This weekend, couples will cozy up tableside throughout the world to enjoy a romantic night out in celebration of Valentine’s Day. Overpriced flowers will be delivered by the masses as jewelry rapidly disappears from behind display cases. And, of course, chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. And that goes for singles too.
But who wants the same, tired treats that everyone else will be getting? I, for one, am not impressed by your stop-in to the local CVS for that twenty count of Russell Stover assortments. And don’t even get me started with the Godiva teddy bear.
So, in order to really impress your loved one with some thoughtfully delicious chocolate, from small-batches roasted in bourbon to candy bars that give back, The Daily Beast has found some of the country’s best, and most innovative, independent chocolate-makers.
Mast Brothers, New York City
One of the many great things about The City That Never Sleeps is the ability to have anything you want right at your fingertips. And this includes chocolate. Lavish brands from all over the world—Amedei, Payard, Lindt—have an outpost in Manhattan, but for those that want something made in small batches unique to the city, with a taste of the bourgeoning hipster culture, look no further than Mast Brothers Chocolate Makers.
Founded in 2006 by Iowa-raised brothers Michael and Rick Mast, the young, bearded men with the style of two dapper 19th-century farm owners came across chocolate by chance. They had been experimenting with a variety of foods—pickles, beer, cured meats—and the dessert seemed like the logical choice.
They became one of the first artisanal chocolate makers at the forefront of the “bean-to-bar” movement, skipping third-party manufacturers and overseeing everything from roasting to tempering. It allows them to craft truly unique chocolate, which are now highlighted in Michelin starred restaurants and sold in stores around the globe.
In addition to offering tours of its factory, which also includes a brew bar of chocolate-inspired drinks, the Mast Brothers have also put out a cookbook of their own.
Olive & Sinclair, Nashville, TN
Located in renovated grocery store from 1890, this chocolate factory in the heart of Music City is one of a limited number of “bean to bar” manufactures in the United States (many others are also on this list). Everything happens in house—from slow-roasting and stone grounding the beans to separation and tempering.
After a rigorous training at Le Cordon Bleu in London and various restaurant positions, owner Scott Witherow began making very small batches of chocolate from his kitchen. It was your quintessential mom-and-pop operation—over roasting, hand cracking, and separating the nibs from the shell with a hairdryer.
Two years later, in 2009, he had his own shop and factory, which can now be toured. His team has grown to include three others, two chocolate makers and a confectioner.
Very few ingredients go into Olive & Sinclairs award winning, non-GMO chocolate. It is all fair-trade and sourced from Ghana and the Dominican Republic. They like to keep the base as pure and simple as possible, so no soy or milk is added (though the white chocolate variation contains buttermilk). This makes most of the candies vegan and allergen-free, while offering delicious variations like bourbon-aged and smokehouse chocolate, all hand-wrapped before being sold.
And it’s a company you can feel good about. Olive & Sinclair operates a zero-waste facility. Any bits not used in the final chocolate product are used for a wider range of products—beer, bourbon and even mulch. The team also donates the shells of the cacoa beans to local women shelter Thistle Farms, who create bath and body products, and portions of the proceeds to Blood:Water mission which address HIV/AIDS and the water crisis in Africa.
Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, Arcata, CA
Adam Dick and Dustin Taylor know a thing or two about craftsmanship. After meeting in college, the duo spent years as carpenters, building furniture and wood boats. Then, they decided to start making chocolate confections—first, in small batches from Dick’s laundry room in 2010, then from vintage machinery, including an early 1900s coffee roaster they salvaged themselves.
And they’ve been running the helm of their chocolate making ship like true artisans since. In addition to printing the wrappers on a vintage letter press, the entire process—from roasting to tempering—takes an entire month, allowing for the creation of some of the finest chocolate possible, all sourced from cacao beans worldwide.
“Taste wise, their products are closer to a wine or high-end food than what we normally think of with chocolate,” the blogger Bill Funkhouser said. “It has elegance. Other chocolate makers use a lot of ingredients to keep prices down. This chocolate is very simple, but has a depth of flavor unlike anything else I’ve tried. It isn’t candy. It’s a whole other category of food.”
In a blind taste test that included over 1450 applicants from all 50 states, they were voted one of the nine best chocolate makers in the country in 2014 as part of the annual Good Food Awards. Most of their bars do stick to single-origin dark chocolate, but a few variations include flavors such as maple coconut or black figs.
Escazu Artisan Chocolate, Raleigh, NC
There’s no better way to be successful than to learn from history. And that’s exactly what Hallot Parson did when he started experimenting with chocolate above a wine store in the small, coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, in 2005. He sourced a wide range of historic cookbooks to craft his own recipe, eventually trading in shipments from other chocolate companies for crates of cacao beans from Costa Rica.
But, he’s added his own flare and flavor, crafting many of his bars with goat milk and spicing them up with ingredients like chilies and pumpkin seeds. Parson also crafts handmade truffles and other treats which fuse chocolate with habanero, elderflower or strawberry and balsamic vinegar as well as rosemary, bacon and sea salt.
