Last month, our longtime barista and former chocolate maker, Brandon, spent five weeks in Tokyo as part of our exchange program with Dandelion Chocolate Japan. Brandon, of course, also happens to be a talented photographer. Here’s a peek into his time there.
We’ve been running tours through our chocolate factory for a few years now, and this past January, we were thrilled to add a Spanish language version to our roster. The tours are led by Obed, one of our illustrious chocolate makers (and the handsome fellow in that there photo below). Here, he tells us a little about what inspired him to kick off the program, and what he loves about it. If you’re interested in booking a tour, head to our website.
Q: Hi Obed! Tell us a little about what you do here at Dandelion Chocolate.
Q: Hola Obed! Cuéntenos un poco de lo que hace aquí en Dandelion Chocolate.
A: I am currently a chocolate maker and tour guide in English and Spanish.
A: Actualmente soy un Fabricante de Chocolate y Guia de las visitas en Ingles y Español.
Q: Where did the idea of a Spanish tour come from?
Q: ¿Cómo nació la idea de hacer una visita guiada en Español?
A: Well, I realized that we are located in the Mission District, a historically Latin community: “La Mission.” And the origin of chocolate is in Latin America, and I feel many Spanish speaking people enjoy learning about it and how it’s made. And I wanted to honor the community that has been here for such a long time.
A: Me di cuenta de que estamos ubicados en el Distrito de la Misión, una comunidad Históricamente Latina: “La Misión.” Además, el origen del Chocolate está en América Latina, y siento que muchas personas de habla hispana disfrutan aprendiendo sobre ello y cómo se hace. Y quería honrar a la comunidad que ha estado aquí por tanto tiempo.
Q: What do you like most about hosting groups for factory tours?
Q: ¿Qué es lo que más te gusta de albergar grupos que visitan nuestra fábrica?
A: I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned about the origins of chocolate and how we work diligently to keep it organic and pure, with no preservatives or artificial additives.
A: Me gusta compartir lo que he aprendido sobre los orígenes del chocolate y cómo trabajamos diligentemente para mantenerlo orgánico y puro, sin conservantes ni aditivos artificiales.
Q: Who comes on the Spanish tour? Any interesting stories?
Q: ¿Quiénes han asistido a las visitas guiadas en Español? ¿Alguna historia interesante?
A: Pretty much everyone found out about the tour on the website. We have hosted some bi-lingual tours, where one person spoke Spanish, and the other did not. I liked that one person came along, even though they don’t speak the language just to share a special experience with their partner. It was cool! Lots of people come as a family too. There was one family from Jalisco, who live in Stockton now, and they came to SF specifically for a fun tourist day. Then there are our neighbors who live or work right around the corner from the factory. I hosted about eight or ten volunteers from the Women’s Building once, and they were quite interested in the genetics of cacao.
A: Casi todo el mundo se enteró de la visita guiada en La página de internet. A pasado que en una de las Visitas Guiadas una persona hablaba español, y la otra no. Me gustó que una persona asistio a pesar de que no hablan el idioma sólo para compartir una experiencia especial con su pareja. ¡Fue genial! Mucha gente viene con su familia también. Nos visitó una familia de Jalisco, que vive en Stockton ahora, y vinieron a SF específicamente para pasar un día visitando la ciudad. Luego están nuestros vecinos que viven o trabajan a la vuelta de la esquina de la fábrica. Recibí a unos ocho o diez voluntarios del Edificio de las Mujeres en una ocasión y ellas estaban muy interesadas en la genética del cacao.
Q: What do you like about hosting the Spanish Tour?
Q: ¿Qué te gusta de auspiciar una vista guiada?
A: I like how much history chocolate has, and how it is connected to the Mesoamerican culture.
A: Que cuenta la historia tiene el chocolate, y cómo está conectado con la cultura Mesoamericana.
Q: What has been most challenging about translating our chocolate making process from English to Spanish?
Q: ¿Qué ha sido más difícil al traducir nuestro proceso de elaboración de chocolate del Inglés al Español?
A: One of the things I found challenging in translating our tour to Spanish is that the terminology is not always literal. Another is making sure that it was done in a way that people from different countries would understand the process.
A: Una de las cosas que encontré desafiante en la traducción de nuestro tour al español es que la terminología no siempre es literal. Otra es asegurarse de que se hizo de una manera que la gente de diferentes países entendería el proceso.
Q: Lastly, what’s is your favorite thing about working here?
Q: Por último, ¿cuál es su cosa favorita de trabajar aquí?
A: I really enjoy working at Dandelion for many reasons. The people here are like family, we share ideas and feel very comfortable asking questions to continue to learn. I’m proud of the product we produce knowing the dedication to producing a chocolate like no other.
