Interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, Part I

At long last, I’m happy to present an interview with Art Pollard, one of the founders of Amano Chocolate. Art is one of the leading independent chocolate makers in the United States, and is definitely a man on a mission. Like the other pioneers of American artisan chocolate, the founders of Amano have had to start from scratch, finding sources of beans, refining chocolate making techniques, and even building custom machinery. Amano now produces three extremely fine single origin dark chocolates: a Venezuelan Ocumare, a Madagascar, and a limited edition Venezuelan Cayagua. These bars won the best Dark Chocolate award at the San Francisco Chocolate Salon.

On to the first part of the interview, focussing on the machinery and processes used to make Amano chocolate.

You mention on your site that you experimented with building your own equipment. In your current plant, how much of your equipment is your own design?

This whole adventure started out with my designing and building my own chocolate refiner. It was designed and built from scratch. The design is unique, and I’ve not been able to find anything quite like it on the market or historically. The design was refined over quite a few iterations, each time improving on the last. Of course, at the time I was simply doing it because I enjoyed the challenge and the chocolate that came out at the end. I have always enjoyed building things; I grew up building tesla coils which would throw off sparks that could be measured in feet. I built hovercraft that I would zoom up and down the street on a cushion of air, and rockets with propellant of my own formulation. When I wanted to make my own chocolate, it was only natural for me to design and build my own refiner. I had no idea that that simple beginning would set me off on a life-changing journey.

As I look back on it, I find it amazing where life takes us. When I think back on my high school guidance counselor, I don’t really remember what he recommended. I have a strong suspicion, however, that “chocolate maker” wasn’t on his list of suggestions. Even so, our lives are like a river, and when we look back, we can see the experiences we’ve had that prepared and led us in a certain direction though we did not know at the time where it was leading us. It has all prepared and lead me to chocolate making, though quite frankly, I still enjoy designing and building all manner of unique projects.

In our factory as it now is, only the winnower is completely of my own design. I felt it important to build so that it would remove the germ in addition to the husk of the bean. This is something that most chocolate makers do not do anymore. Instead, they choose to leave the germ, and it gets ground up along with the rest of the chocolate. Unfortunately, the germ is amazingly hard and does not contribute positively to the final flavor of the chocolate. For this reason, we designed the winnowing machine to remove it, in addition to the bean’s husk. We are still working on the design for it, and just recently I reworked all of the electrical.

I have modified almost all of the machines in our factory in one form or another from their original design. Off hand, I cannot think of a machine that has gone untouched. Our melangeur, for example, we took totally apart and rebuilt the entire drive mechanism, making it now more solid and reliable than the original design allowed. We have added programmable electronic controls so that we closely monitor and control the temperature of the chocolate as we slowly grind the nibs into chocolate. Similarly, our conche has been modified from its original design. Without going into too many specifics, we modified it so that it would give us a more complex flavor profile than the original factory-supplied conches.

With each of our machines, I spent quite a few nights worrying about how to modify them so that they would help us create the flavor profiles I was seeking. The days were spent designing and rebuilding them to meet our specifications.

As we use the machines, they always need maintenance. We still perform most of the maintenance ourselves. For example, we recently blew a seal in our conche, and I have to tear the whole thing apart to replace it. This is no small job, either. Fun, fun, fun.

How difficult has it been to find equipment that works for an artisan process like yours? It seems like there is a universe of “turbo-conches” built to produce chocolate fast, but few manufacturers think about equipment for fine chocolate makers.

Well, that’s just it. In general, chocolate equipment in the United States is difficult to find simply because we don’t have a tradition of small-scale chocolate making—unlike Europe, where this tradition still thrives today. As you say, though, the world is full of turbo conches and machines all designed to save the industrial chocolate makers time and money. Flavor development is very low on their list of priorities. (Part of the reason for this, of course, centers on the huge amounts of sugar that go into most consumer chocolate to cover up any well-developed flavor profile created.)

Because the industry has moved to high-speed designs, finding equipment suitable for chocolate where flavor development is a priority is difficult. Much of the equipment used to make prized chocolate, such as melangeurs, is no longer made.

Melangeurs are the classic machine used when flavor development is a priority. They consist of a large steel or granite bowl approximately 6 to 7 feet in diameter. Over the bowl or along its sides are mounted between one and four large granite grinding wheels. These typically weigh at least 300 pounds each. The bowl rotates underneath the granite wheels, and the wheels grind the cocoa nibs until they become smooth and chocolaty. The bowl is heated either with a waterbath or with steam pipes underneath. This helps to melt and release the cocoa butter, as the cocoa nibs are ground. These are fascinating machines, and it is mesmerizing to watch the chocolate rotate underneath the grinding wheels. Unfortunately, it seems as if melangeurs were last manufactured sometime during the 1960’s. Melangeurs are wonderful tools to use if your production line allows it. I should note that some people have used them for both refining and conching. While they may be used in this way, they really are not appropriate for it for a whole host of reasons.

Nowadays, quite a few companies have moved to so-called universal refiners. These consist of large horizontal drums. Inside these drums are a number of blades that scrape against the inside walls. The chocolate is refined as the blades crush the cocoa bean and sugar between the blade itself and the interior wall of the drum. These really are the quick and easy way to make chocolate. The cocoa nibs, sugar, vanilla, and other ingredients may simply be dumped into the universal refiner as they are. There is no need to pre-refine the cocoa nibs by using a grinder such as a melangeur, hammer or pin mill. You simply turn the machine on and walk away. When you come back, you have chocolate. Unfortunately, these machines have lots of problems. A lot of wear occurs between the blades and the inside walls. The steel wears off and ends up in the chocolate. The wear is so bad, these machines are now made so that the blades are replaceable and the inside walls have replaceable liners. Furthermore, the way the machines are designed, not all the chocolate will drain, and they are almost impossible to clean. On a small machine, typically at least 100 pounds of chocolate would be carried over from run to run. If you are switching between beans from different origins, this contaminates the chocolate made with one bean with significant amounts of chocolate made from another. In the end, you have a mishmash of flavors, and for single-origin bars, you have something that isn’t really single origin anymore. The only way around this is to devote a machine to each origin. I am not aware of any chocolate makers who do this. For these reasons and a number of other reasons I can think of, we do not use “universal refiners.”

