our new obsession: Taza chocolate
A couple Christmases ago, Ian and I independently discovered Taza Chocolate Mexicano discs at Brookline Booksmith. We surprised each other when the discs turned up in both of our stockings, filling out the toes quite nicely. (In retrospect, this was a foreshadowing of our wicked good slippers surprise.) We enjoyed our mugs of Taza hot chocolate while patting ourselves on the back for supporting a local company, but didn't give it more thought.
That changed when I saw a Google offer for two-for-one tickets to the Taza Chocolate factory tour in Somerville. This was my counterpart to Ian's local brewery tours. I signed us up immediately.
We arrived ten minutes early for our reservation and browsed the store. Samples are everywhere, and we quickly realized that grating the discs then melting them in steaming milk was not the only way to enjoy Taza—the bars and discs just might be the best straight-up chocolate we've ever tasted.
Right at noon, our tour started with an overview of cacao. While known for it's seeds, cacao is also a tasty tropical fruit and that flesh imparts its flavor to the chocolate. The beans are harvested, fermented for almost two weeks to retain more of the fruit flavors, dried in greenhouses, and then bagged for shipment.
To procure their cacao beans, Taza has developed direct trade relationships with farmers in the Dominican Republic (near and dear to our hearts), Belize, and Bolivia. Just like Fair Trade standards, direct trade deems fair wages and sustainable practices as imperative. But Taza's direct trade goes above and beyond, partnering exclusively with certified organic farmers, offering compensation above the minimum fair trade requirements, and visiting the farms at least once a year to cultivate (pun intended) those relationships.
After learning about the beans, we moved on to the production portion of the tour, and on went the hair nets. We started in a room stacked floor to ceiling with gigantic bags of raw cacao beans. It smelled like a fresh, clean barn thanks to all the burlap, which seemed fitting since chocolate is an agricultural product.
Our guide informed us that after the beans spend time in the giant roaster, they move to the winnowing machine, which separates the cacao nibs from the shell. We sampled raw cacao nibs—tastier than I expected. We also learned that Taza is mindful about waste, sending discarded cacao shells to local farms as fertilizer.
Next we moved into the packaging area, where finished chocolate is wrapped and boxed. Standing in a gigantic room full of chocolate delivers an intoxicating dose of chocolate scent with every breath, and the pyramids of Mexicano discs are so tempting. A special machine can wrap fifty-six chocolate discs per minute, but the square bars are still wrapped by hand. Taza ships these stacks of chocolate boxes to hundreds of retailers in forty-eight states and seven countries.
We finished the tour back in the store area, with giant windows into the actual chocolate-making area of the factory. Authentic Mexican stone mills, or molinos, use hand-carved granite discs to grind the cacao nibs into something like peanut butter, called cocoa liquor. The liquor then moves to a tank where the sugar is incorporated. This mix is either piped to another molino that blends the cocoa liquor and sugar for the Mexicano discs, or further refined for the slightly more European chocolate bars. Finally, the chocolate is tempered to achieve the perfect texture and snap, then molded and cooled, ready for packaging.
The tour ends with shots of hot chocolate for everyone. We got to try the naranja y canela, which adds orange to the traditional cinnamon-flavored chocolate to create their holiday flavor.
So how is the chocolate? Delicious. It's not the overly sweet fare handed out on Halloween. Taza chocolate has a slightly grainy texture thanks to minimal processing and tiny ingredient lists, but it still melts in your mouth. The flavor is powerful but not overwhelming, almost savory, and it doesn't linger. Everything was delicious, but our favorite flavors were the salted almond and the coco besos coconut bar (limited edition for February but not yet out of stock online).
We came home with an extra-large mug and a molinillo chocolate whisk to elevate our at home hot chocolate experience, along with a generous sampling of Mexicano discs. We'll be sure to keep our Taza stash well stocked from now on.
If you're in Boston and enjoy chocolate, make time to browse the store and take the tour. And please, bring us with you.
Labels: backyard tourists: Boston