A: Realmente me gusta trabajar en Dandelion por muchas razones. La gente aquí es como una familia, compartimos ideas y nos sentimos muy cómodos haciendo preguntas para seguir aprendiendo además de estar orgulloso del Chocolate que producimos sabiendo la dedicación al producir un Chocolate como ningún otro.
Q: I know I said lastly, but here’s one more: what it is your favorite Dandelion’s bar at this moment?
Q: Ok., Ok Una más..¿Cuál es el Chocolate de Dandelion favorito en este momento?
A: Maya Mountain (2016) of Belize by Elman Cabrera.
A: Maya Mountain (2016) de Belize creado por Elman Cabrera.
About a month ago, a couple members of our education team, Kelsey and Cynthia, were asked to give a lecture on the History of Chocolate to an undergraduate history class at the University of California-Davis. They used the opportunity to create an outline for our newest class at Dandelion Chocolate: An Edible History of Chocolate. Here’s a look into how it went, what they learned, and what you can look forward to in our upcoming class!
When Cynthia and I were asked to give a lecture on the History of Chocolate, we thought, “Easy! we’ll just talk about what we do every day…to a bunch of history students… who probably know more about the history of the Americas than we do… and, wait, did you just say 300 of them? Oh. Well, here comes the crippling stage fright. What did we get ourselves into?”
I remember the lump in my throat as I read the email from Professor Andres Resendez, who has spent his entire academic career studying and writing multiple books all about the early exploration and colonization of Central and South America, imagining what we could possibly tell him (and a lecture hall full of students) about cacao, or about how colonialism introduced chocolate to the global trade system, beginning thousands of years ago. And, history, it’s so…old. How could we know enough to confidently explain it to an expert historian? We know chocolate, we’re neck deep in it every day. But talking about the history of chocolate to a room full of history students felt, well, intimidating.
I peeked over my computer at Cynthia. She too had an apprehensive look on her face after opening the last correspondence with Dr. Resendez. But it only took her all of 30 seconds to perk up and smile, as she always does, with a glow of confidence, “Oh! We’ve got this. I mean why not?” Cynthia has a way of boosting my confidence when it comes to these things, reminding me that in our little chocolate world over here we can sometimes forget just how much we’ve already learned about chocolate and where it comes from. I later told her she reminded me of Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, what with her “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy!” attitude.
So there we had it, a month to pull together the curriculum and make a nerdy, but totally cool and engaging presentation. Happily for us, we’ve been dreaming about developing a full class about the history of chocolate for our customers for awhile now, and this was an excellent opportunity to pull that together. We spent the month compiling and formatting information, listening to podcasts, reading articles, looking at all kinds of books on Amazon. Finally, we had a week to pull together the presentation when Cynthia pulled me aside at our Valencia Street Factory and says, “I realized, I know way more than I thought I did and I’m pretty sure you do too. I’m really excited. We’ve totally got this, Kelsey.”
And that was all I needed to hear to be right there with her. She was right. I think we sometimes forget that no one knows it all. We don’t. Historians don’t. Other chocolate makers (probably) don’t. New discoveries are continually being made by scientists, uncovering new evidence extending what we know about the history of chocolate. And then there are the farmers, traders and makers of chocolate, who are regularly discovering new things about the industry. We’re both adding what we know to both ends of the story, the past and the present. You can be an expert and still not know everything; you can be relatively new to it and still know a lot. And that feels like the magic of chocolate; there is always something new to learn.
As P-day approached, we dove into the deep end. We reviewed the history of the Olmec, the Maya and the Aztec.; how cacao beans were at one point a currency, which would set the stage for the future of its influence over the rest of the world. We read stories of European royalty bestowing gifts of chocolate in marriage, a symbol of international alliances. We dove into stories about how the Quaker influence shows up in the modern day labor dynamics in the Ivory Coast. We noticed patterns, like the way different cultures throughout history had some spiritual or romantic association with chocolate, and many of them recognized some aphrodisiac property in theobromine. We even learned how chocolate was adopted by the masses in the United States through WWII. Cynthia pulled together 60+ slides, dotted with lore of Emperor Montezuma and his drinking obsession, and stories of the secret Monks of Spain and Hershey bars. And I got to make it pretty with silly animations and words. We worked until 10pm the night before, giddy with fun facts (which could have also had to do with the entire Marou bar I ate while working).
We walked into the classroom, took a deep breath, introduced ourselves and proceeded to tell a room full of 20 year olds what we knew. And guess what? We totally killed it.
And even better, you can experience the whole thing in our upcoming Edible History of Chocolate class! The first one will be April 20th, from 7-9pm. Stay tuned for more info on how to sign up and future dates.
Elman Cabrera, one of our lead chocolate makers, developed the flavor profile (i.e. bean roasting parameters, and more) for the newest harvest of beans from Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd. In his previous post, he writes all about that process. In this one, we get to hear about his experience traveling to origin, Belize, to meet the folks at Maya Mountain Cacao Ltd. who helped produce these beans.
