Interview with Tamara LaValla, Chocolate-Maker and Co-founder, Batch (Rock Hill, South Carolina)

Tamara LaValla
Tamara LaValla. Photo credit: Batch

A few months ago, I became obsessed with this song by Maggie Rogers. Its unlikely combination of folk and dance music is so hypnotic, I played it on repeat for weeks — even my kids started begging for it. The young singer-songwriter wrote this song while attending New York University, two weeks before a serendipitous masterclass with Pharell Williams launched her career. I found the recording of the session after falling into a YouTube rabbit hole one night and I’ve watched it a dozen times since. I think you should, too.

Pharrell ended up loving the song. He explains why on the video.

“Wow. Wow. I have zero, zero, zero notes for that. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because you’re doing your own thing….And I felt like your whole story I can hear it in the music. I can hear your journey.”

He illustrates his point by talking about Reese’s cups. Yes, I am serious.

“Chocolate on its own is amazing!… But so is peanut butter!… But somehow someone said (claps hands) and one of the most amazing things happened. Two things made a third. And that’s what happens when you allow two beautiful worlds to collide….”

What Pharrel seeks in music, I seek in chocolate. Bold makers doing their own thing, exploring unchartered, sometimes unpopular territories. Confident artists colliding two worlds to make a delicious third. These are the people you read about here. Remember Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate? She combines poetry with chocolate and makes grown-ups weep. Paul John Kearins of Chocolatasm is another one. He brings his deep olfactory memory to his chocolates and boom! Rhubarb and sage bonbons. Today’s interviewee, Tamara LaValla, is another, brilliant maker doing her own, beautiful thing. Let me introduce her.

Tamara LaValla’s a visual artist and half of the husband-and-wife duo behind Batch, a bean-to-bar company based in South Carolina. The couple makes chocolate bars in teeny little batches (as in 160 bars per batch), released as ephemeral collections. After gushing at their Instagram for two years, talking to Tamara on Skype (she has the most beautiful voice), and trying a few bars myself, I’ve been intrigued by their recent release, Batch 12. One of the bars especially caught my eye.

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This is a 40% white + chocolate charcoal bar. For real. Photo credit: Batch.

I ordered three and inhaled one (yes, I know, slow down and whatnot but what can I say, Batch 12 got the best of me.) This bar is a pure illustration of bringing two things together to make a beautiful and delicious third that’s creamy and tastes like coconut. Good thing I have two more left.

It’s hard to categorize Tamara’s work. When she’s not making gorgeous, tasty chocolate, she creates art in her studio and co-hosts a retreat for women of the chocolate industry. Tamara’s doing her own thing, which makes her cool, unique, intriguing and thus, the perfect guest for an interview. I think Pharrell would approve.

Judging from your Instagram and blog, it’s obvious you live a very creative life; what place does chocolate currently occupy in your life?

That’s a fantastic question, something I try to get better at figuring out on an almost daily basis. I currently describe myself as an artist and OCD chocolate maker. In fact, it was my foray into chocolate that finally gave me the push to get back into my art studio full time.

I’ve been making art my whole life, have had the great fortune of being able to make a living as a creative and so certainly defined myself as an artist. But, it wasn’t until I started showing up to places and people would say, “Oh, you’re Tamara from Batch, the chocolate lady!” that I realized it was time to get serious about figuring out the roles that both art and chocolate had in my life.

As for the OCD…

I’m learning to embrace my natural tendencies which means I’ve had to say no to many opportunities (retail, subscription boxes, partnerships) in order to leave enough time to really care and obsess over each Batch as a true work of art.

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Photo credit: Batch

You see chocolate as art which, just like a painting, is rooted in a time and place. Your batches are often inspired by your travels (I still remember the trip to Portugal… and the batch inspired by it… my fave!). Can you walk us through the creative process behind each batch?

In the beginning (4 years ago) each batch was an experiment with different origins to get a better understanding of different flavor and texture profiles and to help us develop a palate for what was, and still can be, some very unusual flavors.

As we traveled more often, and for longer periods of time, we were inevitably inspired to integrate the foods, experiences and interactions we had along the way in our chocolate — and art — making.

Today, a new Batch is very much a reflection of where we are physically and creatively in the world. Often a direct response to a recent travel adventure but always influenced by a connection to people, places and experiences that move us.

