One of the things that fascinates gourmet chocolate lovers is the story of the founders behind a bar. Even more intriguing are the choices a person makes at the beginning of their path as a chocolate maker. As a matter of fact, it may occur that some artisans look beyond the classic dark chocolate and venture to include non-unanimously appreciated types, like white chocolate.
A few months ago, I was on a forum to discuss the ideal requirements of a high-quality white chocolate—of which I am a firm supporter—and what came out of it was such an interesting discussion as to inspire a posthumous article on white chocolate and why it should not be ignored when it has quality (see HERE). One of the members of the forum discussion was a new American craftsman who was just working on an entire line of organic white chocolate, both plain and with the inclusion of natural flavors.
Tony Najjar of Xocolla, the novel micro-batch chocolate maker from Sugar Land, Texas, sent me his brand-new line of chocolate (including 4 bars for the white, and 1 bar each for the milk and the dark type) for a tasting weeks later here in Italy, through my US-based chocolate purveyor Vincent.
I was intrigued by the mission and vision Tony had for white chocolate.
Xocolla classic white chocolate has an out of the ordinary high percentage of organic cocoa butter—from the Dominican Republic (40%), organic grass-fed milk, and organic cane sugar. The flavored versions, instead, include in the same formulation with also a different natural flavoring, for bolder palates:
The pastel colors of the blonde chocolate bars are appealing and lady-attiring.
Speaking of preferences, my favorite white bars were the one with matcha green tea (it was the first time I tried this diffused flavor pairing in white chocolate—for good reasons!), the strawberry ichigo (the creaminess of the cocoa butter, together with the milk, were a match made in heaven with the slightly acidic strawberry), and the plain white (you simply can’t ever go wrong with the subtle notes of cream and honey).
The good news for those tempted to reconsider white chocolate on occasion is that Xocolla has recently developed a new line of two-ingredient single-origin dark chocolate bars:
For this, I interviewed Tony to know more about his story as a chocolate maker and the latest about the new products.
Hi, Tony. Thanks a lot for accepting my invitation to this interview.
What about your professional background and how did your connection with crafting chocolate start? Is it your full-time activity now?
My pleasure, Antonella!
Before making chocolate, I worked in global management consulting. I came across craft chocolate on one of my California business trips in 2006, where one of my clients introduced me to a small-batch chocolate maker shop in the bay area. I was intrigued by the chocolate making process and the quality of the chocolate, so I immediately fell in love. It started as a hobby in 2006, then evolved to a part-time business in 2009, and finally to a full-time business in 2015.
Many makers concentrate their efforts on dark chocolate—even though no official definition is available for “dark chocolate” yet. Why your bolder focus on cocoa butter and white chocolate, then?
I agree with you, “dark chocolate” has been the natural choice and center of the universe in the craft chocolate industry, since it is the purest by nature. Milk chocolate is abused by artificial flavors of the industry mass-production giants, while the white chocolate was almost neglected. I do not classify chocolates by type, but by craftsmanship, quality and purity of ingredients, and balance of flavors.
My passion for white chocolate goes back to my early childhood; it brings me a lot of nostalgic memories. In my professional life, this passion reached its peak in one of my Tokyo trips. I was inspired by the Japanese candy makers and the variety of white based chocolate flavors they offer. Since then, I took an innovative initiative to create an extensive craft white-based chocolate line to honor the Japanese candy-making culture (you can see the Japanese language printed on the white-based flavored line) and take the white chocolate to the next level.
As far as cacao butter, I see cacao butter as a key essential element to chocolate. It is to me as a communication vehicle between the maker and the consumer that transports the chocolate flavors intended to be highlighted by the manufacturer to the palate of the consumer. This is not only in white-based chocolate, but it also applies to milk and dark chocolate as well.
We’ve just have recently launched a single-origin two-ingredient dark chocolate line, and we press our own cacao butter from the same bean to maintain cacao purity, flavor uniformity, and a real single-origin couverture.
How is the local and national market receptive to your products? Are you leading tasting sessions along the way, and how do you feel about the importance of educating consumers to guide them?
Consumer education is key. Since we’ve launched our chocolate in retail stores, customers were shocked and overwhelmed by the uniqueness, quality, and depth of flavors. Selling specialty craft chocolate requires a lot of education and in-store marketing, including walk-through tasting experience. One common challenge we face with dark chocolate lovers is sometimes a level of resistance to the idea to taste the non-dark chocolate; but due to in-store tasting and consumer education, we manage to overcome this challenge and re-establish trust in non-dark craft chocolates.
You are a member of the biggest forum dedicated to chocolate lovers—TheChocolateLife. How do you perceive the dialogue and relationship with other chocolate makers?
Craft chocolate is a tiny part of the overall chocolate industry; it is important that craft chocolate makers join efforts, collaborate and work together to promote the craft chocolate. We have joined many professional associations and planned to a have a presence in craft chocolate trade shows. We strive to establish and maintain good relations with chocolate making colleagues, try their creations, and exchange ideas and thoughts to help lift up and promote the craft chocolate industry.
What are your ambitions as a chocolate artisan in the next 2-3 years and where can we find your chocolate bars?
I have a lot of dreams and passion to chocolate craftsmanship. I left my life-long consulting career to pursue my chocolate venture. As an entrepreneur, I have a lot of dreams to create new markets in the specialty craft chocolate and have more presence in national and international scenes. I’d like to see one day my chocolate creations displayed in the main iconic stores and platforms.
I noticed on your Facebook page and Instagram account you have recently added new origins to your dark chocolate line. Your very beginning was the Dominican Hispaniola beans, and now you work with beans from Ecuador, Madagascar, and Peru.
What do you look for when you source a new origin, and what is important to you when it comes to the relationship with the origin contact?
When we decided to launch our two-ingredient single-origin dark line, we were focused on finding four distinct flavored non-bitter origins that are unmistakably recognizable from each other by the average person’s palate.
We also made sure that the chosen origins would have certain characteristics and enough sophistication to attract and overwhelm all palate’s levels, from the very new to the craft chocolate world all the way to foodies and connoisseurs. We experimented and worked on an accurate roasting profile to bring the best out of the bean. We pressed any needed cacao butter from the same seed to keep it at its purest natural flavor, to honor the soil, the tree, the bean, and the farmer. Our bean selection notes range from the amusing fruitiness of the Sambirano (Madagascar) with deep orange and apricot notes, to the classic chocolate lover roasted hazelnut and caramel notes of the Arriba (Ecuador), to the refreshing, creamy, earthy, cinnamon/spices packed Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) all the way to the most complex and overwhelming Maranon river (Peru) with multiple swings of floral and tart cherries/prunes/raisin/figs notes.
Regarding the relationship with the origin contacts, we aim to work closely with farmers and brokers with a long-time reputation in the industry and develop good relations with them. We expect consistency in fermentation techniques, quality initial bean grading (for decent sorting yield) and quality storage. We make sure to generously compensate the farmers and be more than fair with the brokers to ensure we’re getting the desired quality and a steady supply.