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A Chocolate Maker’s Big Innovation

In transforming the way cacao farmers supply manufacturers, a 
San Francisco startup is creating a superb product.
June 18, 2013
Tcho chocolate collage
Tcho chocolate collage

You may have seen little squares of Tcho chocolate in their brightly colored wrappers decorated with futuristic parabolas of gold and silver. They’re easily found: Starbucks has sold them; Whole Foods sells them now.

Those usually aren’t the stores you visit to track down handcrafted chocolate from bean-to-bar makers, the new wave of chocolate producers that find and blend the rarest and most richly flavored cacao beans. Artisans like Mast Brothers, in Brooklyn, promise that each batch of bars will be different; nothing will be blandly mass-produced. In a video on their website, the lavishly bearded Mast siblings extol the “inconsistency” of their chocolate. Inconsistency generally isn’t what gets you orders from Starbucks and Whole Foods.

Tcho chocolate squares

But Tcho makes chocolate as interesting as Mast and other tiny producers. The San Francisco company stakes its reputation not on the exotic-sounding varietal names or confusing cocoa percentages the artisans market but on a set of flavor characteristics: chocolatey, bright, fruity, floral, earthy, and nutty. Tcho’s “PureNotes,” illustrated as a pie chart on wrappers, is partly a marketing device. But the chart represents something real. It makes you aware of the range of flavors you should be looking for in good chocolate, and of what you may be missing when you bite into the most dully industrial or ostentatiously artisanal versions.

What sets Tcho apart from other chocolate makers is that it doesn’t just scout the equator looking for cacao farmers it can admire, hoping they’ll grow great beans that might make wonderful chocolate. The company does something new: it provides growers with all the tools they need to have chocolate tastings during harvesting and processing, the crucial period that determines the price a cacao farmer’s crop will command. Tcho combines coffee roasters, spice grinders, and modified hair dryers to equip “sample labs”—pilot plants that produce tiny lots of chocolate right where cacao is grown. The company gives cacao farmers customized groupware so that they can share tasting notes and samples with chocolate makers. In this way, the farmers can bring entire harvests up to the standards of Tcho or any other buyer.

Things Reviewed

  • Tcho chocolates

This is a huge change. Just as some coffee growers have never drunk coffee made from their beans, some cacao growers in remote areas have never tasted chocolate made with theirs. (Since chocolate is much harder to make than coffee, some may have never tasted chocolate at all.) Teaching them to recognize the flavors in fermented, roasted, and ground cacao beans, and then understand how they can adapt their growing processes, will be Tcho’s lasting contribution to chocolate making—even if hair dryers and spice grinders weren’t quite the tech the company had in mind when it opened a factory and shop on a historic pier in San Francisco’s Embarcadero, in 2007.

Field testing

With cacao, the way a bean is fermented plays as big a role in flavor as terroir, that all-important concept in coffee and wine. Fermentation is as important as roasting or even factory production. The process lasts five to seven days, and the temperature and humidity at which it takes place and the frequency with which the beans are turned for aeration determine the flavor profile a roasted and ground bean will ultimately possess. The goal is not only to avoid defects but to develop complex flavors.

Tcho leaves the roasting to big producers with finely tuned machines. The company receives the cocoa liquor, the paste made from ground roasted beans, in big blocks that it melts, mixes with cocoa fat in various blends, and stirs. Long, slow mixing is part of the chocolate mystique. Really long: 24 to 36 hours of slow stirring in a vat that is called a conche for the rounded bottom that allows liquid chocolate to be rolled back onto itself, which incorporates air and smooths the texture.

Conching can iron out harshly acidic notes. But the artistry is in creating a creamy mouthfeel and preserving the acidic notes the chocolate maker does want: the finished chocolate will have balance and zest if the maker can highlight a fruity acidity. Roasting and conching are what bean-to-bar makers brag about, and where Tcho thought it would innovate.

Technology is in Tcho’s DNA. Its cofounders were Timothy Childs, who had worked on the space shuttle, and Karl Bittong, who labored in the chocolate industry for 40 years. Its current CEO and president are Louis Rossetto and Jane ­Metcalfe, the cofounders of Wired. In the early days, Tcho introduced a variety of high-tech gimmicks, including an iPhone app that could control the production process and a video-game-like virtual tour of its production floor using tilt-pan-zoom cameras. Rossetto and Metcalfe embraced a still in-use beta-testing program for new blends of chocolate, sending samples to anyone who signs up and promising to adjust the blend in keeping with the results of online surveys. Such ideas attracted tech-industry investors. But they don’t have much to do with the product. Even if the beta samples make customers feel like part of an elite cadre, crowdsourced formulas don’t necessarily produce good chocolate.

