Interview with John Nanci, Founder of Chocolate Alchemy

John Nanci. Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy.

Considering how popular chocolate is in the Western world, it has remained surprisingly mysterious. Think about it. How many of us actually know how chocolate is made? Or what role each ingredient plays in a bar? And do you know why some bars include soy lecithin and others don’t? Up until last year, I really did not have an answer to any  of these questions and, as I started exploring the world of craft chocolate, my list of questions only grew longer. Thankfully, it did not take long before the name of John Nanci was brought up to me by several craft chocolate-makers.

Referred by the New York Times as “the godfather of kitchen-counter chocolatiering“, John Nanci is the founder of Chocolate Alchemy, a company  credited for helping launch the careers of many chocolate-makers. Because “knowledgeable” and “generous” are the two words most commonly used to refer to John, I have asked him a few questions to help us all understand the very basics of chocolate.

Please tell us a little about Chocolate Alchemy: what is your company’s mission?

My company mission?  The over reaching mission is to make chocolate making approachable and accessible to everyone.  Both for DIY types, people who love to make things from scratch and those that want to take it to the next level.  How I do that is through making ALL of my information free and available.  Knowledge should be shared.  There are no trade secrets here and I encourage others to share what they know also.  We all benefit from paying it forward.  After that I have made it my goal to have all the equipment and selection of beans so that people can get everything they need, regards of size, to go from bean to bar chocolate.

How did you develop a passion for making chocolate? 

This is one of my open secrets.  I actually don’t have a passion for chocolate.  I mean, chocolate is good and I enjoy it, but it in of itself isn’t what drives me.  I have a passion for discovery, teaching, learning, building, creating, exploration, and helping others find those passions in themselves and supporting it however I can. Chocolate Alchemy lets me do that.  In short, my passion is for problem solving.

John Nanci shooting a video series teaching how to make chocolate. Photo Credit: Chocolate Alchemy

The term “craft chocolate” is currently not regulated. How would you define craft chocolate?

To me craft chocolate is chocolate made with intent.  I might be able to argue that it is where one person has a hand in every step of the process of creation.  It might not be any more or less than that. To expand a little though, it has little to do with scale.  Someone that pours beans in a hypothetical machine, pushes a few buttons and chocolate comes out the next day isn’t making craft chocolate even if it is only one pound. Alternatively, some that is using 3 bag (500 lb) roaster, watching the controls, who has personally formulated the chocolate and decides when it is done is still craft as they have their hands in it.  Intent.

What is the difference between the cacao used in industrial chocolate and the cacao that you carry?

How is my cocoa different from “industrial”?  It goes back to 3).  Intent.  Sometimes what I carry is exactly the same cocoa.  What is different is that I have evaluated it blind and chosen it on its own merits. I’ve not picked it because of a cut test or a spec sheet.  I’ve roasted, winnowed, and made chocolate from it evaluating it at every step.  That said, I carry both conventional (“industrial”) cocoa and specialty cocoa, the later generally coming from smaller coop and farmer holdings. Often those later beans have been prepared, again, with intent.  But at the same time, I’ve rejected many a specialty bean because it didn’t stand on its own merits.

Cocoa bean from Peru (Norandino). Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy

A lot of bean-to-bar craft chocolates only contain two three ingredients: cacao beans, cane sugar, and sometimes cocoa butter. Industrial chocolate, on the other hand, often contains cocoa butter, but also vanilla, and soy lecithin. Could you briefly explain the role of these ingredients? How do they impact the taste and/or texture of the chocolate?

First off I have to tell you how pleased I didn’t see wax, oils and other things in your list. I hear way too much about how those are in ‘most’ consumer chocolate and it just isn’t true.  So thanks for that.  As for the others, I’ll address lecithin first.  And I’ll say outright that I see nothing wrong with it. And I’d challenge near anyone to tell from taste or texture whether it was present.

It plays 2-3  roles and depending on your process, makers can decide whether to use it or not.   Most people think of it as an emulsifier. That is really only true if you are making an emulsion, or a homogeneous mixture of a water and an oil. That isn’t chocolate. Chocolate is oil-based, so it doesn’t need any emulsifier per se. But it does use part of that property.  It helps bind trace amounts of water that can either be present still in the chocolate or bind water that comes in from the atmosphere. In either case, when it ties up the water, the viscosity of the chocolate is reduced and tempering and molding become easier.  If you don’t have a viscosity or water issue, there is no need for it. The other reason it is used has to do with shelf life and transportation times and temperatures.  In short it helps chocolate resist blooming to some degree. If your craft chocolate is sold locally, consumed quickly and/or just doesn’t show signs of having tempering or bloom issues, it is again of no benefit.  The history is that many commercial large scale chocolate did and do travel great distances and hang around a while.  The lecithin can help keep it presentable to the consumer.

