Truth be told: I moved to Napa Valley to be a Napa-centric writer, to comment on America’s best food and wines and to make wine here, too.
But as Chocolate is another passion, I make time to hunt down America’s best chocolate-makers to celebrate their talents.
I have highlighted on this site, for example, the talents – and chocolates – of Shawn Askinosie, from Springfield, MO, who was my first-ever, draft-pick inductee to my virtual American Chocolate Hall of Fame. Boy, can this guy make chocolate!
Last week, while attending the annual San Francisco Fancy Food Show, which attracts hundreds of gourmet food, beverage, snack, and chocolate manufacturers, I found my inductee for 2010.
The chocolate, which took me by surprise, is a brand of which I’ve never heard – Amano. It is produced in Orem, Utah, by Art Pollard, a highly motivated, passionate, chocolate geek who founded the chocolate works in 1996.
There is a striking similarity in packaging, design and even in the Amano name to one of Italy’s very best chocolates – Amadei. But from my brief tasting at the trade show, and a subsequent follow-up tasting, I’d have to say that Art Pollard has surpassed what may have been his Italian inspiration.
Amano is made from single-origin cacao beans, which come from many different sources and which are kept segregated from other regional beans. Sort of like what we often do in wine-country—keep the grapes from a single vineyard separate from those grown in other vineyards.
Tasting through the Amano’s different “tablets,” my palate was in paradise. (I refuse to call Amano’s gourmet chocolate “bars,” because this suggests that they are in the league of a Hershey Bar, in terms of price and quality. By contrast, Amano chocolate “bars” are more like the chocolate “tablets,” which is what sophisticated gourmets call them in Europe.)
Among artisanal chocolate makers, there has been a minor controversy about Pollard's occasional use of the term "bean-to-bar," to describe his process. The term, created by Scharffen Berger, implies that the chocolate-maker conducts seven essential chocolate-making steps in-house.
“We buy single-origin cacao beans and bring them to Orem, where we sort, roast, winnow, grind, refine and conch the chocolate,” explains Pollard.
“Until now, we have moved the liquid mass to a friend’s facility where we pour it into molds and package it. We are purchasing the molding line so the term 'bean-to-bar' can legitimately be applied to our operation," says Pollard.
Then, he adds: "I've never been a big fan of catch-phrases, though, especially marketing ones. We don't use catch-phrases to describe Amano, even when they can legitimately be applied. I want our chocolate to stand on its own -- for its flavor, rather than some industry catch-phrase."
Speaking of the industry
On the Amano web site, Art Pollard comments about chocolatier Michel Cluizel, whose tablets are available in many premium gourmet retail stores.
“I have always enjoyed Michel Cluizel [chocolate],” Pollard says. “They have always produced a very exceptional chocolate…”
“Cluizel for me represents a company that has been able to grow and yet remain true to its roots.”
While this may be true, I have just tasted a sampler of every single, single-origin chocolate made by Amano and can report to napaman readers that Amano is equal, or superior, to, any chocolate, which Michel Cluizel makes.Amano founder Art Pollard stands beside his “melangeur,” built in Germany about 80 years ago.
Pollard continues: “We have used organic beans for some of our chocolate, but our primary focus is on flavor, so to some degree, we consider [organic] a side issue. It is not that sustainable farming practices are not important— they are. It must be understood [however] that the term ‘organic‘ has been, to some degree, hijacked by the US Government, and it now means what the government wants it to mean.”
“For example, if a farm has a sustainability program in place and fulfills all the requirements of being “organic” but has not paid to have a government-approved inspector give the US Government’s stamp of approval, it is not considered “organic,” even though, for all practical purposes, it is.”
Pollard goes on: “It is our experience that most cocoa that has been certified ‘organic’ simply does not have the quality we demand, and while sustainability is important to us, labels are not.”
Right on, Art! And the proof is in the tasting. I tried eight different single-origin tablets, which I requested from Clark Goble (that’s Goble, not Gable!), Art’s business partner. Here are my tasting notes:
Ocumare 70% Dark, made from handpicked, criollo cacao beans, harvested in a remote valley in Venezuela. Definitely my favorite Amano chocolate.
Ocumare is more complex than a Dan Brown novel, which may not be such a high hurdle to jump, when you think about it, but each bite lingers infinitely longer in your mind than anything Brown has written.
Occumare has a smoky scent on the nose and a complex flavor release, suggestive of oak barrels, Asian spices and forest floor.
This is to chocolate in richness of depth and color what Guinness is to beer. In a league of its own. 96 points.
Montanya 70% Dark comes from a high plateau in the mountains of Venezuela. The altitude and lower nighttime temperatures create a chocolate with unique flavors. I love the aroma, which is released when you peel back the gold foil; the flavor and texture of this tablet are no less memorable.
On the initial melt on the tongue, there are hints of vanilla and exotic woods like mahogany and ebony; the flavors are accompanied by a voluptuous mouthfeel. This is Chocolate Nirvana. 94 points.
Jembrana 70% Dark, whose cacao beans come from the Indonesian island of Bali, is different from other Amano chocolates. This chocolate starts without the smoke, earth, or grit, of the other Amano offerings. Instead, this tablet has a lovely, lyrical chocolate-y-ness that ends with light acidity. It’s almost a refreshing chocolate. Think of it as a chocolate-pick-me-up when your palate is fatigued from eating too much chocolate!
Guayas 70% Dark is another of my favorite Amano chocolates, made from nacional cacao beans from the fertile Guayas River floodplain in Ecuador. Lots of smoke, green banana and a hint of berry at the finish. This is what I would eat in a darkened cinema, if I were watching any of the four Indiana Jones flicks because this chocolate has the same kind of foreign intrigue, hints of daredevil effort and – better yet! – daredevil achievement! 91 points.
Dos Rios 70% Dark is made from cacao beans harvested in the Dominican Republic. On the initial melt, there is a hit of grit texturally, followed by the slow release of smoky, almost BBQ-like, flavors, which mature in the middle palate.
One of the most individual, almost bohemian, flavor profiles of all the chocolates in the Amano line. 92 points.
Madagascar 70% Dark, made from cacao beans from – duh – Madagascar. This chocolate has a very noticeable reddish tint; upon melting, the flavors released include those of volcanic, red, iron-y soils, there’s a hint of slightly under-ripe red berries and a few waves of youthful wine tannin. The chocolate ends with a plum-like finish.
Jembrana Milk 30% Milk Chocolate is produced from cacao beans, which grow in the shadows of ancient volcanoes on the island of Bali. These are the same beans used to produce the 70% dark chocolate Jembrana tablet, but here, milk and sugar are added to bring the tablet down to the LCCD– the Least Common Chocolate Denominator, AKA milk chocolate. 91 points.
Ocumare 30% Milk Chocolate is made from the same beans used to produce dark Ocumare chocolate, but they’re lightened with milk and sugar. I personally find this milk chocolate offering too sweet for my taste, but in a world of mediocre milk chocolates, this one stands out as pretty good. 90 points.
The proof that Amano has “finally made it to Prime Time” is the fact that two different Amano “tablets” have just been introduced in Starbucks – Madagascar Dark and Ocumare Milk. You’ll find these in nearly half the Starbucks locations in the country, some 5,000 outlets.
You can read about Amano’s artisan chocolates, the corporate philosophy, and regale yourself with information about the whole line of single-origin cacao beans on the Amano website; you can even buy Amano chocolate at www.amanochocolate.com.
So now that we have Askinosie and Amano in my American Chocolate Hall of Fame… anyone else you’d like to nominate, or bring to napaman’s attention?