Working with Belizean beans that came from so close to my home in Guatemala was a thrill for me, especially because those beans from Maya Mountain were so delicious, and filled with such flavor possibility. I thought my time with them would be finished once I’d honed in on roast profile that we loved, but I’d soon find out the excitement had only just begun.
The real blessing came when I was offered an opportunity to travel to the source. The annual Maya Mountain Farmer’s Meeting was taking place in Punta Gorda, Belize, at Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd. on January 28th of this year, and when Karen and our Chocolate Sourcerer, Greg, asked me if I wanted to go, I packed my bags in a flash. Thinking about the opportunity of traveling to a country close to mine, about the adventures, and the privilege of visiting an origin—the origin whose beans I’d worked with—was too exciting to even describe. Obviously, my trip was so much more than all those things.
Throughout the time I was making test batches and running taste test after taste test, I had been digging into the story of Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd., the social enterprise and fermentary that supplies those beans. I revisited our sourcing report and through some more research, learned some eye-opening things about how MMC helps and supports the farmers they work with, most of whom are Q’eqchi or Mopan Maya—a detail that really hit close home for me.
Once in Belize, I met Emily (co-founder of MMC) and Minni (manager of MMC). The meeting—an annual gathering of all the farmers Maya Mountain works with—is an opportunity for MMC to communicate its values and goals to those farmers, and reestablish their commitment over the long run. At the meeting, MMC promised to stay in the market for many years, and committed to paying a fair price and buying the farmers’ cacao no matter the fluctuations of the market or competition that crops up in Belize. Maya Mountain was founded with the vision of creating access to the craft chocolate market for smallholder Belizean cacao farmers; they work directly with both parties which not only guarantees a high quality cacao, but it also means the farmers are getting a high price for it.
I met many of the farmers, and visited a cocoa farm for the very first time in my life. I think I will never forget those three cocoa pods (not three beans, three whole pods of beans) whose pulp I ate or walking through the rainforest and finding a well-kept cocoa farm. Nor will I forget Ermain Requena, who manages the demonstration cocoa farm, cutting some cocoa pods for us to try, his face lighting up full of pride while giving us insights about the farm. I’ll remember hearing from the farmers about the challenges that come with planting and starting a new cocoa farm, and visiting a fermentery for first time. I had the chance to see what fermentation actually looks (and smells) like, and enjoyed learning from two experts who did an excellent job explaining the process to a chocolate maker who was new to it all.
I can’t adequately describe what it’s like to experience all of this, and the feelings that came with it. To see and feel the hard work, the hopes, and the daily struggles of the producers I met. Those farmers who rely on selling their cacao to have an income, to bring food to their table, to send their kids to school, or to supply the everyday needs of life, who see their future through a cocoa bean, I appreciate the work they do so much more deeply now.
You see, we get our bean delivery every week. Burlap sacks over burlap sacks full of beans. Had you asked me about the beans a month ago I would probably had told you some basic facts—the process of cutting a cocoa pod, that the beans’ pulp is insanely delicious, that its fermentation takes up to 5 -7 days, and that even drying the beans can affect their flavor in so many ways. But I would be missing one important thing: the faces and stories behind those beans. Now, I can tell you about those faces and stories as well. Come in and ask me!
I started by developing a roast profile, and ended up in places I’d never dreamt I’d be, with people I never dreamed I’d meet. I’m a proud chocolate maker, and I’m a proud Maya descendant. My heroes don’t wear a cap but a hat, a machete, and rubber boots. And they also make possible one of the best experiences your palate can taste: Chocolate.
Elman Cabrera, one of our lead chocolate makers, developed the flavor profile (i.e. bean roasting parameters, and more) for the newest harvest of beans from Maya Mountain Cacao, Ltd. Here, he tells us about what the process was like, and what it meant for him to work with beans that came from so close to home. Our first batch of bars hit shelves a few days ago, so be sure to drop in for a taste! In a few days, look out for the next installment of this story, wherein Elman heads to origin to meet the folks at Maya Mountain Cacao Ltd. who helped produce these beans.
I’m Guatemalan. I’m 100% percent sure some Maya blood runs through my veins, and I’m really proud of it. I come from a family of farmers (about half of us are, at least), and as a Guatemalan with Maya roots and a childhood that was surrounded by chocolate, I think chocolate represents an important part of who I am and where I come from. Cacao is and has been sacred to my ancestors for over a thousand years, and I like to think I’m honoring them in some way by working with it, and sharing it with the world.
