Atlanta Magazine - February 2011 - The Bean Stalker - Kristen Hard
 
February 2011

The Bean Stalker

For Kristen Hard, owner of Cacao Atlanta, the quest for exquisite chocolate led deep into the jungle—and up against a dark legacy she’s determined to vanquish.
By Bill Addison

The Bean Stalker, February 2011
Photo by Audra Melton / To see more photos from Hard's trip to Trinidad and Tobago, click here.

One morning in the winter of 2000, Kristen Hard stepped off the Maria Alba, a seventy-three-foot yacht docked on Dominica, the small Caribbean island between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Hard was the chef for a yearlong excursion on the boat, which was owned by the founder of a Spanish telecom company. On board, she cooked three elaborate meals for seven people daily: quiches and pastries, fresh pastas and pizza, bouillabaisse made from fish caught off the back of the yacht. Her unlimited food budget—she stockpiled foie gras—was a dream, but her drive to prove that a young, female American cook could continually wow the skeptical Europeans aboard consumed and exhausted her. On Dominica, she took a few rare hours off with two other crew members to hike into the rain forest with a guide. It was there she encountered the seeds of the passion that would come to define her life.

Hard was only twenty-two, but she’d always been prone to disappearing into her fascinations. When she was six, she tried to make fudge and lollipops alone in her mom’s Dunwoody kitchen. (She didn’t use a candy thermometer, and the candies never hardened properly.) She aced science all through grade school and begged her dad for a chemistry set but never got one. In college, while studying philosophy at the University of South Carolina, she cooked at a Cuban restaurant. The owners saw her ambition and made her manager. She and the head cook fought so ferociously over recipe consistency that Hard fired him and took on that role, too. Her stint as a yacht chef began when she was backpacking in Europe and two men at a marina in Genoa randomly offered her a job. Hard often refers to an interior guiding voice that she’s trusted since she was little. She had stopped by the marina only to kill time while waiting for a train to Spain, but her intuition told her to take the cooking gig.

In Dominica’s rain forest, the guide stopped in front of a small tree—elfin, really, by the tropics’ lush standards, with a slim trunk and branches no thicker than a powerful man’s arms. Theobroma cacao (“food of the gods”) is an evergreen understory tree: It thrives beneath the shade of tall banana plants and other trees. Its pods, shaped like tapered melons, sprout right from the trunk and grow to roughly the size of a Nerf football. The color of the pods depends on the tree hybrid, but they run similar to the hues in a handful of Skittles. The guide picked up a yellowish-orange pod from the ground. “This,” she said, “is where chocolate comes from.”

Hard’s hiking partners nodded appreciatively, but she was mesmerized. Chocolate! She asked the guide if she could keep the pod. Later, at a market in Dominica, she found women selling a simple form of chocolate used mostly for making hot drinks. She asked them what she could do with the pod, and they gave her vague instructions. On the boat, she hacked open the pod to reveal beans surrounded by sticky, white pulp. She removed the beans and placed them in the window to dry in the sun. A few days later, after the beans grew brown and brittle, she roasted them and pried open the shells with her fingers to get at the nibs—fragmented pieces of pure seed that are the foundation of chocolate. She ground the nibs into a powder. The flavor was mild, but she was proud of her efforts and used the powder as a flavoring in recipes. In the six months that the boat lingered in the Caribbean, she kept seeking out markets that sold unrefined chocolate molded into baton shapes.

Hard longed to make elegant, smooth, European-style truffles, but the batons, still flecked with nibs, had a coarse texture. She took a rolling pin to the chocolate, pounded it in a mortar and pestle, then pressed it through a fine sieve. She melted it, mixed it with cream, and infused it with lavender and other fresh herbs, then molded the truffles by hand. “When I was working with chocolate that first time, I swear, I was under a spell,” Hard told me. She would later speak of the moment with the fervor of the converted: “God told me to make chocolate.” She served the truffles to the Europeans; they swooned.

Today, Hard is the owner of Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Co., a cozy Inman Park boutique with a one-room production facility where she and her small staff produce the most exquisite chocolate in the Southeast. This is indulgence on an intense new level, painstakingly crafted in ways that few artisans in the country even attempt. But craftsmanship, as Hard has learned, isn’t enough. Without the right bean, her skills are irrelevant. Since opening her shop in 2008, Hard has become a crusading force in the world of fine chocolate, traveling the globe to pinpoint the kind of beans that will not only sustain her business but also change the model for an industry that has been built on exploitation.

