You can't really know how special Patric Chocolate is until you taste it. However, after you read about owner Alan McClure's passion for chocolate and the care he personally takes with every step of the chocolate making process, I think you'll have a pretty good idea.
I've devoted two posts to Patric Chocolate. In this post, you'll learn all about Alan and the history of Patric Chocolate. In the second post, you will get to join me for a tour of the chocolate factory! You'll see where and how Patric Chocolate is made!
To make the experience a little sweeter, Alan is offering Food Interviews readers a chance to win up to $100 worth of fine chocolate! Every 10th person who places an order on the Patric Chocolate online store using coupon code 3FLMDE will get their entire order for free! That’s 1 in 10 odds of getting free chocolate!
In addition to the chance to win, your code also gets you 10% off of any purchase (including any already reduced items) and two additional complimentary chocolate bars on any purchases over $50.
The fine print: The contest and coupon code is good only through midnight (CST) on Wednesday, November 12, 2008. The “1 in 10” free chocolate prize applies only up to the first $100 of any order. You’ll be asked to pay at the time of purchase. However, on Thursday, Nov. 13, I’ll announce who the winners are and if you win, up to $100 will be refunded to you.
How did you start Patric Chocolate?
One thing that has always been a constant in my life is that I’ve always liked food. I wouldn’t say that all the time that it was gourmet food or fine food or even decent food necessarily, but I enjoyed the process of eating. As I got older and started learning more and having food from different countries, I started to appreciate diversity in food and then I’d start cooking more and more. I kind of thought about being a chef, but that falls into one of those things that I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do that.”
I lived in France for a year and I tracked down some really good chocolate while I was there. I actively tracked it down because I knew I wouldn’t be there forever. I got back here and I couldn’t find it and so I said, “Maybe I can make it. I can cook. I can bake bread or whatever. How hard can it be to make chocolate?” Little did I know. But when I first started, I didn’t know that. I just bought some small table-top machinery , which seemed expensive at the time, but in reality, it was nothing compared to the cost of my current machinery, and I just started experimenting. As I did that, I first got my taste of the bottomless void of potential chocolate knowledge.
I’m sure people in other fields say the same thing about what it is that they enjoy doing. But I don’t know. I’ve just never come across anything like this before where just no matter what aspect of the process you look at, it just seems infinitely complicated.
How much time went by between when you got interested in chocolate and when you sold your first bar?
I got interested in chocolate in 2004. In 2005, I first experimented with Mexican chocolate. I got some cacao beans online and I roasted them in a skillet and then winnowed them by hand one by one - I got blisters on my thumbs and fingers. Then I transferred that to a food processor. That was my first experience making chocolate. I used it in mole.
That was my goal, traditional mole. Toast the seeds and the spices and the chilies and grind them as I did. It was great.
Then after that, that’s when I really started entertaining the idea of fine chocolate, bar chocolate, and that was still in 2005. In early 2006 was really when I first was able to make something that was on its way to being fine chocolate. 2006 was also when I started the company on paper. So there were four months after I had first made something that I considered to be on its way to being fine chocolate where I was like, “Should I do this? Should I not do this? Do I know anything? Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.”
This is when I got a hold of Steve De Vries (from De Vries Chocolate), who was already doing things and I told him , “I want to try your chocolate.” He wasn’t really selling it yet, and he told me, “Well, yeah, I only sell it here.” I said, “Oh, tell me where, I’ll have my dad pick it up. He lives in Denver.” Then he just said, “Oh, I’ll just send you some.” Additionally, Steve asked me what I had read so far I was like, “I don’t know. Chocolate Alchemy, and a couple of industry manuals.” So, he said “Okay, write these down.” So, I wrote down five books that he recommended. They are all old books from the early 1900’s, late 1800’s. But, I tracked them down on a used book website.
Anyway, so I bought those books a couple of days after that--got them and read them a couple of times and then I called him back. It was in a space of three weeks or so. I told him, “So, I got the books and I read the books.”
He could hardly believe it. He said, “I’ve recommended those books to a lot of people and no one’s ever read them.” So I asked him, “What else you got? I found this too, and this too.” “Those are good,” he said.
So, I just kept reading and then the summer of that year, 2006, I went to Mexico. I just felt, “I need to go somewhere and see cacao being grown and talk to farmers and see it fermented and see it dried.” If you’re going to be a chocolate maker or you think you might want to be, I feel you’ve just got to do that. It’s got to be an experience that you have. There’s so much that’s hard to understand without having that experience.
