Case Coniglio: 2015 Big Brain Award Finalist, Culinary Arts

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You submitted nominations for the best and brightest emerging Valley creatives, and the results are in. Presenting the 2015 BigBrain finalists.

Leading up to the announcement of winners at Artopia on May 9, Jackalope Ranch, Chow Bella, and Up on the Sun will introduce the finalists. Up today is Case Coniglio.

"Most people are fishing over here," says Case Coniglio, placing his hand on top of a handmade bar of Brazen Chocolate.

Wrapped in a handsome patterned paper, the $8 candy bar's label indicates it's an organic product made with heirloom cacao from Belize.

"But I'm focused over here."

He moves his hand to a pile of plain-looking brown beans, each about the size of an almond, and pops one in his mouth.

See also: Announcing the 2015 Big Brain Finalists

They vary in color from beige to a rich hue of reddish-brown, in part because Coniglio roasted them and in part because they represent a sampling of heirloom varieties of cacao grown by a co-operative of farmers in South America. The flavors of the roasted beans range from tart with distinctive citrus notes to deep, rich flavors of chocolate and berries.

For Coniglio, founder of Brazen Chocolate, making chocolate bars is a necessity. People expect his company to sell them, so he does. But what really excites him is stripping down those bars to their most basic parts and bringing modern diners back to the way people have enjoyed cacao for thousands of years: as beans -- and without the addition of sugar.

"I want to give you want you actually need," he says matter-of-factly. "Not want you want."

So in addition to chocolate bars, Coniglio sells antioxidant-rich roasted cacao beans, as well as cacao tea, and cacao nibs. He says these products carry all the health benefits associated with dark chocolate, except without added sugar. More important, they can be hard to find in a market that's dominated by raw cacao, or beans that aren't roasted.

To make these products, Coniglio buys direct trade cacao beans (mostly from South America) that have been already fermented and dried. He roasts the beans himself, after which they can be eaten whole, cracked, and ground into cocoa nibs or processed further to make chocolate bars. Coniglio currently does it all by hand, roasting the beans in a commercial convection oven and tempering the chocolate mostly through a process of trial and error. He says it sometimes takes up to an hour for him to get the temperature just right.

He's been selling Brazen Chocolate since March 2014 and began "dabbling" in the business of chocolate only about two years ago. Coniglio came to Phoenix about 15 years ago to attend Arizona State University but says he's always been interested -- maybe even a little obsessed -- with health and nutrition. Coniglio say it's cacao beans' health benefits that got him interested in the business.

But cacao ("I try never to say 'chocolate,'" Coniglio says) is just the first project Coniglio has planned for Phoenix. He says he'd like to help mentor others on how to roast cacao and make good-for-you chocolate, then leave the hard work up to them.

That will free up his time to focus on others projects; Up first, opening Phoenix's first meadery and cidery.

"I like to bring in stuff that nobody has," Coniglio says. "So I ask, 'What does Phoenix have? And is that really want we want to be known for?'"

Editor's Note: This post has been edited from its original version.

The 2015 Big Brain Award winners will be announced on Saturday, May 9, during New Times' Artopia, an evening of food, drink, art, and music at Monarch Theatre. For details and tickets, $25, visit www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bigbrainawards.

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