Celebrating Utah’s cacao crew
“Most people don’t understand that chocolate comes from beans,” Utah Chocolate Society founder and president Brian Ruggles says. Specifically, beans from the cacao tree, a plant that requires very particular growing conditions to thrive. In fact, most of the world’s cacao is sourced from a narrow corridor straddling the equator about 20 degrees to both the north and south—the so-called “chocolate belt,” which includes countries like Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Venezuela and much of Indonesia. “Once you know there are actually different origins for beans” which creates a terroir of flavor influence much like wine, Ruggles says, “you now know more about chocolate than probably 90 percent of the people in the world.”
It’s probably safe to say that most Devour readers fall within that 10 percent of folks in the know. After all, Utah is home to some of the world’s top chocolate makers, purveyors and experts, with internationally award-winning brands like Amano, Solstice and Ritual made right here along the Wasatch. “Utah is the epicenter of cacao connoisseurs,” food educator and writer Vanessa Chang says. And that’s for both chocolate-makers and discerning consumers. Seconding that notion, in 2016, Saveur magazine published an article titled, “The Craft Chocolate Capital of America is … Utah?” Yes, Utah.
Matt Caputo, CEO of Caputo’s and A Priori artisan foods distribution company agrees. Caputo himself samples between a half- and full-pound of chocolate per day to determine which of the more than 400 samples he receives each year will get to grace Caputo’s shelves (their rotating roster currently includes over 450 types of craft chocolate). A Priori is recognized as the largest distribution company in the U.S. that focuses on the craft-chocolate industry, according to Caputo. And his personal and professional mission for years has been to elevate the conversation about cacao in Utah and beyond, through classes and events like the Caputo’s Chocolate Festival, celebrating its sixth year this month. Although he equivocates that most industry statistics on chocolate consumption don’t differentiate between craft chocolate and what he calls “vanilla-flavored candy” (that’d be what I pilfered from the kids’ Halloween stash), Caputo says Utahns are crazy for craft chocolate. “I can tell you that if forced to bet on which state consumes the most craft chocolate per capita,” he says, “I would not hesitate to say Utah.”
Craft chocolate vs. the supermarket candy aisle
So, what separates “craft chocolate” from mass-market sweets? Unfortunately, the chocolate industry overall isn’t doing consumers any favors with education and labeling standards. As Caputo laments, there’s very little actual cacao present in most industrial chocolate bars, including those labeled “dark” chocolate. Even cacao percentage numbers touted on wrappers say relatively little about what’s inside besides the weight per bar that comes from cacao beans (including cocoa butter and cocoa solids from the fatty and non-fat parts of the cacao bean).
Rebecca Millican, pastry director of the Park City Culinary Institute, helps clarify some of the biggest misconceptions about chocolate covered in the institute’s multi-week pastry program. She emphasizes that even within categories like “dark” or “milk” chocolate, there’s a huge range of quality, flavor, sweetness and intensity. With beans sourced from specific regions around the globe, “You find very unique flavor profiles in single-origin chocolates, as each variety of bean has different flavor characteristics,” she says. “The manufacturer’s skill in roasting the beans comes into play as well. We could taste a dozen different bars, all with an identical cacao content and find that no two bars taste the same.” In addition to roasting, the amount of fermentation the beans go through during initial processing as well as the chocolate-making steps (like conching—stirring or mixing the chocolate with heavy stone rollers) play a huge role in flavor, smoothness and that incomparable “snappy” texture found in superlative chocolates like Park City’s Ritual.
For the Utah Chocolate Society’s Ruggles, recognizing quality chocolate, like many artisan foods, is essentially about the relationship between cacao farmers and the chocolate makers. “Great chocolate is made by people who understand and respect the ingredients,” he says. “[It] has a story that reaches back to the heritage of the cacao trees and traditions of the people who farm it, forward to the farmers and the producers’ own backstories and perspectives.” Further, he sees the biggest difference being the act of consumption itself: “Fine chocolate is meant for mindful, multi-sensory experiencing … Cheap—and by ‘cheap’ I mean plebeian stuff not worth my finite time—chocolate is a commodity with no story to tell.” Its baseline flavor is usually flat and overwhelmingly sweet, what Ruggles calls “candy for mindless consumption.”
