Editor's note: Charles Ferruzza returns next week.
It's a bitter-cold January morning, and the air inside the Patric Chocolate factory, located in a tiny industrial park on the outskirts of Columbia, Missouri, carries hints of something acrid and sharp. If you sniff hard, you can detect a hint of cocoa. Then your eyes water.
The smell emanates from the melanger, a 600-pound machine that takes up most of a small room in the back of the factory. Two heavy granite wheels inside the machine churn a viscous brown liquid, warmed by friction and infrared heaters mounted outside the tank.
"That's cocoa and sugar," says Alan McClure, Patric's 31-year-old founder.
Three hours ago, McClure filled the melanger with 56 pounds of cacao and 24 pounds of cane sugar and turned it on. It will run for the next four days. The heavy wheels will refine the sugar and cocoa particles, and the heat will evaporate impurities such as acetic acid — the source of that vinegar odor.
Premium dark chocolate used to be a rarity in the United States. Twenty-five years ago, the French company Valrhona figured out how to make a chocolate bar that was 70 percent cacao and 30 percent sugar, an event that New Yorker writer Bill Buford called "the chocolate world's equivalent of an airplane breaking the sound barrier." Within a few years, 70 percent became the benchmark for fine chocolate, and it's now de rigueur for manufacturers to advertise the cocoa content on their packaging.
In the past five years, a few Americans — not content just to eat chocolate — have decided to try their hands at producing it. Clay Gordon, editor and publisher of thechocolatelife.com and author of Discover Chocolate, estimates that there are now 14 bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the United States.
Shawn Askinosie, founder of Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri, suspects that some of them don't perform every step themselves in the production process, and he believes that the actual number is closer to five. (Three others are De Vries Chocolate in Denver; Amano Artisan Chocolate in Orem, Utah; and Rogue Chocolatier in Minneapolis.)
"Even Hershey's isn't a bean-to-bar chocolate maker anymore," he says. "They don't roast their own beans."
To the shock of many in the chocolate world, including McClure and Askinosie, one of the centers of this new bean-to-bar movement is Missouri, a state that, in Gordon's words, "is not exactly known for leading food trends."
"People kept asking me if I'd heard of the lawyer in Springfield who was making chocolate," McClure says. "I thought: That can't be true. What are the chances of Missouri being the only state with two bean-to-bar chocolate makers? It was so unlikely, and neither of us knew about each other."
Both Patric and Askinosie produced their first bars in 2007. Only a decade earlier, Scharffen Berger had opened in Berkeley, California, as the country's first microbatch bean-to-bar chocolate maker, meaning it produced fewer than 250,000 pounds of chocolate per year. The venture was wildly successful — so successful that it sold out to Hershey's for $10 million in 2005.
A bar of premium chocolate bears as much resemblance to a Hershey bar as a dry-aged steak does to a Big Mac. The price difference is comparable, too: A 1.75-ounce Patric bar sells for $6.25, and a slightly weightier Askinosie is between $8 and $10.
"People are educating themselves to know the difference," Gordon says, "and they're more willing to spend what it takes to buy a great product. The price difference between the everyday and the really good is very narrow. Even at $22 a bar, you can buy a bar of the best chocolate every week. You can't do that with the best bottle of wine."
French chocolate expert Chloë Doutre-Roussel considers Patric some of the best chocolate in the world, and Askinosie not far behind. "Americans realized quite late that bean-to-bar was growing, but when they did it, they did it well and fast," she says. "It's a very American attitude to change your profession and put all your money and energy into a new venture and make it happen."
McClure, 31, majored in religious studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia but knew early on that he wanted to work with food. A year living in Lyon, France — hometown of his wife, Vivianne, acquainted him with fine European chocolate. Back in Columbia, he and Vivianne kept a database of chocolates they'd tried, and he began to study cacao. With money from an inheritance, he went into business, removing the K from his middle name to give his new venture a name.
Askinosie, who is 48, spent 20 years working as a criminal-defense lawyer specializing in murder cases. It was, he says, a very stressful job. He started cooking to relax, and he prayed for guidance about what he should do if he gave up law. One day in May 2005, driving to a great-aunt's funeral an hour outside Springfield, he had an epiphany: He should make chocolate.
"I didn't even know chocolate came from a bean," he recalls.
He began experimenting with roasting and grinding cocoa beans at home. After his wife, Caron, complained because he made such a mess, he kept at it in the kitchen of his law office. In the mornings, he went to court; in the afternoon, he made chocolate, assisted by paralegals. He spent a week working in a chocolate factory in Ecuador to learn more about the process. He befriended agricultural anthropologists and American chocolate manufacturers (including one who worked for Mars), who gave him leads on finding cacao farmers who grew beans with the flavors he wanted.
Chocolate has one of the most complex flavor profiles of any food; it contains more than 600 aromatic compounds. Like grapes and coffee beans, cacao absorbs chemical components from the soil in which it's grown.
"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."
Most commercial chocolate producers get their beans from Ivory Coast, where cacao is plentiful and cheap. Experts say the flavor of those beans is inferior, but manufacturers can disguise that with over-roasting and additives, such as vanilla. McClure gets his beans from Madagascar's Sambirano Valley and Venezuela's Paria Peninsula. Askinosie's come from San José del Tambo in Ecuador, Soconusco in Mexico, and Davao in the Philippines. Both men investigate the farms where the beans are grown to ensure that pesticides aren't used — or child slavery, a common form of labor on cocoa plantations. And they pay more than fair-trade prices for their beans.
"Sourcing a bean is harder than a murder trial," Askinosie says with a sigh.
The packaging of each bar of Askinosie Chocolate features a picture of the actual farmer who grew the cacao. It also has a "choc-o-lot" number that one can enter on the company's Web site to find out more about the cacao plantation and the production process in Springfield.
"Shawn's great at marketing," McClure says. "His vision is clear: to tell the story of the farmers. People feel good about buying his chocolate."
The bright, modern Askinosie Chocolate factory occupies a 115-year-old rehabbed building on Springfield's East Commercial Street. It's out of place here, where the only other signs of life on the block are an Ace Hardware and a pair of rainbow-painted storefronts that house a social-service agency for the gay community. The grand old Missouri Hotel, a block away, is now a homeless shelter.
"This is a blighted area," Askinosie says. "It's starting a revitalization. It's important for us to be on this street. Eighty kids a night sleep at the Missouri Hotel. They come here for parties. They help us make chocolate truffles and dip strawberries."
Most of the kids are part of Chocolate University, Askinosie's community-education program, which is funded in part by proceeds from the factory tours. Fifth-graders at Boyd Elementary School incorporate chocolate into all their classes: When they study machines, they visit the factory, and during geography, Askinosie goes to the classroom to tell them about countries he has visited to buy cacao beans.
If the kids studied economics, they'd learn that the profit margin on premium chocolate is slim. Still, three years in, Askinosie Chocolate has started turning a small profit, thanks to strong international sales. It produces 14 tons of chocolate a year. Patric produces 2 tons.
Gordon says annual U.S. chocolate sales total approximately $16 billion. Of that, nearly $2 billion is premium chocolate. "Every community large enough to support a craft brewer is large enough to support a craft chocolate maker," he says.
Askinosie, recalling the difficulties he had obtaining his machinery, is dubious. But McClure thinks it isn't such a far-off possibility. "Some people get too excited too quickly, before they realize what they're getting into," he says.
Five years ago would have been a better time to start making chocolate, McClure says. "But people will find a way to get the equipment, and the more people who find a way, that will prove there is a way."