Ritual chocolate was founded in 2009 by Anna Davies and Robbie Stout to make chocolate in the most honest way using unique vintage equipment.
Indeed being a bean-to-bar chocolate maker is not an easy task. It consists of taking care of roasting, winnowing, grinding and mixing, refining, conching, tempering, molding, and wrapping each bar. And, one of the peculiarities of the ultra-smooth texture and bold flavor of their curated selection is the 1950s, Brooklyn-made, three roll mill, which grinds the chocolate down to about 15 microns. Another important step for such smooth and delicate texture and aroma is the conching which is a combination of heating, agitating, and grinding. Also, in this case, they use a vintage machine: a 1915 Swiss longitudinal which is involved in the coaching process for 72 hours without interruption.
The very first time I tasted one of their bars was the Bourbon Barrel Aged 75% which is still one of my favorite of all time. Since then I became one of their countless supporters.
For that reason, when Anna accepted to join my blog, I was not only humbled but very excited for the opportunity to collaborate with one of the most representatives American bean-to-bar chocolate makers on the market.
Below you can read more details about them, their story, philosophy, and upcoming plans.
Why did you choose the name Ritual?
Ritual was one of the first names we thought of. It ties into the history of cacao as it was used by the Mayans in their ceremonies and rituals. It was considered the food of the gods and held in very high regard. Cacao, unfortunately, has lost that respect and appreciation through the years. We want to revive this appreciation and show that chocolate is a fine food that should be respected as so much care goes into creating chocolate from the farm through the chocolate-making process. And of course, chocolate should be a part of everyone’s daily ritual.
I noticed Ritual is a diversified craft chocolate maker involved in the production of hot chocolate and truffles, some interesting branded items and you also run a well-known Cafe. But which passion comes first?
I think for us, we are just passionate about serving our chocolate to customers. Our chocolate bars are the main products that we share with customers across the US, but we love to have that direct connection with people in our cafe locally. Robbie and I are big coffee enthusiasts and so we love to share our chocolate in a cafe setting. Having chocolate in hot liquid forms such as sipping chocolate or hot chocolate is a great way to taste the flavor profile of the cacao beans. I guess it all goes hand in hand and we want people to get inspired by chocolate in whatever form that takes a hot chocolate, bar, or even a slice of chocolate cake. We want to meet people where they are and make it approachable.
Have you always been involved in the chocolate market or have previous job experiences?
Not at all. We were chocolate enthusiasts of course, and would always end the night with a bar of chocolate, but Robbie and I did both works at specialty coffee shops and I think the appreciation for coffee, wine, and fine food led us to chocolate. We did a lot of research into the chocolate history and the process and felt that it wasn’t well represented at that time.
I tasted a lot of Ritual bars and I always noticed a vivid-rustic flavor profile. So what is your secret?
I think we have always gravitated towards beans that have a unique flavor profile. We love to show the variety of flavors you can get from different genetics and terroir of cacao. We really want the bean characteristics to shine through in the finished chocolate, so we crafted our process around being gentle with the chocolate so there is no loss of flavor. We do a very light, slow roast and really break down each grinding/refining step. It takes more time, but we aren’t compromising flavor at any point.
Your chocolate-making equipment includes some antique and old-fashioned pieces. Can you tell me something about it? What is the reason for this choice? Is it just about aesthetics or is it about finding the right size machines, which today are no longer produced in a version suitable for artisanal chocolate? Can old machinery contribute positively to the quality of your bars? I am very curious to know about the conches that recall the original Lindt: how does it affect the final product?
Our 4-pot longitudinal basin was made in Switzerland in 1915, so it is over 100 years old and was originally used by Suchard. When we started researching chocolate production in 2009, we read several books on the best methods of refining and conching chocolate. The longitudinal conche, although an older and slower method, has repeatedly been considered the best for developing flavor and texture. We had the opportunity to buy it in 2015 even though it was completely rusted and had to be totally refurbished. Although it was a big financial risk as we couldn't test it before, we believed this conching method was the best and would improve our product, so we took the plunge and after 18 months of restoration, we got the machinery up and running. And although it is a beautiful piece of our factory's history, it is certainly there not only for an "aesthetic" reason but because it really improves the quality of our chocolate, softening the sensation on the palate and delicately balancing the flavors.
What is the main stage of processing each bar? Do you agree with fermentation, roasting, and conching? To what extent do they affect the final flavor respectively?
It really is every step that is why we take great care when making even small equipment changes as it will affect our overall style. Roasting, however, is the most important flavor step and then conching. And these two steps really work in tandem with each other. You want to leave some flavor in the beans to be developed and balanced in the conche later, or you will have a "flat" palate during the tasting. We always have to think ahead on how the following steps will play a part in the final flavor. And of course, we take great care to pass the chocolate twice through our three roller mill and our longitudinal conching machine which takes 3 full days for each batch. However, even if we get every step of perfect roasting, screening, and grinding, the final taste experience can be compromised without good tempering. That is why we believe it is so important to carry out the whole process from bean to bar so that we can have complete control of each step and get the best possible result and we also pay close attention when making any changes to the equipment as they will affect our general style.
Do you think cocoa genetics and terroir share the same importance on the characteristics of cocoa, or does one factor prevail over the other?
