Geeks are using science to make the best chocolate ever

A new movement called bean-to-bar chocolate is fueled by the tech world.

Rob Anderson is a geek. So he makes chocolate for other geeks, or, more accurately, "people who really like chocolate and geek out about it."

What does he mean by that? If you change one step of the chocolate-making process, you change the taste of the resulting chocolate entirely. And Anderson wants to show you exactly what that means. Fresco Chocolate, his company, roasts beans four different ways and conches (aka aerates and stirs) chocolate four different ways to create totally unique bars that bring the eater into the factory with him to be part of the process.

Oh, and by the way, he built most of the machines he uses himself.

The thing is, Anderson isn't alone. He's part of a new movement called bean-to-bar chocolate that is revolutionizing chocolate by making it from scratch with a strong focus on flavor. This distinctly American phenomenon has expanded in the past 12 years from five bean-to-bar chocolate makers to around 200 as of this writing. Almost all of these folks construct some of their machines themselves, and a large portion of them come from the tech and engineering world. Why? It all comes back to good old geekery.

All chocolate is made from cocoa beans, but "bean-to-bar chocolate" has come to mean something distinct.

For contrast, most of the chocolate that we eat is made by big companies. They mix low-quality cocoa beans from all over the world in big batches and then overroast them and add a ton of sugar, vanillin (fake vanilla!), cocoa butter and emulsifiers like soy lecithin to guarantee that the taste and texture are always the same. What we think chocolate tastes like is usually just sugar and vanilla.

This type of product is generally called industrial chocolate. Not all of it is bad, but the term is often a shorthand way of saying that low cost and consistency are the maker's primary goals. Industrial chocolate turns up in many places, especially in the candy bars and chocolate bars we buy at the grocery store, and often in the treats we buy from chocolatiers, aka someone who makes candies and confections, like truffles, chocolate bark and so on.

Bean-to-bar chocolate, on the other hand, is made from scratch, usually by a single person or small group of people. A bean-to-bar chocolate maker sources whole cocoa beans and then roasts, grinds and smoothens them into chocolate in a single facility. They're engineers, creating chocolate from raw materials.

"Roasts, grinds and smoothens" sounds easy, but in reality, it's a nuanced, almost-impossible process with thousands of variables.

First makers source the beans from farmers. Much of a good chocolate's flavor comes from what happens at the farm level, the way the fresh beans are fermented and then dried (for example, improperly fermented beans will have off-tastes like smoked ham). So makers often work directly with farmers or reliable go-betweens to guarantee that they're getting high-quality products and to ensure that farmers are being paid fairly for their work, usually much more than fair-trade prices.

There's plenty of technology at the farm level, but for the most part, bean-to-bar makers innovate on what happens after the farm, at the factory. First, makers take those dried beans and roast them, using everything from conventional kitchen ovens to reengineered clothes dryers, and the temperature and time aren't standardized at all. But the roaster, temperature and timing hugely affect how the chocolate tastes, so this is one of the most important steps in the chocolate-making process.

After roasting, each cocoa bean needs to be cracked to reveal the cocoa nibs inside. The cracked beans are then sorted into nibs and inedible husks in a process called winnowing.

The cocoa nibs are then ground into tiny, tiny particles in a machine called a melangeur so that the resulting chocolate "liquor" (sorry, it's not alcoholic) is, well, liquidy. It's often pretty gritty at this stage, so it's ground again with sugar and other ingredients to make sure all the particles of cocoa, sugar and anything else are the same tiny micron size. Some makers then use a machine called a conche to mix and polish the chocolate and release volatile acids, making it even smoother and more like the European-style chocolate that we're used to eating.

Finally, the chocolate must be heated and cooled to the correct temperature to have a nice snap and sheen, a process called tempering. After this process, the chocolate is shelf-stable and ready to be eaten.

By changing variables like the roasting temperature and the type of machine they use, makers can shape the chocolate and bring out different flavors, creating chocolate that fits their personality (and taste buds).

You need to be an engineer, physicist and bona fide geek to make chocolate from scratch, someone who wants to spend all day with machines, tweaking tiny pieces to make them run more efficiently. You also need to understand the chemistry behind those almond-shaped beans and how adjusting one step will affect the rest. Further, because chocolate has become an industrial product over the past 150 years, the available machines are enormous (and enormously expensive), which means if you're making chocolate on a small scale, you might just have to build your own.

