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Feb 27, 2017

The Magic of Maya Mountain: Making the Bar

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?

Running a few taste tests.

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.

Minda teaching me to temper by hand, like a boss.

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!



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