Vanilla. I don’t have a great answer here. Tradition is what I would say. Why do we add it to so many baked goods?  Tradition?  How did it become tradition?  I can only assume, and I am only guessing here, is that at some point someone added it to a recipe and found it to their liking. Heck, I like vanilla. I put it in my chocolate sometimes. Most of the time I don’t.  Sometimes it’s added because so many people simply associate the flavor, even very low, with chocolate and when missing, people can find the chocolate ‘lacking’.   Honestly it can annoy me to hear people preaching down on vanilla.  It isn’t fair and it can be condescending playing up the ‘purity’ of two ingredients by putting others down.  My take is make and eat what you like.  If it contains vanilla (or whatever else) and you like it, then that is all that matter.  You and that chocolate are not lesser for it.  It’s about enjoyment.  On the flip side, I agree with getting outside your boundaries and trying chocolate that is ‘just’ cocoa and sugar.  Just don’t get to thinking you are better than ‘the masses’ eating (and enjoying) their chocolate that has other things.  Be open minded and enjoy what you are eating and accept others have different tastes and that different is NOT inferior because it is different.  Ok, so maybe I did have a bit to say.

Looking back at your question, I would say using vanilla with a heavy hand, out of the gate, leads to the potential of masking what the chocolate can offer on its own and my preference is to start simple, cocoa and sugar, and only add vanilla and lecithin if the need is there. Basically, if it isn’t broken don’t fix it.

Milk chocolate in the making. Photo credit: Chocolate Alchemy.

Cocoa butter.  There are three things I want to address here. First, it is purely optional. At least in higher percentage chocolate. Chocolate needs about 30-35% fat to flow well in a refiner. Given that a bean is around 50% cocoa butter, that means if you drop under 60-70% cocoa mass in your chocolate some extra cocoa butter is going to be needed just for practical purposes. After that, and a little counter intuitively, a touch (2-5%) cocoa butter can actually heighten a chocolate’s flavor as it helps the chocolate dissolve faster in the mouth leading to the impression it is more flavorful. It is basically the same effect if you were to eat a spoonful of granulated sugar vs a piece of rock candy.  Both are basically 100% sugar, but the rock candy doesn’t give that burst of flavor. I personally add 5% cocoa butter to all my chocolate for that reason. More after that amount can be added to change the mouth feel of the chocolate and is just a personal choice of the maker.  The final thing I want to talk about is what I see as some makers going over board.  I’ve heard it going around that certain makers are making a big deal about how others chocolates are not true single origin chocolate, and are implied (or stated outright) to be inferior, because of the use of a couple percentage points of cocoa butter from an origin that does not match the bean.  In my opinion “Single Origin” is just to make it clear you are not blending your beans.  Such, I can technically I can see that a “single origin” bar from Ecuador isn’t “pure” if it has 3% cocoa butter from the Dominican Republic, but I have to ask, so what?  Sure, the cocoa butter, by its nature is changing the chocolate a little, but you can’t get me to believe it’s making it inferior because it’s from a different origin.  There just isn’t reason to make this distinction to my mind.

During my challenge, I discovered you sold equipment and ingredients to make chocolate at home. What advice would you have for someone looking to invest in chocolate-making equipment for their home kitchen?

I guess the main thing to advise is to decide how deep you want to get and what your work to money ratio is.  Basically you can fully outfit yourself to make chocolate very easily, but it isn’t super cheap. Alternatively, with purchased roasted nibs and a melanger, the bare minimum, you are ready to go.  After you get comfortable, take steps backwards.  Raw nibs. Roasted bean. Raw beans. Becoming proficient with each stage (and new piece of equipment) before moving on.  And as odd as it sounds, accept you need a melanger. It’s so hard to hear the tales of people struggling to make blenders, mixers, and other things work that I’ve tested and failed with and at the end of the day spending more on ruined equipment than just starting off right.  Granted I was initially told you could not make chocolate at home, but that is totally different from being told a specific piece of equipment won’t work and you thinking you can make it work.  Oh, and ask LOTS of questions.  It is why I am here.  I do my best to answer everything that comes in in a timely fashion.  But do at least a little homework first. “How do I make chocolate?” probably isn’t the best first question if you catch my meaning.

Thank you, John, for taking the time to answer my questions.

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17 thoughts on “Interview with John Nanci, Founder of Chocolate Alchemy

  1. Thank you for making this interview public. I’ve enjoyed keeping tabs on Mr. Nanci since I found his website a year ago and even now, with this article I’m still learning little tidbits. Very well done!

  2. I’m actually bookmarking this page because it opened my eyes about why some chocolate has only three ingredients and more about chocolate making from a professional’s point of view. Your questions were so good and helped answer some of my own! I’ll definitely be referring back to this post!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, I also loved John’s answers and I am so glad I was able to get his answers before digging deeper into the world of chocolate.

  3. A very resourceful interview ! I love the way John speaks about his craft, selflessly ! A great man.

  4. […] In 2008, a friend took me out to SOMA for my birthday, where I was doing a contract. I looked up other bean-to-bar makers after a quick conversation with David Castellan [co-founder of SOMA chocolatemaker,] who told me other makers might be free of allergens. A cousin is allergic to both nuts and soy, and grew up without good chocolate. Two weeks later I was home and getting a grinder from Chocolate Alchemy. […]

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