Chocolate is an important part in the Guatemalan diet, so I’ve always been surrounded by it. At home, we often consumed it as a beverage during breakfast or dinner, or to soothe cold nights and sore throats. You’ll also find it in arroz con chocolate (chocolate rice) or chocolate-covered bananas. For a long time, I never dreamt of working with it professionally; I was pretty sure my future lay between lines, erasers, plans, measurements, and designs, and that I was destined to be an architect. I have this wild idea that my ancestors had different plans for me: to walk down the chocolate path.
When I moved to the U.S., I had the chance to really work with chocolate for the first time. I took a job working as a machine operator in a truffle-making company, making thousands of truffles each shift and melting hundreds of blocks of Belgian chocolate. It was a glimpse of the pleasure that is working with chocolate, but of course, nothing comes easy, and all it takes is one attempt to temper a huge tank of molten chocolate to realize your dream job can turn into a cocoa butter nightmare.
I came to love working with chocolate in that job, but before joining Dandelion, I didn’t realize that it could taste like so many different, interesting flavors.
When Karen, my manager, approached me with the offer of developing a new bar profile—making dozens of test batches and designing the final roast profile we would use on those beans—I was excited and happy to have such an amazing opportunity. Every time we make a bar from a new batch of beans, someone within the company becomes the “bar owner,” responsible for seeing the test batch process from start to finish, asking for feedback on flavor, and deciding on the final roasting parameters for those beans. Finally, I was going to be able to learn even more about the flavor development of chocolate, and get an even deeper look into the vastness of flavor possibilities that cocoa beans hold.
Of course the beans have a natural range of flavors, but these can be enhanced or brought to center stage when we manipulate temperature and roasting time. I discovered that the Maya Mountain beans pack so much flavor in them that I could have taken them in so many different ways, from really fruity to creamy and chocolatey. The flavors that came forth depended mostly on how hot and how long I roasted the beans, and my early trial runs at different temperatures were so different but so delicious. How was I to choose?
It is good to have beans that are this versatile, but narrowing down to the flavor you like best from so much variety is also challenging. I ran different sets of tests and tweaking my settings here and there to get to where we wanted to go: a fruity but chocolatey bar. All this was a great learning experience, I bugged my co-workers to taste all of my tests at every stage, and it was incredible to see how palate varies from person to person; someone can get notes of honey or strawberries and cream that you never tasted, but when you taste the chocolate again, that flavor is totally there. In the end, I found the sweet spot: a fairly chocolatey bar with notes of sweet honey, rich caramel, and strawberries and cream.
These beans were such a joy to work with, for their flavor and their story. As I made batch after batch of chocolate with them in San Francisco, they transported me south, to Central America, and back in time to the world of my ancestors. I thought my traveling would end there, in my mind, but before I knew it I’d find myself right in the heart of things, among the hills, farmers, and trees that made these beans what they are. But, more on that in my next post. Stay tuned!
Adam Kavalier is the founder of Undone Chocolate in Washington D.C., and he also happens to be a plant scientist whom we like to reach out to when we’re trying to understand the compounds in our beans. Here, he explains the mysterious properties of Theobroma cacao, and why a plant would dare to taste so good.
Many plants are a source of nutrition for humans and animals, but some plants are so much more than just that. Some plants taste better than other plants, and some just feel good to eat. And then there is Theobroma cacao, a special plant at the intersection of those two worlds that tastes as good as it makes us feel. But why, if we look at this from an evolutionary perspective, would a plant create compounds that we like to eat, and more so, that make us feel good? What’s in it for the tree?
As far as plants go, Theobroma cacao is especially, unusually rich in compounds that impact the way humans feel and function. While it wouldn’t seem critical for T. cacao to make polyphenols (antioxidants), methylxanthines (stimulants), or biogenic amines—(the neurotransmitters that are released in the brain when we feel good and are in love)—all of these actually play a major role in the way a plant survives.
Plants produce sugars through their remarkable ability to photosynthesize, combining the sun’s energy with carbon dioxide and water to produce energy to survive. This process is the basic foundation for life, and the reason we are all alive and able to live on this green planet (and enjoy chocolate). The synthesis of sugars and other compounds such as amino acids, DNA, and RNA, gives a plant cells the ability to survive on a primary level. These compounds are therefore referred to as primary metabolites.
A second group of compounds that includes polyphenols, methylxanthines, and biogenic amines, are more indirectly associated with survival. These compounds are referred to as secondary metabolites. Plants are sessile, which means they cannot move like many other organisms, and therefore can more easily fall victim to predators that are looking to eat (in the case of animals), or infect (in the case of bacteria or fungus) them in order to fend for themselves.
It has been well documented for centuries that the difference between a medicine and a poison is often a matter of dosage. Many secondary metabolites are bitter and toxic to small plant predators but, luckily for us, can be medicinal in large mammals such as humans. So, while secondary metabolites can provide a defense system for plants against insect and animal predators, they can provide medicinal benefit to animals large enough in proportion to the dosage. It is known that theobromine (the most abundant methylxanthine in chocolate) can increase good cholesterol, or HDL levels, and the polyphenols in chocolate can have a positive impact on the vascular system which controls blood flow and blood pressure.