Chocolate isn't the only industrialized product to get an overhaul. As our food systems have become more and more opaque, people are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, how it's made and who makes it. Take farm-to-table, for example, where the vegetable is now reified. Or craft beer, with thousands of people brewing in their basements and hundreds of microbreweries popping up around the country, making beverages that leave Anheuser-Busch to the frat boys (who, come to think of it, are now drinking the craft stuff too). Meanwhile specialty coffee has paved the way for chocolate's entrance, highlighting the farmers and normalizing the idea of single-origin beans.

In other words, it's chocolate's turn.

This didn't happen by accident. A retired organic chemist named John Nanci in Eugene, Oregon, had seen the craft-beer and specialty-coffee industries take off, and when he learned about making chocolate from scratch, "it clicked," he said. "I was like, 'I'm not missing this boat.'"

In 2005, the year that the first bean-to-bar chocolate maker in the U.S., called Scharffenberger, sold to Hershey for about $50 million, Nanci created a site called Chocolate Alchemy that detailed how to make chocolate at home with little machinery, something that everyone said couldn't be done. He discovered that after roasting the beans in your oven of choice, you can use a Champion brand juicer to crack them open quickly. Then you put the cracked beans in a big bowl and blow air over them with a hairdryer: The light shells blow away, leaving the nibs. (This is a huge improvement over separating nib from husk by hand, a painstakingly labor-intensive method.)

"You'll have about a 6-foot circle of husk around you," Nanci writes on his site, Chocolate Alchemy, about using a hairdryer. "The kitchen is not such a good option."

He also took machines made for different purposes and jury-rigged them to work for small-batch chocolate. For example, he realized that melangeurs (the machines used to grind cocoa nibs) are really just big granite grinders. "I Googled 'granite stone and granite wheels,' and what popped up was an Indian wet grinder," he remembered. Wet grinders are used to grind lentils, among other things. "And I went, 'Oh, that looks similar.'"

So he bought one, found out that it overheated immediately when grinding nibs, and tore it apart. "I learned about what makes motors overheat, modified it and then talked to the company and said, 'I have a new market for you. Are you willing to make these modifications and sell it as chocolate melangeur?'"

"I present it as a chemist, because I am a chemist."

It was, and it did, and now you can buy a variety of Spectra melangeurs on Nanci's site. Other similar melangeurs have popped up as well, such as the aptly named Cocoatown, which you'll find in almost every bean-to-bar chocolate maker's factory.

That's only one of the machines Nanci created, and it's a small piece of his website, which is bursting with beans you can buy (still the only source for people just getting started) and the nitty-gritty about how to make chocolate from scratch. "I present it as a chemist," he explained, "because I am a chemist."

Almost all bean-to-bar makers in the country got their start using Nanci's beans and methods. Some bigger makers like Raaka still use machines that he invented and produced. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, almost half of his customers buy machines and beans to make chocolate at home for themselves, not to sell.

I say "almost" because there are also those like Amano Chocolate, founded by Art Pollard in that golden year, 2005. Pollard is a trained physicist who was "assisting on nuclear projects" at Brigham Young University and the University of Washington by time he was 13, and his partner, Clark Goble, worked at Los Alamos, focusing on nuclear modeling, among other things.The two have run a search-engine technology company called Lextek International since 1993, with clients like Apple, Prodigy and Motorola. You've most likely used their product, because it's even been incorporated into Adobe Acrobat, starting with version 6.0 to the present.

Pollard invested in vintage machinery for his chocolate factory, like an enormous winnowing machine from the 1920s or 1930s. "Most all of our machines, I've rebuilt myself," he explained. "For a lot of them, parts aren't available anymore, so I had to either make the part from scratch myself or design the parts and have them machined."

Pollard believes "it's critical" to have a background in technology and engineering in order to make chocolate. "I highly recommend designing and building your own machines, because you learn why things are the way they are. If someone just buys a machine, they just know, this machine works." If you buy readymade machines, Pollard says "you lose the whys. It's the whys that are important for making a superior-quality product."

