Unwrapping the Bean-to-Bar Boom
Twenty-Four Blackbirds, Chocolate Maya, and Santa Barbara’s Place in America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution
Thursday, July 19, 2018
You don’t need a golden ticket to enter Santa Barbara’s chocolate factory, nor will you encounter orange-skinned creatures, navigable rivers of chocolate, or gravity-defying beverages inside. But if you do walk through the doors of Twenty-Four Blackbirds Chocolate on East Haley Street, you’ll smell the warm aroma of roasting cocoa in the air and find delicious treats to plop in your mouth, curious machinery to entertain your eyes, and, like the fictional Willy Wonka, a mad scientist of sweets.
That’s owner Mike Orlando, a risk-taking entrepreneur and problem-solving inventor whose work is changing the world of craft chocolate. “We were one of the first to do it,” said Orlando of his entry into America’s craft chocolate movement in 2010. “We lucked into the timing of craft chocolate. Eight years later, there must be more than 200 bean-to-bar companies in the United States alone.”
When Twenty-Four Blackbirds began, only about 10 other American producers were making chocolate bars out of fermented cocoa beans that they sourced directly from cacao farmers in the tropics. This hands-on, single-origin, “bean-to-bar” process is much different than the industrialized, corporate-controlled chocolate industry, which has ruled the planet since the 1800s and treats cocoa as a gross commodity like wheat rather than a customized product like wine.
Much like craft brewers and boutique coffee roasters, chocolate makers — distinct from chocolatiers, who take finished chocolate and make candies — continue to launch new brands throughout the country. Unlike beer and coffee, which are starting to show signs of contraction, the cocoa trend currently shows no signs of abating.
There remains plenty of room for growth, so existing producers are collaborating more than competing, encouraging anyone with the right grinder and gumption to take the leap. Meanwhile, “Big Chocolate” would-be boogeymen — corporations like Hershey and Nestlé and Mars — aren’t messing with the little guys yet, as the craft movement amounts to less than one percent of the global cocoa market.
And yet, since many American bean-to-bar makers are focused on fostering fair trade, supporting sustainability, and even reviving heirloom varieties of cacao, the social impacts of this small movement feel quite big. That’s a positive shift from chocolate’s postcolonial history, in which millions of farmers from West Africa to South America — including a rampant amount of child labor — still subsist in near-slavery conditions due to the volatile commodity market.
“As more companies come on, more information is being shared and more farms are being discovered by people who care,” said Orlando. “I think we have 5-10 more years of this before it becomes the Hershey-versus-Nestlé battle and we’re competing for the same space. And that time may never come.”
Welcome to the golden age of American craft chocolate.
By Paul Wellman
Twenty-Four Blackbirds owner Mike Orlando opened his retail shop on East Haley Street earlier this year. Visitors can tour the facility and see the entire process, from fermented cocoa beans still in their shells (above left) to the finished product (above right).
Since starting in a tiny, shared commercial kitchen on East Yanonali Street — with initial sales through The French Press coffee shop — Twenty-Four Blackbirds steadily skyrocketed in growth, nearly doubling in sales every year for a while. Today, Orlando sells his bars through nearly 400 retailers in the United States, with another 100 in Tokyo.
“When we started, we used to process one bag of cocoa beans at a time,” said Orlando, who founded the company with his then-girlfriend, Elaine Madsen. “Now we buy a ton of cacao per order. It’s many factors larger.”
After four years in a slightly larger kitchen on De la Vina Street, Orlando moved operations to East Haley Street in 2016 and has been renovating the 3,000-square-foot space ever since. (He and Madsen parted ways a while back, and she’s now a designer at this newspaper.) Today, the low-slung warehouse — which was originally a glassmaking facility but spent nearly two decades as the Taka-Puna bespoke clothing store — is a full-on chocolate factory, with refiners, roasters, winnowers, and the tempering machine humming at every waking hour.
The results are shiny bars that snap and don’t melt right when you touch them, but do when you put them in your mouth. Explained Orlando, “All of these characteristics are what make chocolate chocolate for most people.”
