A few weeks ago, a chocolate tasting attendee asked me how I discover new chocolate-makers. Reluctantly, I told her about my chocolate agent Barb, aka @chocochaser on Instagram. In addition to being an awesome friend (she took me to my first mammogram), Barb crosses the country looking for new chocolate bars and bonbons to try. When she finds a gem, she mails me samples and we’ll connect on Zoom with another friend (hi, Abhi!) to share our impressions on the goods. Most recently, Barb has been quite excited about Odyssey Chocolate, a chocolate-maker based in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Oh my gosh, Estelle, his chocolate is SO good, I have to send you samples!”
A few days later, I received three shiny morsels of 70% dark chocolate. I can’t tell you what origin they were, but I remember everything about the tasting experience: the smooth texture, the bursting flavors, and the feeling of being transported on a flavor journey. This was the most magical dark chocolate I’d had in months.
I’ve had a lot more Odyssey Chocolate since those three bites and let me tell you this: John Epps is one maker to watch. You’ll agree after a first bite of his chocolate. Until then, I hope you enjoy this interview.
Thanks for answering my questions, John, please tell us how your chocolate odyssey started.
I always preferred chocolate over any kind of “candy” as a kid so there was already a tendency towards a more complex flavor compared to something that was just sweet. Then, shortly after I graduated college, I was working on another project for mixed use live-work egalitarian communities in Santa Fe. During that summer, I was hanging out in my neighbors backyard with a few friends when one of them said something like “the cacao was only for the kings,” and for some reason that really stuck with me, so I wanted to know why that was and began learning about the history of cacao, xocolatl, and also about the psychoactive properties of cacao. I started crushing up cacao beans into a paste using a coffee grinder then boiling almond milk over the stove mixing in the cacao with honey, chili peppers, and other herbs and spices. I started drinking this in the morning instead of coffee and it changed my life.
What do you mean by that?
Well this might sound a little crazy but it’s like something comes into you. A heart-opening energy. We’ve got scientific explanations for these things now but I came to see why cacao was so important in the ancient Mesoamerican societies. This is why I love talking to people who eat a LOT of chocolate because they know what I’m talking about.
I was working at a solar energy company at the time doing office work and sorting screws then across the street one day a sign went up “Cacao.” Of course I was intrigued so I knocked on the door where Derek [Lanter] and Melanie [Boudar] owners of Art of Chocolate were working on setting up their bean-to-bar store. I actually offered to work for them then, but they really didn’t need anyone at the time.
After they opened their shop, I would come over from the solar company to get a drink. A guy named Mark [Sciscenti] was now working there who was masterminding the recreation of ancient Mesoamerican drinking chocolate along with some other recipes that high society Europeans were drinking when cacao first came over sea.
This was my jam. I was always so excited when Mark or Derek came out with some new drink. They created a special button in their POS [Point of Sale] systems just for me to get a much larger than normal sipping chocolate.
Fast forward two years and I was interning with them. I started learning about making bean-to-bar and about how to make the mysterious flavors of those drinks.
How did you end up in Charlottesville?
That was actually an exact opposite kind of story from the last one. Moving to Charlottesville was a very calculated decision. I did a fair amount of travelling around looking for a place that wasn’t too big, wasn’t too small, decently close to my parents and most importantly of all a place that didn’t already have steep craft chocolate competition. The Southeast [of the US] is probably one of the least chocolate-dense regions as it is, but I had it in my mind that I wanted to be “THE Spot” for whatever area I decided to set up in, so Asheville for instance was off limits due to French Broad Chocolates.
So now please tell us about your bars, what’s the goal you’re trying to reach through your chocolate?
So, I’m vegan and have my reasons for not eating animal products so naturally Odyssey’s focus is on dark chocolate. Also, as someone who really appreciates the flavor and the heath benefits of straight cacao beans, I want to bring as much of that into my bars as possible. I don’t focus on high sugar bars or add cocoa butter to my regular line because I really want my chocolate to be as healthy as possible. I also really want Odyssey to be able to take people on a journey just like the name suggests. The origins I work with are all specifically selected based on having very unique flavors. The last thing I’d want is for two of my bars to be nearly indistinguishable from each other. If I’m doing my job right, I shouldn’t need to label any melangers with what origin is in them. I only need to dip in a tasting spoon and know “oh that’s obviously X origin because nothing else I have tastes anything like it.”
