Craft Chocolate Capital of America: Utah's Culture of Cacao
Meet chocolate expert Matt Caputo and Utah Chocolate Society's cacao intelligentsia
"On an average day, Caputo eats between one-half to a full pound of chocolate for evaluation purposes alone."
Underscoring her point, Chang points to the growing membership of the Utah Chocolate Society, founded in 2010 by self-proclaimed chocolate geek Brian Ruggles. About 40–60 regulars of the several-hundred member group meet monthly at the Caputo’s downtown Salt Lake City flagship store (which Ruggles calls “the chocolate mothership”) to hone their chocolate palates with single-source tastings, an annual blind-tasting tournament and the occasional guest pastry chef or chocolate maker. Says Chang of Ruggles and crew, “they’re the chocolate intelligentsia” of not just Utah, but recognized as the crème de la crème of cacao aficionados amongst national chocolate authorities.
When I attended a recent Chocolate Society meeting, Ruggles started out the evening with a blind tasting of single-origin Tanzania-sourced cacao as interpreted by eight different chocolate companies, including Utah-made Solstice 70 percent Kilombero Tanzania redolent with honeysuckle and amari notes. After tasting each unmarked sample (but before the big reveal) members speculated on origin, maker and the presence or absence of cocoa butter or debated chocolate tempering techniques. Ruggles followed the discussion by circulating the bar wrapper and provided some background research on product components and sourcing. Fascinating tangents, private jokes, smack-talk and general nerdgasms over this or that brand or cacao bean source were the undercurrent side-conversation buzz.
When the ninth blind sample (out of an eventual sixteen) of the evening went around the room, one member piped up, “Whoa. We’re not in Tanzania any more. Is this New Guinea?”
Sure enough, Ruggles had shifted the cacao bean origin to emphasize the terroir (the unique character and taste imparted from a growing region) of the distinct regions by throwing an Amano Morobe into the mix, bright with notes of raspberry and new car leather. The evening finished with four samples brought by Utah chocolate maker Lance Brown of The Cacao Bean Project, all home-produced bars made with wood-smoked (instead of roasted) beans. This prompted a heated 15-minute debate amongst a handful of members about the mechanics and minutia of roasting methods and temperatures. Ruggles wrapped up the discussion, now running well into three hours after the evening start time of 7:30, “In the end it’s not really about the terminology. It’s all about how it tastes.”
Caputo couldn’t agree more. “Chocolate is such a multi-dimensional experience. The terroir of chocolate can be more profound than wine.” As long as it’s not served with wine, of course.