Sweet, rich, enticing, international. But hold the train. We’re not referring to a new Hollywood diva or big-screen hunk. And we’re not describing a wealthy banking tycoon or a fine-tuned and bronzed sports figure.
Rather, we’re talking about a very special designer chocolate bar wrapped in a tale with international flavor.
The story of Escazú Artisan Chocolates is one of creativity, opportunity and determination. It’s a story of hard work, foresight, friendship and business acumen. It’s the story of a Costa Rican cacao bean’s connection to the state of North Carolina in the U.S. South.
The idea for the designer chocolates – handcrafted in Raleigh, North Carolina, partly from Costa Rican cacao beans – was born in Escazú, an increasingly sophisticated and upscale hilly suburb west of San José. Hence, the name.
According to co-owner Hallot Parson, the whole thing stared in 2005 when his partners, marine scientist Celia Bonaventura and biochemist Robert Henkens, were at their home in Costa Rica, mulling over the idea of purchasing an existing chocolate shop.
“I was brought in to check it out and give my opinion,” Parson explains. Ultimately, that business idea was rejected, but “I started down the path of learning the craft of being a chocolatier.”
Parson says using Costa Rican ingredients – preferably organic – was a major goal in the creation of his chocolates. After various trials and errors and intense investigation, he found Hugo Hemerlink, owner of Finmac Farms, in the Caribbean-slope town of Guápiles. Finmac Farms produces organic cacao beans – just what Parson was seeking – and a friendship and business bond took root rapidly as the serious seeds of what was to become Escazú Artisan Chocolates were planted.
“Hugo provided a fascinating insight into cacao production and chocolate making in general,” Parson says. “He’s a great guy, and he’s now making his own chocolates.” Parson, 39, says he was drawn to the challenge of crafting chocolates because of the detail and difficulty involved.
“The thing that pulled me into chocolate was how difficult it is,” says Parson, who began as a pastry chef and worked his way up to executive chef during 10 years in kitchens in the U.S. states of New York, Colorado and Texas. “If it had been easy, I would have quickly lost interest. In chocolate making, every step is crucial, from the farm all the way to wrapping the finished product.”
Escazú Artisan Chocolates are 100 percent handcrafted from the bean to the finished product and are a blend of primarily Carenero beans from Venezuela, with the addition of Ocumare beans, also from Venezuela, and Guápiles beans from Costa Rica.
The chocolate-making process goes like this: Cacao pods are harvested at the farm; then, beans are removed and fermented in wooden stalls. After several days of fermentation, the beans are dried and placed into bags. At this point, they are stable and can be stored and transported. Dried beans are shipped to the Escazú Artisan Chocolates factory in Raleigh. Beans are hand-sorted before being roasted in an antique coffee roaster. Then the beans are cracked and the nib (sharp point) is separated from the husk in a winnower. The nibs are ground with sugar and sometimes with vanilla beans in a stone grinder. This process takes two to four days. Chocolate is aged for 30 days. Finally, the aged chocolate is melted and tempered into bars or confections.
“Most people don’t realize that most of the fine chocolate they purchase is actually made by someone (other than the company selling the product),” Parson says. “In the U.S., we are one of only a handful of businesses that actually make all of our own chocolate from bean to bar.”
Even though the chocolates carry the name Escazú, they can’t be bought in Costa Rica – not yet, anyway.
“We have made progress towards setting up a small production in Costa Rica, but that is still some distance in the future,” Parson says.
The only retail shop is in Raleigh, but, Parson says, the company wholesales to approximately 100 different shops, including one in Australia and one in Canada.
Plans have the shop in Raleigh moving from itsGlenwood Avenue
location to the factory onBlount Street
. In addition to handcrafted chocolates, the retail shop also offers a variety of items such as chocolate-scented gift items – soaps, candles, etc. – made of cocoa butter, and unique handmade crocus bags made from the bags in which the cacao beans are shipped.
Parson says the most popular chocolate bar is the Beaufort Bar, a dark chocolate with sea salt that “outsells everything by a margin of 3 to 1.”
The EZCA bars, which cost $6 each, are smaller than the Escazú ones ($4.25 per bar), and only one type of bean is used in them, Parson says. He adds that creation of the EZCA bars involves “a lot more hand work in the sorting and selection of what gets used.”
Parson, whose favorite chocolate is the EZCA Dark Goat’s Milk bar, says the business’s goal for this year is to increase production capability.
“Right now, we have much more demand than ability to produce,” he says. “It’s a very (happy, but) frustrating situation to be in.”
For more information on the chocolates, prices, and to order online, visit www.escazuchocolates.com.