I set the stage in Part 1: when my supply of Guasare cacao ran out, I needed a new origin that offered an equally complex, dynamic flavor profile of its own. Part 2 is all about the process of finding it.
One of the most common questions I'm asked is "how do you get your cacao?" and if nothing else this post will help answer it. Like so many topics in chocolate, the cacao supply chain is too complicated to cover in a single page--if you're interested, please keep reading my blog and over time I'll share more and more of what I learn. I'm here to experience, make meaning, and share, and to operate a business that is open rather than secretive.
For today, the short answer is that like many, if not most, small craft chocolate makers, I get my cacao through specialty cacao suppliers. At the most basic level, these suppliers are companies that connect quality-driven cacao producers to quality-driven chocolate makers, often literally transporting cacao from the former to the latter.
Receiving two bags of Dominican cacao purchased through Chocolate Alchemy, an important specialty cacao supplier.
Keep in mind that it is usually impractical for small-scale chocolate makers like me to trade directly with producers at origin. First of all, we aren't able to buy enough cacao to make international shipping cost-effective. We also may lack experience in the complex import/export procedures surrounding cacao, or simply don't want to deal with that side of things. Frankly, there is a lot that can go wrong.
A supplier, on the other hand, can specialize in the steps us small chocolate makers may not have the resources to perform, like buying a full shipping container of cacao, transporting the container by ocean freight, and navigating the import/export process. Then, once the cacao has cleared customs, the supplier can divide it up into smaller lots to sell to multiple makers in the destination country. You may have noticed that many chocolate makers use the same cacao, and this import scenario is the major reason behind it.
There aren't many specialty cacao suppliers out there--to my knowledge, the major players in the United States are Chocolate Alchemy, Uncommon Cacao, and Meridian Cacao, along with a smattering of more origin-specific suppliers. Before starting the Guasare replacement project, I had only worked with one of them directly: Chocolate Alchemy. Chocolate Alchemy was a great place to begin because they offer very small quantities of cacao--as little as a pound. But once I had the scale to buy whole bags of cacao (more like 150 pounds), I could diversify and consider the others as well.
First I branched out to Uncommon Cacao, the supplier behind the Belize beans in my 68% bar as well as a portfolio of cacao origins in Central and South America. Through them I sampled three origins, way back in February 2017: Haiti PISA (balanced, with subtle minerality), Guatemala Monte Grande (balanced, fruity), and Guatemala Lachua (balanced, with tightly integrated complexity). They were all great, but as you can see from my notes, they were all great in a balanced, elegant way. I needed something that was unbalanced, with spikes of flavor, so the search had to continue.
Test-batch chocolate does not go to waste, as evidenced by this chocolate-covered banana made with extras from the Guatemala Lachua evaluations.
I returned to Chocolate Alchemy to evaluate three more origins: Dominican Republic Zorzal (balanced, fruity), Peru Superior (bold spice), and Venezuela Ocumare (complex, restrained). Again, they all made great chocolate that I could devote many paragraphs to, but they didn't fit the style of flavor profile I was chasing.
Molding a tiny test batch. By making only a handful of bars per test batch, I can evaluate 2-3 recipes with just a couple pounds of cacao from a given origin.
By now it was March 2017 and I was getting impatient. I'd been through 6 origins without finding the right profile, and my stock of finished Guasare bars was dwindling. So I decided to suspend the search, change direction, and fill the Guasare's void with an old personal favorite from Rizek Cacao in the Dominican Republic.
Ultimately I turned the Rizek cacao into an 85% bar with a complex, integrated flavor profile that offered a completely different flavor experience from the Guasare. It was a challenging bar to make that has found a unique place in my lineup, and I hope to tell more of its story in the future. But I couldn't seem to abandon my original vision for the Guasare replacement, and in early summer 2017, I got another shot at making it a reality.
Continue to Part 3 for the conclusion.