What sets Orlando apart is that he also designs machines to help himself and others tackle recurrent problems, enhance efficiency, and just make better chocolate. “Because I am making chocolate every single day, it’s easy for me to come up with a machine that solves a problem,” said Orlando, who previously worked as a marine biologist and analytical chemist for UCSB and UC Santa Cruz. Based in the rear of the factory, his technology development company is called Prefix Equipment Manufacturing, and it has sold plans, prototypes, and finished products to chocolate makers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and across the United States.
Most important, both for his business and the public, the new Twenty-Four Blackbirds headquarters is a retail front and educational hub. People can taste the difference between single-origin chocolates from Madagascar, Ecuador, Tanzania, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic; sample some of his wildly flavored confections (spicy togarashi, pink peppercorn & licorice salt caramel, etc.); and learn tons about chocolate. Starting this week, visitors can take a self-guided tour through the facility, from the humid greenhouse, where fledgling cacao trees are growing, through the sorting and mixing rooms, and then to where the melted beans become packaged bars. (See sidebar on page 25 for the stages of chocolate making.)
“When I started, I didn’t want anything to do with retail, but I realized that I had to do it, because we were going to get left behind in terms of business growth,” said Orlando, who employs seven people. “Now that this is open, it’s time to catch up.”
And to do retail, you really need to do education in order for people to understand why they’re spending $7.50 on a chocolate bar, when Hershey sells the same thing for less than $2. That’s why, he explained, “this whole place was set up so that you could do the factory tour.”
Since opening in February, business has been consistent, but Orlando is very excited to launch the self-guided tours. “People are going to be pretty blown away, especially to see the tropical nursery,” said Orlando. “With that going, I am able to show the entire tree-to-bar process. That’s pretty unique. I don’t think anyone in the U.S. is doing anything like this.”
By Paul Wellman
Tatiana Champetier molds chocolate into truffles that are also on sale at Twenty-Four Blackbirds, with such flavors as Spicy Togarashi Caramel and Pink Peppercorn & Lavender Blossom Caramel.
It’s unlikely Orlando would ever have started down this path if it weren’t for an even earlier chocolate entrepreneur in Santa Barbara: Maya Schoop-Rutten, the Swiss émigré who came to Santa Barbara in 1982, ran the Comeback Café on State Street for 16 years, and then opened her Chocolate Maya shop in 2007.
In her native Switzerland, as in much of Europe, there are chocolate shops on every block, but there was nothing like that in Santa Barbara. “I used to bring back bars from Switzerland,” she said of her earliest offerings. “Little by little, we got more bars from the United States, and they were actually better than the chocolate from Europe.”
Already into coffee roasting as a hobby, Orlando wandered into the new shop and bought one of the original American bean-to-bar, single-origin chocolates: the 70 percent Madagascar bar by Patric. “It was outrageously good,” recalled Orlando, so he started making his own in a rudimentary way and sharing the results. “The positive reinforcement of making chocolate for your friends is a biofeedback loop that doesn’t quit.” Twenty-Four Blackbirds was born soon after.
Decorated in moody, vivid colors with photos of cacao trees, fermenting beans, smiling farmers, and more, Chocolate Maya — which is adjacent to the coffee-bean bags of S.B. Roasting Company at State and Gutierrez streets — is reminiscent of a hip Central American café. In addition to the house-made truffles and wall full of sustainably sourced bars for sale, Schoop-Rutten also offers tasting flights that show how Madagascar chocolates can be bright and citrusy while those from the Solomon Islands may be much nuttier.
“Like wine, those other flavors are so important, and they should travel for a few minutes,” she said. “If you have a chocolate and the flavor is gone after you swallow it, that’s bad chocolate.” Also like wine, there is vintage variation. “We may get it from the same plantation, but it won’t ever taste that way again,” she said.
Her most expensive bar costs $22, but they are all more pricey than what you’ll find at the grocery store. “They’re very expensive because they come from places where farmers are making a profit,” said Schoop-Rutten. On numerous tours through cacao-growing regions, she’s seen how much of an impact America’s fair-trade-minded bean-to-bar producers can have for these family farmers, as many can now afford to send their kids to school or buy refrigerators. “It’s really wonderful that farmers are making more money now,” she said.
She also does her part to educate the farmers, like on a recent trip to Java. “They’ve never seen the end product, and they don’t know what chocolate looks like or tastes like,” said Schoop-Rutten, who always travels with bars now. “It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?”
