Chocolate is following in the footsteps of coffee and bread and wine, which is to say that people are starting to look it with inquiring eyes. What all four products have in common is that they can be made with very few ingredients. They also share the fact that they’re mostly being made, at least on a large scale, with dozens of additional and unnecessary ingredients neither you nor I could probably pronounce.
You’ve probably heard of, maybe even paid money for, “craft” coffee or “artisan” bread. Now it’s time to take a look at small-batch, handmade chocolate.
And here’s the good news, Phoenix. You don’t have to look far.
About a month ago, Jim and Maureen Elitzak opened Zak’s Chocolate, a micro (to use a word that’s often associated with high-quality, handmade food products) chocolate factory. From a relatively small space inside a Scottsdale strip mall, the couple produces single-origin, organic chocolate bars and confections. They do the whole process themselves, from bean to bar, to include roasting and wrapping up the bars in handmade paper.
If you’re not already impressed, it’s probably because you don’t know that much about making chocolate. I didn't either, until I showed up at Zak's. Even though chocolate bars only require two or three basic ingredients (cocoa nibs, sugar, and sometimes cocoa butter), these ingredients demand quite a bit of processing before they can be enjoyed in final form.
It all starts with raw cacao beans. They pretty much only grow in tropical climates near the equator, and Zak’s buys as much of their raw cacao through direct trade with farmers in countries including Peru, Belize, and Madagascar.
Giant, bean-filled burlap bags are stored in a large walk-in refrigerator that’s kept at exactly 58 degrees. The table where Jim hand sorts through each bag of beans looking for stray twigs or empty beans or those that didn’t ferment correctly is also inside the cold box. And once they’ve been sorted (it takes about two hours for him to hand sort an 18 pound bag), it’s off to the roaster. The couple uses a modified coffee roaster to roast their cacao. They also opt for a longer, lower temperature roast that they say helps them bring out the flavor of each variety of cacao.
Next up the roasted beans must be cracked and winnowed — which is a fancy chocolate-maker word for separating the shell from the nibs. The Elitziks built their own McGyver-style cracking and winnowing machine to do the job. (It’s my favorite part of the whole operation.)
Housed on a rolling metal cart and comprised of, among other things, some PVC pipe, a juicer, and a vacuum, the homemade contraption opens the roasted beans and separates the outer shell from the nibs. That’s the part you need to actually make chocolate bars.
They use a restaurant cutter/mixer to pulverize the nibs before they go into one of the couple’s two stone grinders, where nine-inch marble stones spend three to four hours grinding the nibs into liquid form. This happens as the oils come out of the tiny nibs – the oils that are formally known as cocoa butter when separated from the solid part of the nib, which is in turn called cocoa powder. One the mixture has achieved the right texture, the chocolatiers can add in the sugar (organic, of course) and let the mix keep churning for another few hours.
Now’s a good time to mention that all of Zak’s chocolate bars are single-origin. In other words each bar is made from a single type of cacao bean grown on a specific farm. The Elitzaks do this because they want to highlight the different flavor profiles of each variety of cacao – not unlike coffee and wines. The bars are also all 70 percent cacao. As is customary in chocolate making the number refers to the total percentage of cacao in the bar from both cacao nibs and cacao butter.
The Elitzaks choose to include a small amount of cocoa butter into their chocolate, though you don’t have to, and some chocolate makers would say you shouldn’t. Don’t let that sway you’re opinion of what’s going on here; Zak’s is legit, and they press the cacao butter themselves in-house. To do so, they use an adapted seed press that crushes the nibs and separates butter form powder. (If you want to see it for yourself there’s a video you can watch on the Zak’s Chocolate Facebook.)
The couple says the made the decision to incorporate cocoa butter in their chocolate for a number of reasons, one main reason being for texture; the butter gives chocolate a creamier consistency. It’s also the cacao butter that allows the couple to use their chocolate to make confections including flavored bonbons; cacao butter-less chocolate is generally too stiff.
And don’t worry, they don’t waste the cocoa powder they create when making cocoa butter. They’re testing it in baked goods such as brownies, and hope to offer hot and cold drinks such as hot chocolate and frozen mochas.
But back to the chocolate bars. After the sugar and cocoa mixture has been ground for about 8 total hours, it goes into the conching machine. Think of conching as the barrel-aging process for wine or the proofing stage for bread. This is where the flavor is made. As the double blades and two heat sources in the machine work their magic, the couple monitors the flavor of the product at regular intervals to catch the chocolate when they feel the flavor of the bean shines at it’s best.
When the time is right, they stop the machine, pour the liquid chocolate into plastic blocks to harden – and then wrap the blocks in paper and let them age on a shelf in the store for a couple weeks. When they’re ready to actually make some bars, they temper the chocolate and pour the final product.
All said and done it takes well over two weeks for Zak’s Chocolate to go from bean to bar.
Right now the couple has three single origin organic chocolate bars in stock, down from five after two of the varieties sold out. They’re constantly receiving samples of new, different kinds of beans and run test batches to see if they’d like to order in bulk.
The store also stock four types of bonbons, which come in flavors such as mocha, lavender, and orange. These are not made from single origin chocolate, but rather a “house blend” chocolate that’s 60 percent cocoa from two different beans.
In the future the couple hopes to host chocolate making classes, during which students will make their own chocolate using the very same home equipment the couple used for years before deciding to open their own shop. They also have a small bar in the retail store, where they plan of having drinks and baked goods. There’s even been talk of brownie flights.
The couple started their foray into the chocolate making about six or seven years ago, making chocolate from their home kitchen as a hobby. Maureen says it she first began to be interested in making chocolate simply because she couldn’t find the organic stuff at the store. Since then, their passion has led them to take online courses, secure certifications, attend chocolate conferences, and visit other chocolate making operations including Dandelion in San Francisco and French Broad in Asheville, North Carolina. The couple says both companies gave them guidance and advice when it came to equipment selection and other business decisions.
And though they’ve only been open for a month, the couple’s already exploring and forging connections with other local small businesses. They’re using Danziesen Dairy cream in their confections, and may partner with some local chocolatiers to produce even more elaborate confections from their chocolate.
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You can find Zak’s Chocolate at 6990 East Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale. The shop is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and form 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Chocolate bars cost $7 each. For more information visit the Zak’s Chocolate website and Facebook.