"There was a time when we made an engineering mistake and had to throw out $30,000 worth of chocolate."

That knowledge also helps things run more smoothly. For example, recently, when Pollard bought a new machine, it arrived without the necessary software. Rather than send it back or hire an engineer, both of which would cause him to lose weeks of production, Pollard simply took a weekend and designed and built a control system himself.

That's not to say it's all smooth sailing. "There was a time when we made an engineering mistake and had to throw out $30,000 worth of chocolate," Pollard remembered.

This kind of mistake, and the trial and error that leads to it, has caused chocolate maker Alan McClure, who owns Patric Chocolate and is widely considered one of the best makers in the country, to stop scouring chemistry books on his own and go back to school to pursue his Ph.D. in food science.

If you could cut down on the trial and error inherent in making craft chocolate (figuring out the right roasting temperature for each batch of beans, deciding how long to conche and so on) by understanding the chemistry behind it — well, the sky would be the limit.

"I had to struggle the whole time to understand more about what I'm doing, the levers and dials that you pull as a chocolate maker," McClure said about what it was like to make chocolate before grad school. "Understanding scientific ways of approaching things has allowed me to have more solid results when I'm doing my own R&D," he continued. "My decisions tend to be better, based on facts" rather than on a hunch.

"I had to struggle the whole time to understand more about what I'm doing."

McClure is already using his new knowledge to make a difference. For example, he's spent the past few years of his graduate work analyzing different cocoa samples to evaluate their levels of theobromine, caffeine and epicatechin. Those three compounds, among others, give chocolate its signature bitter taste, one that turns many people off dark chocolate.

"I've been looking at the amounts of those in different origins of cocoa in an effort to learn more about exactly where the bitterness is coming from," he explained. By analyzing the amounts of each in different types of cocoas, he can better understand how to make less-bitter chocolate from all sorts of beans.

This dedication to hard science is part of the craft-chocolate movement's identity. Take Rob Anderson, the owner of Fresco Chocolate. With degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, he works as a senior director of emerging technologies at an industrial-electronics-manufacturing company. "I don't do the typical executive sort of things like play golf and hang out at the country club," he said. "I come home to make chocolate."

For Anderson, much of the fun of chocolate, which he's been making since the early 2000s, comes from building the machines and problem-solving the technical snafus. Take his cocoa-bean roaster, which is made out of a modified commercial clothes dryer ("I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is perfect,'" he recalls on finding it).

Over 15 years, Anderson's roaster has gone through at least four iterations; his winnower, over a dozen; his conche, four. It turns out it's actually pretty hard to make great chocolate.

And just because you have a good machine doesn't mean you can make good chocolate. It's all about how you use those machines. Anderson roasts beans three different ways (for example, he describes "light" as "just enough to soften raw cocoa's acidic or green edge") and conches the resulting chocolate four different ways (for example, he describes "long" as "flavor peaks and valleys softened to a melodic harmony").

He prints that information on Fresco's labels and lets you choose the style you like the best. Do you want a dark roast and long conche like the Marañón 230 from Peru? A light roast and no conche like the Papua New Guinea 222? Or would you prefer a medium roast and medium conche like the Dominican Republic 224 (which won a gold award at the 2015 International Chocolate Awards)?

This kind of experimentation is the bedrock of an entire school of thought within bean-to-bar chocolate, and the king of it is Dandelion Chocolate. The San Francisco-based company was started by Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring in a basement in Silicon Valley in 2010.

Sound like another kind of company (cough, software, cough)? You're spot-on: Straight out of college at Stanford, the two had started a tech company called Plaxo with Sean Parker (whom you might remember from Napster), and in 2008, after a few tough years, they sold it to Comcast for upward of $150 million.

That left them with plenty of time on their hands. So what did they do? Started making chocolate, of course. "We were used to writing software," Todd remembered, "but building a machine that could do something physical was new and interesting."

The two Stanford grads harnessed their tech-startup know-how and applied it to a new field. They wouldn't be artists creating a masterpiece but instead pragmatists solving a problem: how to make the best chocolate possible.

