocolate-lover! But since many of you cannot travel to Kennett Square, I have asked Chris to tell us all more about his taste in chocolate.

1 – Tell us a bit about Philter Coffee.

Philter opened in Kennett Square, PA. in December, 2013. We are a hospitality-driven, specialty coffee cafe that takes a craft approach to brewing filter and espresso coffees. In addition, we offer a small menu of sandwiches and salads that are prepared with the same level of care.

Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

2 – Your shop carries a small selection of craft, bean-to-bar chocolate. What drew you to the world of craft chocolate?

I read an article about craft chocolate back in 2006. I’ve always loved food and searched for foods/ingredients that were prepared with intention. Back then, it was difficult to find true bean-to bar makers, so it was always a treat when I could get my hands on a great bar. Luckily for all of us there are many more makers to try now.

3 – What are some of the bars Philter currently offers to its customers?

I usually have four origin bars from Dick Taylor, three from Woodblock, three from Parliament, and two from Twenty Four Blackbirds. I personally don’t usually care for inclusions in a chocolate bar, but do get excited when I find one I like, and am happy to offer those. I find that people who aren’t familiar with properly crafted chocolate, may find the inclusion bars easier to approach. Then they’re hooked!

Photo credit: Chris Thompson, Philter Coffee

4 – What are you looking for when choosing chocolate? 

I have to say that I have never made chocolate before and I know that not everyone will agree with what I say below. These are just my thoughts on what makes a good bar and what has guided me in my selection offered at Philter.

I wanted to only feature true bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Additionally, I prefer a lighter roast profile that, in my opinion, highlights the natural sweetness of the cacao without getting to the roasty/ashy/dry flavors that I find off putting.

I find that I also prefer that there be no additives other than cane sugar. This includes additional cocoa butter. I understand that adding cocoa butter makes the chocolate easier to work with, but I find that it also changes the texture to be waxy and also blocks or mutes some of the more subtle nuances in a bars flavor.

I do make exceptions when I find an inclusion bar that highlights the flavor of the chocolate and not mask it. Some notable examples are: Dick Taylor’s black fig, Woodblock’s dark milk, and although I haven’t brought it in yet, Nathan Miller‘s buttermilk 55% buttermilk & Oko Caribe with Himalayan sea salt is fantastic!

There are other makers who I’d like to eventually work in. It’s mostly a spacial thing and it’s also hard to move someone out when they do such an amazing job.

Photo credit: Chris Thomspon, Philter Coffee

5 – Craft chocolate is typically a lot more expensive than its industrial counterpart. How do you address the questions your customers may have about the price of your bars?

I usually will tell the story of a small company of as little as one or two people who carefully source cacao from smaller farms based on specific flavor characteristics of the region and quality farming practices. If they seem interested still, I go into how the makers then take the cocoa from it’s “raw” form and take it through the multiple stages of processing until the have the finished chocolate. If I still have their interest, I’ll explain how each chocolate has a unique flavor that can only be brought out by careful roasting, and that comes from experience and a lot of trial and error.

6 – What are some of the chocolates you like to pair with coffee?

Sometimes we’ll have a bar and a coffee from the same origin, that’s always fun. But I encourage people to play with pairings and see what they like.

My French Book, v2.0

Estelle Livre Croissan
Look, I wrote a book!!

It’s been a little quiet here but for good reason: I launched the second edition of my French book! To say I am ecstatic is a huge understatement: from the content, updated after the “37 Chocolates” challenge, to the new cover, designed by Dan McShane, I am THRILLED at the improvements I have been able to bring to this edition. The book is a “food survival guide” for French expats in the US. It is written in French but printed in the US and, at the moment, exclusively sold online through a platform called Gumroad. It will make a great gift for the francophile in your life🙂

A bit of background on the book. When I moved from France to the US in 2002, nothing had prepared me for the cultural shock I experienced at the grocery store. Milk was sold in the refrigerated section, there was no crème fraîche but a product called “sour cream”, flour was “all-purpose”, yeast dehydrated, and baking powder sold in ginormous containers. The first time I went to a grocery store on my own, I spent 2 hours reading labels.

Parliament Chocolate, a California-based bean-to-bar maker

The idea for my food survival guide was born 10 years ago, after I shared the result of my research on American dairy and baking products on my French blog. These posts inspired an actual book, which I first released in 2015.  In my book, I walk expats through two of the most daunting aisles of an American grocery store, namely, the dairy and baking aisles, then help them pick meat, eggs, potatoes (nope, there’s no Russett overseas), organic food, and, of course, chocolate. My goal is to give expats the keys to understand their new food environment so they can spend less time at the grocery store and more time enjoying their new American life.

The “37 chocolates” challenge had started as an offshoot of the book: if you remember, on the first video, I mention stumbling upon a grumpy expat’s comment online, who was complaining that American chocolate was bad. “I’ll show you”, I thought, and, at the last minute, made US-made bean-to-bar chocolate the focus of my challenge.

Dick Taylor is a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker I recommend in my book

Today, I am particularly proud of the chocolate section of the book, which I believe provides a blueprint for a casual chocolate eater to expand their horizon and start dipping their toes into the world of handcrafted, single origin chocolate.If you already like Lindt and Endangered Species, why not look for Theo, then move on to TCHO? You could then give Olive and Sinclair a try,  move on to Dick Taylor, before sailing off to your next chocolate adventure.

The last three makers are the newest additions to the chocolate section. I selected them for their chocolate-making style, which I believe will please French palates, as much as for the American touch they bring to their bars.  I love that TCHO calls its chocolate “new American chocolate” or that Olive and Sinclair uses brown sugar to sweeten their bars. This is my favorite kind of food, food that embraces its roots, does not pretend to be what it’s not, and  I hope my readers will give these bars a try.

What I really wish, though? Find the grumpy expat to make him sit through my 37 reviews.