MINNEAPOLIS -- Down a bare hallway, in a Minneapolis industrial building, behind a door with no name, is one of the sweetest secrets in Minnesota. It is the only production facility for Rogue Chocolatier and Colin Gasko.
"I love chocolate. I could eat chocolate all day," Colin said.
And he can. Gasko, 24, owns Rogue, arguably the smallest commercial chocolate factory in the world. It is certainly one of the best, as Worcester, Massachusetts native Gasko will admit. "Not to give myself too much credit, but definitely doing this on such a small scale and actually doing the whole process is extremely rare."
It is so rare that Gasko can boast that he is the only "real" maker of chocolate (from the bean to the bar) in Minnesota. There are only a handful of cocoa contemporaries in the entire country. Each of Rogue's $6-$8.50 bars comes from a single source of beans. That is, each bar is made from beans grown in one farm or estate in one country.
Gasko travels the chocolate world to find the right crop of dark brown cocoa beans. "I have some beans that we get from a small farm in the Dominican Republic and there's another one from an estate in Madagascar." He has also made bars from other countries including Venezuela.
The actual process of turning beans into bars takes hours, beginning with the exotic beans themselves. "We hand sort all the beans to pull out any defects or things that are not going to taste very good. Then we roast them, cool them off and we crack the beans. After cracking them, we have a special machine that then blows off the hulls.
And so, you're left with just the nib which is the center portion of the actual bean, what you would actually call the cocoa bean itself and then we take that, we mill it. Then we refine it down to a very small particle size so that it feels really silky in your mouth, about 20 microns."
The young transplanted Minnesotan is part chocolatier, part engineer and part mechanic. The machines that crowd the space of his one-room factory are as amazing and "jerry-rigged" as the chocolate. Gasko could not afford hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy or lease all of the machines he needed, even, he says, if such machines even existed.
"They don't really make small scale (chocolate) machinery. What I've done is come together with some machines which mirror the function of a lot of the traditional machinery used in making chocolate and modified other machines if there was nothing available."
One of those devices is a table-top oven. "We pre-warm the molds here. This keeps the molds from making the chocolate set up too quickly." Gasko carries the three-space molds to the one machine he did buy for the factory. It is called a "temperer". It resembles a kind of recycling chocolate fountain, with a thick drip of milled and melted chocolate falling into a sink to be pumped back to the top of the temperer and fall again. The machine keeps the chocolate in the crystalline state that Gasko prefers. He moves the mold into position under the rich, brown waterfall, giving each of the three spaces in the mold a perfect dose of liquid chocolate. He flips a switch and the table beneath the temperer begins to shake. "This is the vibrating table." He touches the edges of the molds to the table. "We'll just vibrate out the bubbles."
The chocolate quickly fills out the shape of the molds and is moved to cool in another of Gasko's mechanical adaptations. It is a wire shelf covered with opaque plastic attached to an air conditioner. When cooled, Gasko taps the now-solid bars onto a table and examines them for quality.
"There are almost no bubbles. It has a nice resounding snap which means all the fats have crystalized very nicely. That is the way a properly tempered chocolate bar should look."
Other than Gasko's website, there are only a few places where one can purchase Rogue Chocolate. That includes specialty stores like the Kitchen Window in Minneapolis's Uptown area. Owner Doug Huemoeller displays and admires Gasko's handiwork. "Each chocolate is so unique. That's the really cool part about single origin chocolate is that each one is so distinctive in flavor and that's really what makes Rogue Chocolate so unique and fascinating."
It is also constantly evolving. Gasko insists that the small size of his operation (just himself and 2 part-time helpers) allows him to experiment and implement change quickly. There are no added flavors to his chocolate now, other than a tiny bit of Tahitian vanilla. Even that, Gasko is working to eliminate, leaving his product consisting solely of cocoa and sugar. "There are only about 3 companies in the world that do that because it is technically very difficult to do in a way that has the qualities that you want in a chocolate."
It is quality, not quantity that drives Gasko. "This facility maxes out at about 4 tons a year. That is if I'm working day and night. We can do about 8,000 pounds which is extremely small. If you look at a commercial batch, usually they are in the range of 3-5 metric tons. So, usually a single batch (of theirs) would be our entire year's capacity."
One interesting possible dilemma for Gasko could have been the former GOP Vice Presidential candidate's choice of title for her new book. Does the "Rogue" name make some people think he is making chocolate for Sarah Palin? Gasko grins. "Well, actually, I've considered suing her because I came up with it first!"
He is kidding, of course. Fine chocolate, after all, is a flavor for all parties. If it is true that "good things come in small packages" then, in this case, the sweetest things come from the smallest place.
For more information about Rogue Chocolatier go to http://www.roguechocolatier.com/.
(Copyright 2009 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)