Can one story have two beginnings? I think it can. And in the case of Krissee D’Aguiar, from River-Sea Chocolate, her story definitely does.
Krissee met her husband in Brazil, and while she was in college studied Amazonian ecology that included time spent in the Amazon region. She shares, “When I went there to study, we learned all about the social factors and the environmental factors which are really hand in hand. When you’re trying to save something like the rain forest, the people who are trying to cut it down are not trying to cut it down because they hate trees. They’re trying to cut it down because they need money.” She explained that if you owned land in Brazil you could make money off of the land by either slash and burn agriculture, which is detrimental to the long term sustainability of the forest, or cattle pasturing, which is also very detrimental to the long term sustainability. When used for cattle pastures, the land cannot be used for farming for many years because of the nitrogen in the waste from the cows. Logging is another money making option. Loggers are encouraged to do what’s called selective logging, which is where only the smaller trees are cut down preserving the larger ones. A lot of companies don’t do selective logging, or they say they do but because the logging operations are so remote, it’s impossible to verify. But, they’re cutting down the trees! They’re cutting down the forest. These social and environmental factors were so closely knitted together and Krissee left feeling overwhelmed and stunned about it. She says, “I’d gone there to try to save the rain forest and what I learned was if we’re going to stop people from cutting down the rain forest, then we’re basically telling them that they needed to stay poor.”
Disillusioned, Krissee returned home to Fairfax County and began working in IT. Her Information Tech career lasted seven years when she was promoted to a stay-at-home mom. After five years at home, she returned to IT for a year. It was at this point that Krissee and her husband decided to take their family to Brazil for a sabbatical. They were both feeling a little bit lost. They had been working a lot and needed some time to decompress and think about what was important to them. Says Krissee, “While we were in Brazil, we were having so much fun. It felt like we hit the reset button, but we still questioned what were we going to do moving forward. And that felt lost. I felt like I was inline with myself, but I didn’t have a purpose. I didn’t know what my purpose was.”
During their trip they found a cacao tree. Krissee’s son climbed it and started asking about how to make chocolate and they began learning about the process. It wasn’t until Krissee successfully tempered her first mixture, (and it worked) that something magical happened for her. She recounts, “I was able to temper the chocolate after just watching YouTube videos on how to do it. It felt very mystical. I did it and felt like I had this connection with the chocolate to make it be able to temper. It just felt so right.”
As she and her husband began learning more about chocolate, they discovered that the cacao tree is a sustainable type of plant because it’s shade grown like coffee. Krissee shares, “It grows in this region where my husband is from. Through cacao, we can pay people to keep the forest and in a livelihood that’s enjoyable. It’s not detrimental at all to the land. It doesn’t take any chemicals. You don’t have to plant it like a plantation. You can plant it in an existing forest canopy. It just felt like it fit on all these different levels. And I really did just feel like I had a purpose in life when we started doing this. I love it! I love it so much.”
So that was the second beginning. The first beginning involved her mother as a newborn, premature baby in Romania. At the time of her mother’s birth, Romania was ruled by a communist government. Although they had some good government provided services, like their education system, they did not have a great medical care system. For premature babies, they would put warm water bottles along side of them to keep them warm. Krissee shares, “The doctors told my grandfather that he should give the baby chocolate. He explained that chocolate has a little bit of caffeine in it, which is good for preemie babies, but also antioxidants, minerals and good fats.” At this time, chocolate wasn’t legal in Romania. Foods that could be purchased were controlled by the government and they didn’t have good quality chocolate that came through. Krissee’s grandfather had to get it illegally across the border from somebody who was bringing chocolate in from Switzerland. He traded his stamp collection to get chocolate into the country. The chocolate given to her mother was good Swiss chocolate that was made with Swiss full fat, or whole milk. In bar form, it merely melted in the baby’s mouth. It was chocolate that helped Krissee’s mother to thrive and live.
Krissee grew up knowing this story. She says, “As I was making the chocolate, and thinking about how much fun it was to make, and that story, it felt sort of full circle.” She jokes, “I’ve always used that story as an excuse for why I eat so much chocolate.” Outside of her mother’s experience, Krissee admits that she had never heard of people giving chocolate to premature babies. But when she began her bean to bar program, and started doing some research, she found that in some of the earliest accounts of the use of cacao, the books that were written 100 years ago about cacao, they indeed talked about giving chocolate to premature babies as a perfect food.
So back to modern day Loudoun County Virginia. River-Sea Chocolate is a single-origin chocolate producer. They originally began purchasing their beans from Brazil and they are in the process of establishing a fermentary there. (Cacao beans are fermented and dried prior to shipping for roasting.) While that’s happening, and as they gain export and import permissions, they have also been purchasing beans from existing bean brokers in the US. They source beans from all over the world; Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Vietnam and Tanzania.
