Tuesday, August 30, 2011

For the Love of Chocolate

Photo compliments of Amano Chocolate

There seems to be a trend among artisan chocolate makers – creative, handy, entrepreneurial types. Well, the founders of Amano Chocolate, based outside of Salt Lake City, UT, are no exception. A marriage of a love of designing and building and a passion for chocolate, Amano lives up to its namesake – Italian for “by hand” or “they love.” (oh, Italians…). I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the founders, Art Pollard, about the story behind the confection and the inner workings of the business.

Let’s start at the beginning. What set things in motion for you to go into chocolate-making?

Oddly enough, you can probably track my passion for chocolate back to a physics lab. I grew up in Los Alamos, NM where the National Laboratory is located. By the time I was thirteen years old, I was working in several different university nuclear research labs. Through college, I designed and built equipment for my university's physics department – the same one where I started working on the various nuclear projects. It was there, while eating a chocolate bar, that I first contemplated making my own chocolate… My co-workers said I couldn't do it and first informed me that chocolate, in fact, comes from cocoa beans!

Years later, a $2 truffle from a Belgian company with an outlet in Hawaii took chocolate to a whole new level for me. My business partner, Clark, and I have put our lab background and love of creating and building to good use. While we started out working as programmers with chocolate making as a side business or hobby, it has slowly taken over. I flew out to Europe to study at a confectionery school, searched for the right machinery to make the chocolate, and visited cocoa plantations around the world to find the right beans. Once we found a space and started experimenting with the beans, it was a matter of choosing when to test the market.

Somehow, National Public Radio (NPR) managed to get hold of one of our early batches, and began touting our chocolate as one of the best in the country (and featured in NPR’s 2007 Valentine’s Day article). While we weren't officially launched yet, when the NPR attention centered on us, Clark and I looked at each other and said, “I guess we’ve launched!”. But seriously, the artisan chocolate industry is just about everything I enjoy in life. I get to rebuild machines that are close to 100 years old. I have always enjoyed horticulture. And I am also a dire-hard foodie. So it’s the perfect combination.

How did you choose your current sources of cacao? Single origin vs. mixed?

We choose our sources of cacao based entirely on flavor. It’s a lot of work to figure out the best way to process the beans, which is why we can’t pursue every source of bean that comes to us. At this point, each of our chocolate bars is single-origin. While it would be a great challenge to pursue a high-quality mixed-source bar, I’m having too much fun making single origin chocolate right now!

In what ways do you consider the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of the company as a whole?

Well, every area is different. But as far as cocoa is concerned, I don’t think that Fair Trade really works. The premium is barely 5%, and little of the price premium consumers pay actually reaches the farmers. On the other hand, working directly with farmers, helping them learn to grow and harvest quality cocoa, opens the door for chocolatiers willing to pay more for quality. We are paying at minimum twice market rate and as much as four times. None of the money goes to a certifier in a developed nation – it goes directly to the community where it belongs.

I noticed that you travel a lot! Do you interact directly with cacao growing communities, and if so, what is the most rewarding aspect of working at this level?

We interact with farmers at various levels, both on large plantations and cooperatives, as well as small-scale farmers. We also obtain differing quantities of cacao from the different growers.

Whenever we finish a chocolate bar, we always make an effort to take the finished product back to the communities for them to try. In general, it is tough to get chocolate in the tropics, because of the hurdles in storing it, and the opportunity for farmers to eat chocolate made with their own beans is a rare treat. For me, it’s a honor getting to know a farmer who really cares about what he does, meeting his family, and being entrusted with his entire year’s crop. It is a great responsibility to have the cacao in the factory, with the imperative to do something truly special with it.

Where do you see the company headed? Any exciting upcoming developments?

We are developing some new origin bars, but the details are still under lock and key!

Final (and most important…) question – if you could eat any chocolate, which would it be?

They are all my babies! It is totally a mood thing, though. The Chuao bar from Venezuela is spectacular, and for that we are paying four times the market rate. Our Madagascar is beautiful. The Dos Rios from Dominican Republic is also a favorite. Ecuador has some really wonderful beans, but the finished chocolate sold today has not been spectacular. Our Guayas bar has met with success where these other tries have failed. No matter what, each has its own unique tale and own individual flavor profile. It just depends on the time of day, my mood, etc. And like I said, each of them is like one of my babies!

Wow, another unique and not-at-all linear path to the chocolate biz. Thanks to Art for a lively and enlightening conversation, and best of luck on the mysterious future plans! In the meantime, I think I’ll go have another piece of that Madagascar bar sitting in my room…

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