***

Chocolate evolved from an aristocratic luxury in Europe to the ubiquitous mass-market pleasure on both sides of the Atlantic during the Industrial Revolution. In the twentieth century, familiar names—Hershey, Mars, Nestlé, Lindt, Kraft—began to dominate the market. Conglomerates with scale on their side drove down prices, and the growers suffered the effects. An investigation in 2001 by Knight Ridder newspapers uncovered child slavery practices on African cacao plantations. The owners defended themselves by saying that prices of cacao were so low they couldn’t afford to pay labor. Still, farmers must sell to large companies, and even smaller premium companies such as Valrhona buy hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of cacao annually. Because cacao is grown in tropical regions that are often remote, most manufacturers, even of the small-batch variety, establish alliances with brokers and dealers who work closely with cacao farmers and navigate the headaches of export.

When Hard was ready to start making chocolate from scratch, she bought beans from an Ecuadorian source that had already been supplying her with couverture—a basic form of chocolate that all confectioners use to make truffles, pastries, and candies. By 2008, she had found the space in Inman Park, had purchased a modest amount of equipment, and, with the beans from Ecuador, was preparing to launch a line of chocolate bars made from scratch—known in foodie parlance as “bean-to-bar” chocolate.

Atlanta’s food community was already embracing “local” as its guiding ethos—artisan bacon, seasonal produce, the rise of farmers markets. Cacao could never be grown in the South, of course, but why not make chocolate locally? Hard would be a trailblazer. She sent out press releases and promised samples. When the first batch of bars was ready, she and associates Caline Jarudi and Lauren Gosnell gathered in Inman Park for the grand tasting. Hard took a bite. She paused and took another bite. The texture was unctuous, with an unfriendly aftertaste. “It’s good,” said Gosnell supportively. “It’s not what it should be,” said Hard. They’d added cocoa butter, a standard step, but Hard realized it had wrecked her vision for the chocolate. She cried. She knew it was time to start hunting for cacao herself.

***

Hard’s tiny confectionery radiates enchanted calm. Customers tend to enter quietly, as if slipping into church after the service has already started. Seductions fill every nook: truffles in handsome shapes displayed behind glass on the front counter, chocolate bark flecked with dried fruits and nuts, bags of homemade marshmallows tied with pretty bows, and the connoisseur’s choice—dark chocolate bars made of 75 percent cacao and 25 percent sugar, nothing else. Hard herself looks like the Hollywood fantasy of a chocolate maker, dressed in a snuggly sweater or a lab coat smeared with chocolate, slipping on a white glove to retrieve truffles scented with honey and ginseng or cardamom and rosemary.

When I first walked into her shop, I had no idea the pains Hard went through for raw materials. Actually, I rarely paid attention to chocolate at all. When I was five years old, I got sick after a babysitter fed me a bowl of Nestlé Toll House morsels, which suitably derailed my future as an obsessed chocoholic. I traded Snickers for Smarties at Halloween and asked for Gobstoppers instead of Cadbury eggs at Easter. I occasionally ate a Godiva raspberry star as a teenager, thinking it sophisticated. (It was mostly white chocolate.) Working as a pastry chef in my twenties, I could certainly discern between a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar and the Valrhona or Callebaut or Scharffen Berger dark chocolate couvertures we used: The former tasted sugary and flat; the latter—all of them premium dark chocolate standards in restaurant pastry kitchens—possessed nuance, character, bite. Still, after a shift I’d scarf the last of the peach crisp rather than heat up a leftover flourless chocolate cake.

As with artisan winemakers and, more recently, coffee roasters, fine chocolate makers—in America and beyond—take their creations to new levels of connoisseurship by focusing on terroir (a term borrowed from the wine world): geography, cacao varietal, stewardship of the land. These affect flavor tremendously, as does the care in producing the chocolate. In their masterpieces, bean-to-bar craftsmen eschew common additives—dairy, vanilla, excessive amounts of sugar, soy lecithin, and, in cases such as Hard’s, extra cocoa butter for smoothness—so one can discern the multidimensional flavors inherent in the cacao. (Cacao and cocoa are interchangeable words; Hard prefers cacao, probably because of the Swiss Miss images that the word cocoa brings to mind.) If you’ve seen these bars sold in specialty stores or on a rack at Whole Foods, you’ve probably noticed a percentage in a large font on the packaging: That’s the total amount of cacao in the chocolate bar. The artisans typically start at 60 percent; few climb higher than 80, which is plenty intense. Worshipers pay willingly for the extra effort: Premium chocolate helped spur 3 percent annual growth for the $17 billion American chocolate industry, even through the recession.

