Hello, dear chocolate-lovers!
Last week, I got a fascinating, personal chocolate factory tour, led by Toby Gadd, chocolate-maker extraordinaire and owner of Nuance Chocolate in Fort Collins. His chocolate factory is located in Old Town, just a few blocks away from his storefront/cafe. This latest adventure was part of my on-going research for my next middle-grade novel, which has a LOT of chocolate in it.
You might have read about my interview with him a few months ago here (and if you haven't, you should, because it complements this post!) He kindly offered to give me a follow-up tour of the factory itself. Technicolor visions of chocolate paradise swam in my head....
Alas, there was no chocolate river to fall into, but there was chocolate-tasting....
... and there was no slightly-creepy Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp in a velvet top hat, but there was super-friendly and knowledgeable Toby in his dapper hairnet...
And now, chocolate-loving friends, I'll take you on the tour...
Welcome inside, to the cool 62 degree interior of the factory, which is a collection of small-ish rooms a bit larger than the ground floor of my house (maybe about 1000 sq ft?) We began by de-linting ourselves and putting on hairnets.
First, Toby brought us ("us" refers to me and a journalism major and cameraman from CSU) to the room of large, orange metal barrels where he stores the beans once they arrive. As you can see, they're labeled with date and country of origin. Nuance sources their beans from ethical and sustainable growers and cooperatives, most of which are small, and they only use one kind of bean in each chocolate bar. They can specially tailor the process to bring out the best of each bean, which makes the flavor rich and complex and fascinating, like fine wine.
At this stage, the beans smell sour and acidic from the fermentation process. Each cultivar of beans-- trinitario, forestero, and criollo-- has a different smell. The fermentation process helps to develop over 600 flavor compounds, which is essential to the final taste of the chocolate, although the palette is further modified at every stage... as you shall see!
Can I just take a moment to say how lucky I feel to live just a ten-minute walk from his shop and factory?! Nuance has ***the widest range of single-origin chocolate IN THE WORLD!***
Okay, back to the tour... The cacao beans are harvested and fermented onsite in Latin America and Africa, then shipped here in giant sacs. Toby and his wife Alix and their few employees then put the beans in the barrels, keeping them carefully separated. In order to avoid any icky chemicals, they use natural dry ice to prevent any insect infestations during this stage.
They are also continually getting in new shipments of sample beans from potential growers to work with.... they come in wee batches (see above). Toby and Alix make a small, test batch (1-5 lbs) of chocolate with the beans to see if they're good enough to order in bigger quantities to use in the chocolate they sell. Only 15-20% of the beans they try out pass this test... the bar is high!
So, next, the cacao beans are roasted at 250 to 350 degrees for 20-40 minutes, which further develops the hundreds of flavor compounds. Toby and Alix spend lots of time experimenting with the best temp and length of roasting for each kind of bean they use. If they over-roast, the chocolate becomes bitter, for example.
I can't show you pictures of the roasting process, because it involves some *top secret stuff* and I am sworn to secrecy. (I couldn't help thinking of those spies in Willie Wonka's factory when Toby was swearing us to secrecy. ;-)
Okay, so next, the cooled, now-brittle beans are cracked into nibs and separated from the husks. Toby is also a self-taught inventor and creative collaborator of sorts-- important skills for small-batch chocolate makers. With the help of resources online, he came up with a cool, hand-made machine to do the cracking and winnowing.... involving a Champion juicer, a specialty vacuum, and a blade device custom made on his 3-D printer (all approved by the FDA and the CO health dep't!) The core component of this winnower was designed and made by John Nanci (the godfather of small batch chocolate). Toby's modifications included the additional 3-D printed parts and other parts.
Much of his equipment are cool inventions using re-purposed equipment. And this is necessary because small-batch single-origin chocolate production is such a new and creative endeavor-- a blend of art and science lovingly done by just a handful of small, often family-owned, businesses. I felt so inspired learning how these folks re-envision uses for machines and equipment, to make them fit their own purposes.
Moving right along... so, the husk by-products are then stored in plastic white buckets (see above), which can be used for tea, body scrubs, brewing beer, etc.... Toby and Alix often pass these husks along to breweries or other local small businesses they work with. It's so heartening to see how these small, artisenal and hand-crafting companies work together creatively and promote each other's products. (At Nuance's recent birthday party at a local brewery, I had the most amazing, deep, rich chocolate beer.)
