When Elaine Read, Matt Weyandt, and their young children left behind their 9-to-5 lives for new adventures in Costa Rica, they didn’t have a crystal-clear agenda. But they discovered the rich world of chocolate-making that existed in small, humble dwellings peppered throughout the mountains of Central America, and it felt a little like fate.
Eventually, the family returned to the States, underwent training, began their small endeavor at a space in Studioplex, and pitched their idea to the then-under-development Krog Street Market: to bring a micro chocolate factory and shop to the food hall.
Today, around the corner from Hop City and across from French Market Flowers, Xocolatl’s (chock-oh-LAH-tul, in case you were wondering) space contains shelves of products made on site, plus counter service and the factory operations.
In an age of tiny homes and minimalist aesthetics, a behind-the-counter tour is an apt example of how to artfully budget a limited amount of space. You may not believe it until you see it for yourself, but all of the business’ manufacturing takes place in an area that can only fit 8-10 people.
Further, what makes Xocolatl special is the unique, personal relationships the business owners forge with cacao growers and cooperatives–mostly sourced from Central and South America, plus some from East Africa—in truly fair trade arrangements.
After the growers spend weeks harvesting pods from the cacao trees, they ferment and sun-dry the seeds, then ship them in sacks to the States, where the team at Xocolatl will sort and inspect them before roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, tempering, and molding the chocolate into bars that are cooled, wrapped, and sold at the counter to the throngs of shoppers that fill Krog Street Market each week.
In addition to a socially conscious business model, there’s a true spirit of creativity and ingenuity in this small factory: roasted seeds are cracked with a device that employs an everyday power drill purchased at Home Depot. Nibs are separated from seed husks in the winnowing process using a homemade contraption that looks like it was drawn by Rube Goldberg himself—complete with a water cooler jug, PVC pipe, zip ties, and a funnel.
After walking through the process—bean to bar, as they say—the staff treats you to a glass (or two) of red wine and 6-8 tastings of chocolate. The great news is that Xocolatl uses pure chocolate and organic sugar cane sugar in their bars, meaning they are vegan and free of gluten and soy. If you want to enjoy a flavored bar, the chocolate has only been enhanced by natural ingredients, like sea salt, fresh peppermint, or coconut milk.
A chocolate tasting is an education much like that of beer, wine, and coffee—you may find yourself surprised at the enormous diversity of flavors based on origin and the conditions of growth, fermentation, and roasting. While some chocolates are dark and dusky or rich and currant-flavored, others are bright with surprising citrus hints, like pineapple. Of the flavored bars, our personal favorite was the Kissed Mermaids, “a dark coconut milk chocolate with vanilla-infused sea salt and crunchy cacao nibs sprinkled on the back.” Trust us: you won’t be disappointed.
During your tasting, sampling the chilled drinking chocolate topped with coconut milk whipped cream is a 100% must, followed by the cacao tea. How in the heck do you make cacao tea, you ask? Remember those husks that were separated from the nibs in the winnowing process? Steep those husks in hot water and be wowed.
Seeing chocolate in all its complex and community-based context will make you appreciate why a single bar is priced at $9.50. Book your tasting online for your next date night, and be sure to do a little shopping before you leave (hint: chocolate bars make great gifts). We’re still hoarding our jar of chocolate hazelnut spread—Nutella doesn’t even come close.
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Drinking chocolate: Palate pleasing. This single origin drinking chocolate from Xocolatl is perfect to mix with milk whether she likes it hot or cold. A special Mother’s Day box featuring two chocolate bars, one tine of cacao tea, one jar of crystallized cotton honey, one demitasse cup and a tea strainer is available for $43 in-store or online.
Krog Street Market, 99 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-604-9642, xocolatlchocolate.com.
Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate Micro-Factory
Beans are serious business at Xocalatl, a small-batch chocolatier tucked away inside Atlanta’s famed Krog Street Market. In order to be deemed worthy of being turned into a chocolate bar, each cacao bean that arrives here (usually by way of East Africa or South America) must pass a rigorous inspection by the team. Such exacting standards result in a superb chocolate base for the bars, many of which are then further enhanced by creative flavor combinations. Take the Kissed Mermaids, for instance. This dark chocolate bar is composed of 60 percent cacao, along with coconut milk, a sprinkle of vanilla-infused sea salt and cacao nibs for added crunch. Apple pie was the inspiration for the Americana bar, which features nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice flavors, along with 68 percent cacao.
Confectionery remains one of the most fiercely competitive of fast-moving consumer goods sectors with multinational-owned brands fighting tooth and nail to gain shelf stand out.
But consumers have changed and the foodie movement is now obsessed with origins.
There was a time when legendary Belgian and Swiss chocolate brands such as Godiva and Lindt were the very last words in luxury confectionery.
Nowadays, however, these famous brands have almost become mainstream as the growth in the luxury confectionery sector has ushered in a wave of higher-priced premium, gourmet chocolate brands such as Duffy’s, Amelia Rope, Seed & Bean, Hotel Chocolat, The Grown Up Chocolate Company and Montezuma’s, that differentiate and distinguish themselves with their high-percentage cocoa content, Fairtrade status, ethical sourcing, distinct provenances, exotic flavours and organic ingredients.
Look closer and you’ll soon notice that one thing all these bean-to-bar chocolate brands have in common (apart from their love for ethically sourced chocolate) is their strategic use of highly distinctive and visually striking packaging to carve out a small, but growing niche of this enormous business.
Another small-batch chocolate brand making waves in the US is Xocolatl(named after the bitter cacao bean-based drink once consumed by the Aztecs). Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Xocolatl (abbreviated as XOATL) is made from just two ingredients: single-origin Peruvian cacao and organic cane sugar.
Local agency Juku Design has created colourful packaging for the start-up brand, which cleverly weaves in Aztec-inspired patterns with playful, child-like drawings of Atlanta where the chocolate is made.
Other Juku designs for the Xocolatl range feature stylised depictions of the cocoa tree which is so important for the brand’s owners, while another clever touch sees the last three letters of the abbreviated name XOATL highlighted as ‘ATL’ is the well-known airport code for Atlanta.
At Hunter we understand the changing nature of the confectionery market in mature markets. At a time when products containing a high percentage of sugar are increasingly demonised, the highest rates of growth for the industry are likely to come at the premium and the luxury end of the market where hand-crafted credentials, ethical standards, high-quality ingredients and on-trend packaging designs are all essential attributes.
Paul Hamilton is a director at Hunter Sourcing
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This week we’re thinking about fuel for your walks in these beautiful spring days, snacks for the kids as they go from school to practice to home and something to munch on as you sit at your desk.
Nuts, Chocolate and Fruit
Atlanta-based small batch chocolate maker Xocolatl produces lovely single-origin chocolate bars with beans sourced from around the world. But they also make trail mix in two flavors: “Smile with the Rising Sun” that has almonds, cashews, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, dried papaya and coconut and “Moonlight Through the Pines” with its combination of Georgia flavors including pecans, peanuts, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds and dried peaches and cranberries. The folks at Xocolatl have been making these mixes since they opened in order to meet their own need for a quality trail mix that was more than just peanuts and pretzels. Our favorite? We couldn’t choose. They’re both delicious. What comes through with every bite is the high quality of the nuts and fruit. And those little squares of dark chocolate? Each one is a tiny treat. $10 per 7-ounce package. Xocolatl, Krog Street Market, 99 Krog Street, Atlanta. 404-604-9642. xocolatlchocolate.com
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Chocolate is so many of our guilty pleasures, but when mixed in cocktails, it can fall prey to artificial flavoring, cloying sweetness and a lack of sophistication that make the result nearly undrinkable.