These batches have become a record of our travel, sketchbooks for our work as artists and, I really believe, love letters to one another.

Tamara Zan
Photo credit: Batch

This is from the site: “Batch 12 is inspired by a recent winter retreat to the high desert of New Mexico. Experimenting with new paintings by day and curled up by a raging fire at night, this artful release is a reflection of that sweet sojourn.”

Can you talk about the smoked nibs bar? What was the inspiration behind it?

Zan is an avid outdoorsman and I’ve always enjoyed his love for making and stoking a raging fire. This winter, in New Mexico, he was so excited to rise each morning and build a fire. He kept it steady all day long until we relaxed by it, together, each night, after a long day of painting and drawing for me. When we talked about what memory we wanted to recreate from the trip, the idea of the sweet smokey smell from the fires was at the top of the list which gave us the idea for smoking the nibs.

Sometimes we go into a trip with the intention of searching out an inclusion — for example, we knew we would drive around Mt. Etna in Sicily to see pistachios at their source — and sometimes we don’t know until after we’re home and have had a chance to look back at the trip and talk about what we want to highlight and share.

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Photo credit: Batch

Camino Verde is an origin you seem particularly fond of. What drew you especially to those beans?

After trying more than a dozen origins, Camino always rose to the top for me. I think partly because I wasn’t already into super dark chocolate and the flavors were really accessible — how I would’ve described chocolate (or, at least, the chocolate I preferred) before I even had the vocabulary to do so: a little nutty, a little fudgey, not sharp or tannic or overly fruity. It also worked really well with a lot of different types of inclusions we were using — coffee, salt, etc — and allowed us to improve our craft as we slowly explored other favorite cacao origins.

I was able to meet Vicente (Norero) during a trip to Ecuador last year and almost passed out when he tried one of our Camino bars and gave it high praise!

Batch Wrapper Close-Ups
Photo credit: Batch

Your batches are ephemeral, which makes me wonder: have you ever considered making a specific bar or batch part of a permanent collection?

I have thought about it, briefly, from time to time. It would certainly make more sense from a business perspective but…

If I’m being honest with myself, it’s the ephemeral nature of each release that makes it so exhilarating and precious for me. I hope that it might be the same for some of our fans too. There is something really interesting about using my skills as an artist — where I am generally concerned with creating something archival that will long outlast my own life — with making something artful that encapsulates a fleeting experience and will be consumed then gone forever.

I love the idea of crafting a chocolate bar that first celebrates, then becomes, a memory.

Also, ephemeral is one of my favorite words and I have this weird thing for when certain words are used at certain times in my life…

I was so excited to see a white chocolate as part of Batch 12. What prompted you to create it? Will there be more white chocolate in the future?

Believe it or not, the white chocolate bar was the first time I ever wanted to make something (food) because I had a vision of how I wanted it to look before having a “reason” to make it. Because I am an artist and “make things look good” for a living, I was reluctant to place an emphasis on what our molds or packaging or brand “looked” like from the start. I didn’t want to seduce people with an impressive design then disappoint them with a mediocre-tasting product. I think I was also trying to avoid people saying, “oh, another small batch craft chocolate maker with no food experience who’s going to rely on a fancy wrapper and photography to go where she doesn’t belong…”

What finally allowed me to make this bar was feeling that, after 4 years of making chocolate, we’d figured out how to deliver on quality and taste and that it was okay to make a gorgeous bar. So, Batch 12 is a reflection of our New Mexico trip and I was making these black and white paintings during the trip that inspired the design of the bar. It was really satisfying to finally unite my chocolate making and my art making. I didn’t need to abandon one for the other but, instead, could fully embrace Art is Food is Art.

Side note: I also thought we’d have snow in the high desert — which would’ve been represented by the white chocolate — plus the burnt coals from the fire, represented by the charcoal.

Spoiler alert: it never snowed.

I’m going to do a pistachio white chocolate next and see how that goes.

I didn’t get the paste from Italy this time but found a place in California and we are about to fly to California for a three-week drive up and down the coast from San Francisco to Seattle and back.

