There's something important and almost mystical about the experience of unwrapping a bar of Taza Stone Ground Organic Chocolate. First there's the paper - thick, textured, and brightly colored. Then there's the silver foil, hand creased and protectively wrapped around the bar. Even the disks of Chocolate Mexicano, Taza's version of Mexican drinking chocolate,wrapped in translucent paper and sealed with a sticker, make their own remarkable snap and crinkle when unwrapped.
And all that - the look and feel, the treat for eyes and hands and ears - is nothing compared to the engagement of the senses in smelling and eating Taza Chocolate.
The aroma, intoxicatingly bright, floral and nutty, has an irresistable draw. Then, at first bite there's surprise: the bar is grittier than most, with a sand-and-velvet texture that melts on the tongue. There's something almost primal about the flavor - it is chocolate, absolutely, but magnified by up-front acidity, fruit and citrus, coffee and nutty notes, a hint of bitterness and a round, sustained and mellow finish. One bite, one square, two squares are not enough. Happily, there are 3 ounces to a bar (2.7 to a Mexicano). Satiety is an option.
Method and tradition and ethics. And stone grinding, the way its been done in Mexico for generations.
That's what sets apart Taza from other bean-to-bar manufacturers (vs conventional chocolate manufacturers, many of whom are simply 'remelters' - companies that melt down cacao liquor and combine it with fat, usually cocoa butter but not always). Like other bean-to-bar manufacturers, Taza controls the entire process, from sourcing to roasting to grinding to refining to bar. But when it comes to production, Taza stands out for its adherence to a tradition that few are familiar with but that produces a remarkable bar of chocolate.
Until I returned to Boston in January, hat in hand, my life in boxes stacked neatly in a storage facility, I had no idea that Taza existed. A trip to a local Whole Foods yielded my first bar, which both thrilled and confused me. It was nothing like the chocolate I was used to, the silken old timey French chocolate rumored to be conched (mechanically smoothed and refined) for 24 to 36 hours. It was gritty. It was inelegant. It was, however, more elemental than anything I had tasted before. It was chocolate ne plus ultra with a heady scent and even headier flavor. At $6.50 a bar, I knew there was a story behind it. So I started asking around.
The first thing I heard: Taza is made locally, in Somerville, MA, by hand. Hand made? Seriously? How much chocolate can you make per batch when you are doing it by hand? Next thing: they use millstones. Millstones? Like those at the grist mill in the town where I grew up? And they don't conche chocolate. Not at all. How was that even possible? Did anyone I know know them? Not really. So I was stuck.
By chance I happened upon a Taza chocolate tasting in a natural foods market on a Saturday afternoon. I tasted all their samples - the slightly bitter and very assertive 80%, the 70% bar (pictured above), and all four Mexican Bars: the salted almond (truly remarkable), the cinnamon, the vanilla and the guajillo chili. By the end of the tasting I had the name of Taza's head of marketing and the resolve to ask him for a visit.
The name was vaguely familiar but I couldn't place it. I emailed him. And didn't hear back. I've never been a fan of cold-calling (I'm not particularly good at it) and my intro, which I'll paraphrase as, "Hi! I'm Linsey! I blog! So you want me to come over and see your place and blog about you? Say yes!" wasn't particularly effective. So I figured I'd have to get in some other way.
Around the same time I started working on a project in Somerville with a Thai Restaurant. I was responsible for creating a drinks menu that reflected the Thai food menu. Through a Somerville community relations liaison I connected with Adam Lantheaume, The Boston Shaker, a craft cocktail evangelist and artist who helped me with some ideas. Adam, it turns out, works closely with Taza, and was working on creating chocolate cocktails with them. I started following both Adam and Taza on Twitter and read an exchange between them about creating chocolate syrup. I did a quick chocolate experiment and posted the results to Twitter. And then I blogged about it.
With that I secured an invite to visit Taza. I couldn't have been more excited. And I don't get excited about much these days.