While the phrase “chocolate cocktail” invokes memories of bad martinis best left in the 90s, these tips, tricks and recipes from industry professionals give chocolate the sophisticated, modern treatment it deserves. “The first question people ask me when they see drinks with chocolate on our menu is ‘is it sweet?’” says Ben Yabrow, bartender at Atlanta’s Himitsu. He advises against using white or milk chocolate and instead favors cacao nibs and bitter chocolate. “With the right dark chocolate, whether from your local farmers market or small batch provider, can get you that sweet flavor without the added sugar. Piggyback off the sugar in other ingredients, and you’ll create a drink that’s balanced and not cloying.”
Avery Glasser, founder of Bittermens, which makes handcrafted cocktail bitters and culinary extracts, including the popular Xocolatl Mole Bitters, agrees. “Cacao, by its nature, is actually not sweet. Pure chocolate is aromatic, earthy and slightly bitter, and can add an extreme amount of depth and complexity to a cocktail.”
Nick Farrell, spirits manager of Washington, D.C.’s Iron Gate, recommends experimenting with cacao shells or cacao nibs instead in addition to pure chocolate. “Cacao shells give off an incredible cocoa nose when infused in spirits. Steeping for 4-12 hours can add great complimentary flavors to most barrel-aged base spirits. Incorporating salt can add balance, while amari can add depth and counteract the sweetness of some of the sweeter cacao-based classic cocktails.”
Estanislado Orona, bar manager of Portland’s Raven & Rose, agrees that sourcing is crucial to toning down the sweetness in chocolate cocktails. “Like many cocktails that came out of the 90s, the chocolate martini concept was good, but the execution is typically horrible and overly sweet, which boils down to the quality of ingredients being used,” he explains.
“When you source quality cacao and don’t use a lot of added cover flavors like vanilla or sugar, it really brings out qualities and notes beyond just the chocolate,” says Abby Bryant of Atlanta’s Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate. The company recently worked with a local distributor, Old Fourth Distillery, on a chocolate-infused vodka, and many bars across the country are doing similar infusions in-house.
Orona and his team at Raven and Rose recently developed a house-made Cacao Liqueur using single origin Ecuadorian beans, Hi-Test vodka, El Dorado 8-year Demerara Rum, and a touch of orange oil.
Farrell steeps his cacao shells in a bottle of bourbon for 12-24 hours at room temperature, and bar manager Greg Stone makes a similar bourbon, cacao-nib infusion at San Francisco’s Jardinière.
For those wanting to try their hand at home infusion, Old Fourth Distillery’s Jessica Lee Luna recommends seeking out your local chocolate maker, procuring some high quality bean-to-bar nibs, and soaking them with vodka or your spirit of choice. “My background is as a pastry chef, and I love to be in the kitchen and come up with cool, delicious things. But it’s a quite simple process for the home bartender as well.”
For those who prefer to leave the tinctures to the pros, there are a wealth of high quality cacao infused bitters, extracts, and spirits on the market, including the aforementioned Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters as well as salted cacao bitters and barrel-aged flowers & cacao bitters from Workhorse Rye.
Beverage consultant Lara Creasy also recommends Tempus Fugut Spirits’s cordial line, Merlet Spirits, and Marie Brizard et Roger International for pure cacao infusions. Creasy says “it makes a huge difference to find a creme de cacao or spirit of a high caliber” when experimenting with drinks, whether at home or behind the professional bar.
High quality cacao mixes well with most spirits, though Farrell enjoys “using cacao to complement malty, toasty, and smoky-based spirits. This obviously means whisky, but genever works surprisingly well, as do dark rums with their caramel notes, and tequilas and mezcals, with their smoke and spicy notes. In terms of what spirits to avoid, though some might work, I would generally avoid using gin with chocolate in cocktails. Cacao is a strong flavor that can overwhelm the delicate notes of many gins.”
Bottom line? It’s all about personal taste, quality ingredients and in all things, balance.
Find out for yourself by making Himitsu's Banana and Kakao, Nexto's Kyushiki, Saltyard's Pale Mare, The Commissary's Smoke and Mirrors and Iron Gate's A Black Manhattan Where My Heart Once Was.
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