While her business wouldn’t survive just on selling those bars alone, Schoop-Rutten explained, “They are crucial for me because of the education aspect of the business.” The number of producers sending samples continues to grow exponentially, but she remains “severe” in her assessment, noting that, while there are a lot more producers now, there are still not many that are “good, good, good.” (Twenty-Four Blackbirds made the cut from the get-go.)
With time, she believes that the quality producers will rise above the rest. “Kind of like the beer market: The bad ones will go and the good ones will stay, and it will all mellow out,” she said. “Right now, we’re in the prime boom. It’s exploding. Everyone is doing it. I can’t keep up.”
By Paul Wellman
Originally from Switzerland, Maya Schoop-Rutten started selling bean-to-bar chocolate in Santa Barbara when she opened Chocolate Maya at State and Gutierrez streets in 2007.
America’s craft chocolate movement is a throwback of sorts to how chocolate was treated millennia ago by the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The Maya, Olmec, and Aztec all highly revered the cacao tree and cocoa beans, incorporating chocolate into important rituals and even using the beans as currency.
When the Spaniards arrived, they took to chocolate as well. It was mostly served as a beverage back then, and the Spaniards liked to cut its bitter flavor with sugar or honey. That quickly caught on in Europe, so the Spaniards, Dutch, French, and English started planting cacao trees throughout their colonies in the tropics, from Africa to South America to New Guinea, as the trees can only grow within about 20 degrees of the equator. Today, West Africa, particularly the Ivory Coast and Ghana, grows the majority of cocoa beans on the planet, more than half of global production at last count.
In 1879, after decades of development by such names as Nestlé and Cadbury, the Swiss chocolate maker Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, which produced the texture and taste of chocolate that we know today. By the early 20th century, cocoa was being traded as a commodity like wheat, cotton, and rice. That’s how it’s treated today, with about 4.6 million tons per year amounting to more than $11 billion annually, depending on the market price.
The American craft chocolate movement, meanwhile, is just a tiny slice of that global figure, but it’s been growing steadily since 2007. Cultural trends of such magnitude are usually hard to pin to one person, but this movement does come down to Steve DeVries, a glassworker from Colorado who stumbled into the trade while learning Spanish in Costa Rica in 1998.
(Scharffen Berger — which started in San Francisco in 1996, coined the phrase “bean-to-bar,” and sold to Hershey for about $50 million in 2005 — is often called a pioneer as well. But the insider rub is that the company started out with a corporate rather than boutique model.)
“People try to call me the godfather, but I don’t have a little pinkie ring, so I don’t know about that,” said DeVries, who managed to track down some Costa Rican beans, bring them back to Denver, and make his first batch of chocolate using his oven and grain mill, based on the very few pieces of published information he could find. “It was admittedly crude, but it had a complexity of flavors that I had never tasted in chocolate before,” said DeVries. “That hooked me.”
He sold his first DeVries Chocolate bars in 2005. “I was the 12th-largest manufacturer in the United States,” he explained, “and also the smallest.” He had to crack the chocolate code — “It’s always been very secretive,” he said of the corporate experts — and started to confront the industry-pumped propaganda that the chocolate making starts in the factory, not the farm.
“Over the years, I’ve come to realize that, when the bean gets into the factory, 80 percent of what the chocolate can be is already determined,” he explained. “You can go up from there or down from there, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” (He much prefers the Spanish version of that cliché, aunque la mona se vista de seda mona se queda, which means that you can dress a monkey in silk, but it’s still a monkey.)
DeVries quickly learned why mass-produced chocolate was boring by design. “They want a standard. They want you to grab a Cadbury and have the same flavor from year to year,” said DeVries, explaining that many of the big companies don’t even process their own beans anymore, instead buying “chocolate liquor” from specialty “grinder” factories. “The only way you can do that is working with the lowest common denominator, so that’s why 95 percent of their bulk beans come from Africa, with no complexity of flavor,” he continued. “And then they blend four or five different beans and change their roast to come up with a fairly similar product.”
Not only does Mike Orlando make machines to help the chocolate industry evolve, he also rescues and refurbishes old devices, such as this candy-bar wrapping machine that he found in Mexico.