Chocolatiers in Somerville make it from the beginning: “Bean to bar”

Taza Chocolate

by Tony Rosenfeld

Taza Chocolate

Elizabeth Cecil

Some people invite work friends over for cocktails or tapas or a movie night. Alex Whitmore used to summon colleagues from the then-nascent company ZipCar to his apartment for elaborate chocolate-tastings. And these were no candy-bar munchfests, mind you, but rather luxurious flights of homemade creations, for which Alex would spend hours preparing.

Alex was intent on entertaining his friends, but he had other motives, too. He was mulling pursuing this passion fulltime and starting up a chocolate company. One of the prominent invitees to these tastings was Larry Slotnick, a friend and fellow ZipCar employee, whose engineering background would be invaluable in helping Alex achieve his goal.

The tastings worked. Not only did Alex become more adept and familiar with the science of making chocolate, but he was also able to convince Larry to join him. The two founded Taza in 2006. Their mission was to produce extraordinary organic chocolate by forming direct, sustainable relationships with the communities in which the cacao beans were harvested.

Both men knew that the manner in which they purchased the beans would be integral to making great chocolate and to giving the company the kind of meaning they sought. This direct tie between farmer and chocolate producer would help Taza secure the best cacao beans—kind of like slipping the maitre d’ something extra for the best table in the house—but it would also financially reward the farmers directly, by removing the middle man. To do this, Taza created Direct Trade, a buying program similar to Fair Trade. In their view, it offered even more favorable terms for the farmers, and a closer relationship between the two parties.

Today, Taza buys about 90% of their cacao beans from La Red Guacanejo, a cooperative in the Dominican Republic, at a price 10% above Fair Trade market value. Larry is passionate about paying this higher rate: “It rewards the farmers and their communities where the real hard work is done.” In turn, farmers in La Red understand the quality of cacao beans that Taza seeks, and take the little steps—from small-batch fermentation to open air drying—to achieve it.

The process of transforming cacao into chocolate begins when Taza picks up a hill of 50-pound sacks at Logan Airport in Boston and then conducts a series of tests and tastings to check quality back at their chocolate factory in Somerville. For this, the company follows a traditional Mexican approach, the simplicity of which is meant to allow the flavors of the beans to shine through.

Taza has collected a host of antique machinery for the process. Wandering the maze of Taza is like passing through a chocolate-making museum. Massive polished machines first roast, then winnow (take off the beans’ shells), then grind the beans, before finally melting them into chocolate. The grinding is performed by heavy granite millstones that Alex buys in Mexico. They have a rougher surface than modern stainless grinders and ultimately give the chocolate a grainy texture reminiscent of a good aged Parmigiano cheese.

The true measure of Taza’s success (and the hard work of its two founders) is evident upon trying the product itself. Taza’s chocolate is revelatory: the dark bars pop with a rich smoky depth similar to a fine coffee, balanced with a little tang and a sugary crunch. Taza makes small bags of nibs and chocolate-covered almonds as well as large circular coins, or Mexicanos, which are spiked with traditional flavorings: vanilla, almonds, or chilis. Most bars range from $4 to $7—but the expense denotes a premium product and the people who work so passionately to create it.

Taza Chocolate can be purchased at Alley’s General Store, LeRoux at Home, and Katama General Store, or by contacting Taza: 617-623-0808,