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Monday, December 17, 2018

Photo Essay: Crafting Cacao Under the Influence of a Printing Press

What happens when a Hollywood graphic designer who volunteers at the International Printing Museum gets interested in cacao?



You end up with Letterpress Chocolate, a small-batch, craft chocolate factory and storefront whose every bar is hand-wrapped...



...and custom-designed to feel handmade and olde-tyme.



And when you take the factory tour, you can taste any of the 70% dark chocolates from various cacao-growing regions around the world—ranging from Central and South America to Africa.



There's even one 85% dark and a 36% white chocolate infused with matcha green tea, both made from cacao beans sourced from Ecuador.



But before you taste the finished chocolate bars, you've got to drink the juice of the cacao pod—the amniotic fluid that the beans are nestled in and that's usually drained as a waste byproduct, but tastes like lychee.



After that is when you're ready to enter the kitchen, behind the wall of letterpress type.



After drying and roasting the once-juicy cacao bean embryo, you get the cacao nibs—separated from their shells by gravity using a machine. They taste bitter and earthy, dry and nutty, and roasty like coffee beans.



Next comes the chocolate liquor, which spends days being spun in a pot to smooth out its texture...



...eventually adding sugar to the mix and continuing to agitate to get all the molecules down to the same size.



They want to get the particles down to a certain optimum range—and they can monitor their size in real time with a micrometer and a grindometer.



Not surprisingly, grindometers are also commonly used to determine the particle size of printing inks.



At this point, the chocolate isn't full chocolate yet—but it tastes chocolatey enough, though perhaps a bit rough around the edges.



Before finished bars can be folded into their foil wrappers, the chocolate needs to be aged—sometimes for months, when it develops a bloom of cocoa butter (a.k.a. fat) on the surface.

The chocolate is then tempered, or alternately melted down and cooled off to reintegrate the bloom into the melted chocolate and keep crystals from forming. If the chocolate is heated or cooled too quickly or unevenly, it'll look streaky or mottled.

And although it'll taste exactly the same and even feel the same in your mouth, it'll be harder to sell because it isn't quite so pretty.

Letterpress sometimes remelts the mistakes down and other times sells them as "misfits" for half price.

The individual character of each single-origin bar is a matter of such personal preference, it's hard to say what's "best." That's what brings you into the shop to try whatever rings your bell.

My bell was rung most by the Fleur de Sel 70% Dark and 70% Dark Chocolate with steam-distilled mint oil, both from the Ashanti region of Ghana.

But the one I had to take home with me was the Maya Mountain Belize 70% Dark with puffed amaranth (instead of rice, like what you'd find in a Nestle Crunch or Hershey's Krackel).

Only one of their bars has any dairy milk added to the chocolate. The rest of the bars are made with unrefined cane sugar, which makes them friendly to vegans (since bovine bone char is used in making refined a.k.a. white sugar).

Although the Letterpress operation is small (crafting about 4000 bars a month), it fills a hole left in Los Angeles manufacturing when MAST closed its chocolate factory in the Arts District in 2017. (But even then, MAST wasn't an LA-based company the way that Letterpress is.)

Cacao, however, does not grow in Southern California. So for its raw materials, in addition to sourcing from growers throughout the world, Letterpress has also invested in Guatemala's Izabal Agroforest—its own sustainable cacao farm.

Soon enough, we'll be able to taste Letterpress chocolate bars made Letterpress-grown beans.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: From Bean to Bar at a Chocolate Factory
Farm to Fork? Bean to Bar? This Is Bean to Brew.
Photo Essay: Book Arts at the International Printing Museum
Photo Essay: A Different Type of Church