Planting Chocolate Roots in Pasadena
Car Artisinal Chocolate
On a modest corner of Colorado Blvd in Pasadena stands a burgeoning chocolate empire. There are signs of a company born of a pandemic; a stack of brand-new chairs across from a nearly-finished menu board, a collection of machines still finding their place in an expansive kitchen that are churning batches of chocolate so good they defy the age and experience of their precocious maker.
Ruth and I (Ruth being the Dean of Chocolate at Gourmandise) are met in the cafe part of Car Artisanal Chocolate. Haris Car greeted us with an aroma so intoxicating that we find it nearly impossible to listen to his ideas for a beverage program. Our anticipation is finally satiated with a tour of the 500-square foot chocolate operation. Craft chocolate makers, the really good ones, are alchemists. They tinker with roasting, grinding and aging cacao beans with the sort of nuances you’d expect from a wine maker working diligently to respect a grape varietal, coaxing their best qualities out with time and technique. Haris is the new maker in town, and like his predecessors and contemporaries, chooses to have us experience the differentials of beans from around the world with bars comprised of 70/30 ratio of cocoa bean to sugar. The melangeur (the machine responsible for grinding the roasted cocoa nibs down to a particle size small enough for the chocolate feel smooth as silk on the tongue) is filled with a Nicaraguan chocolate roasted to perfection; he has found the perfect roasting temperature to allow the bean’s nutty notes to shine without tasting toasted.
As we meander through the kitchen, the twinkling of Haris’s eyes belies his excitement. He’s a creative guy, and like most dreamers, is thinking beyond the bars. There’s the development of pralines (which, as a Frenchie, sent me swooning back a bit), caramels and beginnings of a confectioner. The tinkerer in him is also apparent as we move from one stainless steel table to another, a handmade machine or creative hardware store problem-solve to make the relatively simple process of roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding and tempering work just a hair-splitting way more efficiently, all in the name of expressing each bean’s character more perfectly.
We move on to tasting. For a few hours, there are meaningful conversations around sourcing and minute changes in formulas, from cocoa butter to milk powders, all interrupted by frequent dips of disposable spoons in the melangeur and tempering machines. The dark milk, favored by many a new-school bean to bar maker, is sublime. I’m a fan, and not just because a chocolate with higher fat content satisfies the milk-chocolate-loving child in me as well as the dark chocolate palate I’ve developed, but because this chocolate crafter has understood the power of lactose. Sweetness, as expressed in dark milk chocolates, doesn’t have to come from sugar, but from the complex, malty notes of dairy and how lactose, a milk sugar, shows up to complement the natural acidity of the cocoa beans.
Most craft chocolate makers, those who work with only cocoa beans, sugar and sometimes cocoa butter for their dark chocolates, take years, even decades, to perfect their craft. Many are, too, tinkerers and machinists. Some are maniacal about perfection, some get right and move on to the next varietal, chasing the need to challenge themselves and some are happy enthusiasts who delight in crafting, much like home brewers. Some have a little of all of these qualities and just the right amount of risk averse tendencies to leap into business.
Six hours into our visit, with the afternoon sun beginning to infiltrate the windows and, perilously, the bars on the table, we reluctantly say our goodbyes, bars in hand (because we’re sold out of Car’s collection in the store and have to get ours before our (friendly) competitors do) and hearts full. This small corner of Pasadena has joined the few and growing number of craft chocolate makers whose commitment to respecting cacao beans and their origins have had a ripple effect on the livelihoods of their respective farmers and cooperatives.
Our reluctant return to the Westside left us wanting more and halfway home, we realized that there were hours or discussion we’d left on the table. Our appetites and curiosity had been peaked by a tray of unfermented Lavado beans from Mexico but usurped by the hundreds of golden-wrapped bars stacked high throughout the kitchen and the intoxicating aromas of freshly churned chocolate. We hadn’t touched on the café’s beverage program, one that would highlight cacao consumed the way it had been for thousands of years before the Columbian era. You’ll either have to take our word that we’ll report back shortly or follow the smell of roasting beans to the corner of Catalina and Colorado.