Women in Chocolate retreat
Photo credit: Batch

You’re currently organizing the second Mujeres Milagros retreat for the women of the chocolate industry. What’s your vision behind it? What were some of the high points of the first edition?

I’m at a place in my life where I’ve learned the importance of slowing down, looking up from my work, recharging. The idea of conferences and networking events and pop-ups seemed counter to that but when the idea of creating a “retreat” in the desert with Lauren [Heineck of WKND Chocolate and the Well Tempered podcast] and Sophia [Contreras Rea of Projet Chocolat] arose, I knew immediately it was right.

The high points from last year were, in no particular order: the women, the women, the women.

I have always avoided anything geared toward “women only” so, initially I was nervous as hell but it has, without a doubt, changed my perspective on that forever.

So of course you’re back for another!

With bells on!

Why were you avoiding women only stuff?

Ha, so many reasons. I grew up around soooo many women. I’m one of 4 girls and all my cousins were female so I loved women but felt that society taught us to be fiercely competitive with each other in less than healthy ways. Also, I felt like women were seen as “less than” and wanted desperately to prove that I could do anything a man could do and that I didn’t need a safe, man-free space to thrive.

Mujeres Milagros really showed me that things are changing. We don’t “need” to have a woman-only space to thrive, we “get” to create that space if we so desire. The space is not better than a co-ed space but it is most certainly different and it is those differences that support the heart of what Mujeres Milagros is about.

Tamara, it’s been real. Thank you for your time. I wish all of your endeavors a lot of success.

Find Batch chocolate online at batchcraft.com. For more on Tamara’s background and find out how she and her husband launched Batch, listen to the first episode of the Well Tempered podcast.

The 2018 Mujeres Milagros retreat will take place June 10-14, 2018 in Sante Fe, New Mexico. For more information and register, check out the Hacienda Doña Andrea website.

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Interview with William Marx, Founder, Wm. Chocolate

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Owner William Marx winnowing cacao beans. Photo credit: Wm.  Chocolate

Chocolate conferences are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Last month, I had the pleasure to meet William (Will) Marx, founder of Wm. Chocolate at the Fine Chocolate Industry Association New York City conference. He came across as hardworking and humble, and I could not wait to try his chocolate.

A week later, on the other side of the country, Pashmina of  the Choco Rush subscription box told me how fantastic his Belize bar was. We thought it would be great to interview Will for the company’s blog. Well, the interview is now up and I think you’ll appreciate his views on the use of unrefined sugar. You can find the interview here.

Now, tell me, have you had his chocolate? What are your thoughts on using unrefined sugars?

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

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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.”

She?

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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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Interview with Laurie Rice, Founder of Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

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70% Guatemala bar by Dulcinea Craft Chocolate. That bit of acidity will awaken your taste buds.

When I committed to review 37 US-made chocolates by my 37th birthday last year, a lot of people asked me if it was even possible to find that many to review. The answer? You bet! Just look for #beantobar #craftchocolate  on Instagram and you’ll soon appreciate the diversity of the chocolate-making scene in this country. One thing you’ll even notice is the concentration of chocolate-making companies in California. Dick Taylor, Dandelion Chocolate, and LetterPress Chocolate, to name a few, are all based on the West Coast. Living in Pennsylvania, I was actually hoping to discover more makers in my state, which I did last fall.

After tasting Robert Campbell’s creations for Chocolate Alchemist in October, I stumbled upon Dulcinea Craft Chocolate’s Instagram account. I quickly fell in love with the sense of aesthetics of the maker (I was mesmerized by this picture) and put Dulcinea Craft Chocolate‘s bars on my “to-try” list. Laurie actually sent me three bars for me to sample in late 2015 and two words come to mind  to describe her work: Love and Respect. Watch my review of her Guatemala bar to learn more.

Because I wanted to hear more about Laurie’s chocolate story, I asked her to answer a few questions for the blog. I think you’ll really enjoy meeting her.

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Photo credit: Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

What prompted you to start making chocolate?

I’ve always been a maker – even as a child. And coming from a large Italian family, I understood at an early age that food equals love. It’s hard to say for certain what put me on this path – it really was more like a calling I just couldn’t get out of my head.

