At first glance, it would seem that a software engineer and a chocolatier have little in common. But the key to success in either field can be summarized in one word: precision. For Colorado Cocoa Pod founder Liane Pensack-Rinehart, that’s the name of the game.
Pensack-Rinehart laughs at the question she gets most often: How do you go from being a software engineer to a chocolatier? Her answer is pretty simple. “I always enjoyed baking and feeding people," she explains. "When I wasn’t programming, I was baking. People would always tell me, ‘You should open up your own bakery,’ but I never thought of pastry school or being a chef.”
But after constant encouragement from friends and family, she signed up for Johnson & Wales University's weekend pastry school program. Her very first class and ultimately her favorite, Chocolates and Confections, sealed her fate. “The chef was amazing, and I fell in love with working with chocolate," she recalls. "I learned about real chocolate — no fillers, fair trade, organic — and how the cocoa bean becomes chocolate. I learned about molded bonbons and truffles and just fell in love.”
While love is a huge part of making a good product, an engineer’s attention to detail gives Pensack-Rinehart an edge in chocolate making, as well as a unique creative outlet. “Chocolate is temperamental — no pun intended," she states. "It knows when you’re having a bad day or a great day. To be detail-oriented along with my creative side seemed like the perfect combination.”
So what’s her special twist on bonbons? For starters, Colorado Cocoa Pod’s slogan is “Never too pretty to eat,” which is just the kind of statement fine-chocolate lovers want to hear. Moreover, Pensack-Rinehart brings Asian-inspired flavors from her childhood to her creations. “I’m half Japanese and half Chinese and grew up with flavors like matcha, green tea, lychee, black sesame, passionfruit and yuzu, and wanted to put a lot of these flavors into chocolate,” she adds.
The chocolatier acknowledges that many places attempt to use these kinds of ingredients, but the resulting product is either too sweet or lacking in flavor. “A lot of Asian desserts are flavorful but aren’t overly sweet; I wanted to make sure my bonbons had a stronger flavor without excessive sweetness, so I balance a lot of my recipes that way," she continues. "I wasn’t seeing what I was looking for [in chocolates], so I figured I just had to do it myself.”
Once Pensack-Rinehart completed the pastry program, she interned at a chocolatier in Cherry Creek, helping with front-of-house operations and giving design input whenever possible. In the spring of 2019 (and perhaps thanks to a layoff), she finally had the opportunity to create her own bonbon business. “By starting my own company, I was able to make my own designs and flavors and travel to see my family,” she says.
But of course, as 2019 grew closer to 2020, the universe threw a wrench into pretty much everything. “In 2019 I was building flavors and getting my business off the ground, still working part-time," Pensack-Rinehart notes. "Like everybody else, I had all these plans, and then the pandemic hit. I decided I would take a break at the beginning of March 2020 to focus on helping promote other chocolatiers. I just really wanted to use my platform to help others who had storefronts.”
This support and collaborative effort among the chocolate community — which Pensack-Rinehart describes as tightly knit — led to her Instagram Live Chocolate Chats. “One of my friends has her own chocolate company in California and suggested [using] Instagram Live. It was so much fun; I really wanted to learn more about chocolatiers that I’ve chatted with [and] their stories, and that maybe I could use my platform to help them,” she adds.
For the past year, Pensack-Rinehart has continued her Chocolate Chats with the goal of further strengthening the chocolate community, in Denver and around the world. “Social media helps people connect, even more during COVID-19. It’s definitely a silver lining,” she points out.
The designs of Colorado Cocoa Pod are truly something to behold, a magical combination of Pensack-Rinehart’s creativity stemming from travels to Japan and China and specifically, the ever-present emphasis China places on the animals of the zodiac. “I wanted to create bonbons that reflected [that]," she explains. "In particular, I wanted to reflect the animal in the color and design as well as the flavor. A lot of the design comes from the flavor that’s inside, too. You eat with your eyes first; I want you to see the bonbon and know what flavor to expect.” The resulting bonbons are abstract representations of the animals, not actual figures.
As for 2021, Pensack-Rinehart is focusing on growing Colorado Cocoa Pod. In addition to digging out a crawl space in her basement to house a chocolate lab, she hopes to expand under the Cottage Food Act (under which she currently operates), balance her recipes, increase product shelf life, and continue doing pop-ups at festivals and markets. You can catch her at chocolate festivals across Colorado later this year, and at a few breweries, too.
Colorado Cocoa Pod products can be purchased online or at various pop-up events. See Pensack-Rinehart's calendar on her company's website for more information, and for details on purchasing and shipping.
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