Mackenzie Rivers, Map Chocolate

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The Details

Occupation: Bean-to-Bar Maker and Founder of Map Chocolate

Location: Eugene, Oregon

Year Founded: 2014

Known For: Packaging and molding as beautiful as the taste of the bars she makes. She’s gathered quite a following for quirky names like Starry Night (Belize 60 percent dark milk with pine bud syrup and Icelandic sea salt) and wild inclusions. Also known for custom couverture and hot chocolate, cold-brew chocolate, baking chocolate, and single-origin cocoa powder.

Can You Visit? Nope, it’s a closed factory, but Mackenzie does offer chocolate-making classes and workshops. (Use the code CHOCOLATENOISE to save $75 on any of Map’s bean-to-bar camps or maker’s workshops!)

Other Random Facts: Mackenzie works one day of the week with Chocolate Alchemy, the website where many bean-to-bar chocolate makers first learn how to make chocolate from scratch and where many buy beans and machines.

The Questions

Megan Giller: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Mackenzie Rivers: Nancy Drew, a cowgirl, and a pathologist, in that order. 

Megan: Why chocolate? 

Mackenzie: I was a baker as a kid (Easy Bake oven cakes were my niche). And as a river guide on the Grand Canyon, I did weird things like pickle grape leaves or take sourdough starter in my gear bag for pancakes, and then much later I worked as pastry cook and a baker (I had a subscription-baking biz in Idaho). I was also a farmer/gardener from a young age (my grandfather was a farmer) and had a definite food belief system of eating seasonally, so there was that notion of coaxing something into being, then using it to cook, then eating it. That came together and resulted in chocolate because of my love for making + a love for real ingredients. It could have easily been bread as my craft, because it is still something I hyperventilate over — it is my outlet at home after work.

The light bulb moment of making chocolate, of thinking of it as a hands-on craft (it was a new idea to me in 2014) requiring a skill and dedication to learning (and learning and learning) a process, with a fabulous blank canvas (the chocolate) as the end result, was what sealed the deal. Everything about it seemed to fit, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it happened in the instant I first picked up a cocoa bean.

Map’s Mexico Tabasco region supplier, Alejandro Zamorano Escriche

Map’s Mexico Tabasco region supplier, Alejandro Zamorano Escriche

Megan: What are you most proud of in your business life?

Mackenzie: That I built Map from out of thin air. That I not only began learning how to make chocolate but simultaneously began creating a business, which entailed designing a website, packaging, the whole How Will I Do This. I feel fortunate that I know every aspect of it — all the decision-making, the nitty-gritty of bean to bar, the scaling/financial aspects, the daily everythingness of it, but also, I hold the idea of Map, which means being its voice.  

Megan: Do you think of yourself as a Woman (capital “W”) in the chocolate industry? Why or why not? And if yes, what does it mean to be a Woman in chocolate?

Mackenzie: I don't know about the capital “W” aspect, but I was a woman on the river when that was a rarity, and also at a time when many people thought a woman rowing a boat down the Grand Canyon was absurd, possibly life threatening, and if you were going to do it you would need to out-bro the Bros. But I wasn't interested in that: I was there for the canyon, and because I loved the skill of rowing, and because when I rowed a big-ass rapid it was my two hands (clammy and sweaty and often terrified) on the oars, nobody else's.

I painted my toenails and read Vogue magazine in the crew cab on the way to the put-in: I wasn't interested in being a Bro-ified version of myself. If I screwed up I had to accept the results, and if I had a beautiful run, I could be proud. Also, I was a wee bit of a Do It My Own Way gal, sooo I did.

As for being a “W” in chocolate: I do think of myself as a member of the #womeninchocolate community, but also I think of myself as a member of the chocolate maker's community. The #womeninchocolate community is pretty wide, and it includes women who make it as well as women who taste it, teach about it, etc., and I certainly identify with the handful of us who run our own bean-to-bar companies without a partner. There are many, many different job descriptions/roles encompassed within the WIC community.

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Being a Woman in chocolate means not just sharing a love for chocolate but also accepting the responsibility we, whose work/livelihood/passion is focused on chocolate, have for steering it in a better direction. Part of this direction has to do with acknowledging that chocolate has come and still comes at a tremendous cost to those who grow it/harvest it, but that we have a choice and a chance to change that. As Women in chocolate (full-on capital “W,” plz), that “W” might stand better for “Wheel,” as in, we're in the driver's seat like never before. We aren't just choosing it for our kids, craving it with our BFFs but also sourcing the beans, meeting with farmers, making the chocolate, choosing the couverture, creating the new versions of what we have loved so long. No matter what sector of the “W” in “C” world we occupy, as women we have an intimate rapport with chocolate that I think is unique, and uniquely powerful.  

