Interview with Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate

As I mentioned in a previous post, Shawn Askinosie has just recently launched his chocolate line, Askinosie Chocolate, starting with an Ecuador single-origin 70%. He’s quite actively involved with the growers, and has been able to procure some cacao from outside the usual regions. I’ll be reviewing his Del Tambo bar soon, and am anxiously awaiting the Soconusco bar, which is sourced from the same region of Mexico where the Mayans cultivated their beans. Despite it’s long history with cacao, Mexico is not currently known as an origin for quality beans. It’d be quite satisfying to see that changed.

So, on with the interview of the only chocolate maker qualified to get people out of jail! (Shawn has arrived at chocolate making after years as a defense attorney.)

You have a detailed outline of your process on your website. Of all the steps involved, from bean selection to roasting to conching, what do you feel is the key process in determining the quality of your chocolate?

The 3 opportunities to affect taste are: (1) in the field, (2) in the roaster and (3) in the conche. I have a lot of time learning how to affect taste in the field by going to places that I buy beans and talking to and working with the farmers making sure they understand what I mean when I talk about fermentation. It is one thing to spec what you want but quite another to go to the place and see if they can really do it. I have had all of my post harvest documents translated into Spanish and take them with me every place I go. The second place is the roaster and having made chocolate at home (and my law office) for two years has given me a better feel for what the taste can be. I must admit – however – I am still developing my skill in this area. There are many chocolate makers that are so much better than me at this, that the list is too long to mention. I hope I will be learning and developing these skills for many years to come. The final place to affect taste is in the conche. I have seen what other chocolate makers say about this on this site as well as others. I understand the variables at play here. I find it interesting that each maker advocates their own style of conching based on the machine they have – is it 100 years old (like mine and others) or is it new, or a universal? The main thing here is how the variables are manipulated to create the taste you are going for. These are the three main areas for me that affect quality.

I would add one additional point about quality that is more about texture than taste: cocoa butter. As you know the cocoa butter is found naturally in the bean. Many makers today do not add any additional cocoa butter. I like the texture that added cocoa butter gives to some chocolate. You can go overboard on this and the chocolate is waxy. This is a good place to point out that some larger chocolate makers use cocoa butter to stretch their bean inventory; they will not need as many beans if they can substitute with butter (which if purchased right can be much cheaper than the bean). Those chocolate makers dont tell you how much of the cooca content is butter and how much liquor – I do. Honestly, I credit chocolate maker Steve DeVries for giving me this idea. There is a lot more I could say about this. The point for me is that I like the texture and wanted to add some cocoa butter to our chocolate. But, I refused to buy it from the industrial makers and had a butter press custom made in South America so we make our own. I do not know anyone else in the US doing this in small batches like us (but there could be someone out there so I apologize in advance if I missed it). It costs us more to do it this way but it’s worth it because our butter is single origin (from the same liquor as we make the chocolate with) and I know where it came from.

What is your general roasting philosophy? I’ve heard of makers roasting at very low temperatures for a long time, on the theory that it keeps burnt tastes out, but some roasters want to work at a higher temperature to develop the flavor of the bean. How did you develop your roasting formula?

The simple truth is that I roasted by trial and error with the roaster we have – over and over and over again recording the time, temperature, taste and smell. Then we duplicate that each time. The higher temp depends on the bean. Some beans can withstand a much higher temp. Again – I am continually learning. I wish I could tell you that use a sophisticated curve (and some who taste my chocolate might agree) to exact the best flavor. I have a fairly “rustic” roaster and I do with it, and my own limitations what I can.

I noticed that your Del Tambo bar is a 70% cacao bar, and your Soconusco is a 75% bar. Can you explain your decision process in arriving at the formulation for these two bars? Why did you decide to go heavier on the cacao in the Soconusco?

That is a great question, Terence. I decided on the heavier cocoa content because I like strong dark chocolate. I might have gone heavier on the Del Tambo from Ecuador but I need to experiment more in order to get the kind of taste I would like. When I tested the Soconusco I thought the bean could withstand the 75% (remembering that 2% of that is our cocoa butter from the same origin). The flavors of the Soconusco origin are different than that of the Ecuador – without telling you what I think it tastes like – and maybe lighter. I try not to suggest to the folks who eat our chocolate what I think the notes are because I love hearing from people in person and online what they think it tastes like without a hint from me.

You mention a melangeur and a “universal” refiner on your web site. Can you talk a little more about the universal? When do you you use that instead of the melangeur? Is this a ball mill, or a rolling refiner?

It is a Universal sometimes referred to as a universal, refiner, conche (not a ball mill and not a roller refiner). We only use it as a mixer/grinder to reduce particle size of the nib (for liquor) and also we use it as a mixer when combining the liquor, cocoa butter and sugar – reducing particle size even further; to about 10 microns.

I noticed the Bauermeister conches in the photos accompanying your bar. Nice equipment!

The Bauermeister is our melangeur and we use it for making liquor in conjunction with our universal. We also use the melangeur exclusively to make the liquor for our cocoa butter. I find that the particle size is more uniformly coarse and that is something we need for our cocoa butter press.

You’ve invested a great deal in setting up a well-equipped operation. What is your hope for Askinosie chocolate? What would “success” look like?