Says Krissee, “The social impact is really important to us. The Peruvian beans come from an area that was traditionally known for narco trafficking. The farm is on the border of Peru and Colombia. There is an organization there that’s been helping the community learn how to farm cacao with the intention of providing an alternate income source besides the cocaine trade.” Not only was she moved by the story, this farm happens to produce superior beans that have a strong cherry flavor. Says Krissee, “It’s one of the most expensive ones that we get. I love it.”
Chocolate is very much like coffee and wine in that the flavor of the beans is greatly influenced by the region in which it is grown. Visually you can see that the beans from each origin look different and even smell different. River-Sea roasts their beans and then they winnow them, which is a mechanical process of dehusking the beans. The beans come out as nibs that are used to make the chocolate. The nibs are placed into a melanger that turns the nibs into a cocoa mass which then undergoes a process called conching; a spinning process that smooths out the chocolate texture and flavor. The chocolate is then tempered on a granite surface and molded into bars.
Each step in the process is another factor that can impact the ultimate flavor of the finished product. Krissee explains, “We can roast the beans differently to get a unique flavor profile and we can vary how long we melange the beans for another outcome. Every bean has a different sweet spot.”
River-Sea Chocolates offers a large assortment of chocolate bars that you can purchase from several retail locations, directly from the factory, or by purchasing online; shipped to your destination of choice. Bars are offered in the following collections: Dark, Vegan, Milk, and White.
And let’s just talk about the white chocolate for a moment. Keep in mind, that I’ve never been a fan of white chocolate and I confessed this to my new friend (hoping not to offend of course). Krissee expertly explained why I don’t like it and masterfully won me over as a huge fan of her white chocolate. Here’s why. Most white chocolates are made with grade B beans. Grade B would be the worst quality beans that are harvested. The best quality beans are made into dark or milk chocolate and the worst are pressed into fat or cocoa butter. However, the cocoa butter that River-Sea sources is made from the same quality beans that they use to make their dark and milk bars. (Incidentally, there is a difference in cocoa butter and cacao butter that is determined by the temperature during processing. I have used the terms interchangeably in this article.) Says Krissee, “As soon as we started getting this type of cacao butter, I just started getting inspired. It was so good. It smells like something you would want to eat as opposed to the other stuff that I was buying that didn’t smell so great, or they defragrance it because it doesn’t smell so great.” That’s what a lot of the chocolate makers do, including high-end makers. They buy a lot of the defragranced cacao.” But River-Sea uses the premium beans pressed into cacao butter. Because the quality of this ingredient is so good, Krissee has been making white chocolates with less sugar, which combats my biggest complaint about white chocolate. It’s too sweet. Their white chocolate has actually been some of their most popular bars. The white chocolate is paired with other ingredients like turmeric, matcha or rose. The bars are beautiful to look at and are truly delicious…and I was skeptical! (They taste like they’re good for you, and not in a bad way!)
And what a nice segue into tasting this chocolate. When you take a tour of the factory, and/or book a party/class, part of the experience is to do a chocolate tasting. (OMGoodness!) You receive chocolate samples, for side by side comparison, that only have one differing characteristic, like bean origin (ie, Vietnam vs. Ecuador), or roasting time (dark vs medium). It was deliciously fascinating. For the first time, I could really taste the notes and the layers of flavor that each chocolate bar afforded. I came away truly feeling like I’ve been doing myself a disservice by eating your grocery store variety chocolate options.
My take away from meeting Krissee and touring the factory, beyond that I should stop eating second rate chocolate, was this. I think everyone can agree that it’s an amazing feat to find meaningful work that speaks to your soul and can get you out of bed every day. Says Krissee, “I was actually listening to a Ted talk podcast about finding meaning in work. It was saying that people just want to do something where they feel like they’re doing good for the world or for the community. I really didn’t have that in IT. It was a great mechanism for us to save up money so that we could do other stuff, but ultimately, my husband and I came to the decision that we need something a little more balanced. It’s ok to work and save up some money, but don’t drive yourself crazy for the end goal of having a vacation.”
You can view videos on the River-Sea Chocolates website on the chocolate production process, or you can set up a party/class or tour at the factory (adults only please). Be sure to inquire about creating personalized chocolate bar labels for your event or company function.
As a side note, River-Sea Chocolates is a supplier for our friends, and previous Jennifer the Beholder Guest, at Candy Drawer Confectionary (Guest – Maura McKnight – Candy Drawer Confectionary). Only the best for the best!