Pollinator Chocolate

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“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Lucy Van Pelt, Be My Valentine, Charley Brown… Charles M. Schultz

These are certainly words to live by, especially at Valentine’s. However, in our community, one need not be so cavalier. Chocolate can be more than a little thing here. That’s because the Roaring Fork Valley is now home to an emerging artisan chocolate manufacturer, the likes of which are rarely found beyond big U.S. foodie destinations and the great European cocoa meccas.

MeetMark Burrows of Pollinator Chocolate, a local father, the voice of KDNK’s former “Geek Speak” radio show, studio photographer, honeybee rescuer, and entrepreneurial chocolate maker. To be clear, he is not a chocolatier, which is what you call someone who creates truffles or other confections with chocolate. Mark Burrows does something fundamentally different. He transforms raw cacao beans into pure gold.

The Art, Science, and Cultural Implications of Chocolate

Chocolate begins its life near the equator. It starts as a seed inside a bean pod encased in a pumpkin-like fruit on a cacao tree. These fruits will grow to the size and shape of a football and they ripen in a variety of colors, ranging from deeply red-speckled orange to yellow-golden brown. When the thick, leathery rind is cut open, you find a soft juicy pale-orange or yellow flesh similar to cantaloupe that tastes tart and sweet, like lemonade. Children living in the forests of India, Central America, West Africa, and the Amazon where cacao trees grow often enjoy the fruit and then discard its pulpy lavender-colored seeds, as the tough little kernels are bitter and their nutty flesh is hard to access.

If these children are fortunate, they can enjoy cacao for what it is, a regionally prolific source of food, and they can savor it as a rare treat in the form of the delicacy we know so well. A lot of kids are not so blessed. In West African communities where most of the world’s commercially cultivated cacao is grown, it is quite likely, according to a recent exposé published by the Washington Post, that these children are among more than 1.3 million victims of child slavery engaged in cacao production on the Ivory Coast. Another 900,000 children in Ghana are estimated to be forcibly working in the cacao trade. Countless others around the globe are conscripted through economic necessity to work in cacao production because this trade has become the low-wage lifeblood of the equatorial regions. This is despite a twenty-year decree by the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers to end the practice of child labor.

A Local Alternative

Whenever we encounter hard truths on a global scale, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s so far away, how can I make a difference? Online petition? Letter to whom? Boycott? That’s the thing about Pollinator Chocolate founder Mark Burrows – he can give you the facts while treating you to a taste of his alternative. He brings consciousness to each step of the process, from plantation to packaging, so that you can well believe the adage that we do indeed vote with our dollars. This can offer a good conversation starter for your just-gotta-consume tween and your oh-dear-you-really-are-that-cynical teen.

Burrows works with fair trade wholesale suppliers who seek growers with sound ecological practices. Each of his 70% dark chocolate bars is labeled with the farm of origin in the region and country where the beans were cultivated or wild-grown. Pollinator’s cacao beans are tended by farmers who directly benefit from their work hand-harvesting, cutting, scooping, cleaning, fermenting and sun-drying the beans. They live in Sao Tome, India, Vietnam, Mexico, Venezuela, Madagascar, Bolivia, and other locations Burrows is curious to explore – where growers eschew commercially-driven large-scale monoculture farming that leads to deforestation and pesticide proliferation. By joining a demand for an all-around better way of producing the raw product, Pollinator Chocolate is part of a worldwide small-scale economic engine working toward making real change in cacao production.

It begins by returning the cacao tree to its natural habitat as an undergrowth plant. In the wild, you’ll find it in tropical forests growing alongside coconut, palm, and other rainforest species. Leaves from the upper canopy drop, decompose and feed microorganisms in the soil. These feed the midges who then pollinate the cacao flower and thereby renew the cycle of life, literally one bean at a time. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem, reliant on wild pollinators, which inspired the name Pollinator Chocolate. This, and Mark Burrows’ longtime community-wide advocacy for the honeybee whose queen graces his biodegradable packaging.

Inspiration

“Once I discovered the incredible range of true chocolate flavors and the subtle taste differences between locations of origin, I couldn’t settle anymore for chocolate brands where every bar tastes the same. It’s rare to find terroir-driven chocolate in the U.S., and I want to change that,” Burrows explains. “So I immersed myself in learning this art.”

He took up his craft like an old-world journeyman, by traveling to meet European and American experts. He tasted chocolate from all over the world to school himself on the possibilities and to develop a gauge of excellence. He pulls out a stash of some 200+ bars from far and wide and eagerly breaks off bits to taste. He built his reference “library” around flavor, beautiful packaging, stories behind the chocolate, and teachers behind the stories.

The result – a boutique collection of distinct, single-origin bars. You may assume that three delectable mouthfuls in and they all taste alike. However, far to the contrary, the flavors grow more complex and sharply identifiable with each next taste. Like wine, the first blast may resonate with vanilla or tart dried cherry, or coffee, mellowing to a silky finish that reminds you, in a good way, of a campfire or even green olives. Lavender, roses, and citrus wash over your pallet. You try another bar from a different origin, and a whole new world opens up. Taste the “50% Dark Milk,” made from combining multiple bean sources with raw naturally-dehydrated cream from Sustainable Settings, and you actually taste the fresh-cut grass of the Crystal River Valley.

“I want to host chocolate tastings the way you host wine tastings,” Burrows says, “so we can all become connoisseurs. They’ve identified 200 unique flavors associated with wine and more than 400 such profiles associated with chocolate.  You have to try it to believe it.”

