The Smallest Chocolate Factory in the World
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."
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!'"
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.
Even more exciting to me, though, is Kopplin's Rogue single-origin hot chocolate drinks, namely a Sambirano Madagascar hot chocolate in either a shot glass, 8-ounce, or 12-ounce size, for, respectively, $2.25, $3.75, and $4.25. I've tried to write stories for years about the best hot chocolates in town but always abandoned them because the pickings have been so slim; now, finally, under the wire in 2007, we've got one. (Kopplin's Coffee, 490 Hamline Ave. S., St. Paul, 651.698.0457; www.kopplinscoffee.com.)
What next? I'm guessing that Colin Gasko takes over the world. He's working right now with an engineer who helped develop ConAgra's sunflower-seed processing line to invent something big that will revolutionize chocolate making in our time—or at least in our city.
If there's one thing watching Gasko in his spic-and-span warren of magical tinkered-with chocolate machines has taught me, it's that while necessity may be the mother of invention, ambition, obsession, and great taste make pretty formidable midwives.
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