News & Opinion

The Underground Truffle Teams with CocoaEthika in Making Morally Rich Chocolate

The conscious cacao

making chocolate
Esa Weinreb with a bar of chocoalte from The Underground Truffle in Plaza Midwood. (Photo by Pat Moran)

“You want to taste it?” Esa Weinreb asks. She breaks off a piece of the chocolate bar and I pop it in my mouth. The earthy mélange of flavors is smooth yet biting, bright and fruity. It’s a taste that stretches back across centuries and continents.

We’re at The Underground Truffle in Plaza Midwood where founder Weinreb makes chocolate bars, truffles and other desserts from cacao beans; gives classes on the bean-to-bar process; and hosts tastings and special events like a recent open house with local Vietnamese coffee company Robusta.

The bulk of Weinreb’s business is online and made to order because The Underground Truffle is not a retail shop.

“I make everything fresh,” Weinreb says. “I don’t want it to be on a shelf.”

It turns out that crafting fresh chocolate is a time- and labor-intensive process. Weinreb shows me seven steps, including roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding and tempering, that help take cacao beans, the fruit of a tropical evergreen tree, to an attractively packaged chocolate bar. And that might be the easy part.

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Ben Henderson of CocoaEthika checks out a cacao pod in Costa Rica. (Photo by Magicando La Vida)

To get the beans to a chocolate maker like Weinreb, the cacao fruit must be hand-harvested, each bean extracted from the surrounding fruit, then fermented and sun-dried before an artisan like Weinreb can go to work turning them into chocolate. Weinreb is currently working with a quarter-ton batch of beans from CocoaEthika, a Costa Rican company run by married couple Ben Henderson and Blanca Margarita Lopez Luchaire.

“It’s the least industrialized agriculture on the planet,” Henderson says of cacao farming. “It’s a human with a machete cutting a cacao pod off a tree and opening it up.”

In Charlotte, Corrado Gelato makes chocolate gelato with Weinreb’s chocolate. Mano Bella Artisan Foods, which creates artisanal Italian food products, use Weinreb’s chocolate for their cannoli. In addition, Jessica Henderson, who conducts online chocolate tastings, has used Weinreb’s truffles.

On Feb. 12, Weinreb will partner with UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens for Ganache in the Garden. For past iterations of the event, the Gardens have sold orchids while Weinreb sold her chocolates to help raise money for the self-funded facility. Weinreb has also talked about chocolate and chocolate making under a live cacao tree on the grounds.

CocoaEthika and Weinreb have partnered in the chocolate-making process because both are dedicated to paying farmers a fair price for growing cacao, then helping them harvest it in an efficient and sustainable manner.

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La Palma, Costa Rica (Photo by Esa Weinreb)

Based in the tiny town of La Palma on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, CocoaEthika aims to bring ethics back to an industry noted for its exploitation of workers and farmers. Weinreb compares the work she, Henderson and Luchaire do — trading directly with small farmers for a fair price — to the commodity cacao grown in West Africa for big companies like Nestle, Hershey and Mars.

In October, Fortune reported that the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which supply about 70% of the world’s cocoa beans, exploit nearly 1.56 million children — many as young as 5 — who do the back-breaking work of harvesting cocoa for commodity chocolate.

Four cocoa connoisseurs converge

Weinreb has fond memories of being in the kitchen with her father, who was a chef. Many of those memories revolve around tasting and cooking with chocolate. Weinreb’s Maltese father and Sicilian mother immigrated to England, where Weinreb was born in London.

When she was 9, her family decided to move to the United States, but first they had to settle in Toronto while Weinreb’s father worked in a Buffalo, New York restaurant and applied for his green card. The family briefly settled in Atlanta, but while Weinreb, her mother and her siblings were on a European vacation, they learned of a change in plans.

“My father sent my mom a telegram where he said, ‘I moved to Charlotte. Change your plane ticket,’” Weinreb remembers.

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Esa Weinreb in The Underground Truffle. (Photo by Pat Moran)

As a 12-year-old growing up in Charlotte, Weinreb was constantly on the lookout for the kind of European chocolate she enjoyed previously, but never could find it in the Queen City. As she grew to adulthood, Weinreb found a solution to her chocolate problem.

“I always loved to cook,” she says. “About 20 years ago, I thought, ‘I bet I can make chocolate.’”

Weinreb didn’t start from scratch with cacao beans. Instead, she worked with couverture, a chocolate created during the bean-to-bar process that contains a higher percentage of cocoa butter so that it melts and pours more smoothly. Chefs and chocolatiers use it creating truffles, bon bons and other confections.

Weinreb ordered couverture from a Venezuelan company that sent it along with a VHS tape on the chocolate-making process. She was blown away.

“I had no idea that chocolate came from these pods and these beans,” she says.

Weinreb was bitten by the cacao bug. In 2015, she started working in a friend’s commercial kitchen with cacao paste, adding coconut sugar to make chocolate bars and truffles. She sold her chocolates at a farmers market behind Pure Pizza in Plaza Midwood. By 2017, Weinreb and her husband Gary decided she needed a bigger space closer to their home. When the couple discovered an available space on Fulton Avenue, Weinreb saw the possibilities.

