Crafted: Acalli Chocolate
Say hello to hand-crafted chocolate bars made from cacao beans sourced from small farms in Central and South America. Morse works directly with cacao grower collectives to select the perfect beans to create Acalli’s award-winning chocolate bars.
The finished product is an artisanal treat to be savored, with subtle notes of fruit and sweetness reflecting its tropical origins. We asked her about how she got started in chocolate-making and why she’s so passionate about the process.
Image by Erin Krall
Q: How did you get interested in the growing and processing of chocolate?
M: I was visiting my husband (an archaeologist) in Guatemala one summer; I met cacao growers in nearby Belize, and people that were working with chocolate. I had a background in anthropology and worked in economic development at the time, so the sourcing side and getting to meet cacao growers was very appealing to me. Chocolate felt like this perfect mix of interests I’d had for a long time, and I ordered small-scale equipment when I got home to begin making chocolate myself.
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Q: How did you learn to make your own chocolate?
M: There are a couple of great online resources for chocolate-making at a hobby level: the Chocolate Alchemy website and the Chocolate Life forums. I just experimented until I began to like what I was making.
Q: What inspired you to start your business? Where does the name Acalli come from?
M: It didn’t take me long from the time I began experimenting at home to consider the idea of starting a business. Chocolate-making was immediately something I was excited about, and I wasn’t aware of another small business making chocolate from cocoa beans in Louisiana. “Acalli” is a Nahuatl word for “canoe,” and Nahuatl is the same language that gives us the word “chocolate.” I love the canoe as a way of connecting people in distant places, as chocolate does.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in the beginning?
M: Producing enough chocolate and sizing up from hobby-level equipment! I won a Good Food Award the same month I started the business, and I wasn’t prepared for the demand that came with that at first. It was also difficult to transition from roasting at home in my oven to roasting in my “big” (converted rotisserie oven) roaster as I moved toward opening the business. Even though I started small, some of my initial equipment was still a big step up from what I was used to.
Image by Erin Krall
Q: Tell us about how production process and what you mean by “bean to bar.”
M: “Bean to bar” means that I start with cocoa beans and make the chocolate itself, rather than buying chocolate from another company and using it to make bars or confections. Production involves four main steps: roasting cocoa beans; removing their husk and cracking them into pieces; grinding those pieces until they liquify and adding sugar and sometimes milk, and tempering the liquid chocolate by raising and lowering its temperature to give bars sheen, snap and the correct melting point before molding them.
Q: How do you decide what products to create?
M: Lots of trial, error and tasting. With my original three bars (El Platanal, Norandino and Milk & Nibs), I wanted to highlight the flavors of different cacao growing regions within Peru. With my line of Barataria bars, I wanted to highlight the Louisiana side of my work. So I blended the Peruvian beans together with a local, raw sugar. I also listen to customer feedback, and I introduced both my darkest (81% dark) and sweetest (51% milk) bars in response to customer requests.
Q: How do you source your ingredients?
M: I visit cacao growers in person before I begin buying from them, both to meet the people whose work is so pivotal to my own and to see that work firsthand. I buy cocoa beans from a cooperative in Peru called Norandino, and, as of June, I also buy from a group of agronomists in Mexico called Agrofloresta. Both Norandino and Agrofloresta produce, ferment and dry amazing cacao, and it’s exciting to be able to highlight their work. I buy the sugar for my Barataria bars and drinking chocolates in person as well, from Three Brothers Farm here in New Orleans. That’s an amazing thing about living in Louisiana—it’s not every chocolate maker that has access to local sugar! My non-local sugar and my milk powder are organic, from Wholesome Sweeteners and Humboldt Creamery.
Q: What’s the most common misperception about chocolate/cacao?
M: That chocolate is chocolate is chocolate, and that it should be cheap. When people grow up eating chocolate as candy, like most of us did, they aren’t necessarily familiar with the way different origins can have different flavors, due to diversity of genetics, climate, growing regions, roasting, etc. Or that the work farmers do isn’t always fairly compensated in the cocoa market, which can lead to them giving up on growing cacao altogether.
I think we understand what makes wines or coffees more or less expensive, but it can be easy to think that chocolate “is just chocolate” and should be priced accordingly. I’ve seen that changing a lot in the 3.5 years I’ve been in business, though, which I think is a reflection of how carefully people are considering what they put their money toward and what they eat.
Q: What do you wish more people knew/understood about what goes into making chocolate?
M: When people learn what chocolate-making entails, from cultivating, fermenting and drying cacao to roasting, cracking/winnowing and grinding it into chocolate, they’re often really excited! I wish more people knew how much work goes into making a bar delicious, not just on my part, but on the part of the farmers I buy from. The cacao that I buy is already a value-added specialty product, not just a raw ingredient.
Q: What should consumers look for when buying chocolate?
M: Makers who know where their cacao is coming from. That information is often available either on the bar’s package or on a chocolate maker’s website. Also, small- to medium-sized chocolate makers can be especially well suited to tailoring their production process to different cacao origins, and it’s interesting to try different ones.
Q: What’s your most popular product and why?
M: My El Platanal 70% dark bar is my most popular. It was one of my original bars and the first to win an award, and it’s probably the most complex flavor-wise. It has a lot of acidity, and these crazy fruity flavors that make it taste sweeter than it is.
Q: How does New Orleans influence what you make and how you work?
M: New Orleans is such an amazing food city and cultural mix, it felt like the perfect place to start this business. There are so many people doing interesting things here, and that’s an exciting thing to be a part of. My husband and I moved here six years ago when he started a PhD program at Tulane. Of all the places we visited, nowhere else came close–we fell in love with New Orleans right away.
Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
M: Usually my dog! But it’s also amazing to remember that I get to completely transform something each day. Starting from cocoa beans and then wrapping up a chocolate bar four days later feels pretty magical.
Q: What advice would you give either to your younger self or to someone else starting their own business?
M: Don’t be too hard on yourself, and do push yourself. Starting a business is hard, and between making or providing the product or service, selling it, doing accounting, paying taxes, hiring employees, and everything else you might be taking on, there will be parts of it that you don’t enjoy and parts that you don’t do well. So don’t beat yourself up when you get things wrong, but don’t let yourself off the hook on the thing(s) you know you need to do but are most intimidated by.
Q: Could you make a canoe out of chocolate? Assuming you didn’t have to worry about melting, would it float?
M: Sadly, it would sink. But my dad is a woodworker, so maybe if we got him involved…nah, I’d just invite people over to eat it!
Check out this article from Engadget to learn more about bean-to-bar chocolate.
Carol Morse, Acalli Chocolate
@acallichocolate / acallichocolate.com