When Elaine Read, Matt Weyandt, and their young children left behind their 9-to-5 lives for new adventures in Costa Rica, they didn’t have a crystal-clear agenda. But they discovered the rich world of chocolate-making that existed in small, humble dwellings peppered throughout the mountains of Central America, and it felt a little like fate.
Eventually, the family returned to the States, underwent training, began their small endeavor at a space in Studioplex, and pitched their idea to the then-under-development Krog Street Market: to bring a micro chocolate factory and shop to the food hall.
Today, around the corner from Hop City and across from French Market Flowers, Xocolatl’s (chock-oh-LAH-tul, in case you were wondering) space contains shelves of products made on site, plus counter service and the factory operations.
In an age of tiny homes and minimalist aesthetics, a behind-the-counter tour is an apt example of how to artfully budget a limited amount of space. You may not believe it until you see it for yourself, but all of the business’ manufacturing takes place in an area that can only fit 8-10 people.
Further, what makes Xocolatl special is the unique, personal relationships the business owners forge with cacao growers and cooperatives–mostly sourced from Central and South America, plus some from East Africa—in truly fair trade arrangements.
After the growers spend weeks harvesting pods from the cacao trees, they ferment and sun-dry the seeds, then ship them in sacks to the States, where the team at Xocolatl will sort and inspect them before roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, tempering, and molding the chocolate into bars that are cooled, wrapped, and sold at the counter to the throngs of shoppers that fill Krog Street Market each week.
In addition to a socially conscious business model, there’s a true spirit of creativity and ingenuity in this small factory: roasted seeds are cracked with a device that employs an everyday power drill purchased at Home Depot. Nibs are separated from seed husks in the winnowing process using a homemade contraption that looks like it was drawn by Rube Goldberg himself—complete with a water cooler jug, PVC pipe, zip ties, and a funnel.
After walking through the process—bean to bar, as they say—the staff treats you to a glass (or two) of red wine and 6-8 tastings of chocolate. The great news is that Xocolatl uses pure chocolate and organic sugar cane sugar in their bars, meaning they are vegan and free of gluten and soy. If you want to enjoy a flavored bar, the chocolate has only been enhanced by natural ingredients, like sea salt, fresh peppermint, or coconut milk.
A chocolate tasting is an education much like that of beer, wine, and coffee—you may find yourself surprised at the enormous diversity of flavors based on origin and the conditions of growth, fermentation, and roasting. While some chocolates are dark and dusky or rich and currant-flavored, others are bright with surprising citrus hints, like pineapple. Of the flavored bars, our personal favorite was the Kissed Mermaids, “a dark coconut milk chocolate with vanilla-infused sea salt and crunchy cacao nibs sprinkled on the back.” Trust us: you won’t be disappointed.
During your tasting, sampling the chilled drinking chocolate topped with coconut milk whipped cream is a 100% must, followed by the cacao tea. How in the heck do you make cacao tea, you ask? Remember those husks that were separated from the nibs in the winnowing process? Steep those husks in hot water and be wowed.
Seeing chocolate in all its complex and community-based context will make you appreciate why a single bar is priced at $9.50. Book your tasting online for your next date night, and be sure to do a little shopping before you leave (hint: chocolate bars make great gifts). We’re still hoarding our jar of chocolate hazelnut spread—Nutella doesn’t even come close.