Some 4,000 years ago, deep in the jungle, ancient civilizations harvested a curious pod worshipped for its spiritual nature. This was cacao, the bean from which chocolate was born. Liquid chocolate, sweetened with sugar, swept from the Spanish courts across Europe when the Conquistadors first returned from plundering the Americas in the 16th century. A couple hundred years later, a Dutch chemist would give rise to mass production with the invention of the cocoa press. Today, chocolate—diluted with sugar, milk, and other ingredients—is consumed by Americans to the tune of 12 pounds per person, per year, a collective craving feeding a $75 billion global industry.
Now, however, cacao is getting back to its roots. An appetite for premium, small-batch chocolate has emerged over the past decade, driven in part by a savvier, more educated consumer. Single-origin, boutique chocolatiers are selling craft bars with a cacao content of 70 percent or higher, made from genetically pure beans grown on farms employing ecologically sound agricultural practices. The craft chocolate obsession has boosted the price, yet connoisseurs are eating it up. The bean-to-bar movement—much like artisan cheese, slow food, and third-wave coffee—is the specialty food craze of the hour.
Matt Caputo, owner and founder of Salt Lake City–based A Priori Distribution—one of the country’s top craft chocolate distributors—says Utahns’ taste for fine chocolate wasn’t exactly quick to catch on. “When we got into chocolate seven years ago, there was no one selling it for more than three or four dollars a bar. But now we have 450 bars where the median price is about 10 dollars,” says Caputo, who grew up in the local food industry as the son of Tony Caputo, founder of the beloved Caputo’s Market & Deli, which boasts the largest selection of ultra-premium chocolate in the US. “Now people will pay for top-notch chocolate because they know how much it costs to maintain quality and ethical farm-to-factory standards.”
Unlike the relatively simple process of roasting coffee, making chocolate involves a series of highly refined steps and, therefore, has an exponentially higher margin of error. As Caputo puts it, “not all beans are created equal.” Genetics and environmental factors predetermine each bean’s distinctive flavor, which the farmer shapes further through fermentation and drying. The chocolatier nuances the bean’s flavor again with roasting. The beans are then cracked, winnowed (husk removed from the cacao nib), ground to a paste, and mixed with other ingredients like sugar. The chocolate is then refined, conched (i.e., machine kneaded, a process strongly affecting both flavor and texture) for one to three days, rendering it finally ready for tempering and molding into bars.
Mainstream chocolate producers add not only sugar but also cocoa butter, vanilla, and milk, diluting the cacao content (and masking any mistakes in the process) to as little as 10 percent, the minimum required by the FDA to be labeled chocolate. But purist craft chocolate makers, like Ritual Chocolate (435.200.8475, 1105 Iron Horse Dr, ritualchocolate.com), stick with only two organic ingredients—cacao and cane sugar—allowing the beans to tell their story.
Ritual Chocolate co-owners Anna Davies and Robbie Stout first dabbled in chocolate-making in their Boulder, Colorado, apartment back in 2009, when there were fewer than 20 other small-batch makers in the US.
They eventually founded Ritual and from the beginning have worked directly with ethical cacao farmers in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Belize, Peru, and Madagascar. And whereas large chocolate conglomerates process upward of 10 tons of cacao beans at a time, Davies and Stout—who still perform much of the production process themselves—work in relatively small 70-pound batches, constantly testing, tasting, and tweaking at every stage to ensure quality is never sacrificed.
Davies and Stout relocated Ritual Chocolate in 2015 to Park City, where they now produce their signature 70-percent-cacao, single-origin bars in about 10 varieties. And though dozens of bean-to-bar companies now operate across the country—including Amano, Millcreek Cacao Roasters, and Solstice here in Utah—Davies and Stout continue to set Ritual apart from other chocolatiers through commitment to product quality and the unique terroir—environment-influenced flavor profile—of the painstakingly sourced beans they use to make their chocolate. “They are working with great farms exclusively and don’t bend on their convictions from a quality and sourcing standpoint,” Caputo says. “It’s inspiring to have them in Utah.”
Inspiring and convenient. Sampling bean to bar–made chocolate like Ritual’s is an accessible way to dip a toe into the often-intimidating farm-to-table movement. Salt Lake City food educator Vanessa Chang calls chocolate an approachable, “gateway” food for people who shy away from other highbrow foodstuffs that might seem too foreign or fancy. “For less than $10 you can buy a subtly crafted bar, sourced from a rare bean grown in a long-lost jungle. And it’s a truly unique flavor experience,” Chang says. “And then, the next week, you can still afford to try something else. I challenge anyone to take that same $10 and have an equivalent experience at the wine shop.”