An intoxicating aroma pervades Dark Forest Chocolate Makers’ quaint space at 11 West Main Street in Lancaster. The scent, at once familiar and novel, is reminiscent of scratch-made brownies but with a richer backbone and a curious savoriness evocative of toasted nuts and coffee beans. It is a case of sensory befuddlement heightened by the realization that there’s nary a baked good in sight.
Instead, customers are confronted with a production area where portly burlap sacks brimming with cacao slump casually near whirling stainless steel grinders, shell-winnowing contraptions, tempering equipment, and cooling cabinets.
These are the materials and tools of bean-to-bar chocolate making— an industry (and olfactory experience) that had been entirely unrepresented in Western New York before husband and wife team Dan and JoAnne Sundell launched Dark Forest Chocolate Makers in April 2015.
Western New York has chocolatiers, but there is an important distinction. Chocolate makers are the culinary alchemists who transform raw cacao beans into the chocolate that chocolatiers, in turn, use in confections like truffles and enrobed candies. In an area known for (and deeply allegiant to) its regional candy, the presence of a bean-to-bar chocolate maker is a novelty.
“There are so many good sponge candy makers,” JoAnne acknowledges. “We are doing something different.”
Generally speaking, bean-to-bar chocolate making is a craft industry that employs artisanal methods characterized by minimal ingredients and processing to turn out products that showcase the astounding diversity of cacao beans, whose flavor characteristics vary by geographic origin and botanical variety. Unlike large chocolate manufacturers, bean-to-bar chocolate makers value quality over volume, purity over additives, and nuance over uniformity. The result is chocolate meant to be relished, sipped rather than chugged.
The idea for Dark Forest Chocolate Makers took root when a mutual fondness for high-quality dark chocolate, propelled by reports of its health benefits, motivated the Sundells to begin producing small quantities of chocolate at home—a leisure pursuit akin to home brewing. Although “leisure pursuit” may be putting it mildly.
“It became my obsession,” Dan admitted.
That obsession quickly yielded good results. The couple decided they were on to something the local community, which has demonstrated a burgeoning interested in craft foods in recent years, might also appreciate. And with the nearest bean-to-bar manufacturers only as close as Toronto and Cincinnati, the market seemed rife with opportunity.
The Sundells currently produce a line of single-origin dark chocolate bars from organic beans hailing from five equatorial climates: Madagascar, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Tanzania. At the Lancaster shop, samples are made available so customers can appreciate the variances in flavor.
Their most popular bar, Dark Madagascar ($6), embodies the fruitier, brighter side of cacao, with an undercurrent of raisin. In contrast, the Dark Bolivian ($6) presents notes of green banana and honey with an overarching smokiness, while the Dark Ecuadoran ($6) is nutty with an intriguing earthy quality and a less silky texture, owing to that particular bean’s naturally lower cocoa butter content.
They also have a line of dark milk chocolate that dabbles in flavors and textures like cacao nibs, goat milk, cayenne and cinnamon. In every case, the chocolate’s flavor profile reveals itself slowly and even evolves as it is savored.
If these descriptions sound like notes from a wine tasting, it’s because there are many similarities between the two industries. And like grape varietals, cacao beans need a skilled artisan to coax out their best qualities. That’s where Dan, as head chocolate maker, steps in. Through study, trial and error, and copious tasting, he has learned how to manipulate roasting times and temperatures, grinding and aeration processes, and aging conditions to bring forth the qualities he wants to highlight and to reduce or mask the notes he wants to downplay in any particular batch. And he adjusts as he goes.
“We’re working always on getting the best out of that individual type of bean.”
But superior flavor is not the only reason to get behind bean-to-bar chocolate making. There is also the advantage of knowing where your food comes from. The Sundells only use fair-trade cacao, they said, labeled with location and growing practices of every plantation they work with, an attempt to ensure the farming is environmentally sustainable, workers are treated humanely, and the growers make a good living.
Not only is fair payment a moral imperative for the Sundells, it also incentivizes their growers, they said. If they can make as good or better money producing high-quality cacao for the bean-to-bar industry as opposed to commodity beans in bulk for the chocolate giants, they will be economically driven to continually improve their practices—to the benefit of the environment, their communities, and consumers.
That line of reasoning symphonizes with the Sundells’ ethos to bring people pleasure through chocolate. And by operating in a nut- and soy-free facility and offering vegan as well as cow milk-alternative products, they aim to be as inclusive as possible in spreading that joy. According to JoAnne, it also makes coming to work personally rewarding.
“It’s so nice,” she reported with an air of genuine gratitude. “People come in, and they eat chocolate, and they’re happy. Children who have nut allergies, they come in, and they’re happy. And their mothers are happy. It’s a beautiful business to be in.”
(Dark Forest Chocolate Makers, darkforestchocolate.com, 288-9167, 11 W. Main St., Lancaster)
Dark Forest products can also be found at White Cow Dairy Farm Shop in Buffalo, Farmers & Artisans in Snyder, Wholesome Hideaway in Ellicottville, Purrfect Tea and Gift Emporium in East Aurora, and Chateau Niagara Winery in Burt.
Caitlin Hartney is a freelance writer with a healthy appetite whose opinions and musings can also be read at buffalorising.com.