The sample labs are less flashy than a virtual tour, and they took more time to develop. First, the company had to find a nonprofit partner to help secure government grants, as new-wave coffee roasters often do. Tcho teamed up with Equal Exchange and won a five-year, ­multimillion-dollar grant from USAID.

chocolate in the greenhouse and the lab
Partnering with Equal Exchange, Tcho retrofitted off-the-shelf appliances to equip “sample labs”—pilot plants that produce tiny lots of chocolate where cacao is grown. Now farmers can make adjustments to suit the needs of their customers.

They retrofitted off-the-shelf appliances to create makeshift but reliable roasters and conches for cacao farms. Indian spice grinders, generally used for the lentil mash dhal, became conches; cheap blow-­dryers kitted out with electronics and heat sensors became heaters for the conches. Twelve hours of steady, low-heat stirring result in a “completely smooth, European-style chocolate eating experience,” says Brad Kintzer, the chief chocolate maker, who travels frequently to set up the sample labs. A whole lab, according to John Kehoe, vice president of sourcing and development, can be installed on site for about $10,000. Tcho has installed labs in Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic; Ghana is next.

It took years to develop an evaluation scale that farmers could understand and use to home in on the styles Tcho envisioned as its signature blends. But a tasting and tuning system eventually took shape: Tcho installed the labs on site and made sure each site had access to a computer and to groupware called Cropster, where growers entered data on heat, temperature, humidity, pH, and brix level (the degree of sweetness). Growers would ship samples of the cocoa liquor to Tcho, and then Tcho would set up tastings at which two panels, one at the farm and one in San Francisco, compared notes on Cropster in real time.

If all agreed that a fermentation method wasn’t yielding good results, the size and placement of the fermenting boxes could be altered. So could the heat and humidity, the time and temperature at which the fermenting cocoa was turned, and the number of days the beans were allowed to ferment.

Without the sample labs, Tcho was in the same position as other chocolate makers: by the time the fermented beans arrived, it was too late to make any changes. The only choices were to place an order or wait till the next harvest. Now, a farmer can make adjustments that will ensure a sale. The ­sample labs and Cropster are licensed shareware; that means farmers can adjust fermentation to suit the needs of other customers too.

Clean and easy

After its high-flying beginnings, Tcho has settled into being a high-end but large-scale chocolate maker. It creates blends that are better than those of the international mass producers yet not as quirky as Mast Brothers’ or those of Taza, an artisan producer in Somerville, Massachusetts, whose stone-ground, gritty blends conform to the earliest, pre-conching methods of making chocolate in Mexico. That kind of compromise might keep it alive longer than the bearded-artisan startups. Tcho is careful about not overreaching. It eschews trends. Apart from coffee in its “Mokaccino” bars, it adds nothing to its chocolate. There are no Tcho chili chocolates, and not even Tcho with nuts, just a “Nutty” PureNote.

What Tcho has achieved can best be understood by contrast. The chocolate made by Equal Exchange Organic Ecuador (to pick one new-wave, medium-scale maker) is bland, sour, and monochromatic by comparison with Tcho’s “Fruity” variety. The Tcho blossoms on the tongue and opens out to the bright acidity of the best Central American chocolate.

Or consider Mast Brothers’ cocoa nibs bar: it also blossoms out, with dark-roasted notes and the satisfying bitter crunch of broken roasted nibs—but then it flattens, and you begin to notice a waxy texture. Tcho’s mouthfeel is easy, creamy, and clean, with a sharp snap.

Maybe the most telling contrast can be found in Tcho’s blends of “SeriousMilk” chocolate, “Classic,” “Creamy,” and “Cacao.” Now, I don’t like milk chocolate (I’m too sophisticated). I was sure that if I could bear any of them, it would be the darker, less-sweet “Cacao.” Instead, I fell hard for the caramel, butterscotch, sweet-but-not-too-sweet “Classic,” which erased my memories of childhood Hershey bars. Those are the chocolates I took home.

I suspect I’m not alone in loving Tcho. After initial flashy gimmickry, the company has found a quiet way to please many customers. Along the way, it’s changing how chocolate is made.

Corby Kummer is an editor at The Atlantic and the author of The Joy of Coffee.

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