We are, admittedly, suckers for behind-the-scenes tours, but Raaka (64 Seabring Street, Brooklyn; 855-255-3354), a bean-to-bar chocolatier that just opened a factory in Red Hook, really captured our imagination — we have not stopped talking about chocolate since we traipsed around the facility last week. (Seriously — just ask our friends, who just want to talk about the NFL’s domestic violence scandals or the ebola crisis and instead are subjected to an unrelenting stream of consciousness about how chocolate is totally the next coffee.) So if you are at all interested in how things are made — or if you want to eat some really good vegan chocolate — you should head out to this place. It’ll be worth your time.
Raaka was founded by Ryan Cheney, who fell in love with chocolate during a yoga retreat, when he saw a presentation about aphrodisiac raw chocolates. Back in the States, he sampled his way through the raw chocolates he found in vegan shops, but found them lacking — these crumbly specimens were not the complex treats he’d had abroad — and he thought he could do better. He began experimenting in his own home, first using easy techniques that yielded mediocre results, and then grinding his own cacao beans — no easy feat in a New York City apartment — because it significantly enhanced the quality of the final product. He eventually brought on chocolate-maker Nate Hodge to help suss out the recipe, and the pair experimented relentlessly, converting Hodge’s Bushwick bedroom into a space to make chocolate.
Cheney and Hodge make bean-to-bar chocolate, which means they skip roasting the beans, a step that often comes after the cacao is picked and left to ferment. As with coffee, roasting lends its own flavor to chocolate, and the darker the roast, the less you can taste of a bean’s nuances. Without roasting, picking a solid supplier becomes infinitely more important, because suppliers handle fermentation, too — and that’s where all the flavor of an unroasted bean comes from. Hodge says the future of chocolate is likely headed toward having control over this part of the process, but for now, makers trust their farms.
And consistency in flavor profile is not the only reason big producers like to roast — cacao beans have to be winnowed (or shelled from their pods) before they’re ground; roasting first makes that easier, because the heat puffs the shell off.
Once the beans are winnowed, they go into special grinders; cocoa is tough, so it takes three days of constant grinding to get them smooth enough to pour into bars. Raaka adds minimal additional ingredients to that grind, though — just some turbinado sugar and, perhaps, some coconut milk, if it’s producing its version of milk chocolate (Raaka bars are vegan). And the mixture smooths out because of chocolate’s fat content — that’s just cocoa butter lending moisture.
The chocolate is then poured into molds, accoutered, and quickly set before it’s wrapped.
It’s a fairly straightforward process, but Cheney and Hodge also experiment with a number of natural ways to flavor their bars, the most unique of which is pouring beans into a bourbon barrel before grinding so that they take on some of the flavors of whiskey. Hodge got the idea when he realized beans were picking up some unsavory scents in his apartment that were coming across in the flavor profile of the final product.
The guys often release their experimental bars as part of their subscription service (wherein subscribers get three bars of chocolate per month), and particularly popular flavors may eventually make it onto store shelves.
Your tour at Raaka will include a rundown of this process, full of visual aids and tastings. But you’ll also get a wealth of insight into the chocolate industry at large, including a discussion of cocoa farming practices, information on the delicious cocoa pulp that surrounds the pods, and helpful hints for making chocolate at home.
And if you’d like to learn to do the latter, you can sign up for one of Raaka’s three-hour classes, where you’ll make your own bars, from grind to set, under Hodge’s watchful eye.
Tours are $10, and classes are $55. You can book your trip to Raaka on the chocolate-maker’s website.