The Smallest Chocolate Factory in the World

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

Yeah. He's not whistling Dixie. If you've got a spare bedroom with top-flight ventilation, you could probably fit all of Gasko's factory in it, including the bathtub-sized bags of raw cocoa beans. Small? Gasko doesn't even have a car, and, if he can't get a ride from his friend Andy, he has to deliver his chocolate bars on his bicycle. He chills beans fresh from his roaster using a gizmo he rigged up with a shop vac, a colander, and a bunch of food-service-grade plastic and hosing. His winnower is a fryer basket suspended by a wire from a hook on the ceiling. He mixes, mills, and conches his chocolate in a combination of vintage machines gathered from the depths of America's industrial past, from China, and from India, all of which he has substantially modified. The one from India was originally designed to turn lentils into dosa flour. The machine he uses to make his tempered chocolate bars bubble-free started its life in American dentistry.

The first half of my interview with Gasko consisted of my trying to figure out what exactly all his machines did to make chocolate; it was so very, very complicated. The second half of my interview consisted mainly of trying to ascertain how anyone could ever have figured out any of this, never mind how a 22-year-old on a shoestring budget could have done it. "Wait, you had this machined...where?" I'd ask. "But you installed a pneumatic cooling—what?"

I didn't get any particularly good answers, short of the fact that Gasko started down this path when he was working at Whole Foods and became convinced he could make chocolate better than any he was selling. He started off by collecting a library full of obscure, pre-World War II books on chocolate manufacturing (Husk Analytical Values is dense reading.) Somehow the fact that chocolate is a "semi-plastic" figured into it, as did the fact that his father (whom Gasko calls "my R&D department") has a background in theoretical physics. The most important fact seems to be that Gasko is simply obsessed: "My girlfriend looks at me sometimes and is like, 'Stop thinking about chocolate machines!'"

Colin Gasko and the chocolate factory
Jana Freiband
Colin Gasko and the chocolate factory

Or don't. As is so often the case in local food, one girlfriend's loss is the rest of the food community's gain. These Rogue chocolate bars are really something special. Available only at Kopplin's Coffee in St. Paul's Highland Park, at Kitchen Window in Uptown Minneapolis, and in Surdyk's Cheese Shop in northeast Minneapolis, Gasko's bars currently number only two; he hopes to develop another one to release in January.

His Ocumare bar—made with chocolate from the Ocumare Valley in northern coastal Venezuela, one of the most highly prized origins in the world of chocolate—is just massive on the palate, offering notes of walnut, aged peat-smoked whiskey, sourdough toast, bacon, blackberry, and currant liqueur. It finishes forever and makes me want to collar all the Scotch and espresso drinkers I know and force them to taste it: Can you believe this? It's like a thunder that rolls across your palate!

Rogue's other bar, the Sambirano—with chocolate from northwest Madagascar, that island off the southeast coast of Africa—couldn't be more different. It's vastly lighter, fruitier, and reminds me, of all things, of certain Italian red wines, with a sort of tart raspberry tea presence rounded out by notes of burnt lemon peel, cinnamon, and cedar. If you're someone who prefers tart, light-roasted coffee over dark, Irish whiskey over Scotch, and lemons over figs, this is the one for you.

Gasko made both bars with the same quantities of sugar, additional cocoa butter, and pure Tahitian vanilla bean so that, when tasted side by side, you would taste only the inherent differences in bean and roast, and nothing else. He tells me that one of the funnier things he's discovered in tastings is that people identify one as "sweeter" or "less sweet" than the other, depending on which they prefer.

Gasko tells me he picked such different styles of beans because the "single-origin trend"­—that is, sourcing beans for a particular batch of chocolate from a single area or farm, and thus treating cocoa plantations like wine vineyards—is often done more with an eye toward marketing than with an eye toward any real difference in the chocolate, and he wanted to present two starkly different chocolates to prove what single-origin chocolate really could be.

Call me a believer: I bought four of his first 600 chocolate bars, at $6 for a 60-gram bar. It's a little expensive for a chocolate bar, but considering it takes Gasko, sometimes with the help of his friend Andy Comeaux, a solid 30 hours of labor to make a batch of these chocolate bars, it seems well worth it. Rogue chocolate is also going to be available at Kopplin's Coffee in a variety of hot drinks. For instance, the coffee shop's owner thinks that the Sambirano pairs perfectly with a single-origin coffee he is getting in from El Salvador, and so will be offering Minnesota's (and the world's?) first paired single-origin mocha, for $4.50.

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