They really go hand in hand. You need good genetics to have good flavors, but if you don't prune, harvest, ferment and dry properly, those genetics won't develop the desired result. Not to mention the surrounding soil, climate, and plants. There are so many variables to consider and this is what makes each farm so unique.
Who are the first artisan chocolatiers, the pioneers, who inspired you and why?
When we started Ritual in 2010, there were only a small handful of chocolate makers in the United States. I'd say around 25, compared to over 500 today. Back then we were trying more European artisans like Pralus, Chocolate Bonnat, and Domori, who really captured the concept of single-origin in chocolate. We couldn't believe the flavors they were feeling simply from such unique cocoa beans. In the US, we were inspired by the purist mindset and explosive flavors of DeVries Chocolate. We had the pleasure of renting his factory and working alongside him in Denver in the early days. His passion and care for everything related to chocolate were very inspiring, especially in the early days when there wasn't much information readily available on this industry. I loved Taza Chocolate's approach with their stone-ground method, as it really made people think about the chocolate-making process and where it came from, while Askinosie was and is amazing in connecting with farmers. At a time when people didn't think of chocolate as an agricultural product, Askinosie put the photo of the growers right on the front of the package, making that connection clear.
Do you like to enjoy the product of other craft chocolate makers? If so, do you find someone truly inspiring?
There are so many amazing creators in the world and each one is a source of inspiration for us. The beauty of the bean-to-bar movement is that each artisan has created its own style and made it.
Have you ever been to a cocoa beans farm and/or are you part of a special support cocoa farms program?
What really led us on this journey was going down to Costa Rica back in 2009 to visit some cacao farms. And this was the lightbulb moment for us when we realized how important it is to be supporting cacao growers so their efforts are truly understood and appreciated. We feel paying a higher yet fair price for good quality cacao is so crucially important to helping save unique cacao genetics, protecting biodiversity as cacao is an important part of the ecosystem, and it’s also a key part of many small farmers income as they often grow a variety of complementary crops on their farm.
What are the most challenging cocoa beans to work with?
We love our Camino Verde beans, but they are very low cocoa butter, which makes for a beautifully fudgy texture, but it can flow like mud when tempering and molding. Other beans can be trickery to winnow as the shells stick to the beans, so each bean acts differently at each step and we have to learn to work around these characteristics. All part of the fun!
In my humble opinion, you are one of the best small-batch producers in interpreting the deep character, the spirit of each cocoa origin. I suppose when you create a new tablet from scratch, it's a long process, creative experimentation with a trial and error approach ... isn't it?
First of all, thank you for your kind words about our work. Each new bean we decide to work with requires an enormous amount of time and study. Our process is designed to be gentle so that we can keep all those subtle nuances in the final chocolate and this is something we refine in our initial test batches at every stage of the manufacturing process for optimal softness and final taste. Our method differs from most manufacturers in that we really break down and separate our grinding/blending, refining, and conching steps so you can get the smoothest texture without compromising on flavor and vice versa. It must be said that initially, we played more with the aging of the chocolate. The first cocoa beans we worked with were Costa Ricans from the Finmac farm, very rich in tannins that really benefited from sitting and aging for a couple of months by balancing and softening their flavor. But we have since found that most of the current origins we offer are better when the chocolate is consumed within months of production to achieve/perceive as many shades as possible.
When you have a new origin of cocoa in your hands, how do you imagine the flavor of the future bar of chocolate?
We really want the flavors to be bold with clear bursts from start to finish. We add little or no cocoa butter to our chocolate, which makes the tasting experience slower but also deeper as it gives time for the aromatic notes to emerge delicately in a complex way, instead of all in a messy swipe. Each bean has a story to tell based on its terroir and we really want these characteristics to emerge so that the taster/lover's mind can be brought back to the farm through taste.
What do you think of the current artisan chocolate-making scene in the United States? And outside the USA (Latin America and Europe in particular)?
I think it's wonderful to see so many new producers enter the scene. Craft chocolate is such a creative and intricate process and I love to see the ultimate and personal style of each of us. It is a very difficult field and I truly respect anyone who takes this path giving the maximum by putting themselves to the test. Although the artisanal chocolate segment is growing, I hope the fine chocolate market will expand even more in order to contain so much supply. Plus, even though the bean-to-bar movement has had a real boom in the United States, it's nice to see it spread internationally.
Future project and/or dream (new single origins, new trip, new inclusions, or limited edition)?
This year is a big one for us. We are moving to a larger factory space so we can improve the flow and layout of our factory while having more space to do tours and tasting. We are also expanding our current cafe, so we will have mo to seating and a more extensive menu.
How are you keeping all together during the COVID-19?
It’s been a stressful time for us, as I’m sure it’s been for every small business as there are so many unknowns. It has made us look at our entire business and try to be smarter about how we are running it and where we are putting our focus. In a funny way, I think we will come out of this stronger, though perhaps with a few more white hairs!
What is your chocolate message to the world?
It is such a gift that we have so much great chocolate now at our disposal. It takes so much effort to get from cacao tree to chocolate bar, and even more for it to be exceptional quality. So appreciate it! Slow down and make a great chocolate-tasting experience! The chocolate deserves it and you deserve it!!
Last but not least; thank you, Anna, I will never forget your generosity.