If $10 seems a steep price to pay for a chocolate bar, consider how much you’d be willing to pay for a bottle of wine.
This month, Kansas City chocolate maker Christopher Elbow is rolling out the first three bars in his new single-origin bean-to-bar chocolate lineup. He will start with beans from Peru, Madagascar and the Dominican Republic.
Throughout the summer, Elbow roasted the individual beans in micro-batches, varying the time and temperature until he hit a “nose” that he liked.
“Lots of the process is about the nose. I smell every step of the way to determine what’s happening,” he says, bending down to inhale the aroma from a batch of Peruvian beans that have just come out of the roaster.
Cacao beans used to produce mass market chocolate bars are bought and sold on a commodity market.
“The point of traveling to these countries is to get the best bean,” he says. And the better the bean, the more time the chocolate maker has to focus on capturing the unique flavor, similar to the way a winemaker coaxes the best flavors from a particular type of grape grown in a particular region.
Eventually, Elbow — who is best-known for bonbons sold in 20 states and at his own boutique shops in Kansas City and San Francisco — plans to travel to up to a dozen countries to source his cocoa beans directly from the farmers who grow them.
Adding bars to his product mix puts Elbow alongside other movers and shakers of the craft chocolate movement who call Missouri home.
Since 2005, a mere handful of American craft chocolate bar makers has grown to more than 200 scattered from New York, California, Wisconsin to Arizona. But when Zagat named 8 Top Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Makers Around the U.S, earlier this year, its list included two Missouri names.
Zagat says Alan McClure of Patric Chocolate in Columbia “makes some of the best chocolate bars in the world,” and the food and restaurant-rating website gives similarly high marks to Askinosie Chocolate, a Springfield company founded by Shawn Askinosie, a former defense attorney who “spends almost as much time trying to make his farmers’ lives better as making tasty chocolate.”
“We’re this little-engine-that-could epicenter of craft chocolate,” says Lawren Askinosie, the chief marketing officer for the company her father founded.
Both Missouri companies sold their first chocolate bars in 2007. Both are winners of the Good Food Awards, the culinary Oscars for small, artisan food companies. (Patric has won 17 awards so far, the most awarded to any single company, and is nominated for four again this year.)
Patric’s bars — which include brown butter and malted milk — are highly sought after limited-run bars that sell for a suggested retail price of $14 at Kansas City’s Underdog Wine Co.
This fall, Askinosie released a 72 percent Zamora, Amazon Dark Chocolate bar. The bar is made with beans from a female-led farm cooperative in Ecuador. The Arriba Nacional beans are grown on terraced cliffs in a remote village.
Askinosie may be a giant compared to Patric, but even the 35 metric tons of chocolate it produces each year is roughly equivalent to what a Hershey’s plant might produce in a single shift.
To source cacao beans, Askinosie works directly with farmers across the globe and shares the company’s profits. Direct trade is considered a step above fair trade. The business practice is the theme of “Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Find Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul” (Penguin Random House).
Elbow’s own quest for the best beans will feature a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational component, the details of which he is still finalizing based on the needs of the farmers, workers and families living in cacao-producing regions.
Meanwhile, Elbow’s passport is filling up these days as he explores direct trade options in Tanzania, Haiti, Peru, Vietnam, Trinidad, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. He’s also exploring lesser known growing regions, including India and Brazil.
Although dark chocolate offers a more intense flavor, Elbow avoids using the word “bitter” to describe bean-to-bar chocolate containing a high percentage of cocoa offering a taste of “fruit, nuts, earthiness, just a myriad of flavors — and bitter would never come to my brain as something I am detecting,” he says.
As many of the bars on the market continue to push the cocoa content to ever higher percentages, Elbow insists, “I don’t look at it as a health food. It’s all about flavor. Our point is to find the right percentage to use for each bean.”
Elbow’s 75 percent Peruvian bar leans toward the nutty, coffee end of the spectrum. The 72 percent Dominican Republic has tropical fruit, honey and a note of cinnamon. The 70 percent Madagascar bar has a tart, red berry flavor with a bit of tannic dryness at the end.
A few lucky folks might even get to sample a 50 percent Dominican Republic milk chocolate bar that contains dried milk at holiday samplings around Kansas City.
He’ll follow up after the holidays with more: The 73 percent Ecuador bar has notes of plum, fruit and hints of cinnamon. The 75 percent Bolivian bar has no bitterness, a creamy texture and hints of tobacco.
Elbow estimates bean-to-bar offerings will make up 10 to 15 percent of his business. The additional line comes as Elbow takes his chocolate-making operation to a new warehouse space at 2725 Holly St. By next fall, his storefront at 1819 McGee in the Crossroads will feature tours designed to showcase the bean-to-bar process.
Elbow envisions three temperature-controlled, glass-enclosed pods: a bean/storage and sorting pod, a roasting and winnowing pod, and a refining and conching pod.
“We definitely want it to be an experience,” he says. “Everyone wants to go to Boulevard brewery and The Roasterie. We want to go to that kind of experience and promote fine chocolate in the process.”