Think you know chocolate? So did we.
To say chocolate is steeped in a rich history is an understatement. Originating in the upper Amazon, humans have been manipulating the millennia-old cacao bean for longer than our brains can fathom, only popularizing chocolate as we know it today around the 16th century, when the Spaniards tried adding sugar. Grown exclusively under perfect subtropical conditions within one sweet narrow belt of our planet, cacao cultivation has always been precious, but as it stands today is also incredibly fragile. Due to increasing global temperatures, disease, deforestation, and water shortages, scientists predict that demand will surpass the supply in our lifetime. Moreover, 90%-95% of commodity chocolate is derived from flavor-weak, disease-resistant, and high-yielding varieties, leaving high-end cultivars, biodiversity, and the industry as a whole in peril. Many small farms, whose business represents their family’s livelihood, are undercompensated and face economic pressure to grow new species, rarely even seeing the end product of the cacao they labor so intensely over. Thus, farm succession as well as the survival of older varietals is threatened.
When grown and sourced well, however, chocolate is incomparably complex, having threefold the amount of flavor compounds (600+) that red wine has. The process of turning cacao into chocolate is incredibly long and tedious, and unique in that it’s both fermented and roasted.
While the stages can vary, the timeline goes something like this: pick, ferment, dry, sort, roast, crack & winnow, refine & conch, temper, and mold. Once cacao is transformed into chocolate, it can be converted further into a boundless number of confections via molds, designs, and other flavors and ingredients. Because so much skilled alteration occurs between harvest and final product, two chocolates are rarely the same. And yet, despite these challenges and the finesse required, there exists a new(ish) generation of passionate chocolatiers and chocolate makers elevating the craft into a modern art, truly pushing the boundaries.
With all these nuances we couldn’t help but devote an entire month to showcasing the best of the best in each of our markets, translating their singular approaches into remarkably different but always delectable ice creams. We began our Chocolatier Series by scouring the West Coast for the most thoughtful and talented chocolate artisans. After meeting each, we learned that many come from former careers that they are funneling into their new one. Most choose a focus or two—whether that’s origin, roasting, flavor pairings, molding, design, or the creation of exquisite confections—and make it their own, with distinct analytical, playful, green, or aesthetic approaches. The only constants are mindful sourcing and addictive taste.
On our chocolate-maker side we found those donating to reforestation and maternal health initiatives for growers; using typical waste products such as the fruit of the cacao pod as a subingredient; providing exceptional transparency to both vulnerable farmers and customers; producing single-estate chocolates and trying 16 different roasts on a bean; conching cocoa butter with black sesame instead of cacao; installing fermentation centers and drying stations for co-ops and establishing flavor labs for farmers to taste finished chocolate, many for the first time. There were former marine biologists MacGyvering newfangled winnowers, engineers fashioning conchers out of clothes dryers, and winemakers focusing on cacao terroir. And on our chocolatier end, there were those sourcing wild or heirloom varieties of cacao; experimenting with vegan, 100%, and savory chocolates, some so obscure that their availability lasted one day; former artists and designers molding the most delicate and snappy of layers, and adorning truffle shells like fine art; and career candymakers—credited with putting salted caramel on the map—who’ve made gourmet bars since the ’80s. We left the chocolate part to those most knowledgeable, having each partner choose the product they thought best destined for ice cream, then did what we do by tailoring each into an ice cream, swirl, or sorbet. This meant finding the best application to showcase said product, manifold trials, sending pint-size samples, and tweaking until a mutual winner was declared. Beyond satisfying our visual and culinary appetites, these chocolate professionals are doing their part to sustain small farms, educate future artisans, and propagate more of the precious cultivars of cacao every day. We were proud to collaborate with and support each one, and hope you in turn enjoy the fruits of our labor while learning a bit about chocolate. All we ask is that you eat ice cream.