If you close your eyes and picture where hand-crafted chocolate is made, what do you see?
"Everyone who comes to the factory is expecting Wonka," Alan McClure, founder and owner of Patric Chocolate, says while standing in the office of his four-room, no-frills space in an industrial park on the outskirts of Columbia, Mo. "Their disappointment when they get here is pretty apparent. You can see it on their faces."
The factory's bare white walls and abundant stainless steel equipment may not leave visitors oohing and ahing, but the chocolate produced there sure does. Relying almost solely on the innate flavor characteristics of the beans used in Patric Chocolate's bean-to-bar process, McClure adds little more than pure cane sugar when making his artisan chocolate bars.
"When I first started [learning to make chocolate], I was doing the things that a lot of the lower-quality chocolate companies do, and that is add a lot of vanilla or artificial vanilla and a lot of sugar. It's hard for it to taste terrible because it's so strongly vanilla-scented and sweet that even the bad flavors are covered up. So I said, ‘I'm not using vanilla, I'm using minimal sugar, and I'm going to try to avoid cocoa butter if I can.' I wanted to make something that truly tastes good."
Anyone who has tasted a Patric Chocolate bar would say he's been successful in that goal. McClure founded the company in 2006, releasing just one type of bar in 2007, a micro-batch 70 percent Madagascar chocolate made with aromatic single-estate cacao. The Patric lineup currently consists of eight bars, with its In-NIB-itable Bar winning the 2011 Good Food Award for Chocolate last month at a ceremony hosted by Alice Waters in San Francisco.
But the road to great chocolate is long and winding. Before McClure could become one of the country's first craft chocolate makers, he had to travel the world, learn the inner workings of turn-of-the-century chocolate-making machinery and, unfortunately, taste a lot of terrible chocolate.
THE MADAGASCAR CONNECTION
As opposed to a confectioner, who creates sweet treats out of chocolate, McClure is a chocolate maker, creating the chocolate itself from scratch. In order to make chocolate, you have to source cacao (pronounced kuh-cow), the dried and fermented beans from which cocoa butter is extracted. And if you want to make really good chocolate, you need really good specialty cacao. Since very few people in the United States were sourcing specialty cacao before McClure started Patric, it wasn't easy to come by.
"All the large companies buy cacao from very large cacao brokers who do all the transactions," explains McClure. "So the large companies just say, ‘Here's what I need,' and they don't have to go to the source. The problem with doing it on a small scale is that all the cacao being purchased by these brokers is very low-quality because that's all large companies really need. What we needed was specialty cacao. And because it's so good, tastes so amazing and there's such a small quantity of it, finding [the right] farm in the first place was so incredibly hard. I went to Mexico, Belize and Venezuela and asked around in New York City and San Francisco - places where there were people who I thought might know about chocolate or who have experience with chocolate."
After returning from his fruitless expeditions, McClure finally found some excellent specialty cacao in, of all places, the United States. This cacao, from a family-owned farm in Madagascar, was initially brought to the U.S. by an arm of a large commodities company considering supplying the growing specialty cacao market here. McClure was able to procure a small amount but didn't have a way to contact the producer to purchase more. In the meantime, he hired a cacao sourcing consultant with many more contacts in the industry and pushed him to broker a deal with the cacao farm back in Madagascar but met a lot of resistance. McClure soon learned that his consultant had been hired by TCHO, a startup dark chocolate manufacturer in San Francisco (CEO Louis Rossetto is co-founder of Wired magazine). "So he got hired away before I ever got anything out of it," says McClure. "I thought all was lost." But finally, the consultant, out of what McClure speculates was a bit of guilt for taking his consulting fees without ever providing him with sources of more cacao, decided at the last minute to hand over all the contact information for the farm in Madagascar.
"And that's how it happened for the Madagascar cacao. It wasn't a trip that I made, and all those other trips didn't lead to anything. I spent so much money on traveling that never turned into anything. But I didn't know that. I couldn't have known that."
