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Did you know that Arkansas has a new bean-to-bar chocolate maker? Based in Hot Springs, Ouachita Chocolate is the brainchild of co-founders and husband and wife duo of Joel and Ali Rush. We recently caught up with Joel to learn more about the company. Check out what he had to say in our Q and A.
What is your background and how did you get involved in the chocolate business?
I founded an educational technology startup in 2005 just out of grad school and ran that for a little over ten years. Oddly, that business led me to start a commercial print and design business that initially served mostly clients in education. My chocolate making obsession started several years ago. Every year for my birthday, I try to do something new that I have never done before that catches my interest. A few weeks before my birthday one year, I read an article about how nerds were leading an American chocolate revolution using science, math, and experimental design. I was fascinated and immediately enthralled with the processes it takes to make chocolate at a very high level.
I ordered chocolate from a few of the makers mentioned in the article and started to realize that I had never experienced all the flavors that chocolate had to offer. Ali and I were both immediately hooked. After a birthday mostly composed of small-scale chocolate-making equipment, books on chocolate making, and cacao beans, we started to make batch after batch of chocolate. We eventually got to the point where we were comparing it with other award-winning chocolate from around the world and we realized that we actually preferred our own chocolate to any that we could buy, especially locally.
We started to share the chocolate we were making with other members of the food and maker community in Hot Springs, and we just got so much positive feedback that we decided to give it a go.
I’d be lying if I said the idea of having our own chocolate factory didn’t have something to do with where we are today!
What type of chocolate do you specialize in?
We specialize in single-origin, organic, bean-to-bar dark chocolate. For our initial release of bars, we are trying to take people on a brief tour of what is possible, using just the highest quality fine-flavor organic cacao beans and sugar. It’s been fun to surprise people with what is possible.
Could you briefly describe your three chocolate offerings?
Of course! The three bars that we debuted with all have a story behind them and appeal to different people, depending on their taste preferences. It’s completely intentional that they all have very different characters and we specifically did three single-origin bars because of the unique flavor profile of each bean that we can accentuate through our particular processes.
The Ecuador-Camino Verde bar is the first dark chocolate that I had that just made me fall in love with what single-origin craft chocolate can be. In my opinion, the bar tastes like what dark chocolate without a lot of extra flavors should taste like. It’s fudgy, which is a funny tasting note for chocolate, but try it and you’ll see what I mean–there’s not a lot of extra flavors. Some people taste some notes of nuttiness and some wine people describe it as “earthy” and I can understand that, but for me, this is where it all started. It’s very accessible for those that don’t consider themselves “dark chocolate” people, and I think of it as a gateway to a whole new world of chocolate. It was for me, and I hope it will be for others. It’s fantastic straight up in a wide variety of desserts, baked goods, and even as hot chocolate.
The Belize-Maya Mountain bar is kind of a middle ground to me between the relatively straightforward taste of Camino Verde and the otherworldly big flavors of our third bar made from the incredible cacao from the Bejofo Estate in Madagascar. Even though it has exactly the same amount of sugar as the other bars, most people think it tastes somewhat sweeter. Most people taste some citrus notes like tangerine or orange. It’s a subtle bar with lots of delicate notes that change as it melts in your mouth. It’s a step up in terms of complexity from what most people think of as dark chocolate and that’s why it’s part of the first three we released. Our local chefs are loving it for desserts. We’ve had Casey Copeland at the Avenue, Matt Fuller at 501 Prime, and Diana Marez Bratton at Taco Mama use this chocolate in a variety of incredible desserts. It’s been fun to hear their thoughts about the flavors and the possible uses for sophisticated desserts.
The Madagascar-Bejofo Estate bar is probably the most popular bar with wine people and other people that consider themselves foodies. It has huge ripe dark fruit flavors that many describe as ripe cherries or plums. It’s the most dramatic departure from what most people think of as dark chocolate. These beans are widely viewed in the craft chocolate world as being some of the best starting points for fine chocolate. The flavor is so unique that I normally eat it straight up. There is a lot going on already just in the bean in terms of flavor. It’s mind-blowing for a lot of people.
