by Ari Weinzweig
Sorry, I couldn’t resist the puns—Shawn Askinosie is a now retired (because he tired of it) trial lawyer who left his very well paying work at the bar to pursue his passion for chocolate making. Working to buy amazingly good beans at the source and then to bring them back to his hometown of Springfield, Missouri (you read that right) and make them into incredibly good chocolate bars. I say “better bars’ both because the chocolate itself is exceptionally good, and because it’s pretty clear from what he says it’s very clear that the work with the cacao has been far more rewarding (spiritually, at least) than what he was doing before.
Shawn’s chocolate is written up in the current issue of Zingerman’s News but I wanted to get it in here too because I’ve learned more about it since I wrote the newsletter piece, and also because the more I learn and the more I taste, the more I like it. Anyways you can get the full story in the newsletter (or I can email you the essay if you like!) but here’s the gist of it:
Here’s the gist of what’s getting me going:
1. The flavor
This chocolate tastes really amazingly good. I keep going back and tasting and retasting, sort of expecting to be underwhelmed at some point. But I’ll tell you, I actually like the chocolate more now than I did three months ago when I first tried it. The flavors are long, big, wide, complex, and compelling without being in the least being overly extreme in any one direction. In fact, I’ll just say that this chocolate fills the bill in terms of our definition of “full flavor”—it’s extremely complex, it’s very, very well balanced and it’s got a really great finish that stays with you with ever more appeal for a long, long time, even if you only eat a single square. It’s just really, really good.
2. The raw material
Every one that makes good chocolate says they “buy the best beans” but of course there are huge variations in quality—saying it and doing it are two very different things. But because it’s pretty much impossible to make a great chocolate like this from mediocre cacao, I feel pretty confident saying that this guy’s actually doing just what he says. Unlike most small chocolatiers, he’s actually going straight to the agricultural source and buying cacao beans from the growers. Shawn has spent significant time in South and Central America in order to meet every single one of the farmers from whom he’s getting cacao in order to get to know them and what they do. “Because of that,” he explained, “I’m able to literally evaluate the beans before we get them delivered. I direct the exact fermentation and drying specifications of my beans and this is the greatest influence of taste that there is.” The fermentation piece of this is huge—every really great chocolate maker talks about it at length, but few consumers yet understand how much difference it makes. It’s a credit to Shawn’s work with teaching fermentation techniques to the growers that the chocolate is as good as it is.
3. The chocolate making
Shawn is nothing if not fanatical about the attention to detail in each piece of the production, a trait which probably makes his wife crazy sometimes J, but from which the rest of get to benefit. All that little itty bitty detail stuff is what takes something from pretty good to the really amazing level of greatness that I that these bars are at (which I still attribute somewhat warily because they’re so relatively new) (or the Zzang bars from the Bakehouse—see below for more on those).
“There are only a few places to effect taste,” Shawn said on the phone last fall. “The farmers have the first three—growing, fermentation and drying. Then we have the rest—roasting, conching and the finishing. That’s where we try to not mess up what the farmers have created.” To focus his chocolate on the pure flavor of the cacao, Shawn decided not to use any of the lecithin or vanilla that are commonly used in most commercial chocolates. He does add a bit of cocoa butter, which, quite remarkably he makes himself in Missouri. The latter is almost unheard of in a production this small. Only a handful of chocolate producers—all much bigger than Askinosie—do it. I’m glad he is—it makes a small but very significant difference in the flavor and quality of the chocolate.
So much of what we do here in the ZCoB is about connection—hooking up the people who make the food, with the people who sell it, and then on to the customers (and us!) who actually eat it. It’s what I’ve come to call Six Degrees of Connection (I don’t like the negativity of “Six Degrees of Separation” though the alliteration of the latter is clearly better.) Our original connection with Shawn came, as many of you already know, through Jack Stack who runs Springfield Remanufacturing and co-wrote Great Game of Business (with Bo Burlingham) . . . maybe today I’ll call him the Babe Ruth of Open Book Finance—it’s not a place I’ve ever before learned about a really good new food, but, hey, connections are connections and good karmic stuff comes back to you many times over so it’s great that a hook up we’ve had for so many years in the finance and world went on to lead us to one of the best new chocolates I’ve had in ages.