Although they can be toxic to small animals and plant diseases, the wonderful compounds in chocolate are incidentally good for human health, and have the added bonus of making us feel good and tasting delicious!
Cheers to healthy and tasty craft chocolate that makes you feel good!
To all my future acquaintances, bus seat neighbors, Tinder matches, and curious onlookers, the answer is “Yes.” No, seriously. It’s true. As a chocolate maker, it’s my job to eat a lot of chocolate every day. I have to. I understand how this looks; from a distance, my job probably seems like an alternate universe where dreams come true, everything is glamorous, and nothing is sad. And sometimes, it really seems that way to me when I talk about it. That said, I want to tell you about the harsh reality of this life.
As I’m writing this, one of my colleagues approaches me with a freshly-tempered bar—broken into individual pieces—expecting that I take and eat one. This is a twice-daily ritual: before the beginning of every tempering round, each member of the production team tastes a square of chocolate from the batch about to be tempered. The idea is to taste the chocolate, and provide a score on a scale from 1 to 10. The number corresponds to our subjective preference for the chocolate, but we also consider its fidelity to the objective flavor—determined by the roast profile we’ve chosen—of whichever origin it is. If the chocolate is Madagascar, for example, we’re looking for its characteristic tangy citrus and berry flavor, and a sharp acidity balanced by a pleasant creaminess. If I think my square matches these sensations, and otherwise tastes good, I’ll probably give it a 7.5 or 8. If it’s exceptional I’ll give it a 9. If there’s something slightly off about it, I’ll say it’s a 6 or 7. If there’s a score of 5 or below, something about the chocolate has caused enough concern that we need to stop what we’re doing and investigate. Or cry.
When I first started working on the production floor, I would relish the requirement to eat these squares not only because I enjoyed them, but also because I was introducing my uninitiated palate to the nuances of our chocolate that change from day to day, and shift to shift. I felt particularly special, a part of a greater process of judgement and consensus, a member of a group that understood sensory subtlety. I felt like I moved in some fancy echelon of connoisseurs who can discern the difference between a 6, a 7, and an 8. That was a particularly juicy feeling considering I was not, nor am I now, a connoisseur, rather just a person who really likes, and now really knows, good chocolate.
And now, as Obed insists that I eat this square of a Madagascar bar so he can record my score, I take it, break it in half, and swallow my reluctance. I just had lunch and I have no desire for Madagascar’s tart jab and mouth-coating tendencies. And I had a whole square this morning, plus I had a few spoonfuls of it yesterday, and right now one more square feels like an overdose. I can easily imagine what it tastes like, I’ve tasted it a million times before, so I could half-heartedly chew and swallow and score it, followed by a quick chase of coffee if I wanted. But, like I said, dear reader, my job does require that I eat a lot of chocolate every day. It’s days like this one that challenge me the most, that oblige me to steel myself against the ennui of another bite of chocolate. And so, in consideration of just about every other job I could be holding in this world, and any other thing I could be eating, I eat the half square. I let it melt and express its full range across my tongue, and remember exactly what it is that makes my friends jealous when I tell them what I do for a living.
Every other Monday, we’ll introduce you to a member of the Dandelion community through a Q & A. Stay tuned to meet our chocolate makers, café staff, kitchen team, producers, partners, importers, mentors, and everyone who helps make our chocolate possible. This week, we’d like you to meet Maverick—a longtime fixture in our coffee program, inventor of our Ecuador Cold Brew and the fizzy Cure-All, and part-time cowboy.
NAME: Maverick Watson
HOMETOWN: Moorpark, California
FAVORITE CHOCOLATE: 85% Camino Verde (Dandelion)
WORKED AT DANDELION SINCE: January 2013
POSITION: Ferry Building Manager
Q: Hi Maverick!
Q: So, first of all, congratulations on the new job! Until yesterday you were the longtime Café Mentor with a Focus in Beverage Management, and now you’re Dandelion’s Ferry Building Manager. How excited are you to have a job title with a reasonable number of words in it?
A: I’m very excited.
Q: But really. You’ve been at Dandelion forever (since 2013), how does it feel switching gears?
A: I’m really excited to start this new phase with Dandelion. The Ferry Building is a very different space, kind of separated from the rest of Dandelion, and one of my biggest goals is figuring out how to make a more cohesive cultural connection between the Ferry Building and the rest of the company.
Q: You joined Dandelion to help open the café on Valencia Street. How has it changed since those days?
A: I came on before the café or factory were built out, when the whole space was more of a Confusing Retail Location and Chocolate Museum. I think when we started, things were more free flowing, and as we’ve grown we’ve developed a lot of structure and systems for organized growth. There’s been a lot of trial and error. Strategically, we’re a lot more effective. Also, things don’t break as often, which is nice. Now, our employees come with experience that makes sense, whereas in 2013, our lawyer Joey was tempering bars.
