This is part 2 of 5 of an interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate. Be sure to start reading with Part 1.
Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments. Art will be available to comment on anything you have to say. Even better - Art will give away one of each of his bars to five random commenters - one winner per post. All winners will be drawn on Saturday morning, July 12. All comments are eligible up until the time the winners are posted. While you may leave multiple comments on a post, only one comment per person per post is eligible to win.
How did you select your beans?
Quite a bit of time was spent flying out of the country to develop relationships with farmers.
That's always interesting. You are always heading off into incredibly rural areas. The first thing that any savvy traveler does nowadays is search on the Internet to see what other people are saying that have visiting these areas or areas nearby. What you quickly learn is that in general nobody goes there at all.
What you can find is maybe something where somebody mentions that they went there once and you are pretty much on your own as far as finding information about places to stay. You probably are not going to find anything until you actually get there, and while a lot of these are the best hotels, they are very comparable to those little motels that you see on the side of the road on the lonely highway: “Rooms for $25.” That's like the best hotel you are going to find in many of these areas. Except, in the U.S., you don't quite get the roaches.
I had developed friendships in the industry by that point. I had various friends that were pointing me in different directions. I would pursue it and sometimes it would result in something that we wanted to pursue sooner and some things we would want to pursue later and most of the time, you hear rumors about there being something truly special somewhere and then you get there and find out that is not really the case. You try to use your best judgment, but in the end, it is a lot of trial and error.
We’re still working with a number of plantations that we haven't released bars from yet, because things aren't quite where we'd like them to be. They meet other people’s standards but not quite ours yet, but we see great potential.
How are your standards different?
Some of the bigger issues are in the post harvesting practices - specifically fermentation and drying. In a lot of these areas, they use the cocoa as a cooking ingredient rather than for making chocolate. Proper fermentation is not as important to them as it is to the chocolate maker. A lot of the large industrial chocolate companies use manufacturing processes that tend to destroy a lot of fine flavor that you get in good quality cocoa. Because of that, they can use beans that have not been fermented or dried properly. It makes for an industrial chocolate, but it doesn’t make for a fine flavor chocolate like what we want to make.
We work with the farmers and try to really drive home the idea of quality and consistency and let the farmer know that there are people such as ourselves that are really willing to pay a premium price to get really premium beans.
Do you process the beans yourself?
Depending on the circumstance, the farmer ferments the beans and dries them and will bag them and often times that is where we come in. Sometimes we can work with someone locally to import them into the U.S. for us, but oftentimes the way that it works is the farmer calls us up somewhat unexpectedly and says, "Hey, I’ve got forty bags of beans that are all ready for you that are sitting in my driveway. Can pick them up now?" All of a sudden, you've got to from half a world away (figuratively or literally) not only find a truck that is available to come and pick them up in areas that are very remote, but you also have to try to find pallets that are treated because you can't import wood that has not been treated into the U.S.
The folks over at customs are very concerned about untreated wood being used in pallets because it imports insects who make themselves at home and destroy some of our native species here. That’s how we got fire ants in the South and quite a number of pests. There is new breed of termites threatening the Southeast right now, all that came from shipments people weren't being very careful with. Customs is very sensitive about those things - as well they should be.
We have to find pallets and people to do it all on a moment's notice. It makes for some rather interesting days.
That had to take some getting used to.
I don't know if you ever really get to used it. You just do it and then when it's done you feel like screaming and then you go to bed and then the next day you get up and you say today's the day for a new adventure because that's what happens, each and every day. It's always an adventure. One day you are making chocolate, the next day you are fixing the machine that broke down halfway through the batch or adjusting things, and the next day you are dealing with importing something from another country that may not have pallets and shipping readily available.
It's all pretty exciting and pretty much everyone in the industry deals with that. I know one company that when they get the call about their cocoa beans, they have to hire a helicopter to go and pick them up. It's all an adventure and not necessarily in the romantic sense.