I met Taylor Kennedy back in 2011, or maybe 2012. We were selling high quality “Bean to Bar” Chocolate bars in our Victoria store, like Dick Taylor,Bonnat, Dandelion and others. He was a regular at tastings and bought LOTS of bars.
Bean to Bar chocolate is exactly what is sounds like. The Maker gets the raw* beans and makes finished bars from the bean. The process is technically simple but takes a lots of practice and determination to get right. I have sampled many makers, which have come and gone, who failed to ‘nail’ it for different reasons. I am not sure exactly what makes a great Chocolate Maker – maybe it’s part scientist, part biologist, part entrepreneur. Whatever the make up, many try and only a few succeed.
Taylor is a kind and gentle guy with a burning fire not too far under the surface. He possesses a fascinating intensity that starts to shine through when he talks about things he loves – his family, travel, and chocolate. When I first met him, he was starting to form what is now SIRENE but just before that he’d been a Photographer for National Geographic, traveling the world visiting remote regions. This helped him develop his desire to do something that matters. After marriage and having twin girls, he wanted to stop traveling. What do you do when you are a globetrotting photographer and you need to settle down and support your family? Start a small scale Bean to Bar Chocolate company from your garage, of course.
I am a dark chocolate lover and the process of making chocolate from the bean excites me. The idea of how the fruit is grown, fermented, dried and shipped seems so authentic. It’s the same feeling I get when we go to the farmers markets for our produce and we talk to the farmers. I feel a bit more connected to the planet.
I’d been meaning to go by to see Taylor for months. It was so fun being a part of the early part of SIRENE, when Taylor would come down to my shop and give me some ‘samples’. I was honest with him and told him that I thought that it was either, grainy, bitter, sharp or whatever it was that didn’t make it great. Never once did he look offended or upset – only intriged as he headed off to come back the next day with an improved bar, over and over again until we had a product that we could put on the shelf. I remember like it was yesterday when we spoke about how much it would sell for – he was so caught up in the making of a perfect bar that he had no idea (or care) what it sold for. He hadn’t made the bar to sell it for money, he made it because that is what he believed he needed to do to be the guy he wanted to be. I have an immense respect for him because of this. We decided on a price that fit well within the other bars and off we went – time to introduce the world to SIRENE.
Fast forward to now; I knew he was making magic and had educated myself on the process of making chocolate but I was floored to see how he was ‘getting er’ done’ in his tiny shop. I’ve grown up an entrepreneur, I was raised by entrepreneurs, but I’m still in awe of people that stop at nothing to achieve their dreams with what they have at their disposal.
First off, Chocolate, or Cacao is a seed from fruit that is grown on the Cacao tree. There are different varieties of trees and not all Cacao makes great chocolate. This is just like grapes or coffee. Making Chocolate is broken into two important processes. 1. What happens in the forest. 2. What happens in the kitchen, or factory. Coffee and Cacao is very similar in that they are massive industries, worth billions, but the top end of the market is a niche. The artisanal industry has exploded in the last 10 years but it is still a tiny fraction of the worldwide chocolate market.
Taylor makes Chocolate from top end beans. The bean that he imports from select farms in certain countries that he finds makes the best chocolate. This is the same for all Bean to Bar makers. Now, to be clear – Taylor, and the like, make chocolate and are Chocolate Makers. They are not Chocolatiers. A Chocolatier is a maker of candies. These can be exceptional candies, made by hand by immensely talented people, but the difference is that one makes Chocolate and the other makes candies from Chocolate or what is called covature (bulk chocolate for baking). Examples of this are Beta 5 or Thomas Haas and a well known Canadian covature is Bernard Callebaut which you can buy at Thrifty’s or Whole Foods’. So when you see a “Bean to Bar” chocolate bar in a store you can be assured that it was made from the seed and is not a bar shaped and resold.
