I recently had the pleasure of touring this innovative company, Taza Chocolate, which is located in Somerville. The company was founded in 2006 by Alex Whitmore and Larry Slotnick yet its origins extend back to 2005. In 2005, Alex visited Oaxaca, Mexico and learned about the ancient Mexican traditions of chocolate making and it really inspired him.
The company was named "Taza" after the phrase "taza de chocolate" or "cup of chocolate." Their objective was to make chocolate using traditional Mexican methods but sustainability was also very important to them. They sold their first chocolate bar in 2007 and have come pretty far since then, their chocolate available in 500-600 stores in the U.S. and about four in Canada. Yet they still remain a small, artisan producer. I was very impressed with Taza and the obvious passion of the owners and employees.
This is a cacoa pod which contains pulp and about forty beans (which are actually seeds).
This is Alex, and he is beginning our tour, explaining the chocolate making process. It all starts with cacao beans and those large bags are full of them. Taza currently obtains their beans from a cooperative in the Dominican Republic which is composed of numerous small farms. Taza engages in Direct Trade, paying the cooperative higher prices than even Fair Trade, and they are also the sole export customer. The farms in the cooperative are certified organic and Taza purchases on their highest quality beans.
The bean sacks have hermetically sealed plastic bags inside of them to protect the beans from moisture and other threats. Currently, the bags are air freighted to Massachusetts though Taza understands the carbon footprint issues involved with such. In time, when their company grows, they will move to ocean freight.
The beans will first be roasted and the large red machine above is the convection roaster, also known as a ball roaster. Generally, one sack of beans, about 154 pounds, is roasted at a time though it could roast up to 220 pounds. They roast twice a week, about six or seven sacks each day. The roaster is also sometimes used to roast almonds, and they may roast other types of nuts in the future.
The beans are roasted for about 38-45 minutes. This process is like coffee bean roasting except cacao beans are roasted longer and at lower temperatures. Taza also roasts their beans at a lower temperature than many other chocolate makers. This is done to protect the more delicte flavors which might be destroyed by hotter roasting. The effect of the roasting is to dry out the beans, reducing them from 7% moisture to only 3%.
After the beans are finished roasting, they are cooled down and readied for the winnowing machine, pictured above. The function of this machine is to separate the shells from the nibs, as well as removing the bitter tasting germ. The machine is quite successful and less than 1% of the shells end up in the bin with the nibs. The shell pieces will later ne used for compost or mybe sold to tea makers who use them to add chocolate flavors to tea.
We next visited the grinding area, which had a powerful smell of chocolate, where the nibs are ground and all the mixing and refining is conducted. Above you can see Kellie Silsby, the quality control manager, grinding some nibs. She is using two molinos, traditional Mexican stone grinding mills. The stones are unique and imperfect, thus giving a distinctive texture to the chocolate. The ground nibs become chocolate liquor, a flowing runny paste which tastes very bitter and a bit gritty. You can see a molino below.
The chocolate liquor is mixed with sugar and then roll refined, using granite rollers, to shatter the sugar. The sugar comes from sustainable sugar cane in Brazil and it has a light brown, cane color to it. Other items, such as vanillas beans or cinnamon sticks may be crushed by the rollers too. Their chocolate making process omits the common "conching" procedure, which is done by most other chocolate makers. Conching is basically a slow melting process that smoothes out the chocolate. The absence of conching is why Taza chocolate has a gritty taste to it.Once the chocolate has been tempered, it can be dropped in various molds, into bar or circle shapes. Once the chocolate is then cooled and solidified, it will be wrapped and labeled, ready for sale.
Their chocolate certainly has a more unusual taste and texture, very different from what many of us are used to. It has a grittier taste but also a rich chocolate flavor. I think it is great that Taza is helping to protect and promote a traditional chocolate process. I also am very supportive of the Taza philosophy, their desire for "good, clean and fair" foods. They are sensible in this philosophy, understanding the realities of life but doing the best that they can. They are also very passionate, another thing that impresses me.
Check out Taza Chocolate! Maybe take your own tour of their facilities.