Photos by Clarissa Villondo
For a full size chocolate factory, Harper Macaw is almost too easy to miss. Located down an unremarkable alley right off of Bladensburg road, the only clue that you’re getting closer to the factory, are the black block letters painted on the left side of the bright white Aaron’s building. Essentially, if you’re going southwest down Bladensburg, you’re going to barrel right past it at least once. No trip to the factory is complete without a few minutes of driving in circles, wondering if you’ll ever find the place or if it’s better to give up and go home.
And yet, Colin Hartman, half of the husband wife team behind Harper Macaw, assures us, people are traveling further than you think to get a look at how bean to bar chocolate is actually made. “Half of the people coming to tour the factory are from Maryland,” he says, adding that people have traveled from as far as Delaware. Tours, which only take place on Saturday, are known to fill up fast and early. Enough so that Colin, and head chocolate maker Sarah Hartman, have begun encouraging people to check out their neighbors over at D.C. Brau while they wait their turn.
The retail section of the shop, where Colin, Sarah, and I meet up, is surprisingly bright and airy for a space that doesn’t have that many windows. A giant reclaimed wood table immediately draws your attention, but what keeps it is the stacks of chocolate lined up against the walls. Harper Macaw is currently selling four different kind of bars, a 52% milk blend, a 67% dark blend, a 77% Amazon rainforest single estate bar, and a 74% Atlantic rainforest single estate bar. A map of Brazil, painted on wood boards, hangs on the wall, explaining exactly where they source their cocoa. No one can claim Colin and Sarah aren’t being transparent.
Colin, who freely admits he can get a little in depth about the industry while giving tours, tries to explain the public’s interest in the “bean to bar” craft chocolate movement. “It’s unique to see someone doing the entire process from the beginning,” he says, “people are interested now, especially after the craft beer movement… Seeing how things are made and being able to identify the process is a human interest.”
Still, in comparison to coffee or beer, chocolate is still in it’s infancy stage in terms of the public actually caring about how and where it’s sourced. Sarah explains her theory on that, saying, “I think coffee is more of a ritual, you interact with it much more.” She adds, “ We’re taught to indulge in chocolate, it’s equated to candy… Culturally, we’re taught to indulge and not appreciate.”
Of course, you can’t talk about craft chocolate without talking about the Mast Brothers, the most popular and well known chocolate makers in the United States. Known for their fantastic packaging, they recently fell out of favor in the chocolate community after Slate (and then Quartz) both published articles calling both their quality and “bean to bar” moniker into question. So, curious and entirely ignorant of the industry, I picked their brains on the controversy. Colin first starts by explaining there’s far less money in chocolate then in beer and coffee, “Craft chocolate makers are having a hard to making any money,” he says. “No one is really making any money.” Both Colin and Sarah admit while they’re not personally huge fans of the Mast Brothers chocolate, they think the controversy was exaggerated. “Quality alone is not enough,” Colin admits, speaking to the brothers success with their packaging and marketing. “A lot of chocolate makers owe their success to them… I think the chocolate industry need to understand that they opened the door.”
Finally, we begin exploring the factory. Donning our hairnets, we enter the chocolate lab, where chocolatiers Katie and Amanda are working on making toffee for an upcoming March release. A multi colored jungle mural covers one wall, while the others are filled with metal shelves stocked like a confectioner’s pantry. From candy canes to hazelnuts to coconut flakes and beyond, you could make one dangerous chocolate bar with the contents of this room.
We move on to the cocoa storage room, which surprisingly smells like raisins. Heaps of burlap sacks take up most of the room, and while Colin explains where each bag comes from, I check out a mound of cocoa beans sitting directly out on the shelf. The first thing that happens to the beans once they arrive at the factory is a cut test, which is used to test the fermentation of the beans as well as check for mold and insects, if 15% or more of the beans are infested, then the batch is rejected. After that they go into the Hopper, a loud machine that vibrates and clears all the dirt and sticks from the beans.
In the roasting room, we find Amanda doing a test roast on some of the beans. The room is taken up by the huge metal behemoth that is the roaster, which Colin points out is actually baby sized compared to what the bigger chocolate factories are using. Once the beans are roasted, they go through a machine that pulls off the shells (a process called winnowing) and then the shells go to compost. Sarah chimes in, gleefully adding “all these machines break all the time too.”
The cocoa nibs are ground up with either sugar or maybe milk powder in what is essentially a giant blender, then they’re taken to the refiner, a machine that refines the particle size down. The goal is to get the size down to 20 microns or less, so the mouth can no longer detect individual pieces. Next, the chocolate hits the conch, which uses conduction to keep the chocolate liquid and helps evaporate some of the more unpleasant favors. “The smell during that process is so acrid, it would burn your nose,” Sarah adds.
Finally the chocolate is tempered so that it looks shiny and breaks apart properly, then poured into a mold, cooled and wrapped. Making its way through the 30 foot long cooling tunnel takes about 20 minutes, but all in all, from bean to fully wrapped bar, the process takes about a week.
Harper Macaw may be smaller than most of their competitors, but they have big plans for 2016. They hope to add a few more machines to the lineup, like another conch, to help eliminate bottlenecks and allow them to make more bars at a time, but they also plan on creating and selling a new line of bars. “It’s her brainchild and her passion,” Colin says, “I think the roast is going to get better and better.” Sarah adds, “Craft chocolate has a lot of room to grow, there’s a lot we still don’t know on the process side… It’s exciting to be a part of something in its infancy.”