That was in the summer. About a year later, in 2007, I finally sold my first bar.
What’s your goal for the future of the company?
I don’t know. I’m just playing it by ear. I’m just trying to stay connected to every part of the company and try to really feel, “Am I going in the right direction? Do I need to slow down?” Because above all is the issue of quality, and if you feel like there’s risk of it deteriorating, then there’s a problem. So then it’s like, “Okay, can I keep this quality and change a few things and then do what I was thinking about doing? Is that possible or not?” I haven’t even come to that point. I feel like that question is way down the line for me.
Do you believe that it’s better to be smaller?
I made one metric ton of chocolate last year. Even the bigger guys, like Amano (and when I say bigger, I mean bigger than me, but still small), I don’t know what they made, but we’re talking two metric tons, maybe five metric tons, maybe more, but not 4,000 metric tons like some companies that are considered moderately sized
I just feel like there’s room for different companies to be doing different things and we should just be clear about what it is we’re doing so that people can know and see what’s going on. So, that kind of bugs me. I don’t expect every company to be so transparent that they tell you everything. It’s not going to happen, and I certainly won’t tell you everything either. It just feels like we need to be more open and honest with people as companies and with each other as companies as well.
I believe that there’s a limited amount of excellent quality cacao in the world. It’s limited and you can not make 4,000 metric tons of chocolate and have it all be of excellent quality - even if you have the expertise. When a certain Bay-area-based chocolate company first started up, their chocolate, from many reports, was excellent. Over time, though, some people thought that it decreased in quality . The reason is, their capacity increased over time. It wasn’t that they forgot how to make good chocolate or they didn’t care anymore, it’s simply that there’s a limited supply of what I would say is fine cacao. They needed to start bringing in other stuff that kind of bulked up the chocolate that they were making and it wasn’t necessarily as flavorful. That’s what happens.
As people have more interest in quality cacao, do you think there will be more grown?
I hope so. It’s possible. That’s tied into something else that I’m always telling people, which is everyone is very concerned about fair trade, and I understand why. The reasons why people are concerned about fair trade are good reasons to be concerned, but when you start talking about fine chocolate, to give you an idea, I paid more than twice fair trade price for my cacao - more than twice! That is often the case. Why? Because when we’re selling products for six, seven, eight, ten dollars a bar, we can pay more for excellent quality cacao, it drives the price up because there’s only a limited amount. It’s just supply and demand right there.
The fact that this is twice fair trade price tells you something about where the demand is going. But, what’s not happening is that people aren’t growing more excellent quality cacao quickly enough to keep the price stable. They could be, but they’re not.
One of the things that I think is negative about fair trade is the fact that it gives people a feeling like that’s the best thing that could be done for farmers, when in reality if we wanted farmers to make even more money, we would say, “Grow better cacao.” Think about it in terms of some other crop. Are you going to tell a farmer growing bad apples that the best way to make more money is to become fair trade farmers, or are you going to say, "Grow better apples and you’ll make more money?" So again, I don’t want to attack fair trade. I think that they have a role to play; I think that in some cases, especially like the Ivory Coast where there’s been child slavery, it’s especially important. But I think in most cases, consumers who care about chocolate need to start buying better chocolate.
Buy chocolate that tastes better. If you buy chocolate that tastes better, it’s from better cacao. That cacao is bought for a higher price; the farmers are making more money. There are very few cases where that does not work out exactly like that. But there are cases where fair trade prices are paid and farmers don’t make anything more than commodity cacao prices.
What about organic?
This cacao right there is organic, by the way. That’s the thing, it doesn’t say that on my box and that’s a whole other issue. I have some retailers in other countries now who are wanting to carry my chocolate. Well as soon as I put organic on the box, I get into a whole other tangled mess because organic rules and regulations in the EU, for example, are not the same as they are in the States.
I’ve looked into it - I’ve spent a lot of time, and it’s not worth it right now because most people buying this chocolate are going to be fine with it not saying organic on the front, even though the cacao is organic. I feel like people should know that it just doesn’t make sense. It would be expensive for me with little return.
That’s one of the frustrating things (not to go on a rant here) about being a small company. Large companies can blow through that stuff. They have a team of lawyers and they have all the money possible to make that happen. Small companies don’t. It actually is kind of a burden, these new rules and regulations, though again I understand why they exist. But, they are kind of a burden on small companies just for doing what they would like to do. I don’t have sleepless nights about it.
