Karuna Chocolate - Bean to Bar Chocolate made in Italy

Making chocolate is a matter of the heart

Katya and Armin are South Tyrol’s craft chocolate pioneers. Yes, you hear me right! They are the first in the region to produce organic chocolate directly from cocoa beans.

They only use ethically and organically grown fine cocoa beans from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. As a sweetener, they use fair trade organic raw cane sugar from Itajá, Brasil. Meanwhile, the organic cocoa butter is pressed from Arriba Nacional cocoa from the area of Los Rios and Esmeraldas in Ecuador and Nacional from Peru. For their white selection containing fruit, they use de-oiled almond flour from organically grown almonds and the fruits are organically grown and freeze-dried.

Their packaging is 100% ecological. It`s free from plastic, chemicals, heavy metals. They use certified natural papers and the print is done via Risograph screen print using vegetable oil colors. The inner foil of their bars is compostable too.

In 2014, while living in South India, Katya & Armin were introduced to locals growing and producing cocoa. They immediately became interested and learned about the bean-to-bar movement already started in the USA. Excited about this new discovery, they soon started to make chocolate using basic tools. When they returned to South Tyrol, they realized that no one was producing chocolate directly from the raw material and there were only a few artisan manufacturers in Europe. Of course, the next logical step was to create "Karuna Chocolate". It soon became a family project: Armin’s brother, Lorenz, created the design of the boards and packaging, whilst his father, Roman, generated the graphics. In October of 2018, their first products were available for sale in South Tyrol.

After sampling some of their bars, I decided to learn more about them and their background in the Craft Chocolate field.

Can you explain your identity style as a chocolate maker?

I would say that is a mix between craft-ethic-sustainability:

- craft is for working from bean-to-bar to "handcraft" each bar we make;

- ethical is for the "ethically" sourced raw material we use;

- and sustainability is equally related to the "organic" certification of our chocolate and to our eco-friendly packaging choice.

What a potential amateur and/or trained taster should expect from your chocolate bars?

A smooth texture, distinctive palate always stood out by a considerable chocolatey background developed on complex layers of flavors, a nice and diverse mold style well received by fans and critics alike.

What is the meaning of "Karuna"?

It means "mercy" and "compassion". We found this word during our trip to India in old Buddhist/Indian scriptures.

Who made your original packaging?

My little brother, Laurence. He is a self-thought artist and, at the time, I asked him if he could draw some stylized cacao pods and leaves. Meanwhile, my father is a graphic designer so he helped out with the layout of our "artistic" presentation.

What is the first cacao origin/variety you tasted/worked with?

Indian cacao beans from Tamil Nadu! It was all direct-trade, we were at the "source" where we purchased our first organic cacao bean bag in a local store. The result, in terms of chocolate, was already very nice on the first attempt. Then we acquired cacao beans from Go Ground Beans in Kerala state. But for our first craft chocolate trials, we used Belize cacao with which, for the first time, produced four bars two of which were 70% and one Raspberry and one coffee-arabica flavored chocolate. We immediately realized that this origin was great and very versatile for both single-origins and flavored options.

How long does it take to develop the right skills/method to produce good fine chocolate?

In our case, it took us almost three years to be fully satisfied and ready to broaden the horizons of the exchange of our craftsmanship with the world.

How do you source your cacao beans?

The Belize origin is direct trade, and we source the rest of our selection through different suppliers such as Silva Cacao in Belgium or Original Beans in the Netherlands.

Do you enjoy chocolate without cocoa butter?

I personally prefer chocolate made with cocoa butter for the mouthfeel: the chocolate melts faster and it is smoother on the palate. Of course, cocoa butter influences the organic flavor of cocoa beans but not in a negative way. For my personal experiences, it impacts the aftertaste. It should be noted that, in the end, it all depends on the quality and origin of the cocoa butter. I am not a lover of the typical slow melt aspect of chocolate made with just two ingredients and, during the production, I find it simpler working with cocoa butter.

Do you use single-origin cocoa butter?

Yes. For the dark chocolate assortment, we use Arriba Nacional cocoa butter which adds a delicate chocolate and caramel note to our bars. Meanwhile, for our white selection, we use deodorized cocoa butter at 50%. We seek to find the best balance of tasting notes honoring all raw materials and inclusions projects. In addition, we just started few trials with Indian cocoa butter from GoGround India hoping to create an absolute India dark chocolate. In any case, we also noticed more cocoa butter from different parts of the world but the availability is discontinuous and this is not to our advantage because you always need to work with a plan B and adapt your production to different cocoa butter in case of shortage of materials.

What is the decisive step of the bean-to-bar process that is going to determine the quality of the flavor profile?

In this matter, I think roasting is crucial because, depending on the cacao beans' variety/origin, you can play around with different approaches in order to get specific results. For example, the high roast option is fundamental to decrease the acidity of fruity origins and to extrapolate roast-dark-nutty notes. Or, always in the matter to reduce acidity, another approach possible is light yet prolonged roasting. With other origins, it is important to choose a low roast profile to avoid developing excessive bitterness in the end. From an amusing point of view, I absolutely love the "recipe development" part of this job. Feeling inspired, collaborate with experts in other fields, and being able to actually materialize an idea is not only fun but also rewarding.

