Since 2010 Anna and Robbie have been crafting bars from the simplest of ingredients: just single origin cocoa beans and cane sugar. We’ve been following Ritual since before Cocoa Runners even began, so we are truly delighted to be able to share its bars with you. And we were lucky enough to speak to Anna and Robbie and find out a bit more about them and how they maker their chocolate..
- What’s your background? Why and how did you get into chocolate?
[Anna]: I spent many of my childhood years on our family farm in Essex. Being around a family business at a young age really inspired me to start business that I could put my values into and that really had meaning for me. I moved to Boulder, Colorado for High School with my mother who is American and ventured back across the pond to Queen Marys College, London studying English Literature and Drama.
After University I traveled to South East Asia for 6 months, with an interest in other cultures passions, food, and way of life. Coming back to Colorado in 2006, I fell in love with the Colorado Mountains and outdoors. I set my sights on teaching yoga and doing triathlons. During this time my interest in fine food, coffee and wine was developing. When Robbie and I met in 2008 we quickly became excited by the idea of starting a business together that would really fuse our love for the outdoors, travel, different cultures with our love of food.
Initially when the idea of chocolate came up we knew very little about it. Of course, we loved eating it, but we quickly discovered that most chocolate on the market was pretty low quality. Through a lot of research, we slowly began to see the potential for making ultra-high quality chocolate, but we had still not tasted any at the time. From there, we just kept taking small steps towards perfecting our craft and creating our business. And since the first batches we made in our apartment, we kept taking small steps and now we’ve gotten to where we are today with our own factory in the mountains and a brand and quality that is pretty well known within the chocolate community.
[Robbie]: I’m originally from Park City, Utah, which is where our factory is now located. As for education, I was originally a Geology major, but switched to majoring in English Literature with a minor in Geology. So my education didn’t really prepare me for chocolate, but in some ways it did because chocolate is equal parts science and poetry. It definitely helps to approach flavor scientifically, but at the same time we create and problem solve using creativity.
During and after college I pursued competitive cycling with hopes of making a career out of it. Although, right out of school I got a job as a writer and editor for a cycling magazine called VeloNews. In 2009, I wrote an article about coffee, and as part of the article I arranged a “cupping” and graded around 20 coffees. Anna and I were both inspired by the way terroir and roast levels affected flavor. We were already thinking about starting our own business, and this experience influenced us to want to work with a food that relies on terroir for its flavor. We always loved dark chocolate, but didn’t really see it as a fine food at the time because we were only paying $2-$3 for the chocolate we were eating. But through a few small events, we discovered that chocolate had a lot of potential and was something we could really be interested in. In 2009, we thought it was quite strange that we could buy fine cheese, coffee, olive oil and wine, but we couldn’t find any fine chocolate in Boulder, Colorado at the time.
From the spring of 2009 onward, our focus shifted almost entirely from our previous lives to that of chocolate. By Jan 2010 we made our first couple batches at home. In March of 2010 we spent a month in Costa Rica trying to learn about how farming practices influence final cacao quality. Then in September of 2010 we founded the business and only sold directly to friends, at events and markets. Finally, on January 1, 2011 we began working out of Steve DeVries’ factory in Denver and the rest is history. We moved out of DeVries’ factory on February 1, 2015 and opened our new factory in Park City, UT in mid-March of 2015.
2. What mission have you set yourselves for making chocolate?
A lot of what motivates us is the concept of “quality of life”. We make chocolate to improve the quality of life for everyone involved—all the way from the growers to the customers. We’re happy to pay high cacao prices if that means our growers can improve their quality of life. We want to make sure we’re not adding to the destruction of our planet along the way as well. The quality of all life is important to us, not just human life.
As for chocolate making itself, we set our standards painfully high because we want to make sure our chocolate is as good as it can possibly be. The better the quality of the chocolate, the better experience our customers will have, and that fits in with our goal to improve quality of life. On a personal level, a lot of our decisions over the last couple years have been based around improving the quality of our own lives. We moved from Denver to Park City so that we could live in the mountains and have immediate access to the outdoors. Denver is a great city, but we prefer to go on a mountain bike ride after work rather than going to a bar/pub (and not that we don’t go out, we just like to do it after we’ve had some time outdoors).
3. When did you start your company — and with whom? How many are there of you?
Ritual Chocolate was founded by Robbie Stout and Anna Davies. It was just the two of us from 2010 to 2013. Since our first hire in 2013, we’ve grown to about 15 employees total (including ourselves).
