...And Six Months On... ; )

Wow, six months? Really? Somebody needs to start writing a little more often… 

OK, some catch-up. The new melangeur – V3.0 – arrived shortly after the holidays. It took us a while to get it wired up (we’re pretty comfortable making chocolate, but not so much doing our own electrical work). Then there turned out to be some unexpected issues that we had to work through with the manufacturer –  which we did – and in March we finally made our first (BIG) test batch of chocolate. It was “OK”, but it wasn’t “our chocolate” like what we make in our little Premiers. Making chocolate in the big machine (affectionately known as “The BEAST”) turned out to be quite a bit different than making it in the smaller machines. It took us several more test batches to figure things out (lots of nice 70% baking chocolate produced in the process), and along the way we learned a lot about what makes our chocolate “our chocolate”, big machine or small. It’s not always a lot of fun when you’re in the thick of something trying to figure it out (especially when the batches are big and take pretty much a week beginning-to-end to run), but it is fun once reach land again after being lost at sea for a spell.

We also got our cocoa butter press up and running, and learned how to use it. We couldn’t be happier with it – it’s a work of German engineering art that is just pure pleasure to work with. Now we can press same-origin cocoa butter for any of our dark chocolate bars that that are too low in fat (and consequently too thick) to mold well without additional cocoa butter. Beans that grow closer to the equator tend to be lower in fat, and beans that grow farther from the equator tend to be higher in fat, so needless to say, we’ve been pressing a lot of Ecuador cocoa butter!

Remember That New Melangeur?

Remember way back when – last March it was – when we mentioned getting our new melangeur up and going? It's a long story, but version 3.0 is going to ship this coming week and should arrive just in time for the holidays (we hope). Version 1.0 received an upgraded bowl and wheel assembly a few months back, but between the time we got those parts and when we were going to fire it up, the manufacturer asked us to hold tight – they found some other shortcomings with version 1.0 and wanted to replace it with a new machine that addressed those issues. Enter version 2.0. We were originally expecting version 2.0 to arrive in early November, but that soon turned into later November which then became early December which...turned into version 3.0 shipping next week. In a former life I used to sell equipment in the electronics industry, so I know how these things go, especially when the serial number of the piece of equipment in question is in the low single digits. It's one of the hazards of being an early adopter. At any rate, we're thrilled to finally be taking delivery of a machine that will help us in a big way with our capacity.

 On a separate, but related note, we just received an automatic press (still in it's un-opened shipping crate) that will let us make our own cocoa butter in house. We've been making our own cocoa butter all along for some of our bars, but it's been a 100% manual effort (big emphasis on both manual and effort here) and capacity has been dismally small. If the new machine comes even close to delivering on its promise there will be two very, very happy oompa loompas in the back of the shop. Stay tuned, we'll keep you updated on our progress... 

Next up on the equipment wish list is a shiny, sparkly, new impact bean cracker. It's just a twinkle in our eyes right now, but there's a rumor going around that someone we know is going to help us find one. 
; ) 
One of our most labor intensive and slowest steps is nib sorting after winnowing to remove husk – mainly husk that the winnower can't separate because there is still some nib stuck to it (which makes it too heavy to go up with the clean husk). We're hoping that the impact cracker will do a better job of separating the husk from the nib than our current grain-mill type bean cracker and will also produce fewer fines and small nib pieces. We've got some really solid data on how our current system performs, and we'll be comparing that to how the impact cracker performs before getting too far down that road. At this point we are 'hopeful'. 

On What The Chocolate Garage Means to Areté

Leslie and I have been frequenting The Chocolate Garage for the better part of its five years in business. Our first trip to The Garage was the result of a search for bars from different craft chocolate makers. We were just starting out on our chocolatemaking journey, and one of the first things we knew we needed to do was to educate our palates – to learn to taste (you can’t make good chocolate if you don’t know what good chocolate tastes like). Up until that point, chocolate for us was pretty much what you get at the grocery store and from the Easter Bunny, with the odd trip to Ghiradelli or to a Godiva store being our only foray into what we saw as ‘finechocolate’.