IT'S A TOUGH JOB...
While sourcing good-quality cacao is a key to making good chocolate, it wasn't McClure's only quest. His personal education consisted of three components: tasting every kind of chocolate he could get his hands on; researching all facets of chocolate making, from technique to machinery; and creating his own recipe through mass experimentation.
"I tasted as much chocolate as I could," says McClure. "I looked at what was being done here, by Scharffen Berger and Guittard and other companies, but then I looked outside the United States, to France and Italy mainly. I bought anything I could find. I kept a database and did tastings every night. I would taste and take notes on texture and try to figure out, from the little that I knew about processing at that time, what the different chocolate makers were doing. I was training my palate, and so, over time, I was at least able to say, ‘I know what I'm tasting, even if I'm still not sure why I'm tasting it.' Which led me to learning more about how chocolate is made."
In the factory office, which is really just a small section of the entry defined by McClure's computer, some filing cabinets and a cordless phone, are a handful of books. Half are travel guides to the countries and cities he visited in search of cacao, and the rest are old, nondescript tomes from the late 1800s and early 1900s on the chemistry and manufacture of chocolate. "I was intrigued by the amazing machinery being used at the turn of the century. A lot of the machinery available today is very large-scale. It's also been designed to do things faster and not necessarily better. And so I went back [to these books] and said, ‘I'm not going to be able to find these machines ... but I can learn from the way they function how to choose machinery that uses similar principles to make chocolate.'"
With his turn-of-the-century guidebooks in hand, McClure started the long process of formulating his own chocolate recipe.
"I made a lot of chocolate that I threw away. People would say, ‘Why don't you give it to me?' but it really tasted bad." Even after procuring specialty cacao, McClure did hundreds of test batches. "I wanted to release it and have everyone say, ‘I've never tasted chocolate before. This is incredible.'"
WHEN DREAMS BECOME REALITY
Unbeknownst to McClure was that the pending launch of his craft chocolate company coincided with the birth of four other companies - Amano Artisan Chocolate, Askinosie Chocolate (in Springfiled, Mo.), De Vries Chocolate and Taza Chocolate - all headed by like-minded, passionate entrepreneurs in pursuit of better chocolate. Together, they formed a coalition called the Craft Chocolate Makers of America and started a greater movement toward fine American chocolate.
McClure's inclination that Americans were craving a better chocolate was spot-on. Just a year after he released his first bar, Gourmet magazine took note of Patric Chocolate, and over the next nine months so did the L.A. Times, The New Yorker and Food & Wine magazine. In the spring of 2010, Food & Wine named Patric Chocolate a Best New American Chocolate.
"I made my one bar, put it online and sold it to a few local stores because I knew the owners. That first month, when I actually saw sales, I was so excited that people wanted my chocolate. That excitement lasted all the way through Christmas, when December became our best month yet. I thought, ‘The sky's the limit. It's just going to keep growing.' But then January came. January's not such a great month for chocolate."
Currently in its fourth year, Patric Chocolate has seen a lot of growth since its first bar. "[As a business owner] you eventually realize that no matter how passionate you are about something, you need to do a lot of hard work you didn't expect to have to do," says McClure. The challenge to make a profit at what he loves has pushed him beyond his dream of simply creating a better chocolate bar to creating a line of craft chocolate products that will elevate the U.S.'s status in the international chocolate industry and challenge the palates of American chocolate lovers. A task that, for McClure and the few like him, has become all-consuming.
The chocolate business, it seems, can at times be bittersweet.
Explore the savory side of chocolate in this month's class with chef Matt Borchardt and Alan McClure. Learn to make a chile-cocoa steak rub and an authentic Tuscan dish enjoyed by Catherine de Medici that consists of nothing but vinegar, salt, sugar, chocolate and wild boar. McClure will lead a tasting of his chocolates and be on hand to talk cacao throughout the class. Call 314.587.2433 to RVSP for the Feb. 22 event.