The Smallest Chocolate Factory in the World

Colin Gasko has started a business that some would call insane—making chocolate from raw, unprocessed beans

2010 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

You know who manufactures chocolate from raw, unprocessed cocoa beans? No one. Well, no one except massive international heavyweight chocolate companies such as M&M Mars, the Hershey Company, and Sharffen Berger. And 22-year-old Colin Gasko.

Gasko has developed his own small-scale manufacturing line for his start-up chocolate company, Rogue Chocolatier, and he runs it out of a teeny-tiny warehouse space in southeast Minneapolis. Now, my biggest fear in writing this article is that I will not be able to adequately convey how insane, how insanely ambitious, how insanely improbable it is that anyone could start a chocolate manufacturing business. But let me tell you, inventing your own chocolate factory is more or less the culinary equivalent of starting your own power plant.

Why? Because the machinery needed to turn cocoa beans into chocolate bars is massive industrial stuff, typical pieces of which cost as much as a house. The machinery evolved because cocoa beans bear about as much resemblance to chocolate bars as coal does to diamonds. When I first visited Gasko in his chocolate factory, he offered me a taste of a just-roasted chocolate bean, which looked a lot like a small lump of coal.

"It tastes like burnt dirt!" I offered. "I taste cocoa with strong notes of raspberry," he replied. Well, he had a point. Truthfully, it tasted like burnt dirt with some cocoa sprinkled on it. But I knew from tasting Gasko's potent, powerful, silky, gorgeous Rogue chocolate bars that he had some way to turn this cocoa-dirt into gold, so I began to quiz him on the process. My puny human brain immediately started to falter in the face of his arsenal of improvised, tinkered-with, and otherwise invented machinery.

Like what? First there's the roaster, which is reasonably simple: just a perforated barrel spinning in a hot oven that he had machined to his specifications. The roaster turns raw cocoa beans into something with culinary applications, using a process similar to the one that turns raw coffee beans into coffee. If you're familiar with the way a skilled coffee roaster makes roasting choices, you'll have some idea of how Gasko operates—by taste, sight, smell, sound, and instinct, roasting some cocoa beans lightly, some more darkly, depending on the characteristics of the bean and the taste he hopes to end up with.

Next, in another step that's not too complicated, the beans have to be cracked, and their fibrous husks and germ winnowed away, leaving nothing but the "nib." The nib is where all the good stuff is. Once Gasko has nibs, things get complicated.

First, the nibs are subjected to a special long, heat-controlled grinding that keeps the various aromatics of the chocolate intact while transforming them from dry-as-dust cocoa nibs into something wet and oily that resembles peanut butter. This stuff is known as chocolate liquor, even though there's no alcohol in it—it's pure chocolate. But is it chocolate you'd like to eat? Not even close. To make this black, lumpy goo into recognizable chocolate, Gasko has improvised a small-scale version of a machine called a "conch" (something that grinds chocolate for several days), and a mill that looks like it was made by Wile E. Coyote out of spare bulldozers. The purpose of these two machines is to keep smashing the chocolate liquor and, eventually, any added sugar or vanilla, until every particle in the mix is 20 to 30 microns across and a lot of the original liquid has evaporated, taking any unwanted vinegary flavors with it. (In case you forgot your physics training, a micron is one-millionth of a meter. A human hair is about 100 microns wide.)

Why must chocolate be smashed and crashed until it's so itty-bitty? Because that's the one thing that makes it magical, melty, delicious, and, to us, taste like chocolate. The human tongue evidently stops detecting grit when particles become smaller than 50 microns. Yet, if the particles get too small—less than, say, 15 microns—our same human tongue experiences those particles as gummy and yucky. In the middle is a sweet spot where we experience 20- or 30-micron particles of cocoa solids floating in their own cocoa butter as silky bliss.

That's why there are so few chocolate manufacturers in the world. Smashing fragile organic material to a 20-micron paste is an industrial activity, requiring a whole other skill set, and machine set, than chefs and other mere mortals tend to have. Oh, and after you've spent a million hours smashing your chocolate to microns, you still have to temper it (heat it, cool it, and mix it until it reaches its most stable physical form), mold it, and wrap it. Which requires another million dollars' worth of machinery.

Or a million dollars' worth of ingenuity, tinkering, and hand labor, which is how Colin Gasko does it. Gasko founded Rogue Chocolatier just this fall, and runs it from the hallowed set of warehouses near the University of Minnesota where Wheaties were invented and where many local food companies now run businesses. "I figure there are about 20 chocolate manufacturers in the country, including Hershey, M&M Mars, and so on," Gasko told me. "And me. I'm the smallest. By about a factor of four."

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