Several of Utah’s award-winning chocolate makers have built their brands and reputations around responsible cacao sourcing and respect for ingredients. In Salt Lake City, Millcreek Cacao owners Dana Brewster and Mark DelVecchio call their shop a “farm-to-bar” chocolate company, working directly with farmers in Ecuador and Nicaragua dedicated to using sustainable practices and paying living wages.
Arguably one of the top award-winning chocolates in the world, Amano chocolate is made by Art Pollard in a warehouse filled with vintage chocolate-making machinery that he selected specifically to achieve a particular outcome at each step of the chocolate-making process—from winnowing to roasting to conching. But for Pollard, all those process details mean nothing without first sourcing the best quality beans: “To be successful in the chocolate world, it’s very much a relationship business,” he says, which can give one producer an edge over another. “I’m grateful for the relationships I’ve built with farmers and suppliers.”
Fun & informative: chocolate tastings
Connecting the story of cacao growers to the final single-origin bar is just one part of the education process, Ruggles says. From that point on, he recommends that the only way to truly develop a discerning palate for fine chocolate is to taste, and taste a lot. “Blind test to figure out what you like. Be mindful. Engage all five senses,” he advises.
Case in point, Ruggles invited me to a Utah Chocolate Society meeting, scheduled roughly once a month at the Caputo’s downtown store, which Ruggles calls the “chocolate mothership.” Founded in 2010, about 40-60 regulars of the several hundred-member group hone their chocolate palates with blind single-source tastings curated by Ruggles, and an annual tasting tournament. Local chocolate makers sometimes drop in to share their works in progress. Guest pastry chefs like Alexa Norlin and Amber Billingsley have made popular presentations to the group, often keeping in mind what Ruggles calls “Mosher” ingredients (caffeine- and alcohol-free in deference to the many LDS members). Vanessa Chang calls Ruggles and crew, “the chocolate intelligentsia.” And they’re not just recognized as legitimate cacao aficionados in Utah, but also among national chocolate authorities.
When I attended a “Choc Soc” meeting a few months ago, Ruggles started out the evening with a blind tasting of eight single-origin Tanzania-sourced cacao bars. He passed around unmarked samples, and after tasting each we speculated on the maker and the presence or absence of cocoa butter, vanilla and other ingredients. Ruggles followed the discussion by circulating the bar wrapper—one of his picks was Utah-made Solstice 70 percent Kilombero Tanzania redolent with honeysuckle and amari notes—and provided some background research on product components and sourcing issues specific to Tanzania.
For the uninitiated, it’s a lot of technical cacao geekery to take in, in the best possible way: debates over what really constitutes a “raw” food when chocolate fermentation temperatures climb, how tempering techniques translate to texture, and gossip about which chocolate makers are using various conching techniques or roasting processes. For a booze nerd like me, it was very similar to a wine or whiskey tasting, with members chiming in with flavor descriptions like wood smoke, grassy notes, papaya or even getting a bit frustrated with a favorite chocolate maker’s interpretation. At one point Ruggles said of a famous French brand, “their roasting is just thissss close to being burned. It can make me angry,” accompanied by big booming laugh. As Ruggles told me, most members take their chocolate seriously, but not themselves. “It’s usually a pretty laid-back and humble group,” he said, “even with the high level of expertise in the room.” When the ninth blind sample (out of an eventual 16) circulated, one member chimed in, “Whoa. We’re not in Tanzania any more. Is this New Guinea?”
Sure enough, the sample was redolent with bright raspberry and new-car leather. Very different from the bitter astringency present in the Tanzanian chocolate we’d been tasting. Ruggles had shifted the cacao origin to emphasize a distinctly different terroir by adding an Amano Morobe into the mix, to the resounding delight of the group.
The evening finished with four samples brought by Utah chocolate maker Lance Brown of The Cacao Bean Project, home-produced bars made with wood-smoked (instead of roasted) beans. Brown engaged the members with a lengthy discussion of sourcing, roasting methods and tempering strategies. Ruggles wrapped up the meeting, now running well over three hours, saying, “In the end it’s not really about the terminology. It’s all about how it tastes.”
