I started working for Patric Chocolate when I moved to Columbia about seven months ago. As a self-professed dark chocolate lover, I was looking forward to my new gig, though I would quickly learn I didn’t quite realize what I was getting myself into. It didn’t take long to recognize that my narrow view of fine dark chocolate and the reality of it were quite different. Below I shall relay my thoughts and experiences here at the factory (my coming of age story, if you will) in an informal blog for your reading pleasure:
My first memory of what I believed to be fine chocolate is a tad hazy, as is true for most any memory. It was a school trip and I was a wide-eyed 17-year-old traveling through Switzerland. One of the many orchestrated stops was at a chocolate shop which I’m sure had some relevance, but it evades me now. I do, however, recall perusing row upon row of delicious chocolates before carefully selecting a medium sized package in a radiant shade of royal blue. “Lindt,” it read. Ah-ha! Real chocolate! I even saved the wrapper.
Fast forward eight years. Good news, dear readers! My once naïve opinion of quality chocolate, Swiss or otherwise, has been revised. I’ve found the light. My taste buds have been reborn. I’ve discovered chocolate the way it was meant to be: pure and complex yet simply delicious.
How did my revelation occur? It all started my first day on the clock at Patric Chocolate.
I had no idea what to expect when I walked through the factory doors. I had only recently heard of the company, but certainly never expected to work there. I showed up dressed like I was headed to a disco. Needless to say, my wardrobe required some alterations.
When I finally looked out into the Patric Chocolate workshop, I noticed a large, odd-looking device constructed from seemingly random hardware store materials situated in the center of the room. I soon learned this was the winnower. Of course I didn’t know what that meant, but I went with it.
My job was to sift and sort the cracked cacao beans. And sift and sort I did. And sift. And sort. And sift. I sifted until I wanted to scream out in weakened defeat. By the time I got home I was exhausted, sore and a good two shades darker from the coating of cacao dust that had settled comfortably into every nook and cranny of my being. What have I gotten myself into?
The days and weeks that followed were somewhat challenging. Not in a bad way, mind you, but this was hard work! It had been a while since I’d been on my feet all day and done a lot of heavy lifting. Sure, it took some getting used to, but I found it to be rewarding work. Especially when you see (ahem, taste) the finished product. Plus, I’ve got a little definition back in the ole’ biceps.
Eventually, like any job, I learned what I was doing. First I figured out the winnowing machine. It’s really quite amazing when you break it down. It is an integral part in the “bean-to-bar” concept. Here is my simple layman’s version:
After Alan roasts the cacao beans, we pass them through a cracker, thus breaking them up. Wait. Back up. Before Alan roasts the beans, we hand pick through each and every 150 pound bag that enters the factory to ensure you get the best quality chocolate possible. It’s a tedious, yet necessary process. Anyway, after we crack the roasted beans, it’s time for the sifting (my specialty)! We manually sift the beans to separate smaller pieces of shell and cacao from the larger pieces. The size of the sifting screen gradually gets smaller, as does the gap of the cracker. This method is repeated several times. This is also where I get my biceps workout. I’m scooping and dumping and pouring and sorting beans into this tub and that tub. It took some time to get a cohesive system buffed out, but it’s now as smooth as Mr. Clean’s head.
While I’m busy sifting and sorting tub after tub of cracked cacao, the winnowing machine is hard at work. I should note that this process takes two people. I usually man the ground (the sifting and such) and my co-pilot, Chris, is operating the winnower. When turned on, the winnower sucks and blows the unwanted bean shells to one location while allowing the lovely, fragrant nibs to fall to another. It requires her to climb up and down a ladder many times throughout the process. The nibs are the finished product, thus the fruits of our labor.
I remember the first time I tried a nib. Unfortunately, I was unable to control the inappropriate contortion of my facial features. It appears that I expected something sweet and let me tell you, those little guys are anything but. Nowadays, however, I have to fight the urge to pop a few in my mouth as we’re working. I don’t, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to.
Obviously, winnowing is not the only thing happening at the factory. We get to eat chocolate, too! And by that I mean taste. Let’s once again rewind to my first week of work and another awkward example of my foodie ignorance. We all gathered to have a tasting, my first. Alan hands me a small square of chocolate that I pop right in my mouth like a melted Milk Dud. A few chews and gulp, it’s gone. “Yum,” I think, “and it didn’t even stick to my teeth!”
Then I notice the silence. I look around and it appears that everyone around me is meditating. I’m confused. Their eyes are closed in what seems to be bliss. Or is it concentration? Then I hear a few soft smacking noises and realize everyone still had their chocolate in their mouths. They are tasting. I pretend to still have mine rolling around my tongue. Then we discuss what we actually tasted. Some berries, some nuts…and I realize I did notice some of those flavors. I’ve been working on refining my tasting skills ever since. I’m still not the greatest, but I’m getting better. It’s fun.
Anyway, the nibs we get from winnowing are eventually added to the refining machines. They are two big drums containing a granite base and two granite wheels that crush, grind and heat the nibs until they become a beautifully smooth pool of liquid chocolate. Or chocolate liquor, to be specific. A small amount of sugar is then added along with additional heat and the speed of the refiners is eventually reduced. The process produces a strong, almost sharp, scent within the refining room. However the rest of the factory smells absolutely delicious. Just ask the regular mail delivery drivers.
Four days later, the refiners are emptied out. It’s not a complicated process, nothing more than delicately pouring the chocolate into multiple large molds, but somehow I always manage to get chocolate all over me. Those drums are heavy!
The chocolate filled molds then go to a shelf where they age for a couple of months. When the time comes, the blocks are added to the tempering machine where they are melted, cooled and carefully reheated. By the by, I’ve learned that chocolate is a very persnickety little devil. If it is not heated and/or cooled at exactly the right temperature, and I mean exactly right, we have to readjust and start again. After Alan molds the bars of scrumptious chocolate, they cool properly and we wrap them. Yep. Every little thing we do here is by hand!
I remember when Alan was first teaching me to wrap bars. I looked at the stacks of wrapped chocolate and said, “They look like little bars of gold.” He replied, “Well they kinda are.” And after all the work that goes into them, I can see his point.
Anyway, I’ve given you a crash course in the kinds of things we do here at Patric Chocolate. I’m quite pleased to be able to add “chocolate making” to my list of job skills, but more importantly I’ve learned so much from my experiences here. I’m proud to be a part of a locally owned small business that has achieved some awesome things in a relatively short period of time. I can’t wait to see (and taste!) what happens next.