Interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, Part III

Here’s the last segment of the interview with Art Pollard of Amano. In this segment, we discussed how he sees the market evolving, and how his company fits into that picture. I recommend reading this interview while eating a square of Amano Madagascar, and support independent American chocolate makers!

How much effort is Amano putting into pulling customers from the wilderness of eating industrial chocolate? Do you envision yourself growing more from individual chocolate lovers or the culinary trade?

I think people throughout the world and right now, especially the American public, are waking up from the darkness of industrial chocolate. This has not been lost on the “industrial chocolate complex,” however. I am amazed when I walk into many stores how they are currently trying to reinvent their chocolate so that it looks like premium chocolate. The packaging on much of this chocolate is beautiful—at least compared to what has traditionally been used. Unfortunately, when I taste the chocolate, it still tastes like the same old— I am hopeful that the American public will not be fooled by the slick marketing campaigns these companies have been running of late.

There will, unfortunately, always be a market for poor-quality food. I’ve have some awful meals in Paris, as well as some whose memory I will always treasure. To be frank, a certain segment of the population is always willing to believe whatever marketing campaign comes down the pipeline, without giving due consideration to what is actually being sold. The reasons for this are complex: some people simply do not care, while others do not have the time to spend researching that what they are buying is as good as the marketing campaign says it is. Yet others simply have not been exposed to good quality food and thus have a hard time perceiving the wonders that may be found there.

Even so, I believe that a huge segment of the American market is growing to appreciate fine-quality food.

I am hopeful, though, that as the American palate becomes better educated, a great many people will come to see the true beauty that may be found not only in fine chocolate but in quality produce, meats, and other fine foods.

Have you considered venturing into a milk chocolate?

Yes, we have considered it. We continue to look at it. One of the benefits of running a chocolate factory is that I am able to follow my passion. My passion now rests with dark chocolate, and while we may release a milk chocolate at some point, our focus will most likely always be on bringing out the incredibly complex and delicate flavors to be found in dark chocolate.

What has your biggest challenge been as a startup chocolate maker? Has the business side or the chocolate making side been harder?

I am not sure there has been an easier side. Setting up a chocolate factory has been an incredible adventure. We knew when we started that it would be an almost overwhelming project. We pictured in our minds how hard it would be and then added what we felt would be a comfortable safety margin. I think everybody does this when starting a project. In reality, however, it has turned out to be a much larger project than we had ever dreamed. We have learned the hard way that there are very good reasons why you do not see many small companies running out to build chocolate factories. The number of hurdles is enormous as is their size.

When we released our chocolate to the general public just before Valentines Day, we were over a year behind where we thought we would be. Needless to say, we also overshot our original budget by a fair degree, just as we overshot the time the time deadlines we had set for ourselves. Much of this was completely beyond our control. We had to rebuild much of the machinery we imported. We made some of the changes to affect the final flavor profile. We made other modifications to improve the reliability of the machines. Now, some of our machinery is better in some ways than when it was new.

The chocolate side has been equally challenging. In order to produce a fine chocolate, one must get a handle on a whole lists of variables. It would have been much easier simply to want to “make chocolate” rather than “make fine chocolate.” The resources in the literature are sorely lacking when it comes to fine chocolate. Most “fine” chocolate nowadays that people use for confections still comes from the Ivory Coast. And Ivory Coast chocolate is pretty good. Even so, the chocolate industry as a whole is interested in “bulk” chocolate mixed with lots of sugar and milk, since that is what drives the grocery store candy counter. For this reason, almost all of the literature and even personal knowledge are geared to this end.

When you work with flavor beans almost exclusively, it is a whole different ball game. There are just a small handful of manufacturers worldwide, and they have better things to do with their time than to produce literature for others. Most are small factories in countries with semi-socialist hiring practices. This means that there is almost zero employee turnover, and the few who know the secrets of how to turn out a great bar instead of a mediocre bar simply aren’t telling. (Not that I blame them.) In the end, you are pretty much on your own to invent or reinvent practices that have not been widely practiced for almost one hundred years.

This means a lot of experimentation, notes, and comparisons between batches. This is always complicated by the fact that chocolate’s flavor profile changes through time—especially over the first thirty days. So making comparisons between batches is difficult, and you have to keep very detailed notes and try to form a mental picture of each flavor profile. From this you have to deduce where the flavors are being generated or destroyed in the manufacturing process. Just a few of the more common examples are roasting times, roasting temperatures, melangeur time and temperature, the fineness of grind in the melangeur, the conching times and temperatures, and the degree of agitation while in the conche.

As I look back at it, it has been amazing what we have accomplished in the amount of time we had to work with. We look back knowing that we accomplished what we did by working hard and working smart. We know that what we did, we did to the absolute best of our ability. We are always striving to improve what we are doing, and I believe, we do it each time a little bit better.


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