In the 90’s I saw a documentary about cacao farmers. Until then, I’m ashamed to say, I never thought about where chocolate came from – or at whose expense. Then in 2008 I discovered Askinosie. I fell in love with their bars and the company’s ethos. It was my first introduction to craft chocolate. Taza was another company I admired – making a rustic and wonderful chocolate while positively impacting the lives of cacao farmers. Then a few years later the Mast Brothers were featured on a program called Food Crafters. I know there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding them lately, but at the end of their segment they asked a question that struck a cord with me, “Why can’t every town have their own chocolate maker?” Those words really resonated with me.

Then, on Christmas morning, 2011, my daughter and I took off for Paris on a whim. We had two buddy passes, our passports, two carry-ons, and a translation app. It was the craziest, most impulsive thing I’d ever done in my life -and it changed everything.

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Photo credit: Laurie Rice

Sometimes we spend so much of our time doing what is expected – Paris was completely unexpected. We wandered the city in amazement of the sights, the streets, the patisseries, the art! We laughed. We ate. We sipped chocolat chaud. And on our last morning, our concierge treated us to warm pain au chocolat fresh off the delivery truck. Paris awakened my courage. It reminded me of who I was – what I was capable of. And now, it was sending me off with chocolate. This was my sign. It was as if that flaky little pastry whispered, Life is short. What are you waiting for? I did three things when I came home. First, I enrolled at Ecole Chocolat. Next, I stopped coloring my hair. Finally, when the school year ended, I submitted my letter of resignation. And I’ve never looked back.

The name of your company was inspired by Don Quixote. Can you tell us more about it?

My husband is an historic preservationist. A few years ago he was trying to save a landmark home from the wrecking ball. His effort became a quest of sorts so a friend jokingly called him Don Quixote of Beaver. This was right around the time I was looking for a name for the company. Dulcinea is Don Quixote’s love. She becomes the inspiration behind his quest for justice and honor. My husband and I have a great deal of love and respect for cacao farmers, and also for each other, so the name seemed to fit perfectly.

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Maybe my favorite bar by Dulcinea Craft Chocolate. It draws a subtle smile on my face.

You used to work as an assistant librarian. How has that career influenced your approach to chocolate making?

For starters, it certainly helped in doing my research.

But every time we work with our hands, we tell a story – we share a piece of ourselves. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Our individual life experiences influence everything we do. If you think about it, millions of books are written each year using only twenty-six letters of the alphabet and the writer’s perspective. Instead of the alphabet, chocolate makers have cacao. We may work with the same beans, but like a novel, the end product will never be the same. Stories reflect the writer’s voice – their particular point of view. Craft chocolate does that too.

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Photo credit: Dulcinea Craft Chocolate

Your sense of aesthetics – minimalist, yet timeless and romantic – really stands out in the world of craft chocolate. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

That’s a lovely compliment.

Well… my home is filled with books and photographs, broken clocks and old typewriters, copper pots and a few antiques, snippets of fabric, and lots and lots of art supplies. These are some of the things I love so I guess you can say they also inspire me.

While craft beer has gone mainstream in our part of the country, this has not been the case for craft chocolate – I know a lot of people who still see chocolate as candy. What are some of your customers’ reactions when they sample you chocolate for the first time?

There is definitely a sense of surprise and delight when someone tastes craft chocolate for the first time. People are amazed by the flavors they discover. I love explaining how cacao, like wine grapes and coffee beans, picks up flavors from the environment in which it’s grown.

But it’s even more exciting to see kids taste, and like, our chocolate. Helping people, especially children, connect with their food is an amazing thing. It’s one of the perks of being a chocolate maker.

Thank you, Laurie, for taking time away from the beans to answer my questions. 

Dulcinea Craft Chocolate is located in Beaver, Pennsylvania, right outside of Pittsburgh. Click here for a list of retailers.

Interview with John Nanci, Founder of Chocolate Alchemy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Interview with Mackenzie Rivers, founder of Map Chocolate

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers
This interview was originally published on my French blog, but I think it will feel more at home here. Map Chocolate is one of  my favorite chocolate-makers. Any bars by Map Chocolate would be a wonderful introduction to the world of craft chocolate.
I discovered Map Chocolate while researching craft chocolate-makers on Instagram. At the time, the only chocolate I consumed was mass-produced, mostly because I had a few favorite brands and was not sold on the idea of spending $8-$10 on a small chocolate bar. However, I did want to make the leap to the world of craft chocolate, so I went looking for makers to lead me there. I turned to Instagram to discover the world of small makers. I saw grinders and melangeurs, shiny tempered chocolate and bloomed chocolate that reminded you of moon craters. I discovered LetterPress Chocolate and Dick Taylor, Violet Sky and Acalli.