On a Tuesday afternoon Aaron, the head of marketing, contacted me to tell me they were going to be grinding beans later that afternoon and that I should plan on being there. I quickly finished up whatever I needed to get done that day and headed into the city.
Since late 2006, Taza has been located, improbably or probably, in a large industrial building in the middle of a industrial part of town that houses scrapyards, technology, and more than a few office buildings. Taza is just one of many businesses located at 561 Windsor.
Around the corner was a banner and then a sign and then the office. I was downright giddy!
Aaron met me at the office and took me on a tour of the facility, which consists of three cavernous rooms: the office, the roasting and winnowing room, and the chocolate manufacturing room. We started in the basement roasting room.
I've worked in chocolate before but I'm no expert. In my last job I was responsible for a chocolate manufacturing project in which we made soy-free, dairy-free chocolate for the allergy-friendly market. We used a machine called the ChocoEasy, a German-made machine that is the chocolate world equivalent of a super-automatic espresso maker (think Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks before they went back to hand-making their drinks). You load up the machine with chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, sugar and flavor and, depending on the size of the sugar particles and the desired results, pump it out into a tempering machine 4-12 hours later. The ChocoEasy mixes, conches, and refines at the touch of a button.
Taza is the antithesis of the modern chocolate operation. There's nothing glossy or high-tech about it except maybe for the computers they use to track operations and communicate with the outside world.
Taza's return to tradition - specifically Mexican tradition - is refreshing and inspiring. Everything is low-tech and bears the imprint of the human touch. As I learned from Aaron, the head of marketing and my guide for the afternoon of my visit, Taza's equipment is antique, renewed and repeatedly rebuilt by the mechanically-inclined hands of Alex, one of the founders, and Mike, the head chocolate maker and production manager.
The entire process begins even before the first bean hits the roaster. The beans, purchased by direct trade from a 100-member certified organic, sustainable cooperative in the Dominican Republic that Taza has helped to finance and grow, are fermented (about 6 days total) and dried (7-10 days) to Taza's specifications to meet grading requirements (the beans are graded before and after drying). Instead of drying on concrete, which can cause the exchange of undesirable flavors and substances, Taza's beans are dried on a screen mounted on wood. Of the total beans grown by the cooperative, Taza selects beans from 30% of the farms in the cooperative and pays a premium well above both the commodity market AND Fair Trade; the remaining 70% is sold on the open market. In an unusual move, Taza pays FOB farm prices, meaning they take ownership of the beans at the farm and cover the cost of trucking the beans to the airport and then from the airport to Boston; most products change hands at a port, usually the port nearest the farmer/supplier.
(From May to late September, the rainy season, exports from the Dominican Republic come to a halt. By that point Taza has built up inventory and can last, without further purchase of beans, until the season starts up again).
Once the beans arrive by plane in 70 kilo bags (that's 154 lbs) packed 17 bags to a shipper, they are picked up by Mike and Aaron and brought back to the plant for roasting, grinding, and finishing.
The Taza logo graces the wall of the roasting room.
The beans start in the roaster, a cherry red antique Barth "Sirocco" rotary spherical roaster, which was found and rebuilt in Italy. The roasting times and temperatures are documented on a Roast Profile Log. Taza prefers a slightly less roasted bean than most, as less roasting brings out more of the subtleties and characteristics of their superior quality beans.
My pictures don't do it justice.
(Apparently quite a few coffee roasters use this machine as well, as do some nut roasters - it just needs to be reconfigured for those products).
The chaff, which is produced in far less volume than the chaff from roasted coffee, is vented outside, where it biodegrades:
Once the beans have been roasted and cooled (there's a vented "cooling" unit at the base of the roaster), they are moved to the winnower, which removes shells and breaks the beans into varying sized nibs. It sorts sizes by use of mesh "screens" with varying sized holes that are each at a slight angle. Gravity and vibration moves the nibs from screen to screen.