We plugged the address into Google Maps, set off for Palo Alto, and about an hour later arrived at…where the heck are we? Is this the right address? Where do we park? Are you sure this is the right place? After carefully reading the signs on the poles in the parking lot next door to make sure we were within the permissible time range for parking there without being towed, we dismounted from or trusty steed (my Prius) and followed the yellow brick road (O.K., the grey cement sidewalk) around the building, under the vines, through the (open!) door and into…a magical, enchanted little world unto itself.

We were completely taken by the great selection of really, really good craft chocolate. On your first visit that’s the first thing that hits you. But if you go back a second time, and then a third you start to see that The Chocolate Garage is also a place to learn – deeply – about not only craft chocolate, but the entire chocolateecosystem from the soil and the farmer to the makers to the finished bar in your hand – as well as the bars that aren’t in your hand, and why that’s the case (and should be). If you go back a few more times you may start to sense something even more important, more profound about what The Chocolate Garage is: it’s the quintessence of what Roy Oldenburg calls a “Great Good Place” in his book of the same name. It’s a welcoming, inviting place where you can check the cares of the world at the door, let your hair and your guard down, get to know the regulars (perhaps even become one!) and the irregulars, talk chocolate (and pretty much anything else that comes to mind), and become part of something far bigger than any one of us alone.

Sunita asked us recently why, being chocolate makers, we signed up for TheChocolate Garage membership. The answer for us is pretty simple – The ChocolateGarage represents the heart and soul of a very special community that includes everyone from the farmers to all of us who enjoy (or will enjoy!) Happy Chocolate. Every member of this geographically vast and extended community has to benefit from their participation in order to ensure the future of fine flavor cacao and high quality craft chocolate. The Chocolate Garage plays a central role in bringing all of us together to that end. We want to see The Chocolate Garage remains a viable concern and can carry on that great work – which alone, for us, would justify the cost of our membership. Even if we were to put that aside we’d still gladly pay the cost of membership just to know that The Chocolate Garage will continue to be there for us when we need that Happy Chocolate fix and for the joy of bumping into some friendly and familiar faces…

The "Real" First Order

We're officially on our way now -- the journey has entered a new and exciting phase. Sunita at The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, CA hosted "Meet the Maker" night earlier this month that was also our official launch. The Chocolate Garage is now carrying our 70% and 75% Brazil Fazenda Camboa Bars, as well as our labor-of-love gianduia spread (made, as any fine gianduia should be, with TGL hazelnuts imported from the Piedmont region of Italy). If you've never been to The Chocolate Garage and you find yourself anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area you owe it to yourself to stop by and check it out.

We're working very hard behind the scenes on upgrading our website. Over the next couple of months you should see some pretty significant changes, among which will be considerably more elegant web store than the manual system using PayPal (or even snail mail and old fashioned paper checks) we're working with right now on our "Our Bars" page. The new web store will be set up to handle orders via PayPal or credit card.

Which leads us to "Our Bars". The bars we're currently offering are four ‘from the bean’ dark chocolate single-origin bars – Brazil Fazenda Camboa (70% dark roast and 75% medium roast), Peru Nacional 68% (the chocolate and beans that originally got us started in this unlikely and wonderful adventure), and Ecuador Puerto Quito 70%. We make these bars by hand starting from unroasted cocoa beans in our small craft chocolate workshop in Milpitas, CA.

In addition to these four bars that we make ourselves, we're also offering two dark chocolate bars that we mold from Marañon Chocolate's Fortunato No. 4. (also Peru Nacional, and also part of the above-mentioned reference to how we got started down this path) -- the first is a straight 68% dark chocolate bar, and the second is the same bar but with roasted nibs from the same origin sprinkled on the back of the bar. You can read more on the Fortunato No. 4 back-story here.