Day One

An open bag of raw cacao beans fills the room with an earthy, rich, somewhat floral aroma.  Burrows pours the dried beans, similar in shape and color to almonds, onto a large metal tray. He combs through one bean at a time, discarding bits of husk, dried grass, and pods nicked cleanly open by machetes during harvest, causing an incomplete fermentation.

Next, Burrows pours the beans into a home-variety coffee roaster that he adapted for cacao. Soon a fruity, astringent aroma wafts out, a flavor that deepens to a dark, banana-like scent as the temperature inside the roaster climbs to the desired 260 degrees. These beans will cool overnight.

Day Two

Burrows pulls out an appliance he found on Roaring Fork Swap, a commercial Champion Juicer, the kind he used to make wheatgrass shots twenty-something years ago when he ran the natural foods department of  Clark’s Market in Aspen. He uses it to grind the roasted cacao beans. These will then be winnowed in a contraption created by a small-scale cacao broker from Oregon with whom Burrows took a roasting workshop. Imagine a shop vac, a hopper and a series of tubes attached to a five-gallon bucket. Burrows explains the physics involved in separating the light-weight hulls from the heavier bits, resulting in a large bowl containing the cracked meat of cacao beans and a cannister of feather-light dry hulls.  After a second pass through the hopper, you’re left with pure “gold” in tiny, mottled-brown cacao nibs.

Days Three, Four and Five

A mélanger {French, mel-ahngz}, made of a stainless steel bowl outfitted with a granite base and granite rollers, turns the cacao nibs into the smooth, silky rich texture we all recognize. The process is elemental, slow, and decidedly not high-tech. Friction warms the bowl, extracting cocoa butter from the cocoa solids, while the heavy stone rollers grind the nibs while continually emulsifying the mixture into an ethereally smooth texture. To bring the chocolate down from 100% to 70% cacao, Burrows adds a formulaic amount of organic cane sugar, which will lose its granularity and blend in over three days of rolling until it becomes merely a layer of sweetness, a hint of something sublime that lifts the flavors and brings them together.

End of  Day Five

The mélanger has finished. The Off switch brings the room to a sudden, quiet stillness – the kind of peacefulness you can only perceive at the cessation of constant noise. In this stillness, the chocolate seems embued with life, so glossy it’s reflective.  Burrows measures the temperature and adds an intuited amount of cool, hard chocolate to bring this batch to perfect temper.

“Tempering is how you align the crystals molecularly, so you get a bar that snaps when you break off a piece,” Burrows explains. “With insufficient crystallization, you get a bar that is too soft. With too much, your bar will crumble.”

When he’s gotten it tempered exactly right, Burrows pours his chocolate carefully into leaf-patterned candy molds showing the cacao fruit, a perfect symbol for a brand laser-focused on origin. Each tray gets placed onto a vibrating platform to release minuscule air pockets in the mixture. These rise to the surface and glisten as they pop, like pieces of glitter on the surface. This step results in a shiny, smooth final product that, after cooling slowly at room temp, gets hand-packed with the Pollinator Chocolate label in a clear, corn-based plastic sleeve (that can eventually go straight into your compost).

The end result of this entire process – manufacturing chocolate on a human-scale by one individual over five days – results in around eighty 30g bars that Burrows sells for less than $6 each.  It’s not snarfing chocolate. It’s the kind you sit with and taste slowly, so you can observe its tooth and its viscosity, so you can experience the transformation as it melts and releases layer upon layer of flavor.

Next

The Cottage Food Act, passed by Colorado’s legislature in 2012, opened the door for this type of small-scale industry. It provides a regulatory means for direct-to-consumer sales by artisan food producers, a way to incubate a new idea before investing in the commercial space and equipment needed to leap into larger-scale production. Having tested the waters through local tastings and pop-up venues, Burrows is preparing to take his chocolate production to the next level by subleasing space in a commercial kitchen. Licensing for retail distribution will be his next hurdle.

“I want to create ‘pillow chocolates’ for local hotels, and this requires a retail license, which requires a commercial kitchen. By making this leap, I will also be able to work with brick and mortar shops in the Valley and elsewhere who are asking to sell Pollinator Chocolate,” Burrows shares his intentional-growth model. “With a commercial space, I’ll be able to scale-up the cycle of production and hire people to work with me – but I’ll never turn this into something that takes humanity out of the equation.”

His vision includes infusing a line of chocolate with medicinal mushrooms, bringing Water Buffalo milk from Erin’s Acres near Carbondale into his Dark Milk line, and soaking roasted cacao beans in Deja Brew dark coffee for a signature chocolate selection now available at the Glenwood Springs coffee shop. For Mark Burrows, the creative opportunities are boundless. It seems his commitment to high-integrity everything and his soulful quest for flavor make a good recipe for success.

By: KATHRYN CAMP, Mountain Parent editor

LEARN MORE:

Pollinator Chocolate

About Kathryn Camp

MOUNTAIN PARENT Editor & Designer • Aspen lured Kathryn here in the 1990s when a road trip turned into a new way home. Her journey has taken her from writing to cheffing to teaching preschool, and finally back to her first love – words. When Kathryn is not at her desk with MOUNTAIN PARENT, she writes fiction and keeps bees. She stays on pace with her teenage children and husband Rich on bikes, skis, and snowboards, forever racing behind their beloved husky-coyote hound Zelda. They live in downtown Carbondale.