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High Tech Chocolate

“For our pilot program we brought in DSA-1, data sensor arrays, and a mobile weather station, and wired the fermentation centers with the sensors. We take the physical and sensory records cataloged from the cocoa samples and marry them with the weather and sensor data,” says John Kehoe, Director of Sourcing and Farming Relations at San Francisco chocolate maker, Tcho. “The only problem is that the broadband connection in the Peruvian jungle is not so good.”

Tcho (rhymes with “show,” a phonetic spelling for the first syllable of “chocolate”) deploys the most advanced technology to coax the perfect expression of flavor from the world’s best cocoa beans that it helps produce. They’re not just improving the flavor of chocolate, they’re reinventing it and in the process creating what it calls “a new American chocolate.”

Kehoe has been in the cocoa business since 1991, including twelve years exporting it from Venezuela, which produces some of the world’s best. He travels the globe sourcing the best cocoa and when he finds it, works closely with farmers using the latest technology to help them improve their crops. Ironically, at Tcho, Kehoe doesn’t source from Venezuela due to the government’s habit of nationalizing companies at will. “We’re in it for the long-term and their policies make that impossible.”

Cocoa’s path to chocolate begins by fermenting pulp-coated cocoa pod seeds in wooden boxes for six to eight days to “break down proteins and develop flavor precursors,” says Kehoe. After drying preferably in sunlight for four to ten days, the seeds are now cocoa beans. The farmers “winnow” or shell the beans leaving the “nibs” which they grind into a paste called “cocoa mass” or “cocoa liquor.”

Then Tcho refines, conches, tempers molds and wraps it creating a confection which is “like a ganache inside a chocolate coating with exceptional mouth-feel,” says co-founder Louis Rossetto. “We focus on flavors and we focus also how it acts in your mouth over time. It’s dark but it has none of the bitterness associated with dark chocolate.” It’s as much about sensation as taste.

The embracing of innovation befits a company founded by Internet pioneer and a leader of the digital revolution, Louis Rossetto, and a technologist who created virtual reality systems for NASA, Timothy Childs. Childs left NASA, started making chocolate, and became fascinated with its potential. Rossetto invested in his idea. It’s Silicon Valley ultra high-tech meets San Francisco artisanal slow food.

While there’s no obvious relationship between technology and chocolate, Rossetto says the connection is how he works, not on what he’s working on. “The work that you’re best at is the work you’re obsessed with. Great work comes from great passion. You can’t wish yourself to be obsessed. You’re grabbed on an emotional level that’s irrational. That’s why I’m here.” He wants to change the perception of American dark chocolate in much the same way that Napa Valley changed the perception of American wine.

Tcho offers chocolate by flavor rather than by percentage and country of origin like most brands, because percentage reveals only total cocoa content - a combination of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa powder, but doesn’t reveal the proportion of each, and it’s that proportion that yields flavor and intensity. Origin misleads because “flavor varies from region to region,” explains Kehoe. Buying Ghana chocolate is “like buying ‘California wine’ or ‘French Wine.’ It’s a big statement that doesn’t tell you much.”

Tcho’s categories are fruity, chocolaty, citrus and nutty. Only “fruity” has no fruit, “nutty,” no nuts. “Think grapes,” says Rossetto. “Some grapes are more fruity, some have more minerals. That’s the wine’s flavor. It’s the same with cocoa.” Fruity,” he says, “is like a fruit bomb in your mouth. It’s complex, you taste strawberries, cherries, plums, dark red fruits.”

In addition to technology and flavor codification, several other things make Tcho unique. First, Tcho is a “pod to palate” producer, growing its own cocoa, processing it, and making its own finished products. “Most chocolate makers buy from someone else, re-melt, and make their own confection,” says Rossetto. “We manufacture from scratch.”

Second, the team is seriously fanatical about how they make their chocolate, measuring ingredient sizes down to the micron. And they appreciate it on an arcane and molecular level: “well-tempered chocolate technically is a triple-packing polymorphic triglyceride crystalline structure.” Organic chemistry, anyone?

Third, they partner with and invest in their farmers in the same way wine-makers do which lets them produce high-quality, flavor specific cocoa. “Quality has to be there. It’s the basis of what we do,” says Kehoe. Tcho provides a further technological edge by installing flavor labs so that the farmers can turn cocoa into chocolate and test and evaluate. Many have never tasted their own product. The cocoa improves with every crop, as do the farmers’ incomes.

Tcho’s farmers are moving from growing a commodity product to a premium one, like bulk wine grapes versus high-end specialty grapes. Chocolate is where coffee was 25 years ago, says Rossetto. As dark chocolate demand rises, these farmers will supply it. Rossetto dismisses the idea that Tcho is giving aid. “Aid programs are disastrous for recipients. What we’re doing is the best way to do business in the 21st century.”

Tcho is available in Starbucks stores around the country, and is offering a Valentine’s “Love Collection” luxury tasting box designed by Dutch artist Max Kisman. As Tcho expands Rossetto’s challenge is in retaining the chocolate’s integrity. He believes that with the right combination of sourcing, “incenting” farmers and processing, he can. “It’s all in the bean. Handled the right way, you can do remarkable things with it. You can blow people’s minds about what is possible to taste.”

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