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De Vries Chocolate, Denver, Colorado

Interveiw with Steve De Vries

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 bigger.

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 of those?

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 your recipe.

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 big plants.

The major problem that the large factories have is the mismatch between the size of the growers and the size of the factories. Around 80–90 percent of growers have under ten 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 hundred 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 that trend.

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.