Thank you most sincerely for stopping by and for being patient with us while we continue to (slowly) build our website. We hope you’ll come back from time to time and continue to share in this wonderful fine chocolate journey with us…

David and Leslie

Paying It Forward

Hands down, the best part of this chocolate making journey of ours has been and continues to be the people we’ve met along the way and the relationships that have developed. We said way back in the beginning that part of our philosophy was one hand up, one hand down, and that we have a deep commitment to paying it forward. It’s amazing how busy all of those hands have been going both up and down, and how freely they’ve been extended over the last several years. People have shared their wisdom, their knowledge, their time, their feedback, their beans and chocolate(!), their trust and confidence and hearts. We have a LOT to pay forward (which we’re doing our best to do).

In that spirit, we thought we’d offer and update on where we are today and what’s working and what we still have to tackle.

March will be our first ‘real’ month of sales – if we don’t count the cost of our labor we’ll finish just above break-even for the first time. We expect sales to be pretty lumpy for the next year or so, but at least the net dollars going out are doing so more slowly now than they have been for the last 18 months. We have a lot of work in front of us as we continue to build our brand, our channels, our capacity, and refine our manufacturing processes.

First up is increasing our tempering capacity. So far we’ve been doing it all, believe it or not, with one little Rev2 machine. Providing the feedback is positive on our first big order and we have reasonable prospects for a second order, we’ll order a larger tempering machine – hopefully yet in March. Hot on the heels of that upgrade will be getting our new melangeur up and going. We’re waiting on some new parts to arrive from India and for help with the electrical and the motor controller. If all goes to plan (but why should anything start going to plan now??) we could see it take its first couple of tentative spins by May.

In parallel with that we’ll be working on our branding, our website, and figuring out what we want to do with social media. We’re fish out of water in this realm, but we have a secret weapon behind us now (thank you ‘A’!).

We’ll post more soon, but at the moment these two chocolate makers are exhausted and calling it a day!

Now Live: www.aretefinechocolate.com

Over the holidays we added an 'Our Bars' page to our (very "minimalist") website (www.aretefinechocolate.com). We're all the way up to two pages on it now! 
; )

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We don't have a shopping cart yet, but we are taking orders (and in fact, have taken TWO already!) directly through PayPal. We've started out with three of our own bars (Brazil Fazenda Camboa 70%, Peru Nacional 68%, and Ecuador Puerto Quito 70%) and two re-mold bars we make from Marañon Chocolate's Fortunato No. 4 (one with nibs, one without). 

We intentionally made this a soft launch (no social media or other marketing) in part to make sure all of the pieces are there and we can actually fill and ship and order, and in part to avoid getting more orders than we can handle just yet. We're still definitely a 'micro-batch' maker -- if not a 'nano-batch' maker. We're waiting on some new parts for our production grinder, and at some point we'll have to increase our tempering and molding capacity. Once we get those two processes taken care of we'll be in much better shape to handle more and bigger orders, and we can start to figure out the best way to get our message out...

Congrats to Clay on getting the new site up and running -- still learning my way around, but really impressed with it!

David

Unheated Building Blues

We’re really glad that we planned for a slow ramp it seems like every week we’re learning something new that we wished we already knew. Lately it’s been a blessing in disguise called the Making Chocolate in the winter in an Unheated Building Blues. Our chocolate has been getting better over most of this year and we were starting to feel like were actually starting to get this chocolate making thing down. Enter the first winter in our new building sans heat. All of a sudden we started to notice some distinct (and that’s key-distinct) off-flavors in all of our builds Madagascar, Peru, Ecuador, Ghana, you name it. Long story made short, we figured out that we weren’t getting hot enough during our refining and conching process to drive off all of the nasties. Good record keeping, retained samples of older batches, and some quick A-B testing helped us narrow the problem down pretty quickly.

