We don’t normally get out much these days (starting a craft chocolate business will do that to you), especially this time of year, but January blessed us with three memorable reasons to venture out. First up was a trip to San Francisco (together) where we had the opportunity to share the stage and celebration at the Good Food Awards with some of the most kind, committed, talented, and just plain real people we’ve ever had the privilege to be with. Our Gianduia Bar was one of the winners this year in the chocolate category (happy dance!!!). Two days later, bright and early – check that – dark and very early – I took Leslie to the airport to catch a flight for Tennessee to welcome grandbaby number five to planet Earth. Noah made his grand entrance two days later – both mom and baby are healthy and happy. I went back home and got a couple more hours of sorta-sleep after dropping Leslie off, then headed back up to the city for a brunch put on by Dandelion Chocolate. The pies, pastries, bread, and coffee were off-the-charts good. The hospitality was even better. And what a great setting it was to get to re-connect with old friends, make some new ones, and just spend time with some of warmest, most generous, coolest people you could ever hope to know. There’s something about chocolate people…
(Even) More Work on Custom Equipment and Processes
Right around the beginning of the month we fired up V2.0 of a process that lets us inspect every single bean individually after cracking and winnowing (V1.0 was a manual prototype that we used to prove out the various pieces of the process). We’ve been thinking about this and working on it for a very long time now, and everything’s finally come together. We made a pretty good upgrade about a week ago (let’s call that V2.1), and this week we made another big upgrade to V3.0. The magic in this new set-up for us is that it lets us take our nib sorting to a much higher level and do it faster than we did before.
Why do we nib sort? What are we looking for? Even the cleanest origins have some defective beans that you just can’t catch completely by bean sorting before cracking – not to gross anyone out, but there is the occasional moldy bean, a mothy one here or there, and maybe some under-fermented beans or beans with other random defects that we don’t want in our bars. In the past when we’d crack and winnow a batch of beans and inspect it sometimes we’ find a defective bean (or beans) in it, and we’d have to go on a very time consuming hunt for the rest of the proverbial needles in the haystack -- the other pieces of nib from the same bean(s) that were by then quite thoroughly mixed in with all the rest of the nibs. Beyond being just a really slow and tedious process, there’s also the problem that you just can’t find all of the pieces you’re looking for. Does it really matter? From a regulatory or health perspective, “no”. Our thinking, though, is along these lines: it only takes a couple of bad tasting beans to ruin a whole lot of good tasting beans. It’s really hard to argue that more moldy or mothy or under-fermented beans would make the chocolate better (in any way at all), so less is definitely the right direction to be heading. The essence of “arete” (the word) is the idea of excellence and striving for perfection. Nothing is every truly perfect, but our new process gets our nib sorting that much closer to it.
Earlier this week we also took delivery of a new vibrator with adjustable frequency and amplitude -- the hope here (and expectation) was that by dialing in the right settings we’d be able to get faster and more complete bubble removal when we mold our bars. We’re only a few days into testing it, but so far it’s night and day. We’ve found some good settings and we’re really pleased with the results. The platform is considerably bigger and beefier than the one we were using, and (unlike the old one) has no dead spots – the molds vibrate beautifully no matter where you set them. An added bonus is that it’s actually quieter than one it’s replacing. Our tempering goddess is quite pleased with how nice the backs of the bars are looking.
Last up on the equipment front is our 3D printed germ separator. 3D printing is great for prototyping things that just a few years ago would have been prohibitively expensive to make (usually by machining). We fired it up about two weeks ago and after a couple of minor modifications and adjustments it’s working just like we hoped it would. Why does anyone need a germ separator, you might ask – to which we’d offer the following: after cracking and winnowing we use a sieve shaker to remove the radicle (or germ depending on who you’re talking to). The radicle is really hard and does nothing good for mouthfeel or flavor, not to mention wear and tear on the melangeurs. We lose five percent of our starting weight when we sieve – about a third of the loss is the radicle that we want to lose, and about two thirds is pieces of good nib that are small enough to go through the same sieve that lets the radicle pass. The germ separator will let us recover most of the good nib (about three percent of the five percent we’ve been losing). It may not sound like much, but it’s a really big deal when so much goes into sorting, roasting, cracking, and winnowing (not to mention that cost of the beans themselves).
Still no word on the cocoa powder that we mentioned last month. I sent out a missing powder alert to the representative and hope to hear back soon. We’re leaning toward selling the cocoa powder for baking (cakes, brownies, cookies, etc.). We can grind it fine enough for that with the equipment we have, but if we decided to offer it for drinking cocoa (hot cocoa) we’d need the pin mill to get the particle size small enough.
Separately, even though there’s no picture of the bar wrapper yet, we did manage to get the Giandiua Bar listed on our web store.
Our third Ocumare test (this batch from another source) turned out really nice – much better than the first two test batches we ran. We’re hoping to place an order for a bag of beans in February. The new Peru was good when we first molded it up, but got even better after it aged for a few weeks. We’ll send this one out for tasting feedback before deciding to buy any. We have two other new Peru origins that also look promising. We’re molding them up later this week and taste them in February. Our first test batch of the 2016 harvest of our Brazil Fazenda Camboa came out a couple of weeks ago and we like it even better than the 2014 and 2015. The container won’t arrive until around May, so it will still be a couple of months before we can start making bars with it. We haven’t received them yet, but we have our first beans from Columbia coming soon – we’ve heard good things and are looking forward to giving them a try.
The most important piece of equipment in a chocolate shop isn’t the tempering machine or the oven or the melangeur or the cool new vibrator. Nope. It’s a really good pair of noise-cancelling headphones piping in your favorite tunes. Sans that, between the vacuums (for the winnowers), the molds on the vibrator, and the drone of a dozen melanguers running in close quarters there’s a good chance you’d be stone cold deaf in about a month. So in addition to pairing your chocolate with wine or beer or coffee, try it like we do – paired with a little AC-DC, Foreigner, Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, Rusted Root or Mumford and Sons. Cheers!