Hard is the only bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Atlanta, and she can be sharp-tongued about the prevalence of American artisan chocolate on the market. “Just because you’re a bean-to-bar maker does not mean that, at the end of the process, your product is phenomenal,” she said. “Right now, bean-to-bar is so trendy that anyone who attempts it is automatically seen as quality. But a bean-to-bar maker can use cheap beans and overprocess the chocolate. You can maintain a better quality in small-batch, but there’s so much more to it.”

Before I nibbled one of Hard’s bean-to-bar creations, I first tried her $2.50 truffles, also made using chocolate she crafts from scratch. I started with the Italian Cowboy, flavored with Illy espresso and Woodford Reserve bourbon; then the Sweet Afternoon with vanilla, fig, and balsamic reduction; and finally, the Aztec Aphrodisia, a nod to chocolate’s ancient Mexican origins with a blend of seven spices and chiles. My first thought was: These taste culinary. And personal. It was the chocolate equivalent of a home-cooked meal. They tasted like an actual someone had dreamed up each of them and said, “I like this, and I bet others will, too.” I loved the yin and yang of offering both delicate truffles and dark chocolate bars, something most American bean-to-bar makers don’t tackle. I broke off a bit of the bar, a 75 percent from Dominican Republic cacao, and admired the texture: supple yet resistant. Al dente chocolate. Notes of citrus and tobacco knocked around my taste buds. It was potent chocolate, all right, but it also resembled a red wine I’d be happy to own a case of.

***

After the debacle with her first bean-to-bar effort, Hard plunged herself into the search for cacao. But establishing a reliable supply chain proved maddening. She visited the Dominican Republic and thought she’d secured a source, but a promised shipment never arrived. The brokers told her the beans spoiled, but Hard suspected the farmer’s whole harvest was sold to a larger company. It wasn’t implausible. Last July, British financier Anthony Ward paid $1 billion for 240,000 tons of beans in a bid to control cost and supply.

In 2009, Hard went to Venezuela, visiting twelve farms and sleeping in hammocks for two weeks. It was there she thought she’d found her crowning prize. A farmer she knows simply as Donaldo was growing cacao in a town called Patanemo, at the edge of San Esteban National Park, a few miles from the Venezuelan shoreline that touches the Caribbean. When Hard brought back samples and turned them into chocolate, she was ecstatic over the taste: notes of bread pudding, cinnamon, caramel, and jammy cherry at the finish. This, she declared, would be her premiere line of chocolate bar. The brokers who had accompanied her promised her an exclusive on that year’s harvest. But half the beans in the first shipment were rotted from poor storage. She waited for the second shipment to arrive. She couldn’t reach the brokers. Then, last June, Hard and Caline Jarudi went to New York for a meeting of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. Jarudi swung by Dean & Deluca to check out the chocolate selection. She spotted a new blue-and-gold-wrapped bar by the Mast Brothers, bean-to-bar producers in Brooklyn. The back label read, “Limited Reserve: Patanemo, Venezuela.” “My heart stopped,” said Jarudi. “I bought it, I took a picture, I texted Kristen, and she was just dead silent.”

By last August, Hard had regrouped with a new plan: She’d bypass the middlemen altogether by buying her own farm, a radical concept for a business her size. She pinpointed Trinidad and Tobago as an underappreciated cacao supply. In the early twentieth century, Trinidad and Tobago was a globally respected source of cacao. But disease, economics, weather, and the rise of the oil and sugar industries in Trinidad contributed to the cacao crop’s slow demise. Some European companies still buy from the islands, but Hard saw possibilities of reinvigorating Trinidad and Tobago’s name in chocolate circles.

By buying land, Hard also hoped to empower Trinidad and Tobago’s growers. She has long exercised an altruistic streak: As a junior in college, she organized protests against the university’s proposed budget cuts. Now she’d work with farmers on quality control so their cacao could sell for more. “The big companies want to keep the farmer down,” she told me. “Then the price of chocolate stays reasonable, and the companies can keep the profits for themselves.” She sighed. “Chocolate is such a celebrated thing. I want the farmers to be celebrated.”