Megan: What’s your daily routine, starting with waking up and ending with bedtime?

Mackenzie: I'm up at 4:30 AM: Coffee-write-read emails-do Instagram-feed my brood-be at Map by 8:30 AM-say hello to the melangers (yes, I talk to my equipment)-check the sous vides-set up for tempering, start batches-run test batches-prep inclusions-clean molds-oversee the bar wrapping crew-handle the biz details. Basically everything and most things each day.

Then head home by 5 PM-make dinner-then read or Netflix until 10 PM-then I pass out. That's Monday through Thursday and Saturday. On the one day I work at Chocolate Alchemy (Friday), I turn on the roaster-roast-winnow. During bean-to-bar class season the routine is very different, and as students would say, a bit of a whirlwind. 

Megan: How do you find inspiration and creativity in your day-to-day work?

Mackenzie: I feel a very deep “This is 100% My Path” joy nearly every day. And that includes the days I'm crying and holding my head in my hands saying “what the fuck” 100 times (usually this is in response to some piece of equipment breaking. The joke when I was a guide was that my favorite tool was a rock, and those don't really work with melangeurs).

So I can be final-sorting a tray of nibs and the aroma is there and I love it, and then the next moment I am thinking of some bread I had in Berkeley in 1988 at Acme Bread and how the aroma was not just in the crust but on my hands after I finished eating it, for days it seemed, and then I'll think, “I need to put this into a bar.” I am endlessly inspired, a fact that is both a blessing and a curse.

As for creativity, the number one Rule of Map is: I can do this however I want. That gives me the freedom to try things I might not if I was worried about doing things the way they are "supposed" to be done.

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Megan: What’s a challenge that keeps you up at night?

Mackenzie: How to source the revenue to take Map in the direction(s) I envision it going. It is less a worrying thing than a strategic-planning exercise. My favorite game to play is "if I had as much capital as so-and-so, what would Map look like?" After I describe it, I have to figure out how to get there without that capital. It's a challenge, because throwing money at problems (buy a bigger X, hire more people to do Y, sell more of Z) does not necessarily solve the problems or generate more revenue. It's a lesson in pruning growth that seems beautiful or has potential, but viewed at the right angle you can see it is diverting the energy needed elsewhere. And that takes nerve.

Megan: Why do you think women are associated so strongly with chocolate?

Mackenzie: Though Linnaeus might have named it the Food of the Gods, that implies incorrectly that it was *only* about the gods, when in fact it was a beautifully benevolent Cacao Goddess who brought chocolate to the world, seeing that while the earth had many amazing creations it needed the right accessory around its midsection to pull the whole thing together. No god-dude would think to do that. If they did they'd drag it through the dirt and then start walloping each other with it. And I think women understand that it is the embodiment of yin/yang: subtle and earthy, strong and delicate. Chocolate might best represent the goddess in every W, and maybe that's our secret.

Megan: Why do you think there aren’t as many women making bean-to-bar chocolate as men? 

Mackenzie: I have no clue how many of us are making chocolate, but in my classes I see a lot of women of all ages and backgrounds who are learning it, so maybe more women are being drawn to it. I hope so anyway.

One hurdle is that chocolate making on a small, non-factory scale is still relatively new: Maybe the boys started talking about it 15 years ago, but even five years ago, when I started, there wasn't the buzz there is now. Part of this is info available about the process and the equipment. Much of it is hard to sort through. Some good, recent books (wink) have helped shed light, but as one new woman maker recently said, "It's lonely making chocolate."

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I receive a lot of emails and texts with questions (I joke I'm like the turkey hotline of chocolate). The few sources of how-to info are bro-oriented, and even in online groups (like Well-Tempered, started by women), the talk often veers off into equipment ball mill roller mill blah blah blah. There is also a sort of proprietary "I know more than you because I was here first" attitude by some of the long(ish) time men makers/chocolate experts, which can be off-putting when a new maker asks a basic question. Heck, it's off-putting when an experienced maker asks a question! Also, there is the issue of funding, since it's harder for women to get capital: According to TechCrunch, of the $96.7 billion invested by US-based venture capital in 2018, only 2.2 percent went to female entrepreneurs. 

Megan: What’s the one thing you wish people knew about chocolate? 

Mackenzie: That there is no such thing as the flavor "chocolate" in the same way that an apple Jolly Rancher tastes nothing like a Cox's Orange Pippin or a Gravenstein or a Fuji or a Macintosh. 

Interested in hanging out with Mackenzie and learning to make chocolate like a master?

Use the code CHOCOLATENOISE to save $75 on any of Map’s bean-to-bar camps or maker’s workshops!

Know a woman in chocolate you’d like to nominate to be part of my Q&A series? Have a question you’d like to ask as part of my Q&A series? Email me at megan@chocolatenoise.com!