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The New Chocolate Frontier

Modern pioneers in craft chocolate-making, Robbie Stout and Anna Davies of Denver-based Ritual Chocolate create small-batch, big-flavor bars using vintage methods and just two simple ingredients

Don Riley

In a small, spare factory just north of downtown Denver—where creative outposts are reclaiming the tired streets—Robbie Stout and Anna Davies are pursuing their own artisan craft amid the upstart coffee shops and design studios: chocolate making.

To be clear: these creative, young entrepreneurs are not making candy, or importing chocolate from Belgium, melting it down and molding it into truffles. Rather, they’re crafting the actual substance itself—sourcing the cacao from high-integrity farms in Costa Rica and Madagascar; roasting, dehulling, grinding and tempering the beans; hand-wrapping the bars and personally delivering them to local shops, as well as restaurants that use the chocolate to create luscious desserts.

They engage in this spectacular effort with the hope of turning people on to the magic of exquisite, high-quality chocolate—a food many people love but know little about—and educating them about why it’s worth paying a little extra for chocolate that’s made slowly, with fair practices in mind.

“In Colorado, it’s a very empty landscape for this craft,” Stout says, adding that there are only about 30 producers of this kind in the entire country. “But the industry is going to boom,” he says. After considering the love and labor he and his business-partner girlfriend have poured into the fledgling company, started just about two years ago, it’s clear that only the most dedicated will survive.

For Stout and Davies, first came love, then chocolate. The couple met on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, where Stout held a part-time job in a coffee shop Davies frequented. They began dating, and the idea for a chocolate enterprise was sparked not long after. “We were really into chocolate already,” he says, “and we were eating it every night.”

Around the same time, Stout, a cyclist and former journalist who has always loved extreme challenges (chocolate-making no exception), took on an article for Boulder-based VeloNews about coffee marketed to cyclists. He was stirred by how diverse and amazing this sister substance could be—and the success some young artisan-entrepreneurs were having carving out their corner of that specialty industry. His thoughts turned toward chocolate, where he and Davies saw “immense potential and endless interest.” Before long, they were buying small quantities of beans, piecing together their own equipment (even a small roaster) and making experimental batches at home.

“We were living in a carriage house and the landlords were getting a little annoyed with the roasting and all of the equipment,” Stout laughs, who uses the word “obsessive” to describe their curiosity about the process.

This “research and development phase” included visits to farms in Costa Rica and Madagascar, where the beans used in Ritual Chocolate’s single-origin and -estate 75% cacao bars take on their distinctive terroir. (The only ingredient besides cacao beans is organic cane sugar—pure and simple.) According to English-born Davies, who grew up helping her father on his farm north of London, half the craft of chocolate-making lies in careful farming of the beans. This conviction led Stout and Davies to select farms they could trust—those that pay their workers an honorable wage and with whom they could form friendly working relationships.

“When we’re given the beans,” Davies says, “we have to really respect them because there’s already been so much care put into them. We have the responsibility to make a good-quality product.”

If Davies is the agricultural advocate, then Stout is the manufacturing guru. “Chocolate meets us in the middle,” he says. “You can’t have good chocolate without good manufacturing practices.”

And together they’ve discovered that “good manufacturing” doesn’t necessarily require newfangled technology. Inside the Ritual Chocolate factory—a space the couple shares with chocolate master Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate—vintage equipment stands amid burlap bags of raw, sun-dried cacao beans. Whereas new equipment is generally engineered to produce lots of chocolate (and quickly), this old machinery is designed to develop flavor and texture. The factory’s winnower, for example—the machine that separates the nibs from the shell—was built in the early 1900s. While other pieces of equipment might only be 20 years old, their designs date back to the 1800s.

This process is neither fast nor efficient—but that’s exactly how the innovators would have it. As if pursuing a sensual blend of wine or perfectly balanced coffee, they approach each stage of chocolate creation with care and conscience. “Every step is the most important,” Davies says.

It’s this ritualistic approach, which you’d observe as Stout and Davies sort the beans by hand or wait for the chocolate to age as long as six months, that speaks to the history of cacao, and inspired the company’s name. “When you look back to Aztec and Mayan cultures,” Stout says, “chocolate was the drink of choice. It had the importance that wine does. But that all got lost in the industrial era.”

Snap off a bite of Ritual Chocolate’s Costa Rica bar, let it melt on your tongue, wait for delicate hints of plum, blackberry and walnut to linger for a time before giving way to a pleasant floral finish—and perhaps you’ll understand what such devotion is all about.

Got a Craving?

Find Ritual Chocolate at these local shops:

Marczyk Fine Foods, Denver, marczykfinefoods.com
Whole Foods, Littleton (Governer's Ranch), wholefoodsmarket.com
Chocolate Spokes Bike Studio, Denver, chocolatespokes.com
Crema Coffee House, Denver, cremacoffeehouse.net
The Market at Larimer Square, Denver, themarketatlarimer.com
St. Kilian's Cheese Shop, Denver, stkilianscheeseshop.com
The Truffle Cheese Shop, Denver, denvertruffle.com
Two Rivers Craft Coffee Company, Arvada, tworiverscoffee.com
Lucky's Market, Boulder, luckysmarket.com
Alfalfa's, Boulder, alfalfas.com
Cured, Boulder, curedboulder.com
Piece, Love and Chocolate, Boulder, pieceloveandchocolate.com
Boulder Book Store, Boulder, boulderbookstore.net
Cheese Importers, Longmont, cheeseimporters.com
Niwot Market, Niwot, niwotmarket.com
The Welsh Rabbit Cheese Shop, Fort Collins, facebook.com/TheWelshRabbit
Yeti's Grind, Vail, yetisgrind.com
The Cheese Shop, Aspen

Ritual Chocolate also shares its sweet stuff with chefs at restaurants like Linger, Potager and Frasca, who work the chocolate into luscious desserts for Front Range diners. Here, pastry chef Natalia Spampinato of Denver’s Il Posto shares a recipe for Chocolate Bread Pudding.

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