Here Aaron shows me the shells, which are used as cocoa mulch by gardeners:
The Carle & Montanari winnower (please excuse the terrible photos - my eye struggled with this), also antique, also refubished, was found in a defunct candy plant in the Dominican Republic. To get it out of the building, its legs had to be sawed off and then welded back on once it was outside. Aaron told me it took 4 men 4 days to move it from the third floor down to the first floor.
Beans are moved into the machine by a sort of elevator:
Once broken, sized, sorted and separated, the roasted nibs are loaded into pails and carted up to the upstairs production room. They are now ready to be made into chocolate.
Walking into the production room reminds me of walking into a large art studio, except where there would be works of inedible art stacked on shelves, there is chocolate.
And samples ready to go
And beautiful ingredients, like these tubs of vanilla beans and sachets of fragrant, red-hot cinnamon sticks grown by the biodynamic Villa Vanilla in Costa Rica:
Nibs are kept in a large covered bucket and moved from the basement to the production room on carts
Notice the tattoo on Aaron's arm? The pig, divided into primal parts?
I noticed it immediately and realized I had seen it before. On him. A number of years earlier at a food show. After the exchange of some information I realized I had met Aaron before, when he was still a cheesemonger in NYC. He even had the exact same job I had at the exact same company a few years after I left. We knew a lot of the same cheese people (and have 7 Facebook friends in common, all former colleagues). It was rather surreal. He had recently moved to Boston when his girlfriend started her Ph.D in sociology and had only recently switched from cheese to chocolate. Hey, as long as it is fermented, it is all in play.
Anyway, after we managed to get all the 'what did you think of x' stuff out of the way, he continued the tour.
Aaron showed me the first Molino, a platform-mounted antique Mexican chocolate grinding mill painted cherry red to match the rest of the machines.
The machine is powered by a flywheel that has been modernized with a belt and a motor.
Here's the motor:
The nibs are ground by two millstones, which are purchased in Oaxaca City, Mexico and hand-dressed (grooves cut etc) by Alex, who learned the craft from a molinaro in Oaxaca. The stones can easily be lifted and replaced. Taza keeps a few extra on hand:
Once chocolate passes through the first molino, it goes into a holding tank where it is mixed with sugar (the Mexicano are equal parts sugar and nibs) and possibly cocoa butter if Taza is making bars. If it is for a Mexicano round, it is then passed through a second molino and then formed into 1.35 oz disks. If it is a flavored Mexicano bar, the flavor is ground with the beans in Molino 1 - whole vanilla beans or cinnamon or almonds are added to the nibs as they pass through the millstones. Chili, which leaves strong, lingering flavor on the equipment it touches, is added in powder form to the chocolate once it is ground and in the holding tank, to eliminate any possibility of ending up in other products.
Soy lecithin is never added to the chocolate. There are no added emulsifiers at all in Taza chocolate.
Here's the second molino. The chocolate that has already passed through Molino 1 is now poured into Molino 2. My arrows show the path of the chocolate through the machine:
It is now moved to the tempering machine. Chocolate must be tempered - cooled by a process of agitation to approximately 82 degrees farenheit so that, when it is warmed up to 88-90 degrees farenheit,and poured into a mold and cooled, it forms a hard mass that breaks with a characteristic 'snap'. And doesn't leave chocolate on your fingers, unless you want it to.
Once the chocolate is tempered, it can be deposited into molds. Taza uses a very interestingly engineered donut depositor that pours just the right amount of chocolate into the molds to make about 50 bars/minute. Rumor has it they're actually trading it in for a custom-built depositor.
The round Mexicano molds look like this:
Once the mold has been vibrated for a bit to force any air bubbles out, they are set on a speed rack and tucked into an alcove where they are cooled and set. When the chocolate has set completely, the disks will pop out of the mold and have a gloriously shiny sheen.