(Time lapse-- I just have to tell you that I took a little break from writing this blog post to make myself a cup of hot chocolate, which I am now enjoying. *Sigh.* I knew something was missing...)
Okay, moving right along.... So, the cute little nibs go into the grinder next, and come out with the texture and consistency of peanut butter-- this is called chocolate liquor (and has nothing to do with alcohol, incidentally.) The machine Toby uses is the red cube above, whose original purpose was supposed to be a nut grinder, but which Toby uses exclusively for nib-grinding.
Next phase of the journey-- the melanger! This is a French verb meaning "to mix." This machine has a granite stone bottom disc and vertical granite wheels. Interestingly, it was originally supposed to be an Indian spice grinder. Again, creative re-purposing to the rescue!
The chocolate liquor and sugar are poured into the melanger (see below) for between 60 and 90 hours, depending on the particular kind of bean. For days, the particles of cacao and sugar are ground down to between 20-30 microns (itty-bitty), so that the chocolate feels silky-smooth on your tongue. This process also helps release the volatile compounds and aromatics, while aerating and oxygenating the chocolate. Note the chocolate's temperature here-- just pleasantly warm, a touch above room temp, but not hot.
Toby let us do a taste test here (!!!)-- we tasted chocolate from one melanger that was only done half of its final 90 hour timeline. We noticed that it tasted kind of fruity and bright-- it still tasted of some compounds that interfered with the intended final, smooth, rich taste. It also still had a slightly gritty texture.
We tasted chocolate from another melanger (there were several in the room), which had completed about 75 hours already. That was much smoother-- all silk-- and tasted heavenly. Toby said he was going to stop that one soon.... if you mix it for too long-- over 100 hours, for example, then it could taste flat, losing its fruity brightness altogether. It's a lot of trial and error, art and science. Toby and Alix work hard to figure out the perfect process for each bean to maximize its delicious potential.
If Toby's making milk chocolate, this melanger stage is where he adds the powdered whole milk, specially ordered from Europe. You can see it's lighter in color than the pure dark chocolate above.
So next, they pour the smooth, sweet, warm chocolate out of the melanger machine, and let it dry and cool into hard chunks. Since the chocolate is still untempered, it looks mottled white and deep brown and striated. The chunks are stored in carefully labeled plastic bags until the next step.
This is the final step-- tempering, which means the controlled melting and cooling of the chocolate. Here are the tempering units, with extremely precise temperature controls. The chocolate can stay in here for about an hour, or, can be set on overnight mode.
Check out this one-- the EZ Temper. It was invented by a research doctor turned chocolate maker who re-purposed incubator equipment for tempering.... very creative, no?
So now that the chocolate has the right gloss, snap, melting point.... and feels like paradise on your tongue... it's ready to be poured into the molds! They make the molds using 3-D printer-- Toby also has a design background-- he created the Nuance logo and other design elements himself. These sweet little stars are used for the tasting flights Nuance offers in their shop. They also make chocolate bars, hot chocolate mix, and truffles (using extra ingredients like spices and fine liquor from other local food-crafters.) They also make some killer hot chocolate that you can sip and savor in their cafe-- perfect on a winter's day.
Alix and Toby aren't doing wholesale at this time, which means you need to go to their shop to procure and enjoy their chocolate. This means that they can be as experimental and creative as they want, and continually try out new processes and recipes, like true scientist-artists.
Nuance shop/cafe is located at 214 Pine St, in Old Town Fort Collins, CO. Toby, Alix, and their awesome employees are always happy to talk with you about their chocolate- making process. It's SO much fun to do the taster flight of chocolate-- it's like wine-tasting, but yummier, and more kid-friendly. You learn to distinguish among the complex notes and flavors that vary from bean to bean. This is a super-fun activity to do on a date, with friends, with kids, when family is in town, or by yourself for a treat.
If you haven't read my first chocolate research post, please check it out here so that you can get the FULL chocolate-making experience....
In case you're curious, I've got my chocolate book outline done in delicious detail, and I've written and revised about half of it. The novel is partly set in a small, family-owned chocolate shop in a small mountain town in Colorado, and partly set in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. I can't wait to finish it and share it with you! Thank you for swinging by....