“I had a vision,” she says. “Then I created this space.”

Breaking a bar of couverture. (Photo by Pat Moran)

Weinreb learned that more people were looking into making chocolate from cacao beans. She joined an organization called Yellow Seed, founded by socially conscious entrepreneur Nancy Zamierowski, who worked to get a fair cacao price for farmers.

“It didn’t work out, because they still weren’t charging enough,” Henderson says of Yellow Seed. In 2018, Yellow Seed shut down. By then, Weinreb was already familiar with CocoaEthika, and in 2018, some friends invited Weinreb and her husband to visit Costa Rica. They went, determined to meet Henderson and Luchaire.

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Esa Weinreb in Costa Rica. (Photo by Gary Weinreb)

Born in Kansas, Ben Henderson grew up in Austin, Texas. As a young man, his father flew Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter planes, but Henderson didn’t follow the rest of his family into aviation. Instead; he went into marketing and video production. In 2009, he was working in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Blanca Luchaire was born in Cuba to a Cuban father and Costa Rican mother. When she was 5, her family moved back to Costa Rica. She followed her family’s tradition in the arts — her maternal grandmother taught art at Cuba’s Teatro Nacional — working as a camera operator and video editor at Studio @ Musica, a facility owned by Latin Grammy winner Pipo Chavez.

As Henderson tells it, the couple was fated to meet. Driving with his friend Francella Rainfow to hear a DJ, he suddenly had a premonition that he was going to meet a woman who would mean much to him. At the club, Rainfow noticed Luchaire dancing and pointed her out to Henderson.

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Blanca Lopez Luchaire (Photo by Magicando La Vida)

“I was instantly in love,” Henderson remembers. He and Luchaire stepped outside to talk. Luchaire was impressed with Henderson’s perfectly accented Spanish, then she noticed a tattoo of Salvador Dali on his bicep. At the time, Luchaire was obsessed with Dali, particularly because she discovered depictions of visions she had experienced on an LSD trip in some of Dali’s paintings. (Luchaire’s great-grandmother was also involved with the Dadaists in 1920s Paris, including Dali, and appears in photographs by Man Ray.)

After this promising meeting, the couple lost track of each other. They had not exchanged phone numbers, and Henderson could not find Luchaire on Facebook. He kept searching, and after several months was ready to give up. That’s when they met passing in a narrow dark hallway at a club called La Chica. The couple was married under the stars at Playa Hermosa, and Henderson has raised Damian, Luchaire’s son from a previous relationship, as his own.

Henderson and Luchaire became obsessed with cacao after moving to the town of Santa Ana. They discovered a pile of cacao pods at a local farmers market and bought them all.

“It was just curiosity,” Luchaire says. Both chocolate lovers, they started researching the chocolate-making process, and experimented with fermenting the beans. Like Weinreb, they had never known that cacao comes from pods or that it grows in Costa Rica.

The couple launched CocoaEthika in 2012. Meanwhile, they were working in the city, and growing tired of the traffic, congestion and their careers. They bought property in the Osa Peninsula, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and site of Corcovado National Park. They quit their jobs, and after a year-long family vacation that took them to the Netherlands, France, Argentina and Uruguay, they moved to a rustic house on the Osa Peninsula in 2015. The plan was to make and sell chocolate made from cacao.

“[We wanted to] work at something that we love,” Henderson says. “We decided to take our passion and turn it into something of greater benefit to everyone.”

For their first harvesting season, they worked with wild cacao they found growing in the forest. Henderson realized it would be difficult to keep finding cacao, so they posted flyers in town to attract farmers they could do business with.

Don Castro (Photo by Esa Weinreb)

One of the first farmers they met was Don Castro, who went out into the Parque Corcovado to do some illegal gold mining and came back with a few cacao pods. Castro started his plantation with 100 seeds he got from those pods. CocoaEthika now works primarily with two farmers, Aldolfo Vindas Rojas, known as Don Popo, and Marcos Jimenez, better known as Don Marcos.

Henderson and Luchaire buy beans from the farmers, paying them five times more than they would get at the local market. Cost-effective cacao also encourages farmers to keep growing the crop instead of replacing it with palm oil trees, Henderson says. As practiced, palm oil plantations require clear cutting the forest, which has a devastating impact on a huge number of plant and animal species.

“Cacao needs shade so you don’t have to clear cut and burn everything down just to plant it,” Henderson says. “It’s an alternative for farmers who would otherwise cut down trees to grow this monoculture palm oil.”

One important step in chocolate making is fermentation. The all-spontaneous, organic process requires enough wet mass, the volume of cacao beans, to introduce bacteria and raise the temperature in a fermentation box. The ideal amount is roughly 2,000 pods of cacao, or about 200 kilos of wet mass. Fermentation takes anywhere from 90 to 126 hours for the small-sized beans, says Henderson. It can take more than four days for larger beans, depending on the variety.

CocoaEthika also shares their zero-waste post-harvest practices with the farmers. During fermentation, juice from the cacao fruit runs off. Instead of tossing it out, CocoaEthika boils it down and makes caramel out of it. They also make vinegar, “cacao champaign,” and gummy bear-style fruit reductions that go into the bars. They share all this information with the farmers, and also teach them to make gourmet chocolate.

