Ben Rasmussen mixes passion and creativity into a one-man chocolate making venture.
Ben Rasmussen mixes passion and creativity into a one-man chocolate making venture. John Rose/NPR
Some people fill their workshops with sawdust and power tools; Ben Rasmussen built a chocolate factory in his.
Actually, "factory" might be too big a word for the Woodbridge, Va. operation, which Rasmussen says is "absurdly small." But it's a step up from his kitchen, where his Potomac Chocolate – one of the smallest chocolate companies in the U.S. – was born.
Rasmussen says he grew up on Three Musketeers bars, and tasted dark chocolate for the first time just two years ago. "It was like this awakening, this eye-opening moment," he tells The Salt. He became enamored with the subtle differences between beans from different regions. "To try this Madagascar and get these great citrus notes, or this Venezuelan and get plum, tobacco, shoe leather ... It just blew my mind that this huge variety of flavors could be possible," he says.
Ben Rasmussen pours tempered chocolate into a tray, where it will harden into a finished bar.
What began as an obsession quickly became a hobby, then a side business. Rasmussen works days as a systems administrator, but devotes evenings and weekends to making single-origin bars with beans from Costa Rica and Brazil. As he's mastered the chocolate-making process, he's also collected a menagerie of customized equipment, all in the confines of a converted utility room.
The art of chocolate-making goes back thousands of years to Central America, where fire-roasted cacao beans were ground with stone tools to make spiced beverages. Europeans industrialized the process and added sugar to make the first chocolate bars. And these days, chocolate-making involves specialized machines, and has a vocabulary to match.
The first step in chocolate making — roasting — brings out the flavors and aromas in the beans. A tool called a winnower then cracks and discards the husks, and the beans are ground into small bits called nibs. A melanger mashes the nibs into a thick, oily paste called liquor (it's non-alcoholic). The liquor, along with a little sugar, is heated, or tempered, to develop its consistency. Finally, Rasmussen pours the liquor into molds where it cools and hardens.
Nikoo Yahyazadeh/Potomac Chocolate
Rasmussen buys his beans from Costa Rica and Brazil.
In a Hershey's plant, that would all happen on an assembly line, and even most artisan producers use fairly large machines. But Rasmussen needed equipment small enough for his one-man operation. When he found there wasn't any, he began filling his workshop with "Frankenstein" machines, buying parts on Craigslist and cobbling them together to suit his needs.
There's the convection oven, to which he added a rotating drum to roast more beans and keep the flavor consistent: "Best $75 I ever spent," he says. There's the hand-cranked winnower: Rasmussen added some plywood, a PVC pipe, and a small vacuum to replace a massive machine that could cost thousands of dollars. And there's the melanger, which began life as a lentil grinder.
In fact, Rasmussen says he has just one piece of equipment specifically designed for chocolate: a tempering machine, which ensures the bars take on a glossy sheen and break with a satisfying snap. Tempering is a delicate process where the temperature has to be just right, or the chocolate won't crystallize properly.
Between his day job and his family – he's a father of four – Rasmussen manages to produce 60 to 80 pounds of chocolate a week. He says it's all he can do to keep up with demand since his Upala 70 percent cacao bar won a silver medal from the London Academy of Chocolate last year. But he remains focused on the chocolate, remembering the wonder of his own conversion experience.
With mass-produced chocolates, he says, the true flavor is obscured by additives like milk, vanilla, and too much sugar. But when you have a good dark chocolate, you can tell there's something different about it.
"You look for the snap, you look for the smell, you place it on your tongue and let it melt," Rasmussen says. "I love introducing people to that."