Right when I started my “37 Chocolates” challenge, I stumbled upon Map Chocolate’s Instagram account. I fell in love with the maker’s sense of aesthetics, the composition of her photos, which was pretty, but not precious. Did I mention the captions? I read them like poetry.

When I went to Map Chocolate’s website, it became obvious that Map Chocolate was chocolate with a soul. Yes, its chocolate is made of organic cacao from small cacao farmers and no, it does not contain any lecithin, but that’s not all. I read the chocolate descriptions like chapters of a novel and, for the first time, I did not feel intimidated when reading about single origin cacao. I did not know a thing about the difference between a cacao from Belize, Madagascar, or Tumbes in Peru, but I suddenly wanted to know more. I knew right then that $8 would get me chocolate and a map I would gladly want to follow.

Please tell us about Map Chocolate. 

It was the beans that drew me in. I walked into the Chocolate Alchemy warehouse and was so shocked–I had no idea that chocolate did not just come from one type of cocoa bean. Or that there were so many types of beans, grown in so many places. The fact that there is not just “one” bean, from one place, is incredible, because it means there is not “one” chocolate. Which meant, why the heck does it all mostly taste the same? Aside from Theo, I had never tried craft chocolate, so I went from seeing the beans to saying “I want to make chocolate.”

To me, this is what craft chocolate offers: chocolate as something real, not the idea of chocolate as one standardized flavor. That was a year and a half ago; I made chocolate for nine months before I made the leap into opening my online shops. I gave a lot away to family and friends to try, my son and his friends ate it every day, I threw out mistakes, and loved every minute. I was at a crossroads in my life and during that nine months I started working for Chocolate Alchemy (the “father” of bean-to-bar craft chocolate) and every day I would ask John a question about beans or roasting, the chemistry behind chocolate, equipment, etc. He is like the Wikipedia of chocolate! I became immersed in the world of small batch chocolate making, and the world of beans. So I have been very fortunate to have people encouraging me and believing in what I am doing, willing to taste my chocolate, and to give me, a new chocolate maker, a try. And that is why my company is called Map Chocolate: map stands for Mackenzie and People. No boundaries, finding open roads, and each of us discovering our path. I am thrilled every time I send out a bar.

And as a side note: when I was looking for molds I wanted square ones. I found my molds and when they arrived from Belgium (possibly the smallest order they’d ever had, I bought a total of 3, and could make 6 bars at a time), the invoice had the name of the mold listed as Scheherazade. She is the narrator storyteller behind the ancient stories A Thousand and One Arabian Nights…that seemed like a good sign.

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

Could you give us a glimpse into a day at Map Chocolate? Is there such thing as a typical day when you are a chocolate-maker?

Because I work part time at Chocolate Alchemy (John supplies and makes bean to bar equipment, beans + supplies, and information), as well as being the sole proprietor of Map I have to be efficient and try to stick to a schedule. I divide the basic chocolate making over 3 days, then fill in everything else in the mornings and evenings. One day is for roasting, making test batches, and making my sipping chocolates. Roasting is when I often get my inspiration for my bars, because at this point it is truly about the beans; I get the first hints of what chocolate the beans might become, and, for me, it is the area that requires the most skill and intuition. I use a barrel roaster, which also gives me a good way to gauge the roast depending on the aroma, and how it changes and shifts during the roast. The second day I reserve for tempering/molding bars, and nothing else; I still hand-temper, so there’s a lot going on that day. The third day is for wrapping bars and creating my wrappers, and then on day four I try to fill orders, box, and ship. The actual melanging/conching takes place 24/7. I built my website and do all the maintenance/uploading products, and I create my packaging, which I fit in early in the mornings. If I were an animal I would be a mule: stubborn, persistent, not afraid to work, a bit quirky, often with a mind of its own. But “Mule Chocolate” does not have the same ring 🙂

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

Your sense of aesthetics and product descriptions are one of the things that set Map Chocolate from other chocolate-makers. Which are some of the artists and writers that inspire you?