Shawn takes that connection thing seriously too. Unprompted by me he said, “Part of what I want to do is to connect the people who eat the chocolate with the people who grow the beans.” He’s doing it. Like I said, the guy’s been to visit every single one of the farmers he buys from in Ecuador and in Mexico. Not only did he buy their beans though—he also later brought them finished chocolate to taste. Many had never had finished conched chocolate of any sort; and certainly hardly any (if any) had ever had finished chocolate made from their own beans. He also went down to meet them and thank them for all the work they were doing. He said that they uniformly were shocked to see him and that no chocolate maker—no one—had ever before come down to thank them for what they were doing.
While I’m starting to feel like the word itself is quickly becoming an “over-used resource,” I don’t have a better one to offer right now so let me just say that pretty much everything about this chocolate is set up to be sustainable. Shawn is paying over Fair Trade prices for the cacao, which I think, is great. As so many of our other like-minded producers have done, he’s committed to those prices as long as the quality of the beans is good. At an equal level of amazingness, Shawn went back later to actually review Askinosie’s early financial performance and deliver the first set of bonus checks to the growers—you can imagine the shock (in a good way) from them over that one. The packaging is all environmentally sound. He’s open book finance all the way back to the growers and has gone back down to Mexico and Ecuador to give the farmer’s their first bonus checks. And he’s doing some really great work with kids in need in his hometown of Springfield to teach them about chocolate as well.
So with that as background, here’s the details on the actual chocolate. There are four bars and I really think that they’re all amazingly good.
First up is the one from Mexico—it’s a 75 percent dark chocolate made with cacao from the area of Soconusco in southern Mexico. While today it’s just a tiny town on the country’s Pacific Coast, six or seven centuries ago Soconusco was to cacao what Bordeaux is today to grapes; in fact, the Aztecs took over the region simply because the cacao beans that came from there were so darned good. The area long ago fell off the radar of most everyone in the food world, but now, thanks to Shawn’s work, we all get to taste the fruit of the labor of Soconusco’s farmers—this is the first time this cacao has been used to make chocolate outside of Mexico in over 100 years! And it’s darned good stuff. (Through Shawn’s educational efforts the Soconusco growers have begun to ferment their cacao, something that wasn’t done in the old days but is one of the keys to making great chocolate from any cacao today.)
The more I eat this chocolate the more I like it. It’s got a very wide flavor that spreads out across your mouth side to side—not to sound stupid, but it’s just pretty darned delicious. Lots of really good, long lingering low notes accompanied by mellow but meaningful liveliness, very long finish with sort of dry red wine textures in the mouth maybe? It’s definitely not too sweet at all, which I like a lot. Little bits of flavor keep coming out long after you finish eating it. I like the not overly finessed feel it has in the mouth. I like the finish too—low and centered and very pleasant, lingering nicely long after you’ve finished eating it.
The second bar is the one made with nacional cacao (the variety of beans also known as Arriba) from Ecuador. The cacao it’s made from comes from the tiny, centuries-old village of San Jose Del Tambo, which lies in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. It’s got a cacao content of 70 percent, so it’s slightly less dark than the Mexican bar. As Shawn aid at the tasting session when he was here a few weeks ago, “it’s a completely different in taste from the Soconusco bar. It’s 70% cacao but in one of those nobody ever believes it but it’s true anyways, sometimes (like this time) lower percentages of cacao might taste “stronger” than others that have more simply because the beans are different. This is a good example of that because although it has less cacao in it, it really does taste darker than the Mexican bar above. It’s got a really big flavor, a big creamy mouthfeel, not too sweet in the least. Lots of delicious, dark low notes, really long finish.
The third and fourth bars are simply the two chocolates above, but each with the addition of cacao nibs from their respective home regions. I really like both of them, in part because the addition of the nibs makes the flavor slightly darker and deeper and less sweet, and because I really like the textural contrast you get from their crunch.
Shawn came into town on a Sunday evening before going to the Zingerman’s Experience Seminar the next day, and went by the Deli to get some food. Among the many things he bought to take back to his hotel room he bought a Zzang bar, figuring he’d have a bite or two at the most for dessert (given that he eats a lot of chocolate it’s not like he needs more). He ended up eating the whole thing that night, and announced in the ZingTrain seminar the next day that the Zzang was the best candy bar he’d ever had. High praise from a very picky chocolate person with very good taste.