As I have implied, our solution to the problem of sourcing equipment for fine chocolate production has been to hunt and track down equipment that was historically used for this purpose. It clearly takes a lot of time and money to track down equipment such as this, import it, teare each machine apart and refurbish all the parts that need repair, and reassembe it. I believe it to be well worth the effort, however.

In addition, I love the feel of the equipment as I run it, knowing how each of the gears mesh and how each bearing does its job. You hear many artists describe how their paint, palate, and paint brush become an extension of them—almost a Zen thing. The same holds here. The paint and the paint brush are in and of themselves not particularly beautiful; they are simply tools and medium. But in an artist’s hands, they come alive to create something very beautiful. The same holds here—by becoming intimately familiar with our tools, I believe we become better chocolate artists.

On a recent trip to Paris, my wife visited the Louvre and was able to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa. As an art student, she had appreciated the beauty of the painting from prints, but she was still unprepared for the impact of the original—it brought her to tears. Da Vinci used the same paint and tools as others in his era but was able to create a masterpiece because he was more familiar with their properties and application, and these allowed him to better execute his vision.

We have modified our tools to achieve our vision of flavor. Because our tools and processes are unique, our chocolate is also unique—an extension of our vision. I’m not sure we are to the point where we can call our chocolate a “masterpiece,” but I believe it to be very good; and perhaps as we grow and our techniques are honed, our chocolate will be appreciated by those who know and love chocolate like we do. In the end, that is all we can ask or hope for.

Have you altered the classic roast-crack-winnow-grind-mix-refine process at all? What parts of this process do you think are most critical to the qualities of your chocolate?

We have our own unique manufacturing method, which seems to work very well for us. We have machinery similar to what has been used historically for artisanal fine chocolate production, but how we use it is unique. We have made some departures from the regular trail that others have tread in order to bring out the flavor profile we are looking for in our final chocolate. There are some good reasons why others do not make their chocolate the way we do—we simply have chosen the harder path.

As to the details? Well, I’ll leave that up to you, because those little details are what help make Amano Amano.

I will say, however, that we watch each of our machines very carefully, and we taste the output regularly. This helps ensure that we are getting the particular characteristics we are hoping for at whatever stage we are at. It is a very time consuming process, and it all needs to be watched very carefully.

There isn’t a step that isn’t critical for flavor development, except perhaps when the cocoa beans are cracked. Even that can be debated, because how efficiently it is done determines how much chaff is left stuck to the bean, and that will affect flavor development.

Are you using classic melangeurs or roll refiners?

We use both a melangeur and a roll refiner. Our melangeur was built by Carle & Montanari, we are guessing around 1930 or so. We sent the serial number to Carle & Montanari once and asked if the company had any data about when it was built. We received back a brochure that had a line drawing. They said that that brochure was all that they had, and they don’t even know when it was printed. However, the motor has an art-deco design to it, and the style of electrical insulation for the windings date the motor to the 1920’s – 1930’s. We traced the serial numbers off of the bearings and other internal pieces, all of which date it to the 1930’s or so.

Some people have asked about using a melangeur for the entire refining and conching phases of chocolate making. I believe that while it is possible to use melangeurs in this way, other methods result in a better quality finished chocolate, for a number of reasons . First, other methods do not allow sufficient control of the various stages of chocolate making. In addition, how fine a particle is ground depends on the number of times it has passed underneath the grinding wheel(s). Because this is probabilistic, some particles will achieve a finer grind than others, and it is theoretically possible, though unlikely, for a large particle (such as a cocoa nib) to survive the entire process without once passing underneath the grinding wheel. I have seen chocolate produced this way that is fairly smooth but marred by a few stray sugar crystals that were never fully refined.

Make no mistake, melangeurs play a very important role in fine chocolate making. This is the why we use one for the making of our chocolate. Just as a painter would not use a fat or thin paintbrush for each and every painting, we use each of our tools for what they do best.

For the final refining step, we use a roll refiner. Our roll refiner dates from later than our melangeur, but we haven’t spent much time trying to date it. We use the melangeur to pre-refine and then the roller mill to perform a final grind on the chocolate to make it very smooth.

Unlike the “Universal Refiners,” roll refiners are much more difficult to run. They have to be constantly monitored to ensure that they are running properly. As the roller mill runs, the chocolate will run through it at different speeds and grinds. Because of this, it must be monitored and constantly adjusted to make sure that the chocolate is being ground to the proper fineness. In addition, if the roll refiner is allowed to run dry (or other problems crop up), then the rollers begin to self-destruct. The rollers will crack, get burn marks, warp, or have other problems. When this happens, the rollers (or sometimes the entire roller mill) must be shipped off for refurbishing. This typically costs $20,000 or more—a very expensive proposition.

The advantage of roller mills, however, is that it is possible to achieve a more consistent particle size in the ground chocolate. This helps create a better mouth feel. For a variety of reasons, I believe, chocolate made with roller mills also results in better flavor than may be achieved through other refining methods.


One Response to Interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, Part I

  1. […] more about Amano and a great interview with Art Pollard check out CacaoLab. Or check out the Amano […]

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