Food Origins: #3 Behind a Tiny Chocolate House
A sneak behind the scenes of artisanal chocolate making in Santa Cruz, California.
Tiny House Chocolate (@tinyhousechocolate) is a bean-to-bar chocolate brand based in Santa Cruz, founded by a Brazilian couple, Maiana Lasevicius and Gustavo Hilsdorf, who started the company after moving to California in 2015. Bean-to-bar refers to the cacao ‘bean’ and chocolate ‘bar’, alluding to the craft of making chocolate the artisanal way.
Catch the behind the scenes of artisanal chocolate making, and the story of how cacao came to be. Plus: a guide on how to taste chocolate like a pro!
Artisanal chocolate puts cacao on a spotlight. Great cacao is, after all, the single most important ingredient for a great chocolate bar. But it’s not a pure coincidence - so many factors come into play when it comes to working with a good natural ingredient. How it's grown, harvested, fermented, and transported. The bean-to-bar movement has been up and coming for the past 15 years around the world, building up by the hands of chocolate makers who are passionate about artisanal techniques. The attention that these curious artisans put into ingredients like cacao, and mire proximity with farmers, has created space for a renewed segment of cacao, one that is more quality-oriented (versus quantity-oriented) but also moved toward sustainability, and responsible labor in cacao farms.
While nowadays it’s possible to find cacao cultivation on many continents, the first cacao had its origins in the Amazon rainforest. Cacao, like many other great crops, must have sparked some serious interest, for it was domesticated and transported around the region - south and north - giving birth to different varieties like the criollo and forastero cacaos. Today we know that the first consumption of cacao as a fermented beverage is traced to the Olmecs and Mayan in the Mesoamerica region. Of course, that beverage was very different from what we know today as chocolate, but it carried a meaning that I believe we can still relate to: it was used for ritualistic and medicinal practices - to heal, to protect, to seduce.
While in Brazil cacao originated in the Amazonian region it not only expanded but thrived in other parts of the country. Brazilian cacao farms became extremely popular in the 80s, with the majority of that production being sold to the big industry as a commodity. Until, in a very sad turn of events in 1989, a plague called witches broom practically killed the entire national cacao cultivation. That event left all sorts of social, economic, and ecosystem scars - farms were completely devastated and abandoned, and thousands of workers and families were left unemployed. A pivotal moment in the history of cacao in Brazil because in the following years small farmers and organizations came together to restore cultivation and preserve cacao biodiversity throughout the country.
An Artisanal Chocolate Factory
Meeting Maiana and Gustavo, from Tiny House Chocolate, opened my eyes to the unseen world of chocolate, as they greeted me in their home on a warm Friday afternoon.
Maiana and Gustavo founded Tiny House Chocolate in 2015, after moving from São Paulo, Brazil, to Santa Cruz, California. They were seeking a career and life change (after working in the advertising industry), and as they considered what to do next, chocolate came up as an option, inspired by Maiana’s father, Bruno Lasevicius, a chocolate maker himself.
They decided to settle in Santa Cruz with little of a plan in mind. Venturing on this was like taking a leap of faith. They purchase a couple of machines with the money they were gifted for their wedding, and with the support of a few mentors, and a lot of studying, they slowly built a small batch bean-to-bar chocolate production in their new home.
Seven years later, they have a consolidated brand of artisanal chocolate called Tiny House Chocolate that offers a variety of chocolate for those who are curious about tasting the world of cacao. The entire production is done by just the two of them, and in that sense, it is also a white canvas for them to bring to life different perspetives on chocolate. They offer single-origin chocolate - responsibly sourced - that showcase flavors from around the world like Brazil, Peru, India. They also make inclusion chocolate that has the addition of other ingredients for unexpected flavors - like baniwa pepper, cupuaçu and yerba mate.
I arrived at Maiana and Gustavo’s production kitchen one day, and heard a persistent machinery sound: they were grinding chocolate. The smell resembled dark cocoa with a hit of coffee. And upon having a taste of it I confirmed: very bitter. As the day passed on, I followed them along on their chores during the day, and watched that matte brown paste turn into a silky chocolate bar. By the end of the day, it was completely modified - the flavor was a perfectly round dark chocolate that melted slowly in my month. It was Amazonian chocolate.
What’s so special about Brazilian chocolate? - I asked them.“It’s hard to give one single answer because so many factors affect flavor, but my perception is that Brazilian cacao offers more fruity notes compared to other origins”, Gustavo explained.
In order to capture different origins into chocolate bars, Maiana and Gustavo buy cacao from different parts of the world, oftentimes from the same small farmers who have become regular providers. But it’s only when they open the boxes of fermented cacao, and sense the aromas that come out, they are able to draw interpretations of how those might come to life in a chocolate bar.
Throughout each step of the production, they use different methods to build aromas, texture, and flavor - that result in shinny chocolate bars.
“The process of making chocolate requires a lot of technical knowledge, but also intuition of how flavors will evolve. That, you only gain with time and practice” Maiana told me as she tempered chocolate.
For Tiny House the production day consists of roasting the fermented beans, and cracking them. Winnowing, then grinding. Tempering the chocolate, and shaping the bars. Those steps are done in small batches, and divided among the couple, who seem to have the process so internalized, it looks like a contemporary dance in the kitchen. They move quickly but patiently to the rythym of music. Once the dance is over and the radio is turned off, they clean up, pack the chocolate bars and go. And as most small businesses, the work continues - day after day.
How to taste chocolate
Artisanal chocolate is a fully sensorial experience, if only we know how to approach it. Maiana Lasevicius, Tiny House’s co-founder and chocolate maker, shared a guide on how to do a simple chocolate tasting from home, while immersing yourself in the full experience.
Set a time apart with the intention of tasting the chocolate. Having a fresh palate will help optimize your taste sensors (also, if you just ate food with strong flavors, your ability to taste might be affected). Bring some water at room temperature if you’re going to try different chocolates.
Take the first bite: chew, chew and swallow. Pay attention to the flavors and sensations you feel.
Now do it again - but differently. Take the chocolate in your hand and look at it - what colors and aromas do you notice? Can you try to guess what flavors you will get by sensing the aroma?
Take another bite. Close your eyes and surrender to the chocolate. Let the chocolate surrender to you. Let it melt in your mouth.
Don’t get attached to deciphering the chocolate. If you’re able to catch something, great. What flavors do you notice? Do they change as the chocolate melts? Start by identifying larger categories: Is it nutty? Is it fruity? What kind of fruit: green; yellow; red?
Now the texture. How did it melt? How did it feel to bite?
And last, most important: do you like it?
You can take notes and start your own documentation of flavors and opinions. According to Maiana, the most important part is to set the time and intention and have fun with it. As for me: I think there is a pocket of wisdom in the ritualistic way in which ancient civilzations consumed cacao. Maybe doing this type of tasting brings us a little bit closer to a ritual, to a revence to chocolate. Enjoy.
Whether you’re buying chocolate from Tiny House Chocolate or any other brand, consider buying from (small) businesses that use fair trade and responsibly sourced ingredients. Your support goes a long way in ensuring the value is passed along to the chain of farmers, workers, and families who put a lot of effort into growing great cacao beans, year after year.
Food Origins is a collection of short stories about food traditions in the Americas. I’m not a historian, anthropologist, or scientist. I'm a searcher, and I write the stories I find along the way in the conversations I have, in walks around the city, and in my interactions with the world.
Want to be part of this series? Share your story with me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.