Steve DeVries opened DeVries Chocolate with a tag line of “one
hundred years behind the times” in 2005, after six years of
studying chocolate—for three years as an intense hobby and
three years fulltime, after selling his glass company. He produces
both bulk chocolate for use by chefs, candy makers and chocolatiers,
and retail bars that can be found in specialty food shops or purchased
through his website. He is intimately involved in the whole process
of chocolate making, from working directly with growers to being
hands-on with the manufacturing process using all antique equipment.
He has learned with chocolate that changes in production processes
can mean major improvements in flavor. Pam Williams talked with
Steve about his passion for chocolate making.
You once told me, “Chocolate is the only product
where the difference between a run-of-the-mill chocolate bar and
the best chocolate bar is only about five bucks.” How about
elaborating on that?
Actually these days there might be a little more difference, but
the point is that virtually anyone can occasionally afford the best
the world has to offer. I like the idea of a luxury item that is
that egalitarian. Also, as a practical matter, the market is a lot
How did you get interested in chocolate and chocolate making?
I was down in Costa Rica for a Spanish immersion, and after finding
a plantation near Limon, I bought thirty kilos of dried beans and
brought them back in my bags. I roasted some in my oven, peeled
them by hand and ground them in an old grain grinder. That chocolate,
while admittedly crude and gritty, had complex flavors that I had
never tasted in chocolate before. It was a very confusing moment.
Why weren’t the centuries-old, multi-million dollar factories
making chocolates with this complexity and intensity of flavor?
That’s how it started.
You have traveled in Europe and the Americas studying chocolate
growing and processing before opening your business. I’m sure
you’ve got some great stories to tell. How about sharing one
A few years ago I was visiting the Chocovic factory in Spain. After
the tour one of the owners brought out a box that had some of their
recipe books from the 1800s. They were recipes for the different
families in the area. When you ran out of chocolate, you would send
someone down to the factory to ask them to make another batch of
It was easy to understand that one family would prefer a chocolate
a little sweeter than another or would want almonds. Harder to understand,
and truly amazing, was that one family would prefer equal parts Caracas
(Venezuela) beans and Quayaquil (Ecuador) beans, while another would
add a little Fernando Poo (small island off Africa) to that mixture,
while still another wanted pure Caracas.
Today, that kind of understanding of the different qualities of
cacao beans is limited to a few professionals. The trend is now
heading in the other direction, with more companies declaring the
origin of their beans, but we have a long way to go to get back
to the understanding of chocolate they had in the north of Spain
in the 1800s.
With all that chocolate tasting, you must be a real expert
in chocolate flavor by now!
This is one of those the-more-you-learn-the-more-you-understand-how-little-you-know
situations. I discover something new about the flavors in chocolate
with almost every batch I make. Lately I’ve been concentrating
on the changes in flavor that happen in the first months after production.
In fact, I’m aging everything in blocks for at least two months
before releasing them for sale or forming into bars. One thing I
have learned is there are many more flavors possible than are currently
available. I think that part of the chocolate market will come to
resemble the wine market, with consumers being aware of the different
origins, makers and processes.
After all your research, what finally made you decide to
open a chocolate factory? Do people think you are crazy to go up
against the big manufacturers?
Only time will tell about the crazy part, but I don’t feel
that I’m in the same market as the industrial manufacturers.
I can pay attention to every step of the process, from the tree
to the bar, in a way that is impossible for the industrial producer.
That care is reflected in the chocolate and will differentiate it
in the marketplace. Already there is a market above the traditional
consumer chocolate market, where the large manufacturers have little
or no access or influence. Hershey’s purchase of Scharffen
Berger was an attempt to buy into that market. We will see how that
works out in the next few years.
I couldn’t put my finger on a specific moment when I decided
to open a factory. It did appear to be a business with potential,
but more importantly, at some point making chocolate became the
most interesting thing I could think of doing.
What are the challenges in sourcing good cocoa beans to
use in your chocolate?
My main challenge, after identifying good cacao trees, is improving
harvest, fermentation and drying practices to maximize the development
of the flavors. Finding the beans hasn’t been a problem; there
are lots of small plantations with good or very good beans, but
without sufficient quantity to interest one of the big factories.
Working on a small artisanal scale, I can take advantage of quantities
that wouldn’t fill the pipes between machinery in one of the
The major problem that the large factories have is the mismatch
between the size of the growers and the size of the factories. Around
80 to 90 percent of growers have under 10 acres and produce
under one to two tons of dried cacao a year, meaning they won’t
have more than a half-ton to sell at one time. The factories work
in the 100 ton a day area, but certainly can’t buy from
60 or 70 farmers every day. They usually can’t even buy from
the first level buyer.
With the factory at least two middlemen away from the source,
accountability is almost nonexistent and quality sinks to the lowest
level that will be accepted. There are of course varying degrees
of exceptions, but most beans are produced to that lowest common
denominator. What that usually means is a significant percentage
of unfermented or badly fermented beans. These beans taste just
plain nasty and those bad flavors must be removed using higher temperatures.
Unfortunately, many of the good flavors leave at the same time.
As a manufacturer you can make a “blended”
chocolate or single bean varietal chocolate. Which are you doing?
At this point I’m working on understanding what flavors are
possible for beans, so I’m only making single bean or estate
chocolates. One day when I know better what can be done with individual
beans, I might do some blending, but right now I have my hands full
dealing with one type of cacao at a time.
North America has historically been a country of milk chocolate
lovers. Why do you think we are ready for a very dark, rich chocolate?
Personally I don’t like the addition of milk fats, either
as butter oil or whole milk, to chocolate. Those big fat molecules
cloy and cover up the flavors in the chocolate. If you’re
using poor quality beans, it’s probably a good thing to cover
up the flavors, but with a good bean that has been carefully treated
there is no need to hide its flavors. One of the comments I have
heard most often about my chocolate is “I don’t like
dark chocolate but I like this.” The market for dark chocolate
is growing quickly and higher quality chocolates will only increase
What is your goal for DeVries Chocolate?
My goal is to make the best chocolate in the world. While that
might sound a little pretentious, it has a better ring than “My
goal is to make the second best chocolate in the world.” Over
the last hundred years or so, what we expect from chocolate has
been narrowed generally to those products that can be made in a
hundred-ton-a-day factory and stay on the shelf for a year. I am
convinced that chocolate has the potential for variety and complexity
of flavor equal to what we already have in wines and cheeses. I
am hoping that by working on a smaller artisanal scale and paying
attention to the details, I can help broaden those expectations.