4. Where do you want to go next? New bars? New beans? New markets?
Lots of new bars. We’ve held off on launching new origins and other bars for a long time because we were waiting to launch our new packaging first (2 years in the making). Now that we have the design and branding that will represent us for many years to come, we’re ready to launch all sorts of things. We’d like to release 5-6 bars this year, fingers crossed.
As we continue to evolve, we’d like to improve the sourcing side of our business and spend more time at the farm level. As more makers enter the market it’s going to get harder and harder to source the quantities that we need, so we’re going to have to get creative about how we do that. As for new markets, we’re really excited about beginning to sell in England as that is where Anna is from and where most of her family lives. Robbie also has some family there so it’s nice to have our bars available to them.
5.How did you source your beans?
Every origin we work with is its own story.
In the beginning, there were fewer importers and we didn’t know about the ones that existed, which is why we went to Costa Rica in the first place. Our first origin, our Costa Rica bar, was from one of the farms we visited and the beans were brought into the US by Steve DeVries. The Peru cacao is a good story, especially since it pertains to the bars we sent to you. In March 2010, we tried a test batch made from the newly discovered Marañón cacao. This is the pure Nacional origin that is 40% white to 60% purple beans on average. At the time, that test batch was the best chocolate we had ever tried, by a landslide. From that day onward, it was one of our goals to make chocolate with those beans.
So we wrote to Pearson family, the family that discovered that cacao and increased the production in that area, and we requested beans. For years, they only sold chocolate made from those beans, which Felchlin in Switzerland made. We continued to beg, and we gave them samples of our chocolate to prove that we were worthy of such an incredible source. Finally, after about 3 years of waiting, they finally got back to us to let us know that they wanted to sell cacao to us. We were their first bean-to-bar customer (except for Felchlin of course). And it’s kind of a funny coincidence, because we now have the same U. Ammann conches that Felchlin uses, so for the inquisitive chocolate connoisseurs, you can see how different our style of chocolate making is compared to Felchlin, even with the same conches and same cacao.
6. Similarly would love to hear more about innovations in tech, crafting, marketing etc. you’re pursuing.
Since we first began making chocolate, we’ve always been big proponents for deconstructing the whole chocolate making process into its most basic steps so as to have unlimited control over each of those steps.
What we mean by this is that instead of using an all-in-one processor, like a CocoaTown or a Universal Conche that can process nibs and sugar into finished chocolate, we prefer to break the process down into have a pre-refiner, a mixer/grinder, a roll mill refiner and finally a longitudinal conche—so four individual steps with specific machines instead of just one to do all four of those steps. In doing it this way, we’re able to better control the texture and flavor of our chocolate.
In 2011, we were one of the only companies in the country refining chocolate on a 3 roll mill (at the time I think Amano was the only other one, and I think Rogue got his roll mill shortly after). So at the time, our chocolate was incredibly smooth compared to other bean-to-bar chocolates. And I think, because the difference was so apparent, several other companies got roll mills too, so now our chocolate isn’t quite as unique as it used to be, but it’s still quite smooth relative to most of the chocolate out there.
In addition to our roll mill, our other important piece of equipment is our longitudinal conche from Switzerland. Our set was built in 1915 in Langenthal, Switzerland by U. Ammann. The base of each pot is made of granite and all the rollers are steel. This type of conche conches the chocolate in a very slow and delicate way that expels unwanted flavors over a period of days rather than several hours like some of the modern machines. We’ve found that this slower approach to conching, while less efficient, allows more of the subtle flavors to shine through rather than being lost. A lot of the really modern machines are designed to process the ultra-high tannin cacao from Ghana and Ivory Coast (as that is where most cacao is grown). So these machines do a good job of making bad cacao taste good, but they do a bad job of making good cacao taste as good as it can.
7. What is your favourite food? Wine? Other chocolate makers?
We love wine, whisky, and fine cheeses. But we also love simple foods like black beans and rice and oatmeal. I’d say the majority of our daily calories come from avocado, eggs, bread, granola, sugar-free almond milk, chocolate, nuts, wine, beer and whisky.
We eat a lot of chocolate every day and we get a lot of sugar from eating foods high in sugar for cycling and running, so we typically crave salty foods at the end of the day. After a long day tasting chocolate, a two hour afternoon mountain bike ride with maple syrup (or anything else sweet) in my bottles, I’m usually ready for plate of salty, Mexican enchiladas for dinner. We almost never eat dessert.