I'm releasing my first 100% bar today, made with nothing but cacao from Wampusirpi in Honduras, and I've decided to let you in on how it all came together. The point isn't to provide chocolate-making tips, or to tell you what to taste or experience from the new bar. Instead, it's to show the human side of how a product like this gets made, and to continue demystifying this food we're calling "craft chocolate." My hope is that wherever you are in your chocolate or food journey, pieces of this story will resonate with you and inspire you to keep enjoying and creating food with a story and a soul. As you'll see, I would never have thought to make this bar if it wasn't for the right mix of travel, chance, and friendship, and it's richer chocolate for it.
Often I create a bar with a specific goal in mind--a flavor profile, a style, an inclusion--but sometimes the bars find me. In this case, the bar found me. In fact, it found me in a bar (the kind where they serve drinks).
The story began this past June when I traveled from my home base in Madison, WI to New York City for a chocolate conference (yes, they exist). During some downtime I was out doing what I like best: walking, seeing art, finding great food (which is, to me, another form of art), and occasionally meeting a friend to share in these pleasures.
Naturally, I made a point of visiting the handful of shops that carry craft chocolate. As I neared the last spot on my list, The Sweet Shop, the dinner hour was fast approaching and I was already operating under something of a theobromine high after an extended visit to The Meadow. I almost continued on my way, but then again I didn't make it to the Upper East Side every day, so I went in. A friendly exchange with the owner led to the purchase of a 100% bar by Pump Street Bakery. Believe it or not, even as a chocolate maker, I hadn't tasted a "craft" 100% bar before and wanted to see what it was all about.
A short while later I met my friend Andrew for dinner and drinks. We'd met during a year of graduate school in New York--he'd stayed, I'd left, and getting to catch up again was a rare pleasure. It had been a classic summer's day--hot--and we were finding refreshment in a meal of lively Thai food, cool beers, and the kind of easy conversation that only comes to kindred spirits. Chocolate came up, of course; my companion was new to craft chocolate, and I had some of the day's finds in my bag, so we began to taste.
We started boldly with the Pump Street 100% bar. Perhaps the beer or the lift of seeing an old friend put me in an optimistic frame of mind, as I wouldn't typically recommend such a high percentage for introducing craft chocolate to newcomers. But it must have been the right call, because when we tasted it we both remarked on not so much the flavors as a sensation of immediate clarity--a heightened "buzz," if you will--that I'd not experienced from chocolate before. It was a feeling that sliced through all the sleepier forces around us: the day's heat still trapped in the concrete outside, the weight of the meal in our bellies, the gentle softening of consciousness brought on by our second beers, and the languorous early evening atmosphere of the bar at which we'd perched.
A little inspiration from Pump Street Bakery, Modelo, and The Penrose.
We moved on to two lower-percentage bars in search of the same effect--bars from Amedei and Claudio Corallo--but did not find it there. Then back to the 100, and...yes, there it was again, that razor of clarity. I'd been skeptical about the value of making 100% bars, since their flavors can be so opaque, but began to wonder if there wasn't some natural chemical magic to them. Meanwhile, Andrew began to wonder where he could buy his own 100%.
The brief tasting session had quickly transformed his perception of chocolate, and had even challenged mine, which is a rare and exciting thing after several years of immersion in the field. Despite having a wealth of other material to catch up on, we found that our conversation kept returning to the 100% bar. In fact, by the time we were going our separate ways after a final taste, he had me all but convinced that I needed to make my own 100% as soon as humanly possible. And send him a couple, of course.
I landed back in Madison four days later and got straight to work. Continue to Part 2 to read how this bar went from an idea to a reality.