David and Corey’s second-floor apartment is an average, cozy Culver City dwelling with one big exception. When you walk through the front door, the smell of chocolate penetrates every part of your body.
Turn the corner into the living room and it looks like you’ve walked into a mad scientist’s chocolate laboratory. The sound of chocolate grinders hum through the hallways. Heaps of restaurant steam pans filled with chocolate crowd the dining room table. Microscopes, temper machines and chocolate bar molds line the counters.
This is the headquarters of LetterPress Chocolate
It all started with a trip to Hawaii.
Dave had an affinity for chocolate from an early age. It culminated in a chocolate review blog, Little Brown Squares, and eventually his trip to Hawaii. The primary purpose of the trip was to tour Reppun cacao farm in Oahu. Corey says she knew he would return from the trip determined to make chocolate himself. She was right.
Bean-to-bar has become a popular trend in the food-world in recent years. Most major cities have one or two recognizable brands, like Dick Taylor in San Francisco or Mast Brothers in Brooklyn. David aspires to have LetterPress be synonymous with Los Angeles.
To get there, they start with the beans.
It turns out most of the world’s cacao beans are shit. These beans are of a genetic variety called CCN-51 that are nearly immune to disease. The tradeoff is taste - they’re extremely bitter.
These beans taste so bad that a special process is used to artificially reduce acidity. The back of any mass-produced chocolate bar will say “cocoa processed with alkali.” Also known as dutch processed cocoa.
Bean-to-bar makers seek out rare, quality beans from around the world. LetterPress works directly with farmers and co-ops, known as Direct Trade. Over the past year they’ve worked with 40 farms in 19 countries. They’ve invested in co-op Maya Mountain in Belize and Izabal Agroforest in Guatemala. Each country and region has a unique taste, similar to coffee. You may have noticed that bean-to-bar labels include the country of origin. This is why.
Before the beans get to the U.S., they go through a long journey in their home country.
First, they’re harvested in spring or fall. The football-sized cacao pods are cracked open and beans, covered in a white-pulp, are removed. Then they’re fermented.
Fermentation is the most important step in the chocolate-making process. David works directly with farms on perfecting their fermentation. He’s even hired Dan O’Doherty, one of the world-leading experts in cacao fermentation. The two are currently working together on a project in Peru.
Fermentation takes up to 10 days. During the first five days, the beans, still covered in pulp, are placed in fermentation boxes. Here they’re mixed occasionally to ensure even fermentation. While in these boxes, the now air-exposed pulp, a sugar-water mixture, begins to heat and turn into alcohol. The pulp thins out and escapes through slots in the boxes. In the last few days the beans are dried outside.
Six to eight months later, the beans arrive in the U.S. The chocolate-making journey only begins here.
Like most crops, cacao beans are prone to pests. In this case, moths. As soon as the beans arrive at David and Corey’s doorstep, they’re transferred to large hermetically sealed bags where they live in a temperature- controlled storage unit until they’re ready to be used.
There are seven steps from post-fermented bean to bar: sorting, roasting, hopping & winnowing, grinding, aging, tempering and molding.
Step 1: Sorting
David and Corey sort every single bean by hand. Oftentimes, anywhere from 3-30% of a bag is thrown away. These beans are stuck together and haven’t fermented evenly, didn’t fully-grow inside their shells, have developed mold, or aren’t beans at all! They’ve found pieces of paper, bullet shells, metal and other garbage.
Step 2: Roasting
The sorted beans are roasted in David and Corey’s home oven on baking sheets. The roast, second after fermentation, plays a significant role in flavor development. Some chocolate makers under roast, resulting in grassy, acidic flavors. Others over roast, producing bitter, coffee-like tastes. LetterPress aims for right down the middle, with an emphasis on best representing the bean’s country of origin.
Step 3: Hopping & Winnowing
The roasted beans are cracked open using a hopper - a hand cranked device forcing the beans through two rollers. Cracking separates the cacao, now called nibs, from the shell. A winnower - an ingenious invention using a double valve vacuum and gravity - separates the shell from the nib.
Step 4: Grinding
The nibs are ground in electric spice grinders for anywhere from 48-100 hours. For roughly the first half of grinding, the beans are aerated and become hot enough to go through the Maillard reaction. This aeration helps release some of the bitter volatiles. Sugar is added after the nibs have been ground into a fine paste.
Step 5: Aging
The chocolate is poured into metal restaurant steam pans where they’re covered and aged for up to one month. This releases more volatiles and mellows out acidity.
Step 6: Tempering
Tempering is the heating and cooling of chocolate to align crystal structure. The more perfect the temper, the better the consistency of the chocolate bar. A well tempered bar has that nice “snap” you expect when breaking it in half. The aged chocolate is tempered through several heating and cooling stages.
Step 7: Molding
Finally, the tempered chocolate is poured into slightly heated molds. The molds are heated to prevent the chocolate from cooling too quickly. Finally, they’re chilled before being wrapped.
“When I first started I wanted to keep it a secret and prevent others from copying us,” says David, “but after realizing how much work it is…I want there to be more chocolate makers in L.A. It’s labor intensive. You have to be part mad scientist, part chef, part mechanic… you literally need to do everything. That’s why I love it so much.”
David and Corey’s love of the chocolate making process stems from the farmers and their beans. “Cocoa famers need to be incentivized to grow quality beans,” explains David. Many farmers are replacing quality trees with the more profitable CCN-51 variety. But LetterPress and other bean-to-bar makers are trying to incentivize farmers by paying three to four times the market rate for better beans. In the end, the farmers make roughly the same amount of profit. “It’s our responsibility to farmers to show how good their product is.”
Hershey’s chocolate goes from bean-to-bar in three hours. LetterPress’ takes about a month, yielding only 1000 bars.
Once they move into a bigger space and upgrade equipment, their process will still take a month, but bar output will double.
When you spend $10 on a quality chocolate bar, you’re paying for more than just chocolate. You’re helping farmers in remote regions of the world make a living. You’re paying for bean research and sourcing. And the time, labor and love that goes into sorting, roasting, hopping, winnowing, grinding, aging, tempering, molding and wrapping the final package. By hand.
I’d say that’s worth $10.