I'm on a journey to explore the world of American craft chocolate
Raaka: Lust for Unroasted Chocolate
Raw chocolate bliss balls designed to increase your libido and make sex even more intense. Who wouldn’t want some, right? Making these babies sounds infinitely better than working behind a computer in the Bay Area. That’s why in 2008 Raaka co-founder Ryan Cheney quit his job, packed a bag, and took off on a round-the-world trip with his then girlfriend. He landed in Thailand at Agama Yoga, a tantric yoga school that believes, in Ryan’s words, “there is a path to enlightenment through sensory experience, not just through neglecting sensory experience.”
When he took a class on raw chocolate and aphrodisiacs taught by the author of The Kama Sutra Kitchen, he knew he’d found his calling. He planned to bring those healing powers to New York with a raw chocolate company. He brought on co-founder Nate Hodge and got started.
But there was a big problem: The chocolate wasn’t raw. Because of misunderstandings and just plain misrepresentations, much of the chocolate that’s marketing as raw isn’t raw in reality. When Ryan got started, he was using products from Essential Living Foods, one of the biggest providers of raw cocoa powder and cocoa butter. In 2009 it discovered that its products were actually being processed at temperatures over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The company came clean and changed providers and procedures, but the scandal was a lesson for everyone: You don't always know what you’re being sold.
It’s still a huge problem in the raw chocolate world, and experts advise taking the word “raw” with a grain of salt. There aren’t any legal standards for the word, and there isn’t any third-party certification either. It’s tricky if not near impossible to keep cocoa beans below 118 degrees during the fermentation and drying process; meanwhile roasting is out, and grinding and refining must be done very carefully. “I’ve been [to raw restaurants and shops] even years after this,” Ryan said. “I’ve been like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take the $12 dessert of your vegan coconut milk popsicle dipped in raw chocolate. Then talked to them about their chocolate, and it was still couverture that they were tempering and that they were purchasing from these suppliers. It was B.S, and it still is B.S.” (Take this wide array of "raw" treats on Facebook, for example.)
In other words, Ryan and Nate felt tricked. But rather than give up, Ryan said, they decided to “see what flavors we feel are amazing and also made without roasting cocoa beans” in order to focus on food that’s as minimally processed as possible. That’s why they call their chocolate “virgin”: The beans are unroasted, but they don’t make claims that the chocolate stays below 118 degrees Fahrenheit during every step of the process.
“It’s about harnessing the flavor of the raw beans,” Nate said. “We want to transport people.” Other makers roast the beans to remove unwanted acids and off flavors, but Raaka has to temper those tastes directly. Think vibrant berries and tropical fruits as well as mushroom and smoke, depending on the cacao.
They pair those strong flavors with interesting inclusions and natural sugars, resulting in bars like the Good Food Award–winning bourbon cask-aged, maple and nibs, yacón (an alternative sugar), coconut milk, and smoked chai. Some in the chocolate world look down on inclusions, but the reality is that folks love them. “There are a small number of chocolate connoisseurs who are really into your 80 percent Chuao bar from the 2014 harvest,” Ryan said. “But in my experience there is a broader interest in inclusions.” In my opinion, like blends, inclusions are an art form. So Raaka pairs earthy Bolivian beans with smoked tea to arrive at a unique flavor profile for their smoked chai bar and berry-tasting cocoa beans from the Oko Caribe co-op in the Dominican Republic with coconut milk to get a creamy, bright flavor for their coconut milk bar (did I mention the company is vegan?).
They test their ideas and preview bars with their First Nibs subscription package, where each month they send subscribers two new microbatch bars they’re working on and a tried-and-true bar. Think saffron with cranberries, toasted sesame with Tahitian vanilla, and any other number of yummy options.
The most popular First Nibs bars often join the regular lineup: Both the smoked chai bar and the maple and nibs started out that way. It’s a cool way to involve customers in the company, and it fits right into Raaka’s mission. “I’m not interested in business for business sake.” Ryan said. “My interest is in finding innovative ways to make a more positive social impact in the world, and I see business as a vehicle to do that.”
Nate echoed that sentiment, saying he and Ryan initially bonded over ideas about “how we can do business in a way that is beneficial to the employees and the community and everyone attached to the supply chain, where everything is done in a respectful way where the communication moves society forward.” He added, “When you communicate with Raaka, that communication should be joyful and enriching and not just a transaction.” That’s why, for example, the company spends so much time working directly with farmers to source beans ethically. It’s also why their factory is open for tours or the casual drop-in to taste and talk about chocolate. It’s pretty adorable to watch elementary school kids tour the chocolate-making rooms and try out the Crankandstein for themselves. I’ll never forget my first visit, when a guy repairing a Cocoatown was covered from hand to shoulder in chocolate, dripping the good stuff all over the floor as he struggled to fix the machine.
All of this can be condensed into one word: Raaka. “It’s Finnish,” Ryan explained. “It can mean like raw, like an uncooked vegetable. It can also mean raw like a blustery, cold wind in your face. Or like someone who has like a personality that’s strong. It’s sort of a broad definition for the word ‘raw.’”
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