At the end of the day I don’t follow any trends or pick a bean because a lot of makers are using it or something. I go after origins that are unique, and sometimes that hunt isn’t easy. For example I’m winnowing Venezuelan Chuao today for it’s premiere regular-line batch. It took me over a year of searching to find a way to get this origin.
I understand you sell your bars at Charlottesville Farmers Market, how has the local community responded to your bars so far?
It’s been pretty great. It was definitely interesting starting my first business then a couple months later getting hit with lockdowns and a worldwide pandemic, but the community here has been so supportive. I remember I launched the website last March and then in April I made a post in a mutual-aid Charlottesville Facebook group and told my story there. I’ve still to this day never topped the sales that came in that month. All from local people who wanted me to succeed and make it through this pandemic. It showed me that people here really care. And I have to give a shout out to all my regular chocoholics at the market too!
What are your best-selling bars?
So many people are obsessed with the Idukki Hills for its intense tanginess. I also really love including it in tastings with people because it’s so different from what people expect to taste with chocolate.
Ben Tre is just immaculate. I love this origin from its flavor to its texture and mouthfeel. A lot of times people ask me what my favorites are and Ben Tre is usually on that list which definitely accounts for some of the boost in sales for that bar.
You make me hungry.
My Monster bar was born out of a need for a vegan milk chocolate bar. I essentially came to the realization at one point that I didn’t really need a replacement for the milk itself because I didn’t need to actually mask anything in the chocolate, I just needed to make it less intense and sweeter, so I took my most gentle origin (which at the time was Catongo from and now it’s Chuao) mixed it with a bit of Uganda for the familiar flavor of an earthy origin, then added in Ecuadorian vanilla, sugar and a bit more cocoa butter to house it all, and BAM I couldn’t stop eating so I thought I’d created a monster!
The best thing about the Monster bar is that the flavor grows. What I mean is that it’s sweet but has a long finish. Milk chocolate doesn’t really have that because of the actual milk.
I actually have a bar that’s been in the works for a long time now that’s going to be “The Penelope” I plan on it having its own packaging and everything. I plan on doing that for the Monster bar as well. Penelope will be a blend at 90% and it’s gonna be amazing.
So it sounds like you’ve been really honing your craft and focused on making a good product. Do you consider your business successful?
What I would say is that it’s a mindset. I started last year with essentially nothing, and now I have so much more in every way imaginable from equipment to customers to packaging to a certain small level of recognition, and I’m of the mindset that I’m very much still starting this business. It’s been a year and three months. The progress that has been made greatly outweighs the uncertainty to me. I feel like I’m pushing the right buttons.
The name of your company is Odyssey… so where do you want to take us?
Well where I really want to take everyone is a journey of a topic in and of itself. The vision for Odyssey Chocolate is to set up a full fledged bar/lounge in Charlottesville where we make the chocolate and serve drinking chocolate elixirs as an alternative to “going out for drinks.” I really want to make a place where people want to come on a date, with their friends, or with their families to relax in a warm colorful environment. I really want to introduce more people to the ancient drinking chocolate recipes. Of course there will also be factory tours, tastings, samples, kids classes all that kind of stuff, but what I really envision looks a lot like a bar where alcohol has been replaced by cacao.
If I can bring this business to high enough level of success I’m going to transform it into something completely different – the income source for an egalitarian community much like Twin Oaks just 30 minutes from Charlottesville. To make clear what that means and why I’m a crazy person: that means I’ll build up this business to as big as I can make it and then give it away. This is my actual biggest goal in life. To make a chocolate community.
Do you have an anecdote to share about a customer reaction when trying your bars?
There was one time a blind woman came up to my stand at the farmer’s market. I told her what I sell and she expressed that she likes to put a little chocolate in her coffee. I gave her a sample and she got really quiet and had a sort of serious look on her face. She told me “I can’t put this in my coffee. That would be a waste. This is too intense. I don’t think you would be able to understand, but as a blind person this is transporting me somewhere – to a different place.” And that’s what Odyssey Chocolate is all about.
Order Odyssey Chocolate at http://www.odysseychocolate.com.
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