Soma Chocolatemaker Interview

A visit to Soma Chocolatemaker during a business trip to Toronto was one of my first experiences with artisan chocolate. Their hot chocolate mix is a heady, intense experience, full of chocolate, chili, and spice. Over the years, Soma has grown by leaps and bounds. They are an interesting company that makes a wide variety of chocolate products while retaining the care and craftsmanship that characterizes artisan chocolate. (There’s a great photostream on Flickr featuring Soma.)

I asked David Castellan, one of the founders of Soma, about the founding of his company and how he’s conquered the technical challenges involved in making chocolate from scratch.

Read the interview in the rest of this post.

Can you talk a little bit about the founding of Soma?

I worked around Toronto as a pastry chef for many years. Around 2000 I was looking for a place to learn more about chocolate panning, having been interested by what Enric Rovira was doing. I took the chocolate technology course at Richardson Research in the summer of 2001. It was a fascinating course as it was full of industrial chocolate people (Mars, etc.) The most interesting thing was that we made chocolate from the bean, in tiny amounts, with home coffee roasters and the small 3 roll mill. It wasn’t very good chocolate but after the course, I kept thinking how cool that was.

From then on, I devoured chocolate making information voraciously. I studied every website about equipment and processes that I could find.

In 2003, my wife and partner Cynthia and I were looking to open a small pastry shop. We found a tiny (600sq ft) space in an interesting historic area of Toronto. We thought that it was really too small for a pastry shop but that we could probably do chocolates and gelato.

So we opened with that idea and did well. We also sold artisan chocolate as well, mostly Domori, Amedei, Bonnat, Valhrona etc. During this time we discovered Domori’s Madagascar 70%. I had been familiar with great chocolate, having been introduced to Manjari by Frederic Bau around 1990, but the Domori changed everything. I realized that the world of chocolate making had been ignored and that there was a place for the artisan producer.

I eventually found a used Macintyre refiner/conch with 45kg capacity. It was installed and I ordered 3 bags of cocoa (Carenero Superior). I found a used coffee roaster that i modified for cocoa roasting. I created a winnower out of PVC and other Home Depot parts and got started. There was some learning to do, and figuring out the limitations of the equipment, but we were basically making chocolate and selling soon after. I was already using a Gami t400e tempering machine for truffles and pralines etc.

In 2006, Soma moved to larger premises (3000 sq ft) Cynthia designed the store so that all the processes are visible. We purchased an old Catalan melangeur, and spent many hours cleaning the turron out of it. I now use the melangeur for nut pastes (for gelato) as well as nib grinding etc.

We still make mostly 70% single origin chocolate (Madagascar, Ocumare, Ghana, Dominican Republic), some spiced chocolate, and lots of hot chocolate mixes. A 100% bar is next and then some interesting dual origins – I already have a Ghana/Madagascar liquor ready.

How did you find equipment that works for small scale production? There are a lot of machines that you can buy to make tons of chocolate an hour, but smaller producers seem to have fewer choices.

You are absolutely right. The options are: used laboratory sized machinery, or make it yourself.

I was contemplating some crazy ideas at first. One was to use a Pacojet to pulverize (frozen) roasted cocoa nibs. This did not work and seems like a really dumb idea in retrospect. I also bought a gelato pasteurizer with the idea that as well as making gelato I could conch in it . Well it is a stainless tub with a paddle that heats to 85’C, but that didn’t work either as there was a 1 hour limit timer and it was really messy.

After a lot of research I lucked out and found a used Macintyre refiner conche that does 45kg batches. That solved the refining and conching problems. I already had a Gami tempering machine as so all I needed to figure out was the roasting and the winnowing.

I did some research on cocoa bean roasters – there are not many options except a Probat ($30000+.) I did find a used Diedrich coffee roaster and modified it a bit and that works great. The final step is the winnowing and I spent many hours and many parts from Home Depot to create many monstrosities that were held together basically with lots of duct tape. But they worked! Winnowing is a messy dusty job but for some reason there aren’t many winnowers for small producers. Domori has the ideal which is a stainless version of an old Bonnat style winnower. Lately I have had a stainless food-grade winnower made for me with a hopper and a feed screw so I can set it and forget it. With all the versions of winnowers I have used I have gotten very good results with almost no shell going into the refiner at all.

My big purchase came after 2 years of successful chocolate making. That is an old Catalan Melangeur. This was purchased as is and I took it all apart, cleaned each bit, and had an engineer hookup an ancient 190V motor with an inverter for speed control. This became the centerpiece when we moved into our new chocolate micro-factory. Amazing machine. Very old, very heavy. We had to basically move it into place with the forklift and then build walls around it.

We also use a Irinox blast chiller when we need some quick cooling and an Irinox chocolate storage cabinet which is humidity controlled.

That is all the machinery for now. I am considering a new tempering machine possibly an FBM or, if we have a good year, a Sollich 100fd — the dream machine! Maybe a two roll refiner for marzipan production who knows…

How long did it take for you to get a winnower design that works well?

Well, my first design worked really well in that it removed the shell efficiently. It took a lot of hours to get the job done. My current design works well but needs no operator intervention other that loading and unloading.

How do you do bean sourcing for small scale production? Do you directly interact with growers?

Mostly, I have used a broker, as this is a good way to get small amounts of lots of different origins. I am interested in working with growers but that is something for the future, running a business takes up a lot of time. There are a growing amount of chocolate makers out there so it seems that a network is developing where we can share shipments etc.

How hard has it been for you to find the right methods for roasting and conching? There seems to be a real art to these stages of the process, and very little documentation on what works and what doesn’t.

Ultimately it is experimentation. and working within the limits of your equipment. The art is in all the choices you make along the way. With smaller artisan production you are have some liberty of changing your formula or process without upsetting the board of directors.

All the chocolate I make is unique from batch to batch and I think that is what is interesting and what makes the whole thing worth doing. The argument used to be that chocolate is actually best made in big batches which makes sense only to the money people.

What are your aspirations for Soma? Are you going to continue to diversify your product line, or specialize? What do you see as the Soma “mission?”

Besides making chocolate, we make chocolates as in truffles, toffees, caramels, all sorts of traditional Italian cookies, gelato, hot chocolate mixes etc. We are always experimenting and will always come up with new stuff. The mission is to keep making interesting products using sometimes odd and outdated techniques.

Who is your target customer? You have a large retail operation, so you must get a pretty good reading on why people buy artisan chocolate. What do you think artisan producers could be doing to grow this market?

99% of our chocolate is sold to customers that come to our store. We do very little wholesale. We are lucky to have a beautiful store where our customers can come to enjoy watching the melangeur crush nibs or truffles being dipped. I think new artisan producers are overlooking this concept, that you can make smaller batches and avoid dealing with distribution networks, although having said that, selling over the internet is probably a good idea. We have not grown this area too much as the US bioterrorism act has make shipping small amounts of food from Canada to the US logistically impossible.

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