Ryan is a chocolate maker at our 16th Street factory, as well as a frequent traveler and motorcycle enthusiast. Inspired by the Chilean kung fu film Kiltro, he bought a motorcycle to ride to the Atacama desert of northern Chile, ultimately crossing into Argentina to catch the final stages of the world-famous Dakar Rally. While in Santiago, Chile, he had to visit our friends at ÓBOLO Chocolate to taste their amazing 70% Cacao con Nibs bar. This is what he found.
In January of 2018, while in Chile, I had the opportunity to stop by ÓBOLO Chocolate in Santiago’s Barrio Italia neighborhood. This mainly residential area of Santiago, although not as busy as other areas, has a decent level of foot traffic with plenty of cafes, restaurants, shops, and small factories peppered throughout the area. ÓBOLO, located on Avenida Italia, is rather unassuming from the outside; I missed it the first time I passed by. The color of the chocolate brown building foreshadows what can be found inside. Established in 2014, ÓBOLO is Chile’s first bean-to-bar chocolate maker. ÓBOLO makes two-ingredient chocolate bars as well as flavor-infused, dark milk, and inclusion bars.
Walking in, as would be expected, the aroma of chocolate hits you immediately. To the right, bags of Peruvian (Pangoa) cocoa beans. To the left, a product display table with cocoa beans and cocoa powder. Straight ahead, a display case with various chocolate bars and treats like chocolate-dipped candied ginger.
The company has just five employees. Chances are you will be greeted by the owner and founder of ÓBOLO, Mark Gerrits (an expatriate from the United States). Mark was introduced to cacao back in 2001 while living in Ecuador’s Amazon region working with direct trade practices and cocoa producing communities. If Mark is busy in the back, you’ll probably meet one of the other team members – Geraldine Mondaca (a Santiago native and ÓBOLO´s uber-friendly store manager) or Gabriel Marques (the Head Chocolate Maker from Venezuela).
The production equipment at ÓBOLO is robust and pretty standard for a chocolate maker of its size, and also an amazing display of homemade tools that get the job done. They’re roasting cocoa beans with a modified homemade 10kg nut roaster. For a winnower (the machine that removes the cracked papery husk from roasted cocoa beans), they use a machine that was designed and built for them in Perú. They also use a 100lb Diamond grinder to make their chocolate, and their tempering machine was a familiar site. Just like us, they use a Unica machine to temper the chocolate at the right temperature to make a finished bar snappy and shiny. (Here’s more info on how chocolate is made.)
After speaking with the team, they mentioned that the winnowing process was bulletproof. It was also interesting to learn about the biggest challenges in their production. Like any chocolate maker, consistency in tempering is an issue. Some finished bars just look richer, darker, and shinier than others; the root is usually an imbalance in the quality or quantity of ideal crystals. Developing the flavor profile of each harvest year to year is also tricky. The roast and conch of each new batch of beans (the part of production that contributes to flavor development and mouthfeel) can be challenging to get right. Daily and weekly production and logistics flow is also tough for a small maker who is trying to be conscientious of their product. The planning, documenting, and traceability of each bar is something that ÓBOLO works at with gusto.
It can be easy to take for granted how much energy, passion, care, teamwork, and coordination go into making great chocolate at any scale, and I learned a lot by watching a small craft maker. It’s amazing to see how far the bean-to-bar New American Chocolate Movement revolution has reached, and I can’t wait to visit again.