Q: What did you do as the café mentor?
A: I was basically an assistant manager, maintaining our drinks program and adding drinks to the menu, training staff, maintaining quality standards, and all that. I do recipe research, and sometimes manage disasters like grease traps and broken sinks.
Q: Grease traps are gross. What’s the worst maintenance disaster you’ve ever had to deal with?
A: When the grease trap overfilled for the first time, it was horrifying. I won’t go into too much detail but I remember Cam being elbow deep in the sludge. We tried hard to stay open but eventually we broke out the Shop Vacs and had to close. That disaster was second to the notorious glass pastry case explosion two years ago.
Q: What do you like about working on the other side of the café counter?
A: I like the dynamic atmosphere; no two days are exactly the same. I get to work with a lot of amazing people. People get really excited about this space, which helps me see it with fresh eyes every day. That’s one of the most amazing things about working here—it’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re here every day, and not realize how amazing this place is, but when someone comes in who has never been here before they have this look on their face that reminds you “Yeah, this is a special thing that’s happening.” It’s also fun to see the company grow.
Q: You make those leather-cuffed mugs we sell during Christmas, and a lot of us know you as a part time leatherworker. Tell me about that.
A: My fiance and I have a company, Steer and Arbor. She does woodworking and I do leather. We make and sell handcrafted utilitarian items.
Q: Utilitarian? Like hammers?
A: Like spoons, tables, cutting boards, belts, and bags. We sell at craft fairs, online, and on the factory shelves when the holidays roll around.
Q: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
A: An endless supply of dad jokes.
Q: I mean, that pager on your belt is kind of a dad joke.
A: It’s not a pager, it’s my phone holster. On second thought, does having a car phone qualify as a superpower? It should.
Q: It definitely should. Next question: if you could serve coffee to anyone from history, who would it be?
A: Herman Melville. And I’d ask him about the meaning of the great white whale.
Q: That’s a big question.
A: I’m a big man.
Q: I know you are.
Every other Monday, we’ll introduce you to a member of the Dandelion community through a Q & A. Stay tuned to meet our chocolate makers, café staff, kitchen team, producers, partners, importers, mentors, friends, and everyone who helps make chocolate possible. This week, we step outside of our typical interviews with chocolate makers and cacao producers to meet Birgitte Rasine. Birgitte is an author and sustainability warrior who fuses mythology and biology in her latest book, The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree, which works to connect us closer to the ancient roots of our food. She has worked in sustainability since 1998, and the first book she worked on was Dr. Arnold Newman’s Tropical Rainforest with an introduction by Dr. Jane Goodall.
NAME: Birgitte Rasine
HOMETOWN: Brno, Czech Republic
FAVORITE CHOCOLATE: Heirloom chocolate, especially To’ak and Ingemann Cacao Fino
Title: A.P.E. (Author, Producer, Entrepreneur)
Favorite Food: Soups and sauces
Q: Hi Birgitte! So, your book, The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree, comes out tomorrow. What’s it about?
A: It’s a fantasy, action, and adventure story. It follows Max, an American boy, and Itzel, a Maya girl, and several other characters that span the generations: their parents, grandparents, and siblings, along with a few cool animals (real and mythic). Max travels the world with his bee researcher dad, which is how he gets to visit Guatemala where Itzel introduces Max to the rainforest, animal spirit guides, the Maya way of life, and a sacred cacao tree that—I won’t spoil it—can unleash some less-than-benevolent beasts and magic.
The book is about the history, mythology, and biology of cacao, and it’s part of a larger series called “Max and the Code of Harvests”—“code” referring to the DNA of food. The point of the series is to connect readers with the ancient roots and mythology of food.
Q: Tell me more about that mission.
A: I think that our connection with food has to change because our food systems have become so adulterated, mechanized, and processed. At this point, most of us, kids especially, really don’t know where all of our food is coming from. A study was done years ago that discovered that a lot of children in America didn’t know that you were supposed to peel an orange before you eat it. You ask: Where does milk come from? And too many kids say, the grocery store. Where does chocolate come from? A vending machine. Many people may not know that chocolate comes from a football-shaped fruit that grows on a tree pollinated by tiny midges, not bees.
Q: And why are those important things to know?
A: Well, once you know where your food comes from and who produces it, your understanding of it and relationship with it changes. I would say that whatever food we consider sacred, whatever food we have a relationship with, we respect. So if we have a relationship with food as well as the people who produce it, we can begin to respect them both. It’s the only way we can make changes towards a more sustainable food system.
Q: I hear you, but how do you build relationships to a food when that food and the producers who grow it are thousands of miles away? You can’t meet them at the farmers’ market like you can here.
