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Alex Whitmore and the Taza Chocolate Factory

There’s an element of fantasy to the Taza Chocolate factory in Somerville. Not so much in a Willy Wonka sort of way. It’s more of a Gen-X entrepreneurial fantasy of starting something expressive, values-driven, counter-cultural, and intimate. If you look at the vintage-style packaging of Taza chocolate, you can actually get a sense of what their workplace is like. I visited the Taza factory and was immediately struck by how attractive, charming, and low-tech it seemed. Co-founder Alex Whitmore gave me a tour of the facilities where they do everything from winnowing the beans to stone grinding them, tempering the chocolate, and wrapping the bars. There were no massive conveyor belts or robots, just charming old-time contraptions for roasting and tempering and mixing. Like something I’d imagine from the 1930s. Come to think of it, like something Willy Wonka might operate. The very distinctive chocolate that Taza produces seems only a distant relative of its more highly-processed European cousins. It has a rough, rustic texture that comes from their stone-ground process, one that follows traditional Mexican chocolate-making techniques. This is a centuries-old approach that Alex discovered while visiting Oxaca, Mexico. As Whitmore points out, “This is chocolate that was made before Europe even got its hand on cocoa beans.” Unlike the vast majority of American chocolatiers, Taza is one of only a teeny minority of bean-to-bar chocolate producers in the United States. In other words, unlike like almost all other manufacturers, they actually make their own chocolate. Once a shipment of the harvested cocoa beans comes into the Taza factory, it doesn’t leave until it’s been transformed into chocolate bars or chocolate-covered nuts, wrapped and ready for sale. “We’re doing it all, and we’re doing it in a very artisan way,” Whitmore explained. One thing they don’t do is grow and harvest their own ingredients. For that they rely on suppliers from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Over the last few years, they’ve worked to find suppliers that offer the delicate balance between offering high quality organic beans, the right flavor profiles, producers that are good to work with, and a product that’s easy to get transported. It’s been an international juggling act, figuring out which suppliers can meet their needs. They’ve tried cocoa beans from Costa Rica and Ecuador, but found that their flavors didn’t work for them. They’ve found a good product in Mexico, but discovered that with huge American chocolate companies in that country such as Hershey and Mars, exporting cocoa beans was a challenge. And in other locations, such as Bolivia, producers are just so remote that it’s logistically difficult to get the beans transported through the terrain. Currently, it’s in the Dominican Republic where they’ve found growers that offer the high quality they expect; the bright, fruity flavor profiles they love; and the ease of transport that they hoped for. They’re also looking at producers in Belize, a country that has the same sort of stock as Mexico, being just over the border, but without the exportation difficulties. As Alex put it, “There’s still stuff to do in Mexico, but we’re very excited about this Belizian origin.” Instead of being Fair Trade certified, Taza has striven to get Direct Trade certified. This is a level up where they pay a higher than Fair Trade price to suppliers that produce a premium product. In addition, Taza chocolate is certified organic, further refining the pool of potential producers. Taza does all of this with a crew of about twenty. In the beginning, it was just Whitmore, making the chocolate by himself. He rented time on the roaster at JP Licks in Jamaica Plain to roast the beans. Then he’d winnow them on the roof and grind them into a paste. “I’d stay up all night tempering the chocolate. I’d deposit them by hand. Then I’d wrap them, pack them into boxes, and then try to sell them.” The staff grew when his wife, Kathleen Fulton, and former co-worker at Zipar, Larry Slotnick, joined as co-founders. What’s new with this crew? Taza has opened an on-site store where you can buy their products, and they just launched two new flavors: Coffee and Salt and Pepper. I tasted their coffee chocolate and it is fantastic. But salt and pepper chocolate? I haven’t tried that one yet, but now I’m curious. It sounds like a flavor invented by a culinary adventurist, but apparently, in Taza fashion, it was chosen by the people for the people. Taza offered a wide variety of flavors to a large numbers of everyday folks who voted on their favorites. Salt and pepper came up a winner. So, it seems, has Taza. It seems that times are changing for the better.
Posted by: Nicola on September 20, 2010 @ 3:56 pm
Filed under: Blog