Anybody who has ever taken one of my chocolate-making classes has heard me say, over and over and over “Blending is your friend.”
One of the points of disagreement I have with many small-batch specialty chocolate makers – at least of the hundreds I have spoken with since 1997 – is their belief in the primacy of the batch; that each individual grinder-full is somehow special and deserves to be treated as such. Any sort of blending is to be eschewed if not looked down upon.
Ironically (perhaps), the founder of the modern specialty chocolate movement, John Scharffenberger, was all-in when it came to blending. This was an outgrowth of his experience as a champagne blender. From its inception in 1997, it was probably about five years before Scharffen Berger introduced their first limited edition single-origin chocolate. Prior to that every chocolate they made was a blend of beans from different origins at the very least.
My position has long been that blending is to be embraced for at least the following two main reasons:
- Creative opportunities leading to new flavors
Few small batch specialty chocolate makers I have spoken with, especially those making two-ingredient chocolates, have expressed interest in my position on blending. So I was greatly surprised when I spoke with Ewald Rietberg, one of the founders of Heinde & Verre (which literally means Near & Far and which reflects their approach to sourcing) at Chocoa this past February. I was so intrigued with their approach and with the qualities of their chocolate that I changed the itinerary of my return to the US to visit their production space in Rotterdam on my way to Schipol airport from Brussels earlier this month
Ways Heinde & Verre Blends
- Origin blending. Their Dutch Blends (both 71% dark and 54% milk) are blends of beans from three different origins – Bali, Brasil (Para), and Venezuela. H&V also uses an undeodorized cocoa butter pressed especially for them from Balinese beans in all their chocolates. This butter has a distinctive floral aspect that makes it a real treat to bury your nose into a newly-opened bar.
- Roast blending. Rather than shooting for a single “optimum” roast that is, in for all intents and purposes, a compromise roast rather than being optimum, H&V will blend different roast profiles to deliver a broader range of flavors than can be achieved from a single roast. They also use different roasters (customized drum and convection) in different situations to achieve different results.
- Age blending. After manufacturing, chocolate is left to age. Some of their chocolates are blends of chocolates that have been aged for different lengths of time.
- Milk blending. H&V have been making chocolates using different kinds of cow’s milk not just milks with different levels of fat content. (Felchlin is famous for its Criolait which combines full cream and whole milk powder; H&V’s approach is, fittingly, different.) Ewald tasted me on three recipes where the only differences were the relative amounts of these different milks; the total percentage of milk in each recipe was the same. The differences are … compelling and one of the recipes I tasted is the one used for the currently available Dutch Blend 54% Milk.
- Machine blending. Different grinders, especially those of different sizes, produce different results. H&V will use different grinder sizes in conjunction with different origins, roasts, and aging profiles to achieve specific results.
- Combining different blending methods in one chocolate. While considered on their own, each of the above blending approaches provides H&V with greater control and variation in their finished chocolate, the real power of blending (as hinted in the previous point) comes to the forefront when multiple methods are combined in one chocolate. One of my favorite examples of this outside of chocolate is the Long Island, New York, winemaker Channing Daughters. They have a wine they call Over and Over, which combines both ripasso (commonly used for Amarone and Valpolicella wine production) and solera-style age blending (common in rums, whiskies, and other spirits, perhaps most famously in Remy Martin’s Louis XIII) in the same bottle.
Just Scratching the Surface
Over the course of the roughly two hours I spent with Ewald much more was revealed about their process than I am going to cover here – this discussion of blending just scratches the surface of their approach to making chocolate and the kinds of products on the horizon.
Two more things I will share are their a) dedication to sourcing Dutch sugar, made from sugar beets, which they claim is more neutral than cane sugar, and b) their passionate championing of Dutch milk. In fact it was overhearing Ewald boast that Dutch milk was the best in the world that drew my attention initially. (The Swiss would definitely object to the characterization that their milk was anything but the best. I don’t have any skin in that game other than to say that no one boasts they use the world’s second-best anything.)
I am really looking forward to tasting the work of this very talented team (which includes co-founder Jan Willem Jekel) in the future with the hopes that their openness to experimentation with blending inspires other small-batch specialty chocolate makers to reconsider the primacy of the individual grinder/batch.
Do you have a favorite chocolate maker who’s doing interesting things with blending? Please share them below.
Thank you Clay for bringing light to this process…it mirrors my sentiments for sometime now.
Even though I enjoy single origins and their unique qualities, many times they can be unbalanced or even a bit to “far out” for many peoples taste. Single origins tend to be either hit or miss for customers palates…meaning its more difficult to attract and keep the converts on the craft chocolate qualities when its either difficult to comprehend the flavors or they just flat out don’t like the flavor qualities because it so far out from their understanding of chocolate…which I think can sometimes be a disservice to the mission of attracting a wider audience.
I’ve used and explored many of the techniques that you recommend and a few surprising things i’ve discovered that has me convinced that this is the future of craft chocolate.
-Its a way to further differentiate yourself/products as a craft maker by highlighting the unique and emergent properties from distinct origins and techniques that are particular to you as a maker.
-Its both a way to produce consistent results, but also a way of producing entirely novel and un-replicatable products…ie that 5 year aged chocolate from X origin of X year with X roast, blended with freshly made chocolate from X origin and X year and X roast, etc.
-Adds another dimension of chocolate making to be explored and established as a skill set of craft makers. Similar to wine blending or Perfume blending, the unique qualities of each note can be manipulated to generate “Balanced” flavor profiles.
-Its a useful tool in addressing flavor imbalances/defects from certain origins that you might have gotten stuck with! Ie Overly acidic beans can brighten overly flat ones…funky notes can be muted by pleasant ones, etc…
Some of the challenges that need to be addressed before this is a common practice:
-how to highlight and tell the story of unique origins and processes so they don’t just get lost in a blended product that only highlights the makers.
-Some kind of system of practices that can be understood and used by both makers and eaters alike. Modeled after Wine/perfume blending?