A chocolate factory hums in a Chandler backyard. It's located just past a leaf-covered trampoline, in a guest house.
The property and chocolate operation belong to Denae Hostetler. Denae crafts chocolate the hard way. She sells that chocolate under the DNA Chocolate label. Her stuff makes the competition taste like candle wax.
Denae’s chocolate operation takes place in a kitchen, tiny living room, and large closet.
She spends 12 hours a day making chocolate. Because she has to look after her two sons during the day as well, she can only work at certain times. She starts work between 1 and 3 in the morning. Her husband and co-owner, Chris Hostetler, often helps, but Chris’ job — U.S. Air Force tech sergeant — requires him to work from afar for long periods.
Chocolate is an ancient food of Mexican origin that takes finesse and forever to make. It makes smoking brisket or brewing beer look like heating up microwave noodles. Denae’s process takes more than a month. Each step demands forensic focus.
Her rigor has roots. When younger, Denae worked as a kayaking and whitewater-rafting guide, a job that took her down the Americas. She visited Mayan villages in parts of Mexico where cacao beans were once used as currency. She tasted local cacao products. She sipped the same kind of bitter chocolate brews in Oaxaca that Montezuma was drinking farther north when Cortés showed up in 1519.
Denae has tasted cacao from all over the Americas and beyond. In the end, she opted to craft DNA Chocolate using beans from Haiti.
She sources burlap sacks of Criollo beans — considered the Cadillac of cacao — through a nonprofit called Singing Rooster. Criollo is the oldest cacao bean. Denae uses Criollo to get as close as possible to the original flavor of chocolate. Singing Rooster provides Criollo from a group of Haitian farms.
“Criollo in general is low in classic chocolate flavor,” Denae says. “They have re-bred the bean from the beginning to be more hardy. Most people don’t equate its flavor with chocolate.”
The process of unlocking that flavor begins with cleaning the beans.
Once they’re clean, Denae roasts them until they “start to pop and smell like brownies.” She runs beans through a winnowing machine that her dad made. Winnowing frees the interior cacao nib from the bean’s shell. Denae then collects and mills the nibs. She stone-grinds the nibs for three days, adding Peruvian cocoa butter and cane sugar before the granite grinders get going. They whir like vacuums in her back room.
She then ages the resulting mixture for two to four weeks. Finally, she tempers the molten brown mass in a tiny machine, and at last molds it into whatever shape she wants, completing the long process. Denae also knows how to temper by hand on a marble block.
The roasting happens in a common kitchen oven, the aging on your everyday shelf.
It’s the care and cottage approach that make DNA Chocolate divine.
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Denae is right. Her Criollo chocolate is different. It has this earthy vegetal spirit that re-alerts you to the fact that chocolate comes from a subtropical "bean." Her dark has a low tide of sweetness. It’s creamy, rich, and slow-dissolving on your tongue. There are brief fruit flavors, like cherry. If you try Denae’s chocolate bark, which has dried fruit embedded, these fruity flavors rise even more.
DNA chocolate comes in bark, bar, and truffle form. It comes in dark, milk, and white. Denae's best seller is a "liqueur" she stone-ground from 100 percent cacao and lets solidify into discs for stirring into hot milk and making the ancient Mesoamerican cacao beverage.
Denae doesn’t have a DNA storefront yet. You can order her creations from DNA Chocolate's website.
You can also find DNA Chocolate at Merchant Square (Chandler), Moon Dust Farms (Mesa), Fiesta Flowers (Tempe), Country Charm Fudge (Payson), in Proof Bakery’s chocolate croissants, and at a monthly pop-up Denae does at Highland Yard Vintage (Chandler). When you consider the journey, $4.50 per bar is a steal.