A: That’s an excellent question, and one that we’ve been grappling with all along. My team and I are working with a number of partners, including the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, which certifies heirloom cacao trees, on a media content initiative centered around our desire to reconnect people with the origins of chocolate. In addition to the novel, we’re producing a coloring book that’s coming out this fall, and developing an interactive game for the tablet about the flora, fauna, and foods of Mesoamerica, including chocolate. And with the HCP and our other partners, we’re working on projects to enable kids to connect with cacao farmers and chocolate makers. There are some language and technology barriers of course, but we’re working through it.
Q: How were the Maya connected to cacao?
A: The Maya were not the first to have hot chocolate, or to eat chocolate. Scholars believe the Olmecs, one of the most ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica, had domesticated cacao. Nobody really knows how or where it was discovered. It’s like corn in the sense that it’s a complicated process to make it edible; you have to cut the pod off the tree, break it apart, ferment and roast the beans, then grind them and go through all the steps necessary to produce chocolate. Either someone was really determined or it was a series of happy accidents that brought chocolate into being. And because it was so nourishing, exquisite, and healing, the ancient cultures considered it a sacred food. In cacao-producing regions across Mesoamerica, the cacao tree was considered the tree of creation, or the tree of life.
Q: Did it have any other roles in Maya life?
A: Yes, cacao was also used as currency. People know the rumors and story of the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma—he had a storehouse of hundreds of thousands of cacao beans that the Spanish raided, and it is said he drank chocolate from golden cups. What most people don’t know is that the Maya had a special coming of age ceremony for children that involved cacao. In the ceremony, the four rain gods were invoked and the children were anointed with sacred water mixed with flowers and ground cacao beans. There were a number of sacred rites that involved cacao—usually birth, marriage, and death.
Q: How does cacao play a role in the lives of Max and Itzel?
A: When Max and Itzel open up the pods of the sacred tree, they literally come into contact with the history and the mythology of chocolate. It’s a way of taking our present and fusing it with the past. I want the story to bleed out into the real world, reconnecting our present and future with the past, and that’s why we’re putting together this media initiative. Integrating our history and our myths into our everyday lives and society enriches us in so many ways, spiritually, socially, and culturally, because we know where we’re coming from.
Q: Okay, last question, and it should be an easy one for you. If you could have hot chocolate with anyone from history, who would it be?
A: Lord Cacao for sure! He’s a real historical personage—he ruled Tik’al in 682 AD, and the recipe for his hot chocolate is on the book’s web site. I created a myth involving him, for the story. I’d hope he wouldn’t throw me down a pyramid for that!
Every other Monday (most of the time), we’ll introduce you to a member of the Dandelion community through a Q & A. Stay tuned to meet our chocolate makers, café staff, kitchen team, producers, partners, importers, mentors, and everyone who helps make our chocolate possible. This week, we’d like you to meet Pearl, one of our former chocolate makers who took some time off to get deep into every facet of chocolate making and the cacao supply chain last year, and has since returned to help us open in Japan.
Name: Pearl Wong (or PWONG)
Hometown: Trumbull, CT
Job Title: Consultant – Interim Production Manager for Kuramae
Worked at Dandelion since: March 2013 – June 2015 (San Francisco), November 2015-present (Dandelion Japan)
Q: What do you do at Dandelion in Japan?
Seiji, CEO of Dandelion Chocolate Japan, hired me to set up production at Kuramae and train chocolate makers on the Dandelion chocolate making process.
Q: What is your favorite part of what you do?
We temper by hand (using a marble slab) right now because the test batches are too small to go through the Unica. This means everyone really gets to learn what is happening during the tempering process. I thought it would be easiest to learn that if they had to stir and mold the chocolate by hand.
I love tempering – it’s a beautifully complex process and it feels like the chocolate is talking to you about where it’s at and what it needs to be predominantly Form V (the ideal crystal structure that we want the cocoa butter to take). Also, chocolate tastes great when it’s been well-tempered. And I like tasty chocolate.
Q: How does tempering affect the taste of chocolate?
Basically it changes the way the cocoa butter melts in your mouth and therefore how your mouth draws out the flavors, whether it involves a bit more work on your part or just more time. So, how these flavors are perceived will change due to the crystal structure of your tempering. Not to mention a whole ‘nother set of factors like smells, sounds, and other people’s influence. But I find tempering is a factor that gets a little overlooked.
For an analogy – think of a time you had one type of soup. One time you had it fresh and hot. The other time you had it cold the next day because you don’t own a microwave and extra dishes are work. Think about how those two experiences were different or similar!
Q: Cold soup? Ew. What does your typical day look like?
