By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(From the Dec. 2019 Sensi magazine:
Chocolate is not a practical gift. It’s indulgence with soul-satisfying creaminess, a warmly stimulating aroma and some sugar for liftoff. Chocolate is a flavor of memory and we willingly toss aside our dietary rules for it, especially during this season.
Pumpkin spice is nice, but chocolate is the flavor that rules from Hanukkah chocolate coins and chocolate Advent calendars, to chocolate tree ornaments and chocolate bars in stockings. It’s hot cocoa in the mug from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.
Unfortunately, a cloud hangs over our sweet favorite for those of us who also care how our heirloom green beans are grown and who demand transparency in the grassfed beef we feed our families.
According to Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” That’s also true of chocolate itself.
The world’s biggest chocolate brands freely admit they cannot trace most the bars they sell back to the farm where the cacao beans we’re grown. They can’t say for sure that child labor – and sometimes slavery – aren’t involved in Hershey’s Kisses and most of the chocolate most Americans consume.
The companies know surprisingly little about the growing techniques in West Africa where two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply comes from, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. The environmental-ethical impact of other key ingredients in chocolate bars from sugar to vanilla can also be troubling.
Crafting Sweets from Bean to Bar
There is a new generation of chocolate makers include many from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs who are shifting the cacao paradigm and crafting ethically sourced chocolate. These artisans hand-sort cacao beans and roast, temper and turn them into blow-your-mind treats.
“The main reason I’m in this business is that I love chocolate. I grew up eating a lot of chocolate and I wanted to learn more about making it directly from the fruit,” says Damaris Ronkanen, owner of Denver’s Cultura Craft Chocolate.
“With a lot of chocolate, you really don’t know where it comes from. The craft end of chocolate is moving the attention back to the farmers who grow the beans and making sure they are treated fairly,” she says.
Cultura Craft Chocolate has just opened a new factory and café on the artsy stretch of Morrison Road in Denver where almost every building is covered in colorful murals. It’s a perfect location for the Latin American-inspired chocolate maker who uses Day of the Dead artwork on bar wrappers.
That’s where you can find Cultura’s single-origin chocolate bars including 70% Guatemala, 75% Belize and 85% Haiti, as well as hot cups of drinking chocolate, a liquid elixir known as cocoa for grownups.
Why ‘Fresh’ Chocolate Matters
Fortuna Chocolate works with Mazateco farmers in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Oaxaca to produce distinctively fruity Xoconusco
cacao used in chocolate bars as well as in desserts at Blackbelly, Arcana, Beckon restaurants.
“Where we source our cacao it’s grown in shade, not sunlight, so it preserves the canopy of trees. Growing cacao in direct sunlight creates harshness in the flavor. It’s also grown in biodiversity which is healthier for the land,” says Mexican-born chocolate maker Aldo Ramirez Carrasco.
Carrasco owns Boulder’s Fortuna Chocolate with his wife, Sienna Trapp-Bowie, and her brother Spencer Bowie. They roast, grind, temper and prepare all the chocolate in a 26-foot mobile chocolate factory truck.
The problems with the commodity chocolate in most commercial bars and confections go beyond transparency. A Cadbury Milk Chocolate Bar is designed to taste the same every time, so processing removes any nuances, subtleties and extra flavors. “The bars may also be on the shelf a long time. With great chocolate, freshness really does matter and it loses its aroma and flavor over time.” Carrasco says.
Fortuna’s truffles and bars – including the popular (and darkest) 80% cacao bar – are made and sold within two weeks.
“Chocolate also changes from year to year depending so it will taste different,” he says, comparing it to yearly vintages of a specific wine.
Doing better than ‘44% sustainable’
When you shop, you’ll see a dozen chocolate bar brands that claim to be natural or organic or fair trade. To find ethically sourced chocolate, the first question you need to ask is: Does this company make chocolate, or just flavor and repackage chocolate imported from Europe?
“There are large global chocolate producers who brag that their chocolate is 44% sustainable. That means the other 54% of it is unsustainable,” says Michael Caines. He and his wife, Jennifer, launched the Shanao Cacao Cooperative to support the Peruvian community where they had purchased a cacao farm.
“We have a vertically integrated business. When you buy our chocolate you can know from the start where it comes from, who grew it, how much we paid for and how it came to market,” Caines says.
“What we’re trying to do is set up a meaningful exchange between the consumers and the farmers who grow the cacao in the Alto Mayo Valley of Peru,” he says.
Boulder-based Shanao markets 72% dark, 65% dark and white chocolate bars, some with tasty topping like raspberries or sea salt under the Moksha Chocolate label. Their most popular item is Moksha’s 3.2 ounce chocolate bar that’s just 72% Peruvian chocolate and organic cane sugar infused with 100 mg of full spectrum CBD isolate from hemp grown in Lyons.
