For many foodies and chefs, San Francisco can be a haven of inspiration. For Danish bean-to-bar chocolate maker Mikkel Friis-Holm, it was where the seed to his own chocolate company was planted.
Mikkel spent four winters working at some of San Francisco’s renowned kitchens such as Chez Panisse, Rubicon and Elizabeth Falkner’s Citizen Cake (now closed). It was also the city where he met John Scharffenberger and the late Robert Steinberg of Scharffen Berger chocolate, with whom he developed a friendship and later a business arrangement to become the Scandinavian importer for their famed San Francisco bean-to-bar brand. A few years later and already thinking about creating his own line of chocolate, Mikkel received a phone call in 2007 from Robert about exploring a new cocoa project in Hondurasand Nicaragua started by a fellow Dane.
To become a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker, accessing high quality cacao beans is an essential part of the challenge. So it was timely that Frank Homann’s new project, Xoco Fine Cocoa Company, was focusing on cultivating a rare cocoa tree specimen to produce fine cacao beans in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.
With the beans carefully sourced, Mikkel created his brand by starting with Nicaraguan bean varietals such as medagla, chuno,barba and nicaliso. “Cacao is like wine,” says Mikkel. “Its taste is the result of a bean’s terroir and genetics.”
But there is a problem in the chocolate industry that is slowly coming to light among mainstream chocolate consumers: Quality is not always rewarded. Many cacao farmers are paid based on volume of beans produced, rather than the quality of their beans. Mikkel explains how this affects the product: “When farmers plant cacao trees, if quality is not the goal, they will decide to grow what is most profitable for the farm,” he says. “Starting in the mid-’90s, this decision was reflected by the move away from original cacao varietals, towards planting high-yielding cacao crops, such as the CCN-51 bean. The chocolate produced from a CCN-51 cloned bean not only tastes like cardboard, but the planting of this varietal also deplenishes the earth of nutrients. In 10 to 12 years, the cloned trees stop yielding; this then requires a greater use of pesticides to continue growing.”
For large multinational chocolate companies, high-volume, low-priced chocolate is better for business. Customer demand for affordable “candy bar” chocolate equally contributes to the cycle. Consumers purchase these low-quality chocolates for a myriad of reasons: price, exposure to marketing, lack of knowledge, or simply indifference. In response to mass chocolate, niche advocacy organizations such as Direct Cacaoand the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative research and study flavour and the link to bean genetics in order to encourage the planting of non-GMO cacao.
Fortunately, today’s small batch bean-to-bar makers (Mikkel included) are motivated to work directly with cacao producers rather than third parties, to have a better handle on selecting high quality raw materials. It also allows the micro-chocolate makers to control experiment and tweak the chocolate-making process in order to bring the best flavours out of each bean, just as a winemaker does with grapes. Mikkel’s brand, Friis-Holm, has already won awards and recognition for his Chuno Double Turned 70% cacao bar, as well as his Nicaliso 70% cacao bar. Another award-winning experiment of Mikkel’s is his Dark Milk Chocolate Nicaragua 55% cacao bar. With a river of sweet successes carrying him, Mikkel’s next project is to raise money to establish his own chocolate factory.
Banner image by Adam Goodman.