There's something a little different (and more mouth-watering) amidst the aromas of craft beer and pricey espresso wafting through RiNo these days; it's coming from Ritual Chocolate. Anna Davies and Robbie Stout, the pair behind Colorado craft chocolate company Ritual, have been making their chocolate bars since 2011, but have now opened their upper Larimer Street factory to the public for retail sales and a little chocolate education. Now, while you're buying one of their single-origin, hand-made chocolate bars, you can also watch Ritual's chocolate-making process in the newly-built, glass-walled showroom attached to the retail space. It's all part of the unique chocolate "experience" that Davies and Stout want to put back into the much-mistreated sweet. See also: Photos: Colorado Chocolate Festival hits the sweet spot at Denver Mart
Citing Willy Wonka-like companies who put cocoa in one end and spit out their products at the other, keeping the process largely secretive, Davies says Ritual wants to be the exact opposite. The new showroom allows customers to watch as the beans are ground and liquid chocolate purified in small batches as molds are hand-washed and prepped next door. Ritual's chocolate is certainly labor intensive, but Davies and Stout say the difference in taste is noticeable, highlighting the cocoa beans -- the true star of the chocolate -- and not the additives or emulsifiers that go into most other chocolate on the shelves these days. The pair pride themselves on going back to the origins of the candy and making their chocolate the way it should be made: carefully, slowly and with just two ingredients: the cocoa beans themselves and sugar. It's a process that takes time, but Stout says that once they decided to start a chocolate business, and after tasting the competitors, they knew they couldn't do it any other way.
"We saw a huge discrepancy between quality [of chocolate] sold and the potential," he says. "You know, the potential is infinite."
In a revelation that will be surprising to most, Davies revealed that most producers on shelves today don't actually make their own chocolate; they melt down huge bars from suppliers and then add their own flavoring. All the Belgian chocolate on the shelves in America, they say, comes from one supplier, leaving no possibility for the "craftsman's touch," as Stout says.
The pair knew they wanted to be something unique: a bean-to-bar product, which means sourcing their own beans directly from farmers in the five regions they buy from and refusing any beans put in front of them that don't meet their extremely high standard, something they say happens constantly. They think that it's time for chocolate to get the same revival that coffee and beer are experiencing. Fine chocolate should have a complex flavor profile of different notes, depending on the bean's origin -- just like an espresso or a carefully made craft brew. It's part of the reason behind their name: Ritual Chocolate wants to make a product that harks back to the times when the cocoa bean was revered, traded and used in rituals across the globe. For Ritual, it's all about the bean.
Davies and Stout start with a light roast of cocoa beans before winnowing out the seed husks to get to the good part -- the cocoa nibs. The nibs are made into a paste with sugar; the cocoa-butter fat naturally present in the nibs means no other additives are needed, although added cocoa butter is often an industry standard now. This paste is refined and rested in a conche (an old-fashioned mixer that distributes the cocoa butter evenly and warms the chocolate through friction), which balances the flavor, before being made into their distinctive bars.
Throughout this process, Davies and Stout enlist the help of several pieces of chocolate-making machinery -- all over a hundred years old and sourced from Dresden, Germany, which the pair got for next-to-nothing from a chocolate producer on the condition that they pick up the equipment themselves. Davies says that the appliances are like little pieces of history themselves, still making fine chocolate as they did a century ago. Customers can see the old-school roll mill and conche at work in Ritual's new showroom, although the vast and impressive winnower is tucked into a back room with the burlap sacks of beans.
Ritual currently produces seven bars, all on sale in their newly opened home. All of their products are single-origin with 75 percent cocoa content (aside from their 60 percent Novo Coffee bar, a delightfully punchy collaboration with Novo coffee roasters, a fellow RiNo business.) The single origin and percentage consistency are conscious decisions Davies and Stout have made to highlight the flavors provided by beans themselves, which have evolved their subtleties and differences depending on the soil and climate where they are grown. Davies says that at over 75 percent, the bitterness of the chocolate overpowers the actual flavor. Their bars are just like a fine wine, they say, each with their own distinctive notes. The Belize is surprisingly smoky and rich with the taste of dried fruit; the Madagascar (the first bar they produced) is much brighter and fruity -- Stout compares it to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in chocolate form. It's not necessarily what you would expect, and the noticeable variance in the flavors of their bars is surprising to those who don't know about the importance of the cocoa bean.
"At tastings some people have had like this moment in their whole lives, where they've never looked at chocolate the same way again," Stout says. "It's a life-changing experience."
Stout and Davies may have opened up their factory partly just to involve themselves in the fast-growing RiNo community, but they also have a strong desire to educate people on what chocolate can be and they are happy to explain the process and sell chocolate to anyone who stops by. You can visit them between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. from Monday to Friday, or visit the Ritual website, where you can buy the bars online.
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