In 2009, Woodbridge resident Ben Rasmussen didn't even like dark chocolate. In July of 2010, he had incorporated Potomac Chocolate with a partner. Now he makes and sells bars of fine dark chocolate to shops around the country.
He credits a friend with taking him to a chocolate tasting. Having never tried fine dark chocolate, Rasmussen was unaware of the nuances of flavor possible in a single bite.
"I fell in love with it," he said.
In the next several months, he went to more chocolate tastings, and then decided he wanted to try making chocolate on his own. He started in his own kitchen, using his own oven, and hand cracking the beans. Now he works out of two rooms in the back of his house: one to sort and roast the beans, and the other to mix, melt, and mold the liquefied chocolate.
"In my entire factory, there is one piece of machinery that was designed for chocolate," Rasmussen said. That's the tempering machine, which controls the crystallization process in the chocolate. Every other piece of equipment was marketed for something other than making chocolate, or was put together with PVC pipes and other materials Rasmussen could find. Expense is a limiting factor for a small factory like Potomac Chocolate.
Rasmussen's eyes light up when he talks about making chocolate, and the flavors possible when turning cacao beans into chocolate.
"Different beans have different flavors," he said. "One of the best things I can do as a maker is when I want to make great chocolate. I start out with great beans."
He often uses Upala beans from Costa Rica, and he described the chocolate made from those beans as having a "hint of fruitiness at the beginning" that "transitions into darker notes."
"They're just like wine grapes," Rasmussen said. The genetics and environment of the bean can affect its flavor. "There are more identified flavor compounds in chocolate than there are in wine."
One bar takes roughly 35 to 40 beans. A bag is 110 pounds. In the sorting process, he throws away 10 to 15 pounds. In the roasting process, the beans lose their moisture, and then the husking process removes another 20 to 25 percent of the bean. Roughly 70 to 75 percent of a bag becomes chocolate.
"If you're making a 70 percent bar, you make up the rest with chocolate, so it's basically a pound of beans for a pound of chocolate," Rasmussen said.
He's hoping to work directly with cacao bean farmers, to improve post-harvest processing for the beans he buys, and remove the middle man to increase profits for himself and the farmer. Chocolate making has three flavor developments: fermenting at the farm, roasting, and conching. Rasmussen can directly control the roasting and conching, but must find farms that properly ferment their beans to get that perfect flavor.
"I can take good cacao and make bad chocolate, but I can't take bad cacao and make anything decent," he said.
Virginia is one of the few states where a home-based chocolate factory as small as Rasmussen's would actually be licensed to sell chocolate. He's fully registered with the FDA and inspected by the health department. He's been a Good Food Award finalist. He sells roughly 1,000 bars of chocolate a month.
"As long as I have the chocolate on hand, I ship just as soon as I can," he said.
He sells to MJ's Ice Cream-N-More in Occoquan, several shops in Alexandria, and to other shops around the country. Customers can also purchase Potomac Chocolate online.
On Wednesday, Patch will feature a gallery showing how Rasmussen's chocolate making process works.
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