Additionally, the eighty-year-old cacao research unit at the University of the West Indies on Trinidad intrigued her. She set up meetings for November, and I asked to tag along.

***

Our Jeep crunched over unpaved roads snaking through the northern mountains of Tobago. We’d left Atlanta just as temperatures had begun their autumnal slide, but it was already climbing into the muggy eighties at ten in the morning in the Caribbean. The right wheels spun less than two inches away from a craggy tumble down a high cliff. Hard didn’t look fazed. Her gaze stayed fixed on the white 1976 Land Rover leading the way to a pod harvest. This is how Hard begins new cacao relationships: Buyer and seller feel each other out more by interaction than through conversation. Gone was the demure chocolate-shop persona I’d first encountered. Wearing a tank top, with her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looked like Linda Hamilton in The Terminator. She had introduced herself to Clement Bobb and Cloyd Blackman, the Tobagonians in the car ahead, an hour ago at the hotel. In the last two years, Hard has grown comfortable following strangers into a rain forest for the sake of chocolate.

The road became barely more than a wide path that turned inland and took us farther into the mountains. The jungle’s fecund smells of death and rebirth intensified. Leaves and branches grazed the car from every angle. Forty minutes after leaving asphalt, our caravan of two pulled into the cacao grove—a flat clearing in the forest with shafts of light spilling through the foliage. It felt sacred, a worthy site to grow the food of the gods. Bobb, a big, paternal man with a salt-and-pepper moustache, and Blackman, a smart and sinewy fellow who’d make an entertaining drinking partner, changed into work clothes. This is Blackman’s land. He has day jobs in real estate and insurance; cacao is a side business. Bobb is chairman of the Tobago Cocoa Farmers Association. They pulled out large plastic sacks, a machete, and a ten-foot bamboo pole with a hoe blade attached to the end for reaching the pods that grow highest on the trees. After watching her handle the morning’s drive in his rearview mirror, Bobb didn’t seem surprised when Hard reached for the bamboo pole. “Can you show me?” she asked, gesturing to a nearby cacao tree rife with pods. Bobb placed the hoe blade against the spot where the pod most tenuously connected to the tree and, with a quick thrust, pierced it. Hard took the pole and jabbed; her first pod fell to the leaf-covered ground. Bobb nodded.

They harvested nonstop for two hours. Halfway through, I saw Bobb and Blackman pause to observe the five-foot-four, 110-pound Hard in skinny jeans and red sneakers as she hauled an increasingly heavy bag of pods up a foothill. They glanced at each other, eyebrows raised. She’s serious. Hard hadn’t slept well the night before because her mind was racing, but the work revived her.

When they were certain they’d spotted every ripe pod, we gathered at the tailgate of the Land Rover. Blackman whacked a pod in half with the machete. The beans inside were an otherworldly purple. We all pulled out beans, which are the texture of boiled peanuts, to suck off the pulp. It tasted a bit like candy—nature’s SweeTarts. Hard had prepped me beforehand: These beans were committed to another buyer. It was impolite to eat them unless invited. After slurping off the pulp, we tossed the beans back in the bag. They had a long journey before they became chocolate. Our germs didn’t matter in the long haul.

Hard liked Bobb and Blackman, and they took to the scrappy American willing to get a little dirty. They agreed to meet for another harvest a few days later.

The day before, we had flown the twenty-five minutes from Tobago to Trinidad for a meeting with heads of the university’s cacao research unit, which specializes in genetics and disease resistance (and receives sponsorships from some of the biggest names in European chocolate, including Lindt and Cadbury). The conversation started with one professor extolling the joys of the chocolate shops he had visited recently in Brussels, selling top European brands. Hard listened politely, then said, “The question is, is that the highest quality? Most European chocolate companies are mass producers. If you do it on a mass level, it is very difficult, in my opinion as a chocolate maker, to maintain the integrity of the cacao bean and the flavor profile in an immaculate way. So what we do is connoisseur-level chocolate. In the world, I’d say there are thirty companies doing what we do. In the United States, there are maybe five.” The professor fell silent.

