Bar Launch: jcoco arabica cherry espresso

I had the pleasure on Thursday evening of attending what I realized afterwards was my first ever official bar launch. Though I’ve been studying and working in chocolate for much more than a decade, I’d never been to a new chocolate launch before. And if there are more in my future, the jcoco arabica cherry espresso launch certainly set a high standard for taste and elegance.

Seattle Chocolates is a standout company in this city, and I’ve always enjoyed their chocolate. The company does a particularly nice job with its truffle bars, which celebrate not only Pacific Northwest ingredients—San Juan Sea Salt, Rainier Cherry—but actual fun. As in, fun things about life. Birthday Cake Batter Milk Chocolate Truffle Bar takes the prize here, whose wrapper comes complete with birthday hat and red balloons. The Thanks-olate bar is an extremely close second.

But the launch event was for a bar by jcoco, which is Seattle Chocolates’ line of American couture chocolate. The arabica cherry espresso bar is the first-to-market chocolate infused with CoffeeFlour, and we were there to learn what that meant. I do keep an eye on the coffee market, at least from time to time. As primary agricultural commodities, cocoa and coffee share some economic aspects, and it can be useful to compare them. But I don’t follow coffee closely, so I was intrigued to learn about CoffeeFlour. Dan Belliveau, formerly with Starbucks and the innovator behind CoffeeFlour, explained it quite nicely, and I’ll do my best to re-explain here, though using an analogy I do understand (cocoa!).

Just as chocolate is made from the seed of the cocoa tree, so too is coffee, the drinkable product, made with the seed of the coffee plant. Also as with cocoa, the coffee fruit itself is not the focus; we’re only interested in the seed. Coffee does diverge a bit from cocoa here, because its fruit is a little more substantial than that found within a cocoa pod. Coffee fruits look like cherries, and are referred to as such. The fleshy fruit of those cherries is removed to get at the bean inside, and then, to my understanding, becomes exclusively a waste product. CoffeeFlour is doing its best to change that, by making a usable product from that fruit. What they are making is flour.


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CoffeeFlour, from the CoffeeFlour website

Chefs around the world have been experimenting with this flour. I read, for example, about the launch of CoffeeFlour bagels in Japan, at Bagel & Bagel, a large chain. Those bagels even have chocolate chips in them! But while it is interesting to read about food innovations, it is even better to taste them. We were quite privileged at the jcoco bar launch to be in the good hands of Chef Jason Wilson (of the former Crush restaurant, which is now a CoffeeFlour lab), who did an extraordinary job in treating us to his CoffeeFlour cooking innovations. I was greeted at the door with a Bacardi rum cocktail infused with jcoco chocolate and CoffeeFlour, and then my gaze fell upon a vast spread of foods, most of them espresso in color, that were all made using CoffeeFlour. Certainly, if the goal was to demonstrate its range and culinary flexibility, Chef Wilson succeeded marvelously.

We had olive fritters with CoffeeFlour ricotta, arabica cherry espresso, and quinoa. There was a pork tostada with arabica cherry espresso mole and salsa fresca. A hit of the evening, from what I overheard in conversations throughout the small dining room, was the arabica cherry espresso glazed beef short rib, bleu cheese, and cauliflower fritter.

It is quite challenging to eat and talk at the same time (or even to eat and listen), and I had a lot of technical questions for Dan Belliveau. But I had already been sorry not to be able to help myself to seconds of the savories, so when we got to the arabica cherry espresso and CoffeeFlour brownie sundae with salted peanut butter and caramel ice cream, I abandoned decorum and ate a whole second sundae while standing at the bar talking with Dan, asking questions through my mouthfuls.

I had a lot of questions because, quite frankly, when you study an agricultural commodity for a long time, you get used to a sameness in the structure of trade, a consistency around what we can accomplish, for better or worse, within a giant and static system. It is rare to encounter innovation on a large scale—such as finding a new food use for a substantial harvest by-product. As wasteful as we may be at this stage in our evolution, humans have demonstrated the capability in our collective past to make extremely efficient use of the edibles that nature provides. So to realize that no one before had thought to make something out of the coffee cherry on an industrial scale, to commercialize it and put it to a range of food uses, was quite surprising and intriguing to me.

One of those uses, of course, is to infuse CoffeeFlour into chocolate, which was the reason behind the launch. jcoco has infused CoffeeFlour and espresso into their arabica cherry espresso bar, and it’s the first chocolate to do anything of the kind.

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What’s in the bar? From jcoco arabica cherry espresso webpage

That one is available now to buy. At the launch, however, we were treated to a different tasting as well. We first sampled the base 60% Seattle Chocolates chocolate. Then, we tasted three more bars, all with the same base chocolate, each infused with CoffeeFlour from a different origin: Vietnam, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Because I have long been used to tasting single origin chocolate for its varied flavor profiles, it didn’t strike me as significant at first when I tasted distinct flavor differences among the bars. But then I realized that, because it was the same chocolate base, the flavor differences were coming from the CoffeeFlour. I was tasting the fruit of the coffee plant. It expresses terroir, too! This felt astonishing to me, but it oughtn’t have. I mean, different apples have different flavors; so do actual cherries. Maybe it was because I have no firsthand experience with coffee cherries—I’ve never held one, never tasted one. But in those chocolate bars, I suddenly became intimate with this fruit. It was a new and unexpected food learning experience for me.