Are you able to learn from other chocolate companies, or it a very competitive industry?
It’s a little bit of a mix. At the end of June in New York, there’s a Fancy Food Show. I wasn’t going to go because I had something scheduled in St. Louis at the Kitchen Conservatory and they called me the day before and said they only had five people signed up and they were canceling it. For a moment I was like, “Oh man,” then I thought, “Wait a minute. Fancy Food Show!” So I got a ticket with my frequent flyer miles, went up there, stayed with a friend, and I was glad that I did that because Steve De Vries was up there, Art was there, Shawn Askinosie, the guys from Taza, even the TCHO people. Everyone was there. I was like, “Okay. Perfect opportunity for us to finally meet face to face and be nice to each other and we don’t have to be dicks to each other. We can be cool and helpful.” That’s what happened, thankfully.
It was the start of a small artisan, chocolate organization in the United States. It’s something we’ve talked about and we’ve been emailing each other back and forth. I think there’s still a feeling of competitiveness. Though from the beginning I’ve said, "There are seven of us. Seriously, we’re not competitors with each other, there’s seven. There are 50 states, 270 million Americans or something like that, we aren’t competitors."
Let's get back to Patric Chocolate. Am I correct that the only people working with you are your wife and a part-time employee?
Yeah. I just hired a part-time employee and my wife is only here for the summer because she’s not teaching over the summer. She’ll go back to teaching. She has a PhD.
Does your wife like being here making chocolate?
Yes, but I can’t afford to pay her at this point. She’s making money out there, whereas if she’s in here, she’s not making that money, plus I have to pay more for our bills at home. So it’s still not quite working out. She would like to be here all the time and I would like her to be.
What parts of the business do you feel comfortable having other people do? You seem like you want to have your hand in all of it.
The things that I have other people do right now are sweeping, mopping, dishes, cacao cleaning, the winnowing process. That’s what other people are doing right now. I would feel comfortable with other people doing accounting or sending out literature and samples and getting orders together and stuff like that. In fact, my wife does some of that, but I just don’t have an employee to do it yet.
But, I’ll need to hire another part time person before the summer is over, though I’m not quite sure what they are going to be doing yet. Usually the people who want to do manual labor, they don’t want to do accounting also, and vice versa.
I would love to find someone who knew how to and was willing to do accounting and also pack up orders and also do dishes, but I don’t know if it will happen.
Roasting would be one of those things that I wouldn't feel comfortable having someone else do. You can’t have someone just go roast the cacao, it just doesn’t work. The same applies to understanding the tempering process. You can’t train someone to do that easily. You have to understand it yourself. I might be able to get the proper machine set up and going and tell someone, “Stick these molds under there and then put them on the tray,” that might be possible. But, I would still have to have a pretty large role to play in this process. Even wrapping the bars, I still do 95% of that myself.
It would be great to have someone who is as excited about chocolate making as I was and wanted to learn what I’ve learned and the things I’m still trying to learn. That would almost be like an apprentice type situation. I’ve never even had anyone come to me about that, so I’ve never even thought about it.
What is your favorite part of chocolate making?
I’m still learning every day. Every day I read something - I go back to some book or some paper or I sit there and I think of something and often I go home from work and I can’t focus on anything else because there’s some problem I encountered and I just can’t get off of it until I think I’ve figured it out.
I guess you could say I’m obsessive. It’s probably true. I think there’s so much about chocolate that no one knows right now. Aside from the fact that I love chocolate, that’s what really drew me in to wanting to make chocolate, because every time I sat down to deal with it or think about it, I learned ten more things and it’s still like that today. There’s so much to be learned still. How can you go wrong with something like that? I can imagine a job where you learn everything there is to learn about that job - you get so bored you want to hang yourself. This job is never like that and I can’t imagine it ever will be.
Were you obsessed with something before chocolate?
No, in fact, that was my problem. Before chocolate, I had no obsession. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I had a religious studies degree and I didn’t really want to do anything with that. Prior to that, I was never quite sure I even wanted a religious studies degree. That is really the story of my life, that I was just always unsure. There are those kids that want to be a doctor and they go to school to become a doctor and then they’re a doctor. That was not me. I wasn’t a six year old saying I wanted to be a chocolate maker when I grew up. Absolutely not. But now that I’m here, I really love it.