The magic starts in the jungle. The large Cacao pods containing the seeds are harvested and broken open. The seeds and all the flesh is piled in a heap on the forest floor on large leaves, then covered and left to ferment (*This is why chocolate is not raw – no matter what the process in the kitchen or factory, the beans have been heated above what is typically referred to as raw) . Once the process is well underway and the bugs have eaten most of the flesh off the seeds, they are collected for drying. Different farms do different things to dry them but at the end of the process the beans are dry like a nut. They are then packaged and usually sent to a cooler climate (like Victoria) for production.
Once Taylor gets his beans, they go to the freezer to be frozen at -35 for 1 week. Why? Cacao beans are full of bugs. If you do not freeze them then the larva will hatch and you will soon have an infestation. This is also why vegan chocolate is not a real thing. All beans have bugs in them and you will eat them.
Once they are in his shop, he goes through this process
Taylor says that most of his beans come very clean. He gets very very little waste from his sorting. He sorts them by hand to remove flats, cracked beans and beans harmed by machetes during harvest.
Roasting is a very simple process. You could do it at home in your own oven. The beans are roasted to loosen the shell and begin the process of maximizing the inherent flavours in each bean.
The next 2 steps are where Taylor’s ingenuity and tenacity come in. The whole bean needs to be cracked to extract the flavourful heart of the bean called a nib so that the shell of the bean can be removed. This machine is an old grain mill that was custom converted to crack the shell from the nib.
This is step 2, and it fascinated me how he rigged this contraption up. It’s wild to see it in play and I tried to capture it on video. The vortex separates the light shell and the heavy nib. If the shell was left in, it would add bitter and harsh flavours. However the shells make great additions to various Spinnakers Beer and Sheringham Distillery Chocolate Vodka. The entire process of making SIRENE produces hardly any waste.
Next the whole bean is ground down to a very fine consistency. This is where the fat is exposed and can become liquid, if he wanted it to. It is during this stage that pure cane sugar is introduced, the only additional ingredient in the single origin chocolate bars.
3 Mill Refining
The next stage is further grinding through 3 rollers in a large mill. This continues to take any grit out of the mass and get it prepared to be conched.
Conching is a bizarre process, or at least I think so. It eliminates any remaining impure flavours, and allows the subtle, unique flavours of each bean to shine. Friction and heat do the work but it goes on for hours and hours, It’s not uncommon for makers to leave the liquid churning for 8, 12, 16 or 24 hours. I’ve been told that you can make lesser quality beans taste better with a longer Conch but that you get less unique flavour. This is definitely a stage of the art form
Tempering is part of all chocolate making when adding anything, being from covature or not. It’s a finicky process that allows the chocolate to form the right crystal structure necessary to give it a smooth silky texture and have a nice snap when broken. This is part mad scientist as it’s completely a chemical reaction and must be closely monitored and acted upon at just the right time.
The last step is pouring the chocolate into molds which Taylor does with the help of a vibrating table. They are then cooled and hardened before being wrapped and sent off all around the world to his customers.
What to choose
Being a lover of Bean to Bar chocolate, I wanted to get my hands into the making process. I was keen to experience what makes a great product and why I think some is great and some ok. Why do I love SIRENE and really don’t like others?
Taylor tells me that the flavour profile of the beans, from type to origin, to the roast and conch will play a defining role on the finished product. Each maker makes their chocolate to their definition of what is a great tasting bar. What this means is there is only one way to make sense of what you like, and that is to try a lot of chocolate.
And guess what, we have a way of doing this. Eagranie Yuh, probably the most knowledgeable chocolate expert in our country, made a super fun guide/game for helping you understand how to grade or choose your chocolate. She created the Chocolate Tasting Kit which has everything you need to taste and collect the information to understand what type of chocolate you like. I recommend that you collect a hand full of different bars, grab a kit, and have a fun evening of chocolate sampling while learning all about artisanal chocolate from the action packed book that comes in the kit.
At the end of the day – great chocolate is simple, mostly with 3 ingredients: Cacao, Cacao Butter and Sugar. Other ingredients can be added but are not necessary to make a perfect bar. Still, after 7 years, my favourite bar is the original – Tanzania/Ecuador 73%!