Always in the back of my head is advice about writing by Ernest Hemingway: say one true thing. I want this to come through in what I am making, as well as what I write. I think his quote is from A Moveable Feast. I try to write and stay true to what the voice in my head is saying, and if it feels difficult or a struggle then I know that is a sign that I am not listening, and it isn’t true to my voice. I hope that what I write will open a window, not necessarily point a route to a certain path. As a chocolate maker I’m just a guide: I choose the bean, decide the %, craft it to what I think tastes good, and choose how it will be presented, but then it leaves my hands. Chocolate might be a small thing, but I think there is something amazing about it beyond taste that not only makes us happy, but carries within it the journey of the bean, and awakens memories. This is the story part of it for me, and what I love is that I might say “notes of lemon and birdsong” but then every person has their own notion of what that bird might sound like. Or maybe they will then ask themselves, what would that taste like?

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

I love the seasonality of some of your chocolate collections – I have a soft spot for the Squirrel Stash – could you share some of the chocolate creations you are working on for this winter?

I love creating collections! They came about because the truth for me is that big bars of chocolate can be daunting, and not just the price. What if I take a bite and I don’t like it? what if I unwrap it and now I’m faced with this big bar and I don’t want it to go to waste? And when I was first trying craft chocolate, how was I supposed to choose an Ecuador Camino Verde over a Bolivia? What exactly does a Bolivia mean when it comes to chocolate? The packaging out there implies the buyer must already know what an Ecuador tastes like, and the typical tasting notes only help perpetuate and widen this chasm. There is no reference point; for me, when I eat chocolate it takes me somewhere, either back in time or clarifies the present moment. I want to share this with the people who are trying my chocolate. Also, the flip side of that is that I selfishly don’t want to just make (or eat) the same old thing, and I think chocolate is as seasonal as any real food. So, for this year I have a 25 piece collection for the holidays that is inspired by the winter sky (various hues of dark, a few flickers of bright, and alpenglow will all be in there) a small 9-piece collection inspired by Admiral Byrd called Packing List: Antarctica (he had chocolate and coffee on his packing list), and another small set called The Tip of the Iceberg which features nine different salts atop one origin.

Photo credit: Mackenzie Rivers

Craft chocolate can be expensive. In my experience, many people (I was one of them) feel intimidated by the idea of spending $10 for 2-3 oz of fine chocolate. Some argue their palate is not as refined to appreciate the experience of fine chocolate. As a craft chocolate-maker, what words would you have for someone who is about to dip their toes in the water of craft chocolate?

It all begins with intention. I think that is the gift of anything handcrafted: our intentions shape the world, so if we buy something handcrafted, or from a small farmer who might have actually been the person who lovingly pruned the apple trees, we are then acting out of awareness. It is the goal of mass marketing to get us to choose what we are told we should choose, to act out of habit and blindness.

As a starting point I would say choose based on the packaging, which might seem contrary to “it’s what’s inside that matters,” but if the outer layers are beautiful, thoughtful, have been created with details at the forefront, then that is a good indicator of what is to come inside.This is not to say fancy or expensive, just created with a respect for both the chocolate and the person who might enjoy it. I recently had a bar from a newer, small maker in Australia (Smooth Chocolator) and the packaging was simple albeit stunning. And the experience of opening it was so satisfying, just lovely; as wonderful as opening a new book and seeing the first page, reading the first sentence and having the words drawing you in, instantly. I could feel the maker’s care and love for what they are doing.

The “value” or reason to buy craft chocolate is because it is not just another bar on a long assembly line of sameness, but a glimpse into how the maker sees the world through chocolate. Craft chocolate provides not just the (hopefully wonderful) experience of tasting chocolate, but a real connection…that’s not something a factory does, or is intended to do. Because Map is so small, even in the world of small batch makers, it often feels like it is a tiny bird attempting to migrate and navigate amidst big jetliners and more than a few well-funded Lear jets, plus there is all that headwind from chocolate critics and “experts.” That said, what I believe is that the best stories travel far, and size has nothing to do with it.

You can watch my review of two of Map Chocolate bars here.