I stroll in around 8:30AM to write up the plan (we start at 9AM); vacuum out the roaster; take lids off the melangers and test batches; taste everything, and the day just flows from there. Every day we do most of the steps in chocolate making even though we’re still mostly at the test batches phase (i.e. 1 kilo batches).
Q: How are the test batches going? Is the process different at all because you’re in Japan?
Well, the overall Dandelion process hasn’t changed – we’re doing a ton of experiments to narrow down the flavor profile of each bean. But the additional work I’m doing here is to figure out our 10 kilo roaster which uses a different heating element and therefore it has changed our roasting style from Valencia. It’s been pretty interesting because I’ve been roasting manually – something we almost never do at Valencia. And I’ve been roasting cacao as though I were roasting coffee (to a bean temperature rather than to a set time). I’ve been really enjoying the learning process of how this roasting style affects the flavor of cacao. I’ve also been able to dial in the roaster a lot better now that I’m working with Camino Verde beans. They are the beans I am most familiar with since I spent 6 weeks on the farm helping to harvest, ferment, and dry them last fall.”
Q: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve confronted in the last month?
The way companies are structured here is a little different, and working within new kinds of hierarchies takes some getting use to mainly because I’m not a hierarchical person at all. There are so many different etiquettes in business you have to observe. Little things always get lost in translation, so learning to manage here is just different.
The 10-kilo US Roaster and now the used Hobart cutter mixer can be mechanically challenging too. So I guess another continually challenging aspect is dealing with equipment that doesn’t behave the way you expect it to and/or breaks down unexpectedly.
Q: But what else is new, right?
True, it’s not really a chocolate factory until everything breaks down at least once or twice, and then on a monthly or weekly basis. Sometimes I wonder if being a good chocolate maker really means being able to troubleshoot and fix up the machines that make the chocolate.
Q: Big question: what’s your favorite chocolate?
Ugh this kind of question is tough to answer because it really depends on my mood. But I always love Marou’s bars (Vietnam). Their Treasure Island is my favorite of their line. I think 24Blackbirds (Santa Barbara) makes great two-ingredient chocolate, as does Letterpress Chocolate (LA). Also, Bar au Chocolat (LA) makes beautiful Madagascar and Bahia, Brazil bars, and their packaging is some of the best I’ve seen. Finally, Om Nom (Iceland) is another one of my favorites for their packaging, and their Papua New Guinea bar is great.
From Dandelion? The Madagascar from 2014 and 2012 are my favorites, as are Mantuano and Öko-Caribe 2014. I will always cherish the original Papua New Guinea bar from 2012 which, by the way, I still have a few of, and I think I must be the only one in the world with these bars now. Obviously, the unicorn Camino Verde 70% 2013 bar is a favorite. Too bad it was too thick to temper.
Q: Sorry to interrupt, but I thought I was the only one who hoarded 2012 Papua New Guinea bars. I keep them locked in a golden box buried three miles underground. I love them.
That’s weird, how would you ever get the chocolate out of the ground to eat it? But honestly there are a lot of great bean-to-bar makers out there, so it’s hard to call out just one favorite. It highly depends on what I’m craving that day. And also I’m very picky, so what I really like might not be reflective of other people’s taste preferences. For example, I only named dark chocolate bars above because that’s my go-to chocolate type. I’m highly biased against milk bars, so you shouldn’t trust my opinion on milk chocolate.
Anyway, my point is: always remember that these things are highly subjective to the individual. Find out what you like and stick with it – don’t worry too much about what experts, foodies, or judges tell you are good or bad.
Q: Good advice. Tell me about Kuramae.
Kuramae is a town within Tokyo. It is considered old Tokyo because there haven’t been as much development here, so there aren’t skyscrapers everywhere. The architecture is also quite old in the neighborhood. It’s quiet, mostly residential, but has some neat craftsmen shops and great little restaurants that are owned and operated by just one or two people.
One of my favorite spots is the 500 yen sushi don (sushi rice bowl, like a chirashi) take-out window. They serve fresh sashimi on top of flavorful sushi rice. And did I mention it’s stupid cheap? 500 yen. That’s less than five dollars.
Another favorite is a handmade soba noodle shop that is literally called the soba izakaya (izakaya means pub). I haven’t gotten to try everything on the menu, but I hope to be able to do so before I finish my assignment.
Q: That is stupid cheap. Speaking of things that are not stupid cheap, do you miss San Francisco?
Not at all. I’m surprised how many people are trying to live in the Bay Area right now. It’s kind of crazy considering all the other great and affordable places where you could be living comfortably, instead of fighting for an old apartment/studio lease with 50 other people. And the even better thing is that you can find local coffee roasters and brewers and chocolate makers almost everywhere in the US. I know because I took a road trip across the country last summer and I found all the comforts I enjoyed in San Francisco, elsewhere.
Q: Ok fine, sure, whatever. Just try to change your mind, okay? San Francisco misses you.