Chocolate is a mainstay of the Valentine’s Day gift-giving experience, but did you know there are two types of chocolate makers? Some shops buy chocolate in bulk and melt it down to make candies and other chocolate treats. Others, like Xocolatl and Cacao, are in the “bean-to-bar” part of the business. They turn cacao beans into richly flavored chocolate.
Elaine Read and Matt Weyandt own Xocolatl (which they pronounce “chock-o-lat-tul”), a company based at Krog Street Market near Downtown. It’s named for the word that described chocolate to the Aztecs and, which they point out by a happy coincidence, ends in the letters “A-T-L,” a standard designation for their hometown.
Read came late to chocolate. “I didn’t like chocolate growing up,” she said. “To me, it was always too sweet. I always went for apple pie.”
That changed when the couple lived in Costa Rica. On their first trip to the Central American country, they were backpacking refugees from political campaigns in the U.S., Read said.
A few years later, they returned, taking their kids with them, and lived for about eight months in the jungle near the beach. “We had a wooden house, a two-bedroom house, about 250 square feet,” Read said. “We had a toddler and a baby. Everything was always wet. We were in the rainforest.”
While there, they discovered local farmers markets and “a gaggle” of local farmers who were producing chocolate from cacao seeds. Some were American ex-pats like them, she said. It was a revelation. “When I was a kid, my family had gone to the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I thought chocolate was sort of man-made. I had no idea [it came] from the seed of a fruit.”
After they returned to Atlanta, they made chocolate as hobbyists, Read said. Then they sold bars at community festivals. They set up their full-time shop in the Krog Street Market in 2014, just a couple of months after the market opened, she said.
Now they make chocolate from beans imported from Peru and other South American, Central American and African countries and sell their hand-made chocolate bars for $9 or $9.50 apiece, three for $25 or five for $42. The also offer tours and tastings.
“We knew we wanted to get away from desk jobs,” Read said. “My job for 15 years was sitting at a computer and reading emails and writing emails. …We wanted to do something that we made. We wanted to make something.”
Kristen Hard, whose 15-year-old business, Cacao, also makes chocolate directly from cacao beans, expresses an even more ambitious goal. She wants to make the best chocolate in the world.
Before she started her company 15 years ago, Hard was working as a private chef. As a girl, she had always been interested in science and in inventing, she said. “I kind of had this brain where I have a balance with this obsession for science and for art,” she said.
She realized in her early 20s that chocolate came from processing the seeds of a plant, and “it blew my mind. It was like all these dots connected… like the stars aligned.”
When she started Cacao, Hard said, she was among a handful of custom bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the country. Her business has drawn national attention. Notices from magazines such as Travel + Leisure, Food + Wine and Oprah decorate the walls of her office in her northwest Atlanta factory.
Cacao sells $8 chocolate bars and a variety of specialty confections, such as truffles or $21.50 Salame di Cioccolato, which looks like salami, online or through her company’s Buckhead shop or café in Virginia-Highland.
Hard said she’s now working to convince cacao farmers to grow rare varieties of the cacao plant and she wants to create a marketplace that would allow farmers to be able to afford to grow those varieties.
“Over the last 100 years, cacao has been bred [to increase] disease resistance and yield,” she said. “They have bred out flavors.”
She said she’s trying to entice farmers to grow heirloom varieties that produce fruit that is sweeter and less bitter. “I’m looking for the rarest, the less than 1 percent, cacao,” Hard said. “It exists. It’s really hard to find.”
At the same time, she said, cacao farmers are aging, so a way must be found to encourage younger people to replace them on the farm.
“I am trying to redefine things so our children and children’s children will have this,” Hard said. “I just feel like there is a way to make a change in this world if you put your mind to it.”
And, while we can, to enjoy a bit of chocolate along the way.
Cacao Chocolate Company
The Shops Buckhead, 3035 Peachtree Road, (404) 228-4023
Virginia-Highland, 1046 N. Highland Ave., (404) 892-8202
Cacao Factory, 202 Permalume Pl., (404) 221-9090
Krog Street Market, 99 Krog St., (404) 604-9642
Visit their website for info on tours and to sign up.