Is it necessary to divide your equipment based on the type of bar? For example, during the production, what is the difference in creating dark, milk, or white chocolate? What happens when inclusions enter the field aiming at different results?

For dark chocolate we follow the classic steps as every other craft chocolate maker meaning roasting, cracking, and winnowing the cocoa beans, grinding the cocoa nibs, conching, tempering, molding, and cooling. For white chocolate, the process is different because, in this case, cocoa nibs are not involved. and we basically melt the cocoa butter blended afterward with different ingredients. We make sure the refiner is clean to avoid flavor and/or color contamination. Regarding our inclusion selection, we usually add ingredients like raspberry, essential oil, cashew nut, or hazelnut at the end before tempering and molding.

How long does it take to produce one batch of chocolate? How many bars you can produce "daily" or there is no such thing as "daily" production as a consequence of the length of time required between the different stages of the hand-crafted processing?

It depends on the batch size and the melanger time. Indeed the longest step in this process is the melanger and a small size melanger, depending on that batch size, takes approximately 18 up to 48 hours. Meanwhile, a bigger machine for 50 kg refines in 5 days. So let`s say with our big melanger to produce 1 batch of chocolate we need a week. Then it follows the resting phase of the chocolate of 2 weeks before melting and creating the bars.

Yes, there is no such thing as "daily" production for craft chocolate. Actually, 50% of our profession consists of cleaning! We are now crossing 50.000 bars per year.

Which frequency of supplying raw materials (e.g. cacao beans) works better for your business activity (monthly, per year, etc)? Can you return defective materials?

We prefer always to have a nice stock of raw materials. I would say we purchase cocoa beans every 2-3 months. Considering the premium cocoa beans we supply and the current supplier policy-standards-transparency, it is nearly impossible to purchase defective material.

Can you describe to us a typical day at the Karuna Chocolate factory?

I am the first to show up preparing parcels to ship, checking emails, taking care of the production, cleaning, phone calls, and paperwork. We usually have our lunch in the factory and my wife comes to help me 3 times per week. In the end, it requires a lot of organization!

How do you conceive new bars? How is important for you the environmental impact of your product?

Inspiration can be found everywhere, for example trying a new food or receiving new materials from our suppliers including new cocoa beans origins. I`d say we tend to enhance the precious gifts of nature of our area which offers ample breathtaking raw ingredients, and we also tend to support other artisans like us in South Tyrol combining each other`s expertise in different fields.

At Karuna, we are committed to protecting the environment, wherefore our production is organic and our packaging is eco-friendly.

I noticed your white chocolate selection is "dairy-free" and, like the dark options, organic. Why did you specifically choose to work with cocoa beans organically grown? Did you notice any difference in "quality"? Additionally, why do you need to use "de-oiled almond flour" in white chocolate? Does it have the same meaning-purpose as deodorized cocoa butter?

We decided to follow a dairy-free production due to the obvious reason for the spread of lactose intolerance problems, and, in my opinion, considering also my location where there are a lot of cow farms and dairy factories, milk powder is not really healthy. I am centered to offer the best experience possible to my customers using the finest ingredients with the greatest organoleptic qualities. All that said, I still believe there are great milk chocolate bars out there. This is just our personal point of view based on our life experience. So, after many trials, we replaced milk powder with almond flour which also contributes to the final flavor profile of each bar.

We choose organic cocoa beans because we found it an interesting market. Our most important clients are local organic shops. But there is no difference in quality.

Do you think bad fermentation produces bitterness or reduces astringency in chocolate?

Bad fermentation can generate a lot of negative attributes such as bitterness and astringency indeed. It is also true that the fermentation period depends on the cocoa beans' variety/origin, and, it needs to be adapted to the result in terms of complexity coveted. It is a crucial and sensible step of the process, that`s for sure.

I frequently read that "fermentation" is a process that can be personalized according to the chocolate maker's needs in terms of flavor profile and that it is not uncommon for the maker decides the time of fermentation (not the farmer/producer of cocoa beans). Can you clarify the rule of the craft chocolate maker in this regard? For example, what about Karuna?

Nowadays, some cocoa bean suppliers can offer the possibility to make special bathes. It is not quite common. It also depends if you are willing to pay extra for the special request and if the maker has the right knowledge about the fermentation process. In that case, it is an interesting project to pursue and to make distinctive products. From a maker viewpoint, I would prefer a longer fermentation period to achieve a rich fruity (over ripped fruity) profile and, on the other hand, I would like a shorter fermentation window to obtain more intensity, accentuate acidity, and a touch of astringency.

Over the years, did you discovered a special affinity with a specific cacao origin? If so, why?

I love Kokoa Kamili cacao for its fruity profile, some slight coffee notes, and a touch of caramel taste. I also realized is versatile: depending on the roasting step, you can "easily" enhance of aspect or another.