When Alain Ducasse opened his chocolate factory in Paris, he invited old-school makers to come try his chocolate. They said essentially to give it 30 years and maybe then Ducasse would have enough experience to make good chocolate. "We don't want to wait until 2045 to make a good batch," Todd said. "So we had to figure out how to make good chocolate assuming we know nothing."

Using A/B testing, Dandelion has developed a methodology that allows it to create amazing chocolate. When the company sources a new type of cocoa bean, it immediately sets to testing it with multiple experiments to discover the perfect process for that particular bean. ("The biggest driver of the flavor is going to be the beans and the fermentation," Todd said. "By the time we get them, that's already locked in." That's why Dandelion spends much of its time and energy sourcing high-quality cocoa beans from around the world. However, that kind of sourcing and direct trade are a different story.)

"The biggest driver based on our experiments is the roasting," Todd explained. They roast batches at slightly different temperatures or for slightly different amounts of time, then make chocolate bars with those batches.

And that's when the fun begins. Dandelion employees, friends, family — a whole smattering of people — sit down and blind taste-test the different bars, then rate each on a scale of -2 to 2.

"Sometimes we mix it up and put two of the same in there to see if people are cheating or lying or whatever," he said. "But if you get enough people tasting, you start to see that one roast is preferred over another."

It takes anywhere from 10 to 20 batches of chocolate to find the right roast — and one that matches their house style (lightly roasted, two-ingredient bars that highlight the bean's inherent flavor notes).

The resulting chocolate mesmerizes your mouth, changing your idea of what chocolate can taste like. So it's no surprise that there's more demand than Dandelion can supply: Masonis said they entered 2017 with a waiting list of more than 500 stores that want to carry their bars.

The company wants to change that, which is why it's opening a giant factory in San Francisco's Mission District, which will increase production 10 times. "It's not good enough to double the amount or eke out 10 percent or 20 percent more," Masonis explained about the economics of scale. "We have to get to a whole new order of magnitude."

They've done 10 times more work to get to that new order of magnitude as well: They sent a team across the world to try different machines. "We tested the exact same beans from three different processes to try to figure out which machinery was used on the beans at each factory" and which worked the best, Masonis said. "For every machine that we get, we do taste tests and validate and say we won't do this unless it makes chocolate that's better than what we do today."

Call it the scientific method times 10.


Like Nanci, Dandelion wants to share its information. In mid-November, it released a book called Making Chocolate: From Bean to Bar to S'more that promises to change the game for bean-to-bar chocolate. In it, the Dandelion team tells you, step by step, in sometimes excruciating detail, how to make chocolate from scratch. "The Quick Start Guide" is only six pages, but "The Process, Unabridged" is 68 pages and includes everything from how to build your own winnower with PVC pipe to graphs of the "approximate melting points of polymorphic crystal forms."

This might not seem like that big of a deal, considering that there are already resources like Chocolate Alchemy. Well, I should say "resource," singular. Because the other resources are technical manuals from the past century, often in foreign languages, and are often inapplicable to this new way of making chocolate. Makers are pretty much left to decipher the process on their own, mostly through trial and error. And we've seen how that goes.

For new makers, the text is invaluable. This much information, presented clearly, with graphs, times, temperatures and detailed explanations of such a complicated process, will help the industry grow tremendously. "It's everything we wanted to know about how to make chocolate when we got started," said Greg D'Alesandre, co-owner and bean "sourcerer," who was Dr. Wave (aka the product manager of Google Wave) in another life.

It's also indicative of the industry that Dandelion wants to share what it knows. "A couple of people who tested our recipes for how to make chocolate at home have gone on to start their own chocolate companies," said Masonis, reciting a JFK quotation that I have heard from a majority of chocolate makers: "A rising tide lifts all boats."

In other words, the chocolate that we're eating now is the best that's ever existed, and it will only continue to get better. "In the tech world, you grow up with the idea that you can do anything you want in this life," said Pollard. "You just have to learn how."

Images and parts of this story were excerpted from Bean-to-Bar Chocolate, © by Megan Giller, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

Images: William Mullan (Raaka chocolate lead image, chocolate melangeur); Paul Takeuchi (nibs falling); Amber Day (chocolate process illustration); Molly DeCoudreaux (Dandelion factory); Megan Giller (Dandelion winnower); Mars Vilaubi (Patric bar)