When you work in food media, it's easy to be a cynic. Your job is to taste anything and everything, and most of it won't be very good. You notice common warning signs in those not-good things, and eventually you develop Pavlovian responses. After years of tasting chalky, burnt bars of so-called "craft" chocolate made in the U.S., I get dry mouth whenever I see another artistically designed American label. This will be way too acidic and astringent, my tongue tells me, and it'll melt into clumpy sand.
So it was with some reluctance that I first tried Dandelion Chocolate three years ago on a trip to San Francisco. Virtually every well-meaning American bar I've sampled has been a disappointment, and there was nothing to suggest this would be any different. The dry mouth was rearing to to go.
Well, you know where this is going. Wait, I asked, is this...good? No, really good? Then came the bombs of nuts and brandy, with a crisp slice of acidity balanced by a cocoa richness that melted clean and shockingly smooth. This is how chocolate should be—complex and alive but balanced, not unhinged. If my word's not good enough, consider David Lebovitz's or Ruth Reichl's. Across their current lineup of six wildly different tasting bars, Dandelion's chocolate shows an appreciation for precise acidity and fruitiness that American chocolate is known for, but always in the service of exploring and deepening other flavors—nuts and mushrooms and brandy, say—plus a dense, plush melt that lingers on the tongue without overstaying its welcome.
Dandelion is far from the only American company making great chocolate these days—Fruition, Dick Taylor, and Rogue all come to mind as excellent brands that also stand up to Europe and Latin America's best. But it's hard not to get a little wrapped up in the romance of Dandelion's work, because in today's self-anointed "artisan" food world, it's all too rare for critical darlings like Dandelion to possess the chops to back up the praise they receive.
You've heard their story before. Two tech-savvy guys in northern California launch a company in a garage with more MacGuyvered equipment and gumption than good sense and training. They start small, winning over a cohort of nerdy fans, before racking up awards and glowing praise. Five years later, Dandelion is one of the hottest names in the American chocolate business. The wait list for their chocolate is over 400 stores long.
The question, then, is what do they get right that so many other American companies get wrong?
"When I started getting into chocolate in 2008, there were six craft American chocolate companies. Now, even in the past two years, I'll hear of a new one that opened three to six months ago that I never knew about."
Eagranie Yuh, a Canadian chocolate expert, writer, and educator, has as top-down a view of the American craft chocolate boom as you're likely to find. Beyond teaching and writing about chocolate, her work as a jury member on the International Chocolate Awards' Americas category has her tasting and evaluating new chocolate all the time. If you look at the continental American regional finalists from last year's competition and count the medalists from the U. S. of A, you'll find a mere five out of 19, none gold. Were chocolate an Olympic sport, our national spirit would be crushed.
I asked Yuh why, when there are more U.S. companies than ever before, so few made a showing at the awards. She thinks some quality but subtle-tasting American labels might have gotten overlooked in favor of stronger-flavored chocolates—a problem in any tasting survey—but also points out the simple truth about any craft food: "I honestly think it takes about five years for a chocolate maker to really know what they're doing. The ones who've been doing it longest have been doing it best."
Now in its second decade, the American craft chocolate industry is just starting to hit its stride. It takes time for new traditions to assert themselves, and in the U.S., the vast majority of craft chocolate is still fueled more by amateur enthusiasm and experimentation than the long line of quality production you'll find in Europe and Latin America. The small batches that American makers work with also mean it's harder to control variables in the beans—less of a problem for the European big dogs, who blend different sources of beans for consistent flavors and textures.
In the meantime, chocolate lovers have to deal with an industry bloated with golden calves and no shortage of press celebrating chalky, flavorless, or burnt-tasting bars under the banner of supposedly high-quality local handmade food. Most of the American chocolate I've sampled veers toward extremely acidic and astringent, with little of the nutty, roasted balance that characterizes European and many Latin American versions.
Yuh describes the typical American approach to chocolate as "purist," generally with light roasts to showcase the individual characteristics of cocoa beans from different regions. Do that right and you get a lovely exploration of chocolate's fruity terroir, what Yuh calls "trueness to the bean." Do it wrong and, well, there's that dry mouth.
A purist approach also means adding little-to-no extra cocoa butter beyond what you get from grinding the bean on its own. Many makers add additional amounts of the waxy, largely flavorless substance to make their chocolate creamy and smooth-melting; but doing so also tames chocolate's more aggressive side, a turnoff if you're looking to preserve the cocoa bean's concentrated flavor. As a result, "a lot of the time, chocolate makers are getting the flavors they want, but not the texture. The chocolate can have a frosting-like quality," Yuh explains.