The topic turned to agronomy: the science behind genetic strands of cacao hybrids, crop yields, and which areas of the island produce fruitier-tasting beans and which more floral. Darin Sukha, head of flavor research, arrived. Listening to the first two minutes of their conversation was like watching a first date go ridiculously well:

“So you’ve bought from the Dominican Republic?” Sukha asked. “Which bean type: Hispaniola or Sanchez?”

“Hispaniola.”

“And which company do you purchase it through, Rizek or Conacado?”

“No, no, not Rizek,” Hard said. “La Red, actually, I think they treat the farmers most fairly.” She beamed at the others. “Oh my God, I love this guy; he speaks my language!”

Sukha took Hard to his lab. Charts demonstrating degrees of cacao fermentation hung on cabinets. Equipment explicitly designed for cacao research—one machine that measures the precise moisture of a bean, another for precision splicing—lined the counters, as did up-to-date apparatus for making small batches of chocolate. “I mean . . . amazing,” Hard said. She never stopped grinning. It was the chemistry set beyond her schoolgirl fantasies.

As the week went on, it became clear that Hard wouldn’t be securing any land on this trip. Farmers enumerated the difficulties she’d face: labor, government, land cost, the unpredictable weather, the earth itself. Most were more interested in selling her beans in the coming year than in pointing her to land bargains on Trinidad. Tourist-heavy Tobago, she discovered, has strict laws about foreigners purchasing property; the best she could hope for is to lease a farm. Toward the end of the trip, she joined Bobb and Blackman for another harvest—this one with twelve other men, beginning at 5:30 a.m., in a downpour. (They broke out a bottle of Scotch afterward, and Bobb’s mother made a lunch of fried fish and fresh bread.) They agreed to ferment and dry a small batch of beans according to Hard’s preferences, so she could make sample chocolate from them, and she left with the intention of buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of beans in the next six months. No formal agreements, though. “The farmers are wary, I’m wary, and it takes time to build relationships,” Hard said, resigned.

***

At least three Atlanta shops that specialized in chocolate have closed in the last two years, but Hard and Jarudi expect Cacao’s business to double in 2011. Jarudi has taken on the role of chief operating officer, nurturing wholesale accounts and tending to details so Hard can focus on chocolate. Love Bars, from the one shipment of Patanemo cacao, retail for $13 apiece. (Yes, it’s exorbitant, but it’s my favorite thing in the store; I break off small morsels so it lasts me a week.) Buckhead’s Restaurant Eugene started buying Cacao’s couverture to use in its desserts. When I spoke with Hard in December, she expected the second Cacao Atlanta store to be open in Buckhead by late January, in a shopping center next to House of Fleming leather goods near Fellini’s Pizza. This location—with a marble countertop, chandeliers and pendant lights, a coffee bar, and a seating area with bistro chairs—is much tonier than the spare flagship. Behind a glass wall in the back is the workspace that Hard calls her “laboratory.” Since production has consumed most of the Inman Park space, this is where she’ll have room to dream up new truffle flavors and experiment with cacao samples.

While her supply of cacao beans was stable for the moment—the company had four tons from the Dominican Republic in a New Jersey storage facility—Hard’s hunt for her own reliable source of cacao beans was far from over. Before her Trinidad and Tobago trip, she established a line of credit with Georgia-based Brand Banking Company. She’ll use that money for a half container of cacao (industry parlance for twenty tons) she hoped to buy from Trinidad and Tobago this year. She’ll pay somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000; as with most aspects of cacao, the actual cost will remain a proprietary secret. She’ll sell a portion of the beans she buys to other chocolate makers. (“Don’t be surprised if they say they direct-sourced the beans themselves,” she deadpanned.)

As usual, there may be competition for the beans. She’d heard that a large German chocolate company had been nosing around Trinidad and Tobago aggressively. If they knew that a small-batch American chocolate maker wants a chunk of the choice harvests, it could turn into a bidding war that Hard wouldn’t win. And she wouldn’t blame the farmers if they took more money. She just hoped they’d embrace her long-term strategies for branding and new processing techniques she intends to develop in Sukha’s lab: She decided to enroll at the University of the West Indies and earn her master’s in agronomy, starting later this year. She’ll keep looking for land on Trinidad, and she won’t stop seeking cacao. She told me she planned to visit Peru next and then return to Venezuela. She leaned in and revealed that she’d heard about a tribe deep in the Amazon that supposedly tends an untapped supply of wild cacao. I told her that sounded dangerous. She shrugged. “Chocolate’s a good cause to die for, right?”