Thanks so much for having me at your lovely launch event, Jean Thompson, Chef Wilson, and Dan Belliveau. I look forward to watching the story of CoffeeFlour further unfold.

The World of Seattle Chocolate, Part I: Chocolopolis

A few weeks ago, I had a super fun time talking with Ruby de Luna of KUOW, Seattle’s NPR affiliate, for a Local Wonder segment. This program has a cool format: listeners submit questions about the Seattle area, and then local experts answer them. Listener Beth Ann Johnson had submitted the question, “Why does Seattle have such a large local chocolate industry?” and it was my great pleasure to be one of the folks Ruby interviewed to answer it. You can read and listen to the story here.

I love the final piece, especially the parts where we walk around Bartells drugstore on the Ave and check out the chocolates. (Meanwhile, friends from afar have called me with requests for Forte Chocolates, after hearing founder Karen Neugebauer talk about her confections.) I also asked Ruby if I might share some of our discussion that didn’t make it into the final cut, purely because of time limitations. Ruby agreed, so this week and likely for the next few, I’ll write about the other things we discussed. Ruby’s questions were very thought-provoking for me, and prompted reflection on the unique position that Seattle occupies in the chocolate world.

We discussed many things, one of which of course was that we have a critical mass of highly visible chocolate companies in this area, all of which serve, as it were, our different chocolate “needs.” Among these are Theo Chocolate, the first company to sell chocolate certified both fair trade and organic in the country. Then there is Seattle Chocolates, whose innovations around inclusions, among other things, have an especially Pacific Northwest flavor to them. Fran’s Chocolates has been a pioneer in the confectionery realm, particularly with their now iconic sea-salted caramels. And Dilettante Chocolates Mocha Cafés have helped foster a delicious and chocolate-based dessert culture in this city.

But there are other chocolate epicenters too, where leaders have been shaping the industry in Seattle and beyond. I want to highlight some of them—people and companies that have been influential in my own thinking and research, and elevated our city’s chocolate savvy in meaningful ways.

First up is Lauren Adler, whose Chocolopolis shop in upper Queen Anne has been at the vanguard of chocolate education since it opened in 2008. When I first walked into Lauren’s shop, I was stunned and delighted to see that she had arranged her selection of bars in such a way that chocolate education was inevitable and immediate. Because the origins of chocolate—that is, cocoa beans—are still little discussed (and even less so when Chocolopolis opened its doors), I have often found that people are surprised to learn that where the cocoa comes from matters to the finished product. While many things contribute to flavor, country of origin is a big one: a bar from Madagascar, to take a now-classic example, tastes very different to one from Ecuador. The former’s bright, high fruit notes can make a sharp contrast to the latter’s flowery tones, especially those made using Ecuador’s prized Nacional beans.

Chocolopolis sets the stage for this learning the moment a customer walks in the door, because Lauren arranges her carefully curated selection by country of origin of the beans. I know of no other shop that does this, and the visual arrangement means that shoppers are immediately aware that country of origin is meaningful. Regulars no doubt quickly learn which origins they prefer, and that is already a tremendous insight into the chocolate process.

And all this does not even get to, of course, the stunning line of Chocolopolis’s own confections and bars, which are right there alongside the geography shelves.

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Champions Box of award-winning Chocolopolis confections, photo by Scott DFW, @dallasfoodorg

Lauren also has some of the highest standards in this industry for the products she will sell. Her process for selecting bars is rigorous, systematic, and inclusive of her staff. This is a tougher job than you might think, as the craft chocolate industry has grown exponentially in recent years, and determining what is technically superior from what is simply novel is no mean feat. But knowing a little about Lauren’s selection process, I feel confident in saying that no bar reaches Chocolopolis shelves without demonstrating a mark of technical excellence. This does not mean that the bars all reflect the staff’s or Lauren’s  flavor preferences; it means that they are well crafted, and that we can trust the skill of the maker. Among the explosion of new bars on the craft market, this is the place to go to find the truly exceptional.

Chocolopolis also holds regular educational events, including tastings, happy hours, meet-the-maker evenings, a frequent bar club, and lectures (some of which I have had the honor of hosting). The staff members are among the most educated and knowledgeable in chocolate retail (and I do a lot of undercover questioning at shops around the country). They understand products and process, and can speak knowledgeably to the whole product range. Together, all of this means that Chocolopolis is not only selling chocolate; it provides a place where people can go to learn.

The website offers more resources that help shape a chocolate-educated consumer population. There are details about origin countries and why Lauren chose to arrange her bars geographically. There are also write-ups about the different makers and companies whose products line the shelves, which makes for a nicely curated selection of information about the craft industry. Lauren also maintains an excellent blog as well as a list of chocolate books.

Very few cities can boast this kind of site of chocolate learning: a place where you can stop in at any time, talk to someone knowledgeable about chocolate, and walk away with not only a bar that suits your preferences, but likely some new piece of information about chocolate origins or process. I personally have turned to Lauren many times over the years, with questions about American craft chocolate, and have always been enlightened by her knowledge. As a researcher of both cocoa and chocolate, it’s a boon to me that Lauren Adler and Chocolopolis are right here in my neighborhood, among the leaders in chocolate education in a fast-changing chocolate world.