Bisou Chocolate’s Bold Bean-to-Bar Venture
Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
January 11, 2019
Eli Curtis and Tracey Britton of Bisou Chocolate both grew up with a love of cooking: Tracey began baking and making pastries as a child, while Eli worked in restaurants in high school and college. They later met in San Francisco while working as bike messengers, a job they loved in part because “The abundant exercise allowed us to indulge in our other favorite pastimes of cooking and eating,” says Eli.
Experimenting in the kitchen, they discovered a passion for chocolate, but were frustrated by domestic chocolate available at the time. “I was baking a lot with chocolate, but I was getting bored because of its poor quality. I wanted more intense chocolate flavor,” says Tracey.
Inspired by the artisanal chocolate they tasted in Europe, they started making dark chocolate from scratch, learning through trial and error, and sharing tips with an online community of other hobbyists on the website Chocolate Alchemy.
Soon, they were hooked. “It was the most complex food we worked with. Every bean was different,” says Eli.
After years of experimenting and eating lots of chocolate (an enviable task!), Eli and Tracey formed their first company Dulcamara Chocolate in 2006. Four years later, they rebranded the company as Bisou Chocolate, opened a factory in Berkeley, and in 2011, started wholesaling dark chocolate bars.
Discovering Chocolate’s Complex Flavors
Creative chocolate companies like Bisou are transforming the global chocolate industry dominated by big corporations. Five companies sell more than half of the world’s branded chocolate, and only three companies grind approximately 66% of the cacao beans.
Industrial chocolate’s goal is manufacturing chocolate with a consistent taste at a low cost, which they accomplish by using low-quality cocoa beans, lots of sugar, and other additives, which lowers the percentage of cocoa solids (cocoa refers to cacao that has been dried and fermented). Chocolate percentage reflects how much of its weight is from cocoa beans; for example, Hershey bars contain only 11% cocoa.
In contrast, artisanal chocolate makers focus on coaxing tantalizing and intriguing flavors from cocoa beans, using high-quality beans to make chocolate with a greater percentage of cocoa. Bisou’s dark chocolate varieties range from 76 to 100% cocoa.
The growing artisanal chocolate market is putting pressure on industrial chocolate makers to up their game. “Two years ago, Hershey removed synthetic ingredients in response to consumers’ demand for higher quality chocolate,” says Eli.
Sourcing Fair, Sustainable Beans
There are more problems with Big Chocolate: more than 90% of the world’s approximately five million cacao bean producers are small farmers in the tropics who are living poverty line. They aren’t paid fairly for the hard work that goes into developing quality beans.
Cacao is grown in dense undergrowth with diverse plantings to encourage pollination from tiny flies, midges. After harvesting the pods, farmers ferment and dry the beans to reduce astringency and bitterness and develop the beans’ unique flavors. “Fermentation and drying are more critical to the final outcome than the plant. Fermentation is by far the most important aspect,” says Eli.
Bisou prioritizes sourcing from farmers who have fair labor practices and never use child labor, another problem that has plagued the industry. The company also seeks out sustainable farming practices, though some suppliers of rare beans are too small to afford organic certification. They pay up to ten times the industry standard for rare beans. “We are happy to pay a high premium directly to our farmers for their hard work and superior product. It’s an expensive crop to grow with a lot of risk and a large input of manual labor,” says Eli.
Bisou directly sources its beans from farmers in countries around the world, including Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. When they first started buying beans, there were only six farmers from whom they could source, but that number has exploded in recent years. Now, over 50 farmers supply beans, and instead of having to search for sources, Bisou receives beans from farmers interested in being their suppliers.
Bisou is always looking for new, unique beans, but Eli and Tracey consider long-term relationships with trusted farmers critical to their growth. They work with producers, sending them chocolate and giving feedback to help them perfect the critical fermentation process.
Creating chocolate from scratch is as much art as it is science, a multi-step process requiring patience and skill. When Bisou receives a cocoa shipment, the first step is sorting by hand to eliminate defective beans before roasting. Eli and Tracey use a coffee roaster to roast the beans, a step as important as fermentation in influencing the taste.
Bisou uses a light roast, a decision they made to preserve the nutritional quality of the beans, but one that they discovered also produces interesting flavors. Roasting also sanitizes the beans and makes it easier to separate the husks from the broken fragments of beans (called nibs) in a process called winnowing.
The next step is grinding, which breaks down the nibs’ cell walls, freeing the fat within. After 24 hours of grinding, the nibs have been transformed into a shiny, smooth liquid called cocoa liquor.
The liquor is transferred to a conch, which grinds, heats and aerates the chocolate so that each particle is coated with cocoa butter creating a very smooth texture. “We are the only small chocolate maker to have a conch machine,” says Eli. “Using it helps us have more control and further develop flavor, which typically develops during roasting.”
The conching process reminds Eli of California winemakers’ efforts to make fine wines distinct from European wines. “European chocolate makers use conching to create a subtle flavor. At Bisou, we want to get really bold flavors from the beans—let the beans speak and say something loudly.”
After conching, the chocolate ages for weeks to months. “Chocolate can taste off after you first make it. You can’t hurry chocolate.”
Tracey is an expert in the final stages: tempering, molding, and wrapping. During tempering, the chocolate crystals are heated and cooled in order to create the perfect crystal matrix, which makes chocolate shelf-stable, and gives it its delightful shine and snap when broken. After molding, the chocolates are wrapped by Tracey’s cool hands. (Eli’s warm hands melt the chocolate and leave thumbprints.)
The product of hours of hard work is chocolate with tempting nuances of lychee, macadamia, hazelnut, espresso, berry, or other delectable flavors. It is no surprise that Bisou’s biggest challenge is keeping up with the demand, especially for their vegan truffles made with coconut white and milk chocolate and dark chocolate. Selling directly at farmers markets helps Eli and Tracey educate customers about chocolate as well as gain input to create products that people want.
As a pioneer of artisanal chocolate, Bisou has been delighted to observe the growth in the market. “A lot of really great people in the chocolate world are helping bean-to-bar gain momentum,” says Eli. “If we can keep it growing, we can help some of the poorest producers in the world and improve the quality of chocolate. It’s a win-win.”
Discover Bisou Chocolate at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays (front plaza) and Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays.