A lover of everything chocolate, I was quite pleased when I stumbled upon a new bean-to-bar chocolate company out of Columbus, Ohio called Ohiyo Chocolate. This brand-new business just celebrated its soft launch earlier this month and is gearing up for a grand opening at the beginning of November. Priding himself on his artisanal chocolate bars made from organic and ethically sourced cocoa, owner Mike Condo launched Ohiyo Chocolate with the goal of creating the best chocolate bar he could make, as simply as possible. I asked Mike to tell us a little more about his company, his process, and (of course) his chocolate.
Tell us a little about yourself and Ohiyo Chocolate!
I am originally from Columbus, and have lived in the central Ohio area for my entire life. I come from a large Italian family where the food is always the star of the party. I developed a love of baking early on, most likely due to that Italian family. I remember staying up late the night before Thanksgiving to make what felt like thousands of pizzelles. Then spent an entire day the weekend after Thanksgiving making Christmas cookies. It was my favorite thing to do. Most of my earliest memories take place in the kitchen punching down bread dough, and cutting out cookies.
I graduated from Devry University in 2009 with a degree in computer science, and have been working as a software developer for the past five years. Yet, my love for making food has never gone away. I started making chocolate for myself with some cocoa nibs that I found at a health food store. Even though the process is long and intensive, I enjoy every second of making chocolate.
I started Ohiyo Chocolate as a way to share great chocolate with the community that I grew up in. I take great pride in the craft of making chocolate, which is why I focus on single origin bean-to-bar chocolate. It means that I get to use only the best ingredients with no additives of soy, cocoa butter, or anything else to get in the way.
What does it mean to be a “bean to bar” chocolate company?
Bean-to-bar is a term that is used when referring to when a chocolatier produces chocolate starting with the raw cocoa bean. This process is a lot more work for the chocolate maker, but this gives complete control starting with the roast. The cocoa beans would then be cracked, ground, refined, tempered, molded and wrapped.
Even though many large chocolate manufacturers do start with raw cocoa beans, they usually are not considered bean to bar chocolate makers. This is due to the fast processing times, automated procedures, and high level of additives in the finished chocolate.
Has it been difficult to source ethically from central Ohio?
As far as I can tell, being located in central Ohio hasn’t created any more challenges than if I were located anywhere else in the world. The biggest challenge that I have had is discerning which farms are truly invested in ethical business practices, and which farms may be fair trade in name only.
The term Fair Trade is used to show that a product has been produced to meet a certain ethical standard. Typically it means that farmers are paid a fair price for their crops, they practice sustainable agriculture, produce high quality crops, and do not use child labor. Unfortunately the fair trade label is often used as a marketing tactic these days. This has caused the number of fair trade certified farms to more than double, and while this seems like a good thing it actually dilutes the purpose of the certification. It becomes very easy for farms to get labelled as fair trade certified, charge more for their crops, but quickly go back to their old ways. Due to the big increase of certified farms it is easy for these farms to slip through the cracks.
Luckily I was able to find an importer with lots of great contacts in the cocoa industry. He has been invaluable in providing information about individual farms and co-operatives, along with samples of their cocoa beans. Through him I managed to find a Direct Trade co-op in Belize that practices sustainable agriculture techniques, contributes to reforestation, and produces an incredible product. The price of cocoa from such a producer is significantly higher than typical fair trade cocoa, but it is worth every penny.
Finding a sustainable source of paper for my labels was much easier. There is a paper company in Michigan that makes beautiful paper using a hydroelectric paper mill that they built in 1922. In fact their hydro generators produce so much clean energy that they help supply the city with electricity.
What inspired you to start your own chocolate company, and what motivates you to pursue bean-to-bar practices?
I have always had a fascination with how food is made. It is incredibly intriguing to me to learn how brie develops its smooth consistency, or why two of the same style wine can taste so different. This passion paid off last year when I became ill from a Crohn’s Disease relapse that ended with a bowel resection surgery. I found myself needing to remove processed sugars, soy, and most other processed foods from my diet. I learned to make a lot of foods using honey or coconut sugar as sweeteners, and coconut flour in place of white flour. But chocolate was the hardest thing to substitute. It is very difficult to find chocolate made with alternative forms of sugar, and even more difficult to find it without soy. So, I began making my own at home by grinding cocoa nibs with a pestle and mortar for an absurd amount of time. All to make a couple ounces of really bitter chocolate.
The chocolate wasn’t great but it was still chocolate. I began looking for sources of better cocoa beans, scoured the depths of the internet for affordable equipment, and even built some of my own. All in the name of getting to eat chocolate. After lots of research, and even more practice I began making a really great tasting chocolate that does not contain any soy, artificial ingredients or the ominous ‘chocolate’ that appears on so many ingredient lists. At this point I realized that I had come up with something that I wanted to share with people.
I never consciously made the decision to be a bean-to-bar chocolate maker. I realized early on that I have the most control of the final flavors when I can roast, grind, and refine the cocoa myself. As I mentioned I have a fascination with how flavors are developed, and I love being able to take something as common as chocolate and coax so many flavors from just the cocoa bean.
What have you discovered working with raw cocoa beans?
The most surprising discovery that I have found when starting with raw cocoa beans is the way the flavor changes throughout the process. When in raw form the cocoa beans that I use have a bit of an oaky walnut kind of flavor. When lightly roasted the nutty flavor takes a back seat to a noticeable fruity quality mixed with bitter chocolate. Then when the cocoa beans are ground into liquid chocolate it develops a tartness from the cocoa’s natural acids being released. All these flavors change again during the long refining stage, called conching, before finally being molded into bars.
Where do your beans primarily come from?
I have tried lots of samples of cocoa beans from around the world, but fell in love with the flavor of the cocoa that came from the Moho Valley region of Belize. So, for now that is the only origin of cocoa that i am working with. However, I am collecting samples from other regions of the world in search of a new origin to add to my line of chocolate.
How would you describe their unique flavor?
I currently offer four chocolate bars, all are single origin bars made with 70% cocoa from belize. Each one has a flavor addition to bring out different aspects of the cocoa.
The 70% cocoa bar is incredibly rich and starts with the familiar chocolate taste that everyone loves. Followed by flavors of red fruits, vanilla, sweet cream, a hint of cinnamon, and a dark flavor sometimes described as pipe tobacco. The 70% with pink salt enjoys all the same flavors balanced by a light sprinkle of salt to cut through the richness of the chocolate. While my 70% with espresso chocolate bar has a much deeper roasted flavor. Only a touch of espresso is ground into the chocolate to accentuate the roast, and to bring the nutty flavors forward. Finally the 70% with coconut palm sugar is sweetened with organic palm sugar instead of organic cane sugar like the other bars. The coconut palm sugar enhances the vanilla and cream qualities of the chocolate while adding a subtle brown sugar flavor.