Fruition Chocolate: All About the Flavor

Jameson whiskey caramels

Jameson whiskey caramels

Bryan Graham makes milk chocolate. And white chocolate. He uses vanilla. He even makes truffles and dark-chocolate-coated, jalapeño-dusted corn nuts. CORN NUTS. In other words, Bryan Graham isn’t like most craft chocolate makers, who focus on two-ingredient, single-origin dark bars. 

Of course, the modest thirtysomething makes one hell of a dark chocolate too. But it’s his Marañon Dark Milk bar, a combination of milk and dark, that’s winning gobs of awards and surprising the hell out of the chocolate world. This is the story of that bar.

To get there, though, we have to travel back to the 80s, to Bryan’s grandmother’s dairy farm in upstate New York, where she taught him how to bake. “We’d pick apples and make jelly and pick berries and make pies and cookies,” he remembered. His interest led to a pastry chef position at a local restaurant and then formal training at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). There, in “one 15-minute part of one of the lectures,” his instructor detailed how to make chocolate from scratch. Bryan was hooked.

Using the little the instructor knew about how to make chocolate, based on an “industrial chocolate-making class that he had taken years ago as an extracurricular project,” Bryan said, he and his instructor jerry-rigged a pan coater (the machine you use to make chocolate-covered almonds, among other things) to grind cocoa nibs that the CIA used as garnish on desserts. “They came in a plastic one-pound jar and tasted like cardboard,” he remembered. Not exactly the ingredient you want to start with to make good chocolate. The resulting bar “was the worst stuff I’ve ever tasted,” Bryan said. “ But that didn’t matter. It was my shitty chocolate.” He quickly realized he wanted to have his own chocolate company, where he’d make all of his own chocolate.

Caramel corn bars, aka toasted white chocolate with freeze-dried corn and vanilla salt

Caramel corn bars, aka toasted white chocolate with freeze-dried corn and vanilla salt

The autumn apple bar, aka toasted white couverture chocolate with dried apple and spiced honey granola

The autumn apple bar, aka toasted white couverture chocolate with dried apple and spiced honey granola

Fast-forward nine years and Fruition Chocolate has storefronts in Shokan and Woodstock. The tiny company wins awards from the Good Food Awards and the International Chocolate Awards every year, and everyone from Pete Wells at The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal loves Bryan’s chocolate. This year has been particularly good to Fruition all around, especially where the Marañon Milk bar is concerned: The brand-new bar swept the International Chocolate Awards World competition with three gold metals. Three!

I remember the first time I tried it. Jessica Ferraro of Bar Cacao had invited me to her house in San Francisco for a chocolate tasting. “I have a chocolate closet,” she said conspiratorially. I was sold. As we lay lazily on her couch surrounded by dozens of open bars, I thought it couldn’t get any better. Then she opened a brand-new package, handed me a square without any comment. The mild chocolate started melting on my tongue almost immediately, the fruity notes tempered by traces of walnut, all laced with a hint of milk. It was magnificent. It was also my first dark milk chocolate.

Dark milk?! Yes, I know, for most of us these are mutually exclusive categories. But they don’t have to be. Chocolate makers have started creating milk chocolates with a high percentage of cocoa. (For example, Bryan’s bar is 68 percent, much higher than most milks you’ll find.) They use top-notch ingredients just like their single-origin chocolates, bringing the same integrity to a category once considered kid stuff. Even renowned chocolate expert Clay Gordon says his favorite chocolate to eat “for pleasure” (i.e., not for tasting or judging purposes) is “high-cocoa-content milk chocolate.”

Photo courtesy Gabe Zimmer

Fruition makes several milk chocolates, light and dark. “It’s a great gateway for people to get into more flavorful, unique, dark chocolates,” Bryan said. In fact, he only made a Marañon Milk bar because his Marañon single-origin dark chocolate wasn’t selling that well. “I had extra beans and wanted to do something else with them,” he told me. “I didn’t know of anyone making a milk chocolate bar using those beans.”

Those delicious beans. Craft chocolate makers always use special beans, what’s called “fine flavor cacao.” But in this case the beans are extra special: They’re a type called Nacional, a prized variety known for its white beans (a marker of high quality and low bitterness) and mild, delicious flavor that until recently was thought to have been extinct for 100 years. But when a man named Dan Pearson was tromping through the forest in Peru looking for bananas to import to the U.S., he discovered a valley of untouched cacao with a crazy-high percentage of white beans. “Our guide said, ‘Around here, they’re all like that,’” Dan remembered. “We went back to civilization and Googled it.” Eventually he formed a company called Marañon and started selling the beans as well as chocolate that they make themselves.

Photo courtesy Kat Page

Photo courtesy Kat Page

Now that rare cacao is in high demand, with chocolate makers scrambling to get their hands on it. Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, calls it “the best chocolate in the world,” and in 2012, with Anthony Bourdain, he made his own bar with it (before you go searching, it’s not available anymore). There’s even an episode of Parts Unknown about it. 

“It was the most expensive cacao that we’d ever purchased,” Bryan told me. “But I thought I could do something fun with it.”

The result? A fun yet serious dark milk chocolate that blows away both casual and serious chocolate eaters.

Now Bryan is still after fun, even though he says that with so many eyes on Fruition, he feels like the stakes are higher. “I put a lot more pressure on myself when we get more attention,” he told me. “I’m terrified of no longer being relevant or no longer making great chocolate that people like.”

Yet to an outsider, it seems like this could never happen, because Bryan’s creativity pushes his chocolate to greatness. Case in point: Right now Bryan’s making a milk chocolate with dried candy cap mushrooms.

FruitionCandyCaps.jpg

“They taste and smell exactly like maple syrup,” he said mischievously. “My idea is to mold a bar with caramelized pecans so it’s maple-pecan flavor without any maple syrup in it. We’ll see how it turns out. It might be disgusting.”

I doubt it. Because Bryan understands both how to work with cacao beans and how to mold the resulting chocolate into myriad delicious forms. “Why not play around with it?” he said when I asked him about using vanilla, making white chocolate and bonbons, and experimenting with things like mushrooms. “I don’t like the idea of limiting myself and limiting what we can do.”

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