After Henderson and Luchaire ferment the beans they buy, they sun-dry them.

“We have sun drying tables,” Henderson says. “It’s an outdoor solar dryer.”

The 18-meter-long building is covered with the netting used to dry coffee. The drying period is slow, lasting between a few weeks to a month. Then CocoaEthika sells its chocolate at local markets.

A meeting in the Costa Rica forest

Word of CocoaEthika’s sustainable chocolate-making made it to Yellow Seed, who profiled the couple in a 2016 newsletter, eventually prompting Weinreb’s visit to Costa Rica. When Henderson and Luchaire welcomed the Weinrebs to their small home, they treated their visitors to their wares.

“It was the best chocolate I ever tasted,” Weinreb says. The chocolate bar contained the caramel made from the juice from the cacao pod’s pulp. “It was like I’ve died and gotten to heaven.”

Next, hosts and visitors alike loaded into a jeep to visit Don Castro. Weinreb remembers driving down a dirt road, then disembarking to wade in waist-high water to cross a river. Don Castro was waiting on the other side. The farmer cut down a cacao pod with his machete, opened it up and offered it to Weinreb.

“I’m trying the pulp that surrounds the seed, and it’s so sweet. I thought it would taste like chocolate but it didn’t.”

CocoaEthika seeds with pulp. (Photo by Esa Weinreb)

The Weinrebs made subsequent visits to the Osa Peninsula. Eventually, they had a cacao bean roaster made specially for CocoaEthika, a big barbecue drum that can be cranked by hand, so the beans roast evenly. The Weinrebs also helped fund a drying facility for CocoaEthika. Weinreb says they’re motivated to help Henderson and Luchaire because of the work they do.

“They’re passionate about the environment,” Weinreb says. “Their main thing is they want to designate the Osa Peninsula as the Champaign of cacao.”

In December, Henderson and Luchaire had a surplus of beans, a quarter ton, so the Weinrebs bought them and had them shipped back to Charlotte.

Though Weinreb has worked with beans from several sources, she’s now primarily crafting chocolate with CocoaEthika’s beans. Back at The Underground Truffle, she takes me though the chocolate-making steps. First she roasts them for 20-35 minutes at 255 degrees in a convection oven to assure air flow. Every 10 minutes, she takes the beans out, takes their temperature with an infrared thermometer and hand-turns them.

Then she cracks the beans by dropping them in a juicer, making sure to place a pillowcase over the machine to catch the flying cacao nibs and husks. Next the nibs, the remnants of the beans’ shells, are separated by a winnower, which resembles a series of PVC tubes going into and out of a large plastic bucket. Weinreb hooks up a shop vacuum cleaner to the contraption and switches it on. This creates “the Venturi Effect,” causing the lighter husks to separate from the heavier nibs. The husk-free nibs go into a melanger, where heated wheel-like stones grind and convert the nibs to a heated liquid couverture.

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Pouring beans into a cracking machine at The Underground Truffle. (Photo by Pat Moran)

After the couverture cools for 24 hours, Weinreb pours it into trays. When she’s ready to make chocolate bars from the couverture, Weinreb puts the refrigerated product into a tempering machine. Depending on what you’re making, there’s a different tempering profile, because the heating temperatures are different for dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate, Weinreb says.

Extra ingredients, such as the coconut milk and panela (unrefined cane sugar) in the milk chocolate I tasted, can be added to the chocolate at different points during the chocolate-making process, depending on what you’re making. The completed chocolate is poured into molds. The mold Weinreb uses depicts the profile of an Olemec figure. The pre-Mayan Olemec civilization, dating from around 1000 BCE, created a chocolate drink called Xocolatl (pronounced sho-co-lattle).

Once the bars have cooled, Weinreb packages them in wrapping that depicts the Central American jungle. In subsequent packaging, she plans to display the name of the farmer who grew the beans that became the chocolate bar. Henderson applauds that decision.

“You can eat a chocolate and if you don’t know the name of the farmer that grew it, how can you even know if they got a fair shake?” he asks. He is thankful that fate — or Yellow Seed — somehow brought the Weinrebs in partnership with CocoaEthika. “They’re an inspiration. We’ve become good friends. They’re not just business partners, they’re great friends. We consider them family.”

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From left: Damian Lopez, Blanca Lopez Luchaire, and Ben henderson. (Photo by Magicando La Vida)

For now, the couple’s beans have gained a foothold in the US through The Underground Truffle. For her part, Weinreb hopes consumers become more aware of chocolate and where it comes from. Perhaps fine chocolate can reach the point that quality coffee, whiskey and wine have attained in the marketplace.

“Just be aware and conscious in general where your food comes from,” Weinreb says. “It’s good for you. It opens up your heart.”

“It’s not really our dream to have a successful chocolate company,” Henderson says. “It’s our dream to support the farmers and make beautiful chocolate. Every time it’s the same ingredients, but every single time we make a bar it can taste different, and in different beautiful ways.”

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