“Chocolate can take you on a trip”
And when it comes down to it, that’s what really determines the ephemeral and subjective qualities of what makes chocolate “great” by each individual’s standards. Some days I’m craving an Amedei Chuao, earthy Pralus Djakarta or Millcreek 78 percent Nicaraguan cacao infused with High West rye whiskey. Other times a peanut butter cup scored from the kids’ Halloween plastic pumpkin (guilty, as charged) hits the salty-sweet spot. As Ruggles said one afternoon while we compared notes on samples at Caputo’s chocolate mothership, “Great food has a good story,” which is as much about the chocolate maker’s inspiration and process as it is about the specific moment and mood of the person enjoying the bar. “Chocolate can take you on a trip,” Ruggles reflected, exploring flavors from places you might never actually get to visit in person. “It’s worth the journey.”
A Sample of the Beehive’s Best Bean-to-Bar Chocolates.
By Darby Doyle
“Utah chocolate is the bomb,” award-winning pastry chef Alexa Norlin says. “I’ll always use it first.” Utahn’s love for the best of the cacao bean also means that we have the luxury of sourcing some pretty amazing single-origin bars right at the neighborhood grocery store, with Liberty Heights Fresh, Urban Farm & Feed, Harmons markets and Caputo’s downtown shop leading the way. Here’s a small sample of the best bars in the Beehive and where to find them.
The go-to chocolate for internationally acclaimed restaurants like Berkeley’s Chez Panisse is made in an unmarked warehouse in Orem. Having won nearly 200 awards since it was founded in 2006, Amano Artisan Chocolate’s Art Pollard likes to keep his trade secrets a bit of a mystery in the competitive community. Full of intense flavor and velvety cocoa-butter nuance, Amano is an absolute local favorite.
New kid on the chocolate block The Cacao Bean Project often wood-smokes their cacao beans instead of traditional roasting. “Using different woods to complement the natural cacao provides an additional flavor experience,” chocolate maker Lance Brown says. Think cherry-wood-smoked-cacao from Tanzania and hickory-smoked 74 percent cacao from Madagascar. As a small-batch cottage producer, Brown encourages people to find their products at farmers markets in the south valley and at the Urban Farm & Feed Store in Sandy.
The Chocolate Conspiracy’s AJ Wentworth makes un-roasted raw chocolate bars, truffles, smoothies, sauces and other products influenced by his nutrition background in raw-food cuisine and vegetarian practices. While Chocolate Conspiracy bars are sweetened with raw honey, Wentworth also makes completely vegan truffles, all available at their cozy shop. For the cacao-curious, Wentworth and/or company owner Steve Ohlson teach an Intro to Fine Chocolate class featuring 10-15 chocolates from around the world You can register through their website.
774 S. 300 West, SLC
With a solid reputation as a “chocolate geek’s chocolate,” Durci Chocolate has a passionate and loyal fan base in cacao-crazy Utah and beyond. Owners Eric and Cassandra Durtschi started Durci following the success of their line of roasted cacao beans blended as a coffee alternative, Crio Bru. Find Durci Chocolate at all Caputo’s Market and Harmons locations.
In addition to making small-batch single-origin bars, Millcreek Cacao is also unique in the industry for their infused chocolates, which impart a subtle aroma and flavor without inclusions. One of Millcreek’s most popular bars features 70 percent Chuno cacao from Nicaragua infused with High West Double Rye! whiskey.
Ritual Chocolate owners Robbie Stout and Anna Davies credit Park City as a near-ideal location for chocolate production. Davies says, “We don’t have to worry about triple-digit temperatures and there is no humidity,” crucial for achieving that distinctive Ritual chocolate “snap” and spectacular gloss. At Ritual Café, try their chocolates served as hot or cold drinks and watch ongoing chocolate production through the large-paned window separating the café and factory. You’ll carry the delicious fragrance of cacao with you for the rest of the day.
1105 Iron Horse Drive,
One customer told Solstice Chocolate owner/chocolate maker DeAnn Wallin that eating Solstice Chocolate was “like a party in her mouth.” It’s a love-at-first-bite sentiment that’s struck many a chocolate fanatic. In fact, so many local chefs use award-winning Solstice that it’s next to impossible to single out any one Solstice bar as a foodie community favorite. One of Solstice’s biggest draws, according to local pastry chefs, is Wallin’s commitment to consistency across the board, with her white and milk chocolates having as much depth of flavor as Solstice’s darks are known for their brightness.