The (all-stone ground) process for the Chocolate Mexicano Bars is: Roasted Nibs -> Molino 1 -> Holding Tank -> Molino 2 -> Tempering -> Moulding ->Wrapping
When they're wrapped, they look like this (the boxes are hand-letterpressed by next door neighbors Albertine Press):
Taza's chocolate bars are slightly more refined. Instead of running through Molino 2, they run through a refiner, which produces a finer grind than the molino.
Here's the stone refiner:
The chocolate moves via the belt into a tub and then either to a tank for holding or directly into the tempering machine to made into bars. Depending on the percentage of cocoa liquor in the bar, there is more or less cocoa butter added to it. Taza currently buys their cocoa butter but are planning to possibly make their own in the near future.
The current (all-stone ground) process for bars is: Roasted Nibs -> Molino 1 -> Holding Tank -> Refiner -> Tempering -> Moulding -> Wrapping
The organic sugar Taza uses is produced by the Green Cane Project in Brazil, one of the largest and most biodiverse and sustainable sugar cane plantations in the world. All of the spent cane is used to fuel the plant and the town nearest the plant. The sugar itself has a lovely golden hue.
The bars are then tempered and deposited into bar molds. Here the molds wait, clean, for their next mission:
Once the bars are set, they are hand wrapped twice: the first time they are foil wrapped, the second time they receive an outer wrapping that contains the label.
Here's how the bars are queued up for wrapping.
Two women, Stephanie and Sarah, hand measure, stamp and wrap every item that comes off the line. Here they are packaging chocolate-coated nibs:
Taza is currently testing out mini-bars for coffeehouses and other establishments serving coffee and other treats (and for anyone else who appreciates mini). They're adorable:
Along with the bars, nibs, chocolate-covered almonds, chocolate covered nibs and Mexicano disks, Taza also sells wholesale to restaurants and bakeries:
With my tour ostensibly done, Aaron left me to observe and photograph Kellie, the assistant chocolate maker, running a 300 lb batch of chocolate, starting with 150 lbs of roasted nibs. Kellie began her life at Taza wrapping chocolate. When the assistant left for another job, she took his spot.
Mike, the head chocolate maker and former professional skydiver, had to warm up the molino with a hand-held warmer. The cooled chocolate (from the last batch) caused the wheels to stick together, making operations impossible until the chocolate was melted off the millstones:
Once the millstones were separated again, Kellie began grinding the beans:
The chocolate is pushed past a rare earth magnet (the grill-like protrusion in the above and below photos) that pulls out the rare stray stone or piece of metal in the unlikely event it makes it past the roasting and winnowing processes:
The beans are then forced by gravity between the millstones, which spit out finely ground beans resembling what we think of as chocolate: chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. The arrow points to the place where the chocolate emerges: right between the two millstones.
The chocolate then flows down a conveyor belt into a holding tank:
Once the batch is completed, Kellie cleans off the conveyor belt and the inside of the molino with a dough scraper:
Because the grinding started so late in the day, Kellie would be letting the chocolate hold in the tank overnight. The next day they would turn the batch in their new Guajillo Chili Chocolate Mexicano. I sampled a finished round. It was delicious - and not too spicy.
There are numerous bean-to-bar boutique chocolate manufacturers in the US, but none occupy quite the same space as Taza. There is no waste produced by their operation: everything, including cacao chaff and shell is reused or recycled or returned to the earth. Employees bike or walk to work. Taza goes out of its way to source sustainably and pay a premium for products that are produced in keeping with the founders' ethics.
The results - a fruity, brightly acidic bar that is chocolate at its most primal and bold - are a revelation. With trailblazers like ScharffenBerger now owned by Hershey and reduced to a shadow of what it once was and other bean-to-bar companies producing elegant but undistinctive chocolate (each conched to conventional smoothness) relative newcomers like Taza are taking the lead in creating truly original - for some, polarizing - chocolate.
And everyone should take notice.
To read co-founder Alex Whitmore's recent piece in the Atlantic Food Blog on Mexican Chocolate, click here.