It takes five to ten days to make each batch of Moksha chocolate. “You look at every single cacao bean, roast them and cool them down. You grind the beans with sugar for one to three days using heat and force to get the right texture and flavor. It’s set in bricks age for two or three weeks before we package it,” Caines says. Hopefully, wine-like nuances are coaxed out of the cacao.
Shanao had been focused on Peru but will soon expand to source cacao in southern Belize in an arrangement with two tribes and 39 villages.
Pay the Price for Ethics, Sustainability, Flavor
Colorado is home to several other bean-to-bar producers. Gila and Joel Dar craft single origin bars available at specialty markets at Denver’s Dar Chocolate. In Fort Collins, Toby and Alix Gadd oversee Nuance Chocolate, a bean-to-bar artisan shop offering drinking chocolate and truffles plus a chocolate taster flight of five different single origin dark chocolates.
Finally, there is a Colorado Springs-based chocolatier who takes healthy chocolate one more step. Radiantly Raw chocolates are made from raw, organic raw coconut oil and cacao powder with organic oil, honey and vanilla extract. Owner Jacquie Mosher fills a growing demand for sweets that are free from gluten, dairy, refined sugar, soy, or GMOs. Bestsellers include the Elvis Style Cup, a raw chocolate shell filled with almond-cashew butter and bananas.
The truth is that chocolate like the bars produced by these Colorado companies – chocolate you can feel good about eating – is never going to be as inexpensive as supermarket chocolate bars, according to Moksha’s Michael Caines.
“We have to pay the farmers enough that it worth it for them to stop slash and burn clearing of the jungle canopy,” he says.
“It’s worth it to pay for ethically sources chocolate because you know what you are getting and know where the money is going. Plus, it tastes better.”
Shopping List: Conscious Chocolate
Here is a box of chocolate possibilities from Colorado makers you can feel good about eating and giving as gifts.
Cultura Craft Chocolate: Cultura offers 70% Haiti, 70% Guatemala, 75% Belize, and other single origin, bean-to-bar chocolates.
- Chocolate bar with Deerhammer American Single Malt and cacao nibs
- Cafe de Olla: Great hot beverage mix with cacao, dark roasted coffee, cinnamon and piloncillo sugar
- Chocolate Covered Honey Caramels: Made with Bee Ranch Co. honey, 75% Belize dark chocolate and Maldon salt.
Available at: Specialty food stores, at Cultura Craft Chocolate, 3742 Morrison Road, Denver, and online: at culturachocolate.com
Fortuna Chocolate: Fortuna offers 80% and %70% dark chocolate bars, plus bars sprinkled with herbs, and an exquisitely creamy, not-too-sweet white chocolate.
- 55% Light Milk Chocolate with Mint
- Pistachio and Pepita White Chocolate
Available at select stores, at Denver Botanic Gardens, and online: fortuna-chocolate.com.
Moksha Chocolate: Moksha offers bean-to-bar criollo dark chocolate bars, vegan white chocolate bars, and chocolate infused with Colorado-grown full-spectrum hemp CBD oil. All are organic, vegan, nut-free, gluten-free and non-GMO.
– Moksha CBD Chocolate: 72 percent single-varietal Criollo
– Vegan White Chocolate with coconut cream and dried raspberries
Available online: mokshachocolate.com
Radiantly Raw Chocolate: This shop offers confections made from raw cacao and coconut oil including the most popular item: 80 percent Salty Double Dark hearts, made with Peruvian cocoa and Himalayan pink salt.
– Rawlo: Cacao butter-maple syrup “caramel” filling
– Grinning Coconut: Like a Mounds
Available at 3312 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs; 116 Canon Ave., Manitou Springs, and online: radiantlyrawkitchen.com
Dar Chocolate: Dar offers single origin bars made with organic cacao beans, sugar and cacao butter including 72% Peru
– 60% Caramel Coffee Milk Chocolate
– Coconut Milk Chocolate
– Dark Coffee 90%: Ecuador cacao with Conscious Coffees beans
Available at many locations including Marczyk Fine Foods
Alfalfa’s Market, Lucky’s Market, Argonaut Liquor, and online: darchocolate.com
Nuance Chocolate: This shop and café offers single-origin, small-batch bars, drinking chocolate, truffles and house-made chocolate syrup.
– 70% Dark with ground Colorado chilies
– 55% Dark Goat Milk Chocolate
– Bags of Roasted Ghana Cacao Nibs
Available at Nuance Chocolate Cafe, 214 Pine St., Fort Collins, and online: nuancechocolate.com
All-Chocolate Dinner Destination
Take chocoholics on your gift list for total immersion at Denver’s Chocolate Lab (chocolatelabdenver.com). This chocolate shop includes a small restaurant which adds cacao to every course. Bourbon chocolate barbecue sauce is served on pulled pork and quinoa salad has a chocolate balsamic vinaigrette. Bacon-wrapped dates are stuffed with andouille sausage and plated with dark chocolate with a whiskey-molasses chocolate sauce. You should see the dessert menu.
Chocolate Thought of the Day
“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” – Charles M. Schulz