Amano Chocolate: Science, Alchemy, Integrity
Almost all chocolate makers craft chocolate because someone said they couldn’t do it. That’s certainly the case for Art Pollard, the force behind Amano Chocolate. While working in the BYU physics department in the early 90s, Art found himself chewing on a chocolate bar and mulling over how to make it himself.
“At that time chocolate was a mysterious ingredient,” he remembered. “Where does chocolate come from? Well, chocolate comes from chocolate.” When he voiced his interest to co-workers, they scoffed, saying it was too hard, almost impossible, since only giant corporations made chocolate, not small companies, let alone individual people. And so the seed — or, er, cacao bean — was planted.
The introverted thirtysomething from New Mexico was no stranger to invention. At 13 he’d worked on nuclear reactors for BYU and the University of Washington and then later made a living building machinery for the BYU physics department. He started a software development company with business partner Clark Goble, working for big clients like Motorola and Adobe. “Anytime you do a search inside of Acrobat,” he said “that’s my code.” In other words, Art is whip-smart and so, naturally, thought chocolate would be a snap, though at that time, the idea of "craft chocolate" didn't exist.
Even years later, “it’s not as easy as it looks,” said Lauren Adler, the owner of specialty store Chocolopolis. “It’s a very difficult business.” You have to be part physicist, part mechanic, part foodie, and part marketing genius. “By the time I found out that it’s too difficult,” said Art, “I already had a factory.”
Thank goodness for us chocolate lovers, though. Art consistently turns out amazing bars that have won awards from the International Chocolate Awards, the London Academy of Chocolate, the San Francisco Chocolate Salon, the Good Food Awards, and more. “He has a passion and has really perfected his craft,” said Lauren.
But back in 1996, it was all about the challenge. “I had no other goal than learning and understanding it,” Art said. He designed and built machines from scratch with the help of his old boss at BYU, bought cacao beans from a Mexican grocery nearby, and got to work. “Clark and I would be coding in one room,” he remembered, “and the chocolate machines would be going in the other room.”
Eventually Art graduated from the “terrible” Mexican beans to better and better ones. Now you can buy good beans from Chocolate Alchemy or source them any other number of ways, but back then that wasn’t the case. Still, the most dedicated makers visit farms themselves, and Art was one of the first to do this. “If it’s coming from a warehouse on the East Coast, you’re missing half the story,” Art explained. “But if you bought most of the farmer’s annual production and you see that he put all this sweat and tears into it, then you want to honor the farmer by doing the best that you can.”
His first trip was in 2005 to Villahermosa, Mexico, where he’d bought some rare white beans, and since then he’s drank chocolate and cornmeal with Mayan descendants, traveled 1,300 turns on a tiny cliffside highway in Venezuela, and sampled blackberry-hinted chocolate in Papua New Guinea. He’s been to Mexico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and, most notably, Venezuela, from which he’s created scrumptious bars with high-end cacao that you’d be hard-pressed to find from other American makers. When he gave bars to the farmers who had grown the cacao, one of them told him, “This chocolate is like a river. The flavor takes me to all these wild and wondrous places.” Art still gets teary when he tells this story.
Because for him, it’s all about flavor. “I want people to swear when they eat my chocolate,” he said. He calls it the “holy crap factor,” that you should be so delighted by the great taste when you eat a piece that you scream out a four-letter word. Art doesn’t subscribe to the popular two-ingredient ethos of cacao and sugar that you’ll find among most American makers, saying that attitude is all about ego. Instead he uses cocoa butter and even (gasp!) vanilla to craft smooth, decadent chocolate that showcases the high quality of the beans and his skill as a craftsman.
Yet like anyone running a small business almost by himself, Art has to deal with more than building machines, sourcing beans, and creating fine chocolate. The first time I met him, he was madly opening packages of bars for sampling behind his booth at the Dallas Chocolate Festival.
The craft chocolate industry is so new that almost all makers spend much of their time schlepping boxes and banners around at events like this, trying to educate people about chocolate as well as build their brand. And though Amano was one of the first brands out there, even though it has won so many awards and creates some of the best chocolate in the country, most people still don’t recognize the name. It's hard to find the bars in stores, and you have to know what you're looking for. In New York, for example, the only place to get them is at the Meadow, where most of them are stored high up on the shelf, out of reach.
“I’d like to say the most important part is the chocolate,” Art said. “But whether we like it or not, sales and marketing is the most important. Unless you sell it, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got.” He admits that over the years Amano has made a few bad hires on the sales side and now is “more limited by personnel” when it comes to marketing.
But that’s not the only reason Amano’s name isn’t well-known outside the industry. Art spends much of his time custom-manufacturing chocolate for other companies, including other craft makers (all are under a nondisclosure, so he couldn’t reveal their names). “There are companies that you would know,” he said, “and there are some that are quite sizeable.” Some have even won awards based on the chocolate Art made for them! He works with them to develop roast profiles, then creates the chocolate so that they can focus on sales and marketing.
Meanwhile his own marketing strategy is “quieter,” he said, “to let the chocolate speak for itself.” However, he told me recently to keep my eye out for a few things that will get the company “more in front of the public.” The first might be Amano’s launch of inclusion bars in three flavors: raspberry and rose, cardamom and black pepper, and mango and chili. The raspberry-rose bar in particular is based on a pastry that Art tried at Pierre Hermé in Paris, one that, when he took a bite, he screamed, “Holy crap!” (Apparently that measure works for him as well as those of us who eat his chocolate.) That bar is so remarkable that even though it’s just been released, it has already won a silver metal at the International Chocolate Awards!
Art’s artistic palate applies to more than just chocolate, though. He’s been “playing with photography” since the late 80s, and, well, just see for yourself:
“My problem in life is I have so many interests,” he told me recently. “I’ve always been very good at going in and understanding something quickly and mastering it. Then I become bored, and I go find something else.” Of course, Art's interest in chocolate has lasted over 15 years. I think they call that passion.