How much do you think is important to taste chocolate bars of other artisans in your job?

Of course! It is a great starting point to interface your own production with other artisans' work. Additionally, we love to taste inclusions proposals. I find this process challenging and inspiring.

What significance do the "Awards" have for you and your customers?

At Karuna, we are very proud of our achievements. We started sending off a few samples just to get feedback and we were impressed with the positive responses. From a maker's point of view, in the beginning, could be empowering when specialists are pleased with the result of your hard work. From a customer`s perspective, especially if new, an award can represent a quality parameter. If you have an established name, awards may not have the same relevance but, still, such prizes are a continuity symbol of keeping the same high standards over time. This is my personal view. In general, rewards open the market for small-scale makers.

What is the difference between your Fast Dried Belize 70% and the sister Slow Dried Belize 70% (not just in terms of flavors but production ab-origine and in the factory)?

On the farm, the difference is in the post-harvesting process, the drying phase especially. In our factory, we are making Slow Dried Belize just in small batches in the 7 kg malanger machine generating a different particles size distribution. Also, the refine phase differs with a diverse timeline. In this way, we are able to create two different textures and melting points with the same origin.

Among my latest tastings, I would like to mention in particular:

1. the Coffee Arabica 68%: if you think that I have some sort of obsession for coffee inclusion, then let me pop that bubble, you might be wrong. I honestly don't have preferences at this point. It is as simple as one thinks; throughout the years and tastings you interface with a variety of options, so you get used to enjoying bars with different ingredients.

Aroma: coffee and brown sugar

Texture: creamy

The flavor profile is complex and distinct. The notes of Arabica coffee, brown sugar, and molasses are simply glaring, and the influence of Belizean cocoa beans is pretty eloquent giving the right twist to the palate with refreshing citrus, and floral flavors without unbalancing the creamy coffee mouthfeel in the background. The finish and the aftertaste are intensely characterized by a memorable acidulous persistence and... the moment where the tasting begins to gush, which, following the amazement and the joy of the senses, is called TAMARIND!!! In summary, during the sampling, the flavors are sweet and tangy before reaching the peak in the aftertaste with this "eccentric" sour and tart ecstatic incredible moment after which everything returns back to "normal". The key to understanding any inclusion idea is to realize that moderateness and balance prevent objectionable results and ensure a great deal of satisfaction.

2. Karuna La Creme de la Creme: this spreadable is made with organic minimal ingredients (no fat, no emulsifier): 60% PIEDMONT HAZELNUTS & raw cane sugar are sublimely combined with the award-winning bean-to-bar ÖKO CARIBE chocolate. It whispers of something gluttonous and beautiful: "I will be the most romantically delightful breakfast of your life". If I could only go on to portray the delightful grandeur and exquisite perfection of the tasteful rendezvous of this artisanal cream...

3. Fast Dried Belize 70%: compared to the Slow-Dried Belize that I have already tried, the Fast-Dried version is more intense with remarkable fruity notes. From the very beginning, the citrusy profile is particularly clear, soon followed by caramelized undertones and molasses density. Now, the most compelling aspect of this bar is the enveloping sensation of KEY LIME igniting light tanginess and sweet creaminess on the palate with that "typical" refreshing distinctiveness. The mouthfeel is vibrant and complex. In the finish-aftertaste, the are new developments: accents of black coffee, toasted sourdough, pink peppercorn (sweet and fruity that leaves a nice spicy touch on the tongue).

Just like Slow-Dried Belize, this bar presents a dense texture that melts very slowly. The maker himself explained to me that the texture depends on the cocoa beans and the processing method. Belizean cocoa beans naturally contain less cocoa butter and, as a refining technique, he uses stone mills (stone-ground chocolate), subsequently, the distribution of the uneven particles is inevitable. That is why the resulting chocolate is very dense.

4. the White Blackcurrant and the White Sea Buckthorn: in both cases, the fruits are picked fresh when the fruit is fully ripened and then freeze-dried to capture the robust flavors while maintaining color and nutritional value. The tasting notes for the blackcurrants are fruity blackcurrants, almonds, creamy, nice acidity. To me, blackcurrants taste tart-like passion fruit with a sweet-intense dark berry flavor as well. Meanwhile, about the Sea Buckthorn, this berry is known also as Siberian Pineapple and it is packed with vitamin C. The taste is quite unique. It has a complex tangy and citrusy flavor just like sour orange with a hint of mango. Or sour pineapple. It can develop some musty sour tang but it is not the case of this bar where everything is perfectly harmonious. The flavors of Karuna white chocolate interpretation are fruity sea buckthorn, almonds, creamy, nice acidity, sour pineapple, a hint of mango. Besides my preference, I must admit that my least favorite is certainly more singular. The Maker has done a hell of a job with these particular berries. I have already tasted two sea buckthorn inclusions and Karuna is undoubtedly the best of all!

Thank you Karuna Chocolate for answering all of my questions and for sharing with me a various range of samples (including a Gianduja Spreadable and new flavored bars). It was a truly fantastic journey and I am confident our paths will meet again soon.