The reason we say it’s a blessing in disguise is that we weren’t 100% happy with the consistency of our results all along and we had been attributing most of it to roast optimization (or lack thereof). We would build batch after batch trying to dial it in with the roast profile, not knowing that there was another important uncontrolled variable messing us up. Going back and tasting retains from older batches, though, and filtering out the ones that had varying degrees of this under-conching flavor let us better (re-)assess our roast profiles and finally figure out where we really wanted to be. The other thing that was pretty exciting about this speed bump is that we learned how important and potent temperature control during refining and conching is. We were able to take batches of finished chocolate that had the aforementioned off flavors and rehabilitate them quite nicely by conching again at a higher temperature.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

We sold a little more in October than in September (our first sale month), and a little more in November than in October - a trend wed like to keep going. So far it’s all been Cioccolata Calda mix (Italian hot chocolate) and bar chocolate for cremena (think Frappuccino) for a local start-up coffee shop that we helped with the recipe. In December were hoping to add a couple of our single origin bars, as well as our gianduia spread and gianduiotti. The gating item on the bars is still the molds were hoping to see them this week or next and on the gianduia spread its labels for the jars (also expected this week or next).

Lots of engineering projects were working on that well share more on in the coming months integrating our grinding and winnowing set-ups (including motorizing our grinder), installing and evaluating a new 65 kg grinder, remote temperature monitoring and control for our melangeurs, building a chest freezer cooling tunnel, and hopefully building a couple of small temperature-controlled rooms for different process steps. Time is in short supply and funding is finite, so it may take us a while to get through the full list, but as we do well make sure to share the results and what we’ve learned along the way.

Happy Holidays!
David and Leslie

Sold!

It's been a long road, and there's a lot more in front of us (at least we certainly hope that's the case!), but we wanted to share that we reached an important milestone in our journey this last week -- our first sale! It was a very modest sale, and wasn't the craft dark chocolate that has figured so prominently in all of our well laid (but very flexible and negotiable) plans -- it was ciocolata calda -- our dark chocolate that we blend with a couple of other ingredients to make a mix for a sinfully good Italian interpretation of hot chocolate. Very, very happy for the order and the official start of business!

On the traditional dark chocolate bars side of things, our packaging arrived two weeks ago, and we're very pleased with it. We learned a couple of things that we'll adjust when we reorder, but on net it turned out great. We should get our final bar mold prototypes from Micelli this week, and following that the molds themselves around the end of October or beginning of November.

Our plans are still to ramp slowly in order to learn what we don't know and be able to make adjustments in a controlled manner without too much panic or drama. That's the plan anyway...

; )

Cheers,
Us

First Order: Italian Hot Chocolate

It's kind of funny how things go sometimes. Our 'official' plan was (and still is) to make craft bean-to-bar dark chocolate -- but that may not be our first sale. Or even our second or third or fourth! So far we've been asked to develop and provide an Italian hot chocolate mix to a local coffee shop, to come up with a mix for something like Starbuck's Frappuccino (working on that later this month), to quote panning some beans for a (different) local coffee roaster, and for vegan and gluten-free biscotti (we already have several recipes for some REALLY mean vegan biscotti, but haven't tried gluten-free before...off to the test kitchen again!). Somewhere along the way we hope someone wants to buy a bar or two of dark chocolate!!!

: )

Getting the Molds Right

Wow - where'd the time go? It's been a while (too long) since we last posted. It hasn't been for a lack of interesting things to share -- just a lack of time to do so. All of our permits are now in place -- last week we received our organic registration -- that was the last one we were waiting on.

Right now we're focused on packaging and molds. We've already approved the mechanicals for the packaging, and tomorrow (Monday) we should get the graphics (rev 2) for review. We're hoping to approve the final version this week or next.

We'll be sending out our new drawings for our molds this week. We're getting a hundred polycarbonate molds from Micelli. There is a 3D rendering approval to be done, followed by a prototype approval, then manufacturing the final molds. All told we're looking at about 12 weeks beginning to end. That is the last major gate before we can have our launch party.

Things will be anything but quiet between now and launch. We're going to be building up and ageing inventory of our launch bar (or bars -- still deciding on which ones are going to make the cut).

Off to the airport now to meet with a man about some beans... for real!

; )

Cheers,
David and Leslie