Amano Artisan Chocolate, Orem, UT
Usually it takes a career or education in the culinary world to spark an interest in pursuing chocolate. But Amano Artisan Chocolate founders Art Pollard and Clark Goble came directly from the software world, where they were highly successful in writing search engine technology.
But, it didn’t make them happy. Instead, they found a passion in chocolate and spent a decade researching and learning machinery, chemistry, and agriculture before opening their operation in 2007. Within two years all of the chocolate bars they had submitted to the esteemed Academy of Chocolate Awards in London had received high awards.
Located almost 4,500 feet above sea level in the mountainous region of Utah, Pollard attributes high altitude and dry weather in the chocolates unique taste. They also dedicate personal efforts to educating foreign farmers from which they purchase their beans, informing them and providing them with the most up-to-date agricultural information.
Pollard and Clark also founded the Craft Chocolate Makers of America, along with other chocolatiers, to preserve the process of the craft and bring top-quality to American consumers.
Dandelion Chocolate, San Francisco
Dandelion Chocolate founders Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring, who sold their online start-up Plaxo to Comcast in 2008, have pushed their four-year-old bean-to-bar into big time expansion mode—over 300 potential wholesalers are waiting for their own batches to sell. They’ve purchased a second factory in the Mission district of San Francisco and plan on opening up some smaller store-like kiosks in the area.
But when they got their start they barely knew what they were doing, duct taping parts of vacuum cleaners and other machines together to form prototypes for future machines they designed.
"We were just having fun making chocolate," Ring told the San Francisco Gate. "And then we started making chocolate that people seemed to like, and we really fell in love with the act of making chocolate. There's a lot of innovation happening in this industry."
The cacao beans come from Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Madagascar, crafted with sugar only, and wrapped with a story unique to the specific bean.
Tejas Chocolate, Houston, TX
Tejas Chocolate founder Scott Moore Jr. began splitting his time between making chocolate and running a railroad supply company in 2010 after seeing a Food Network special on chocolate. Cooking runs in his family—his mom was a dedicated cook, his brother a chef at an Italian restaurant and his partner, Michelle Holland, worked at a gourmet food shop—but the real kick start inspiration came from trying the Mast Brothers’s chocolate. He just added his own kick, good ‘ol Texas smoke.
“Texans will smoke anything,” Tejas Chocolate’s founder, Scott Moore Jr., told the The New York Times. And that even applies to chocolate, though many in the industry consider it a defect property of the Papua New Guinea bean. For Moore, though, it’s a top seller. He sends it through another smoker, roasting the beans in a barbecue pit. “We’ll smoke a two-by-four and eat it if we have to.”
Patric Chocolate, Columbia, MO
Another Good Food Award winner and co-founder of Craft Chocolate Makers of America, Alan “Patric” McClure’s eponymous chocolate business has been dubbed the “Best New American Chocolate” by Food & Wine as well as received dozens of accolades from renowned competitions.
The business was founded in 2006 after McClure spent some time throughout France, whose long-standing chocolate traditions inspired him to forge his own confections. He mastered his own recipe, crafted his own machinery and began sourcing beans from Mexico, Belize and Venezuela.
Now, he releases new bars on a monthly schedule, often selling out within a few days. Recent releases included red coconut curry, black licorice, ginger, and a mole-inspired creation that included cinnamon, chilies, paprika, and sea salt.
Acalli Chocolate, New Orleans
Carol Morse’s Acalli Chocolate’s is relatively new on the scene, but she’s already making a splash. Morse took home a prize at the Good Food Award 2015 as one of the best chocolate makers in America. She sticks to a bean-to-bar philosophy and sources the cacao bean through direct relationships with farmers at its origin—Peru.
Through the individual naming of each bar—the El Platanal and Norandino—Morse highlights the farmers and communities who grow the beans in order to “faithfully represent the work” her partners do.
“The flavors in our chocolate are not just the result of careful roasting and conching; they also represent careful attention during cultivation, harvest, and especially fermentation and drying,” Morse says. “We hope that by highlighting the communities and cooperatives we work with and showcasing the flavors in their cacao, we can bring a little more recognition home to cacao growers themselves.”
Li-Lac, New York City
New York’s oldest chocolate house has been around since 1923: its founder, George Demetrious, opened it after learning France’s chocolate history and migrating from Greece, leaving the business in the hands of his devoted employee, Marguerite Walt. Now, a few sales of the business later, two longtime patrons of the store, Anthony Cirone and Christopher Taylor, own the wonderful Li-Lac.
Isaac Mizrahi, Martha Stewart, and Andy Cohen are all fans of the confection outpost, which has recently moved to Brooklyn to merge with its factory and allow a peak into the process.
Chocolates include a variety of treats from Almond Bark and Butter Crunch to chocolate covered fruits and flavored bars.