Most commercial chocolate producers get their beans from Ivory Coast, where cacao is plentiful and cheap. The flavor may be inferior, but manufacturers can disguise that with over-roasting and additives like vanilla. "You can tell the quality of chocolate from the smell," Leaf adds. "It should not smell like vanilla."

Chocolate has one of the most complex flavor profiles of any food on Earth. According to McClure's scientific papers, it contains more than 600 aromatic components. "This smells nutty, coffeelike, chocolatey," McClure says, inhaling the scent of a handful of beans he roasted a few days earlier. "There's fermentation notes in here and lactic acid but also cheese." He sniffs again. "Gruyère."

When McClure and Askinosie consider using a particular bean, they subject the samples to considerable scrutiny, not just making test batches but examining the color and structure of the beans and even cutting them open to inspect the insides. They also investigate the farms where the beans were grown to make sure they don't use pesticides or child slavery, a distressingly common form of labor on cocoa plantations.

After giving up a career as a trial lawyer, Shawn Askinosie threw himself into making chocolate.
Edward Biamonte
After giving up a career as a trial lawyer, Shawn Askinosie threw himself into making chocolate.
Alan McClure pours liquid chocolate into molds.
Nick Schnelle
Alan McClure pours liquid chocolate into molds.

Both pay considerably more than fair-trade prices for their beans. "The best quality is the most expensive," McClure explains. McClure gets his beans from Madagascar's Sambirano Valley and the Paria Peninsula in Venezuela. Askinosie's come from San José del Tambo, Ecuador; Soconusco, Mexico (once conquered by the Aztecs for its cacao); and Davao, Philippines. He is the first chocolate maker to import beans from Davao in more than 30 years. Many of the farmers, he says, have never seen a chocolate bar.

"Sourcing a bean is harder than a murder trial," Askinosie sighs. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life."

And that was before he made his first chocolate bar.


There's no school for chocolate making. McClure has assembled a small library of books from the late-nineteenth century. Askinosie's production manager — and son-in-law — Kyle Malone keeps a thick textbook called Chocolate, Cocoa and Confectionery at his desk. ("You read a couple of pages," he reports, "and think, 'Man, what did I just read?'")

Most commercial manufacturers guard their processes as closely as Willy Wonka in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where "no one ever went in and no one ever went out."

Certain principles are understood. Cacao beans must be roasted. Someone has to crack the beans open and separate the shells from the nibs, the "meat." The nibs need to be ground together with sugar into a mixture called chocolate liquor. The liquor gets heated in a machine called a concher (so called because the earliest models looked like conch shells) to refine the texture and evaporate impurities.

Finally, the liquid chocolate is tempered, or slowly cooled, and then reheated to a very particular temperature to stabilize the fat molecules and keep the sugar from crystallizing. Without it, the chocolate would be a dull brown with speckles of pale yellow sugar crystals — beautiful in its own way, but not particularly appetizing. After tempering, you can pour the chocolate into a mold and cool it. Et voilà! You have a chocolate bar.

It sounds, if not simple, then doable with the right equipment. But nobody manufactures chocolate-making machines anymore, at least not for companies that operate on the scale of Patric and Askinosie. After an extensive international search, Askinosie found himself with a roaster from Colombia, a melanger from Germany, a 100-year-old concher from Italy and a defective tempering system from Ecuador.

"There were times," he says, "I wanted to drive a backhoe into the building and bury it." After four months of struggling, he finally gave in and purchased a new system from Germany.

McClure, working with a smaller start-up budget, couldn't afford to buy old machines. Instead, though he had previously shown no inclination for things mechanical, he found himself tinkering with beer- and bread-making machines to make them process cocoa beans.

"Once you realize what the principles are, you don't have to use a machine that was built for chocolate," he explains. "It's about controlling the machine and understanding what it does."

He roasts his beans in a commercial oven and cracks them open in a machine originally intended to crack barley for beer. (It was manufactured, much to his amusement, by a company called Crankenstein.) His melanger was originally used to prepare the batter for Indian bread. He doesn't have a concher because he read in one of his books that the melanger, given enough time, could do the same job.

But he, too, had trouble with his tempering equipment and had to buy a second machine; he now uses the first, which cost $12,000, as a holding tank. "Manufacturers of tempering equipment will lie to you about what it can do," he says bitterly. "After I heard Shawn's story, I shouldn't have stuck with my machine. But you start to doubt yourself: Is it the machine's fault or yours?"

"It was very, very stressful," Malone says of the process of learning to make chocolate. "But now I'm glad. I learned a lot more through trial and error. It helps you get to know your product better. The neat thing about chocolate is, if two factories use the same beans, they'll taste totally different because of the roasting profile and the time in the concher."

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