I started the thought of this company in May 2005 and formalized it into an LLC in August 2005. It has been a long haul. My hat is off to anyone who is out there making chocolate from the bean and for all those that are trying. This ain’t easy.

My hope for our chocolate is that some people really love it and want to have it – often. One of the things I love is making a product that people enjoy. I do not want to be voted the Best Chocolate on Planet Earth. Been there – done that. I have already spent nearly two decades developing my career as a criminal defense lawyer; pushing, pulling, striving, fighting, and all that goes with that. Success for our little chocolate company will be working happily with side by side with my family – in particular my wife. She put me through law school and has sacrificed so much for me and my family that I hope/pray that she will be happy working with me in this project. That is happiness for me. I also want the other people I work with to benefit financially from any monetary success we might have. Finally – I want to have an impact on the lives of some farmers. Our chocolate company will not “change” the life of a farmer – I doubt. But, our model of sharing a “Stake In the Outcome” if followed by other companies that source raw materials from developing countries can change the world. I have spent years studying the problems of developing countries and I believe – as do others smarter than I – that this could be a model for others to replicate.

In the same vein, where do you see the artisan chocolate market going? It’s certainly grown in the last few years. How do you think it will be different five years from now?

I have no idea. I am not an industry expert. The industry has been compared to the micro-brewery industry 20 years ago. I do think that it wont take 20 years for the sub-sector to explode. I say I have no idea because it is not something I really follow, believe it or not. I hope and believe that folks who like good chocolate will have more choices.

What chocolates on the market do your really admire? Do you have a favorite for texture or flavor? Was there a bar that really started you down the path of artisan chocolate?

I started baking with Scharffen Berger chocolate. My first desert was an Italian chocolate pudding using the SB baking bar. My favorite artisan chocolate maker . . . at least from what I taste and know about the guy – would probably be Pralus. Not really any particular bar – there are so many.

Mexican cacao is unusual for an artisan bar. I had heard most of it is unfermented. How hard was it to find the Mexican cacao you are using? What qualities attracted you to that variety?

You are correct sir – most of it is unfermented. That is why it was so important for me to travel there and meet with people to talk about fermentation. It was difficult on one hand and not so hard on the other finding the cocoa. We are proud of the beans we bought because there is a lot of history that accompanies the Soconusco cocoa. I was fortunate to find the right person who introduced me to farmers there. I was not attracted to the variety at all. I was attracted to the history of the place and to the people. I am never attracted to a variety. I could make good chocolate with Ecuador CCN51 if I wanted to (and so could a lot of other people) but I don’t. The places I go – above all – must have a story or some connection to me or our company. I am going to just pick up and go to . . . . Madagascar because I love the beans there. No – I will go there when there is a connection and the chance at developing relationships.

Believe me – it would be much easier to call a broker on the phone and order up some beans. This part of the process has been very challenging and costly. But – it is worth it in the end. I know where the beans came from. I know the names of every farmer who grew my beans in both Mexico and Ecuador. Steve DeVries in Colorado is the only other chocolate maker in the US that I know who deals direct with the farmers besides me. I have had to learn lessons the hard way – as in farmers not being so honest as I thought they would be.

How often are you traveling to work with your growers? What has their reaction been to be involved as closely as they are?

I travel a lot. I went to Ecuador 3 or 4 times in one year for example. I have another trip planned to go back there in a couple of months; same with Mexico. I have other trips planned this year as well. I use email a lot and the telephone. I use a local company that assists me with shipping, customs, and freight forwarding. You want to talk about a challenge? Just getting the beans here may be as difficult as proper fermentation. Once I travel to meet with farmers I usually talk to them once or twice a week for several months before shipment.

Have you considered working towards a milk chocolate? It’s rare, but I see an increasing amount of carefully made milk chocolate on the market.

Not at the moment – although I get the question a lot. I like it and would think about it. It does reduce the health benefits and is harder to make but we will think more about it someday.

How is your day different now that you are getting up in the morning to make chocolate instead of going to court? How do your former colleagues view your new pursuit?

My law practice is winnowing down (to use a term of art). I am not in court much now but I still have some cases that I am responsible for. I am working at the factory full time now and go to court when my partner needs me. I keep a suit at the factory and I must admit it is an odd feeling to look in the mirror to make sure all of the chocolate is off my face, put on a tie, go over to the courthouse, argue a case, come back and put my factory clothes on.

My former colleagues have mixed views about it. I think the prosecutors are glad to be rid of me. Some of my colleagues think I have lost my mind; I was making a lot of money and at the pinnacle of my profession – picking the cases I wanted to work on. Here is the deal: you don’t have to do the same thing your whole life. I don’t care what people think about what is “expected” of me – except God, my family and friends. There those lawyers who have come by the factory who secretly want to work here – I can see it in their eyes.

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2 Responses to Interview with Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate

  1. laura says:

    great interview, T. tell him to move here so i can write about him for California Lawyer magazine!

  2. Borealis says:

    Dear Mr. Akinosie,

    In searching for international news, I came across this worrisome piece of news. I thought of your business and wanted to alert you.

    http://www.democracynow.org/2008/2/14/chocolates_bittersweet_economy_cocoa_industry_accused

    MC
    New York NY

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