The problem is one of technique. Making chocolate smooth and creamy involves grinding coarse solid particles until they emulsify in a network of fatty cocoa butter, a process called melanging, running the chocolate through massive stone grinders until it renders into a creamy, grit-free substance. It's tricky to do correctly, and labor-intensive to monitor, but when you get it right you have wonderful, smooth-melting chocolate. Mess up and yup: dry mouth.
I reached out to Dandelion's Todd Masonis to learn how his company nails that balanced-but-assertive flavor and creamy texture. Dandelion's tasting bars—all 70% cocoa save for one 100%—are made with nothing but cocoa beans and sugar (no extra cocoa butter or flavorings), but they're delightfully creamy with a firm snap that gives way to a dense, luxurious melt.
The bars are indeed true to the bean; the Ambanja from Madagascar starts as brooding dark fruit before finishing with bright acidity, while the vegetal Liberian Butuo is full of savory smoke and wood.
"You could say the big difference is the beans that we use," Masonis says, "but a lot of makers are using the exact same beans." Dandelion's hardly the only American company that seeks out high quality, low yield cocoa beans from good farms, and they don't claim to get better beans than everyone else. Some other makers buy from the same farms Dandelion works with—in some cases the very same lot of beans that Dandelion might sell off.
They do, however, take an extra step that not all other chocolate makers bother with: sorting the beans by hand once a shipment reaches their San Francisco factory. Even though cacao farmers pick out bits of wood, small rocks, and the like, Dandelion staffers go over every bean for pieces they might have missed, as well as cracked or germinated beans that could offset the chocolate's flavor. "We throw out about 10% of the beans we get," Masonis tells me. "If you're not throwing away chocolate, you're not being honest."
From there the beans are roasted, shelled, melanged, tempered, molded into bars, and packaged. I asked again what Dandelion does differently to make their chocolate so good. "Most small makers have the same process," Masonis explains, and in many cases the same tools. Dandelion's ultra-creamy chocolate is ground with the same CocoaTown melanger used by Mast Brothers and "most of small [American] makers."
The difference comes down not to tools or beans, but time-tested technique and a fanatical devotion to A/B testing. "We're tasting all day to make sure we don't miss anything. When we get a new set of beans, we do 10 to 15 small batches and taste them blind until we get a chocolate that's right." Part of that testing is manipulating the roast: "Time and temperature are your roasting variables, and we have strategies to set the right curve for a given batch of beans."
That roast sets most of the beans' flavor, but the final nuances are worked out in the melanging process, which takes two to four days to thoroughly smooth out the chocolate, blend in sugar, aerate the cocoa, and refine its flavor. The melange is where Dandelion also sets that creamy texture, and while Masonis says there's "no secret" to it, not every chocolate company uses a laser analysis of cocoa particle size and shape as part of their ongoing efforts to improve their chocolate quality.
Before opening Dandelion, Masonis and his partner Cameron Ring worked together in tech, and Masonis attributes some of their success to the skills they developed breaking down massive, complex processes into component tasks and variables. "You have to be a food scientist, a plumber, a mechanic, and an electrician. You have to learn how to break down problems into more manageable chunks."
Their tech background also sheds light on their obsession with optimization. Dandelion is currently working on a larger factory in San Francisco to open, they hope, later this year, that'll work in tandem with their current one (it will also offer tours, as the original location does). The new space means opportunities for larger-scale machines and more automated workflow. "We want to make more chocolate, but we also want to make chocolate better." For one thing, that means sorting beans with an optical machine and air jet to cut down on human labor.
Masonis also wants to figure out how to make the chocolate easier to handle. "We don't have a lot of fat in our beans, so we don't have great flow properties. We have to super-crystallize it [namely: add extra seed crystals to align the chocolate's fat structure] to make it workable, but it's hard to work with. Right now we power through it, but we'd love to make it more mechanical."
When it comes to chocolate, larger scale doesn't necessarily mean lower quality. Bigger machines and batch sizes mean more consistency from bar to bar, which matters when you're charging someone $8 for a two-ounce slab of chocolate. "If we wanted to make more money we'd add cocoa butter or roast more"—tactics many chocolate makers take to exert more control on the processing of their beans, but not in line with Dandelion's purist American approach.
Masonis doesn't see his company as leading some American chocolate crusade—he was quick to name a slew of other American makers he appreciates and respects, from Dick Taylor to French Broad and Madre. But as local chocolate businesses mature, Dandelion will find itself more and more as a mentor to new up-and-comers. If American coffee and wine have taught us anything, it's that change and respectability start slow, then boom. It's only a matter of time before the same is true for chocolate.