For someone who is unfamiliar, could you speak to the bean-to-bar process, and why it is so important to you?
Being a chocolate maker is very different from being a chocolatier. There is a lot of confusion about that. There are quite a few people who make chocolates or make things out of chocolate that they buy in blocks from large chocolate makers. What we do is very different.
We start with large jute bags of cacao beans. We hand sort every bean to make sure there is no foreign material in our finished chocolate and then we also remove broken beans, beans that have germinated, beans that may not have been fermented or dried correctly, so that the flavor of our finished product is not affected. We’ve tested it, and it 100% matters.
After sorting the beans, we conduct numerous test roasts of each variety of bean that we receive and make chocolate out of each of these test batches. At this point, we are looking for the optimal roast profile that removes any “off” flavors and also focuses on accentuating flavors that we think are the most interesting or desirable.
After winnowing (separating the husks and the cacao nibs), we stone grind the cacao for up to three days with granite rollers in a machine called a melanger. This makes it smooth and recognizable as chocolate. We can affect flavor and texture during this process by controlling heat, grinding pressure, airflow, and the time the chocolate spends in the melanger.
Once we are happy with the way the chocolate tastes, it is transferred to containers to age. This allows the flavors to develop even further.
When we are ready, we temper, mold, and package the bars by hand in packaging that we designed.
The reason bean-to-bar is important to me is that every step of the chocolate we make is done with extreme care and attention to detail using only the best ingredients possible. This allows us to bring out the best flavors from each of the fine cacao origins that we use. The craft chocolate movement is all about bringing new levels of flavor and quality to chocolate lovers. It’s art and science, and it’s the furthest thing possible away from industrial chocolate production, where the focus is on consistency, repeatability, and cost, with a taste somewhere way down the list of priorities. Our chocolate tastes better, it’s better for you with no weird ingredients, and it’s better for the world because it’s made using ethically and sustainably sourced cacao rather than commodity cacao of unknown origins.
Describe your new storefront a little bit. What are your connections to Hot Springs and are you excited to be a part of the food community there?
We currently retail our own chocolate out of our TLI Print storefront. Our factory is in a repurposed machine shop located behind our commercial print business. It’s a little weird, but we expect most of our business to be conducted through our retail partners and online. The print shop, interestingly, has become a local meeting place because we serve so many locals with our print and design business. It connects us to our community strongly and we think that has been a big part of our early success.
In some ways, Ali and I have been a big part of the food community here for years. We have worked with most of the amazing food folks in town for years on various projects related to their businesses. All of these connections and relationships have been so important to us in starting Ouachita Chocolate. Whether it’s been craft makers like Adam and Briana Moore from Red Light Roastery, or Katie and Will Byrd from Will’s Cinnamon Shop, or Rose Schweikhart from Superior Bathhouse Brewery, or restaurateurs like Scott McClard from McClard’s Bar-B-Q, Anthony Valinoti from Deluca’s Pizza, or Diana Marez Bratton from Taco Mama, so many of our friends and people we look up to in the food community have been so amazingly helpful with their feedback and support for what we are doing. It’s been incredibly refreshing and rewarding so far. We are ecstatic to add something unique to the amazing things that are happening in the Hot Springs food scene right now.
What’s next for Ouachita Chocolate?
In the very short term, we are working on expanding our network of retail partners and working on a series of three bars that will feature different nuts paired with each of our single-origin chocolates. A little further out, we will start shipping chocolate once it cools off, and we are also gearing up for the holiday season, which we expect will be crazy. We are also working on a couple of new bars with no firm timeframe that we are excited about. We are partnering with other members of the local food community to make some specialty bars that combine our chocolate with flavors from their culinary areas of expertise. That has been fun and exciting so far. We think it will blow people away.
Where can people buy your chocolate?
Right now, you can buy our chocolate directly from us or from several retailers in Hot Springs, including, Red Light Roastery, Will’s Cinnamon Shop, State & Pride Provisions Company, The Savory Pantry, Mid-America Science Museum, and a few others. We are adding all the time. All of our bars are also available at Eggshells Kitchen Co. in Little Rock.
*Header pic courtesy of Ouachita Chocolate
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