By Marthine Satris
It’s hard to imagine that many chocolatiers start off by confessing, “I actually never really liked chocolate.” Brian Wallace, the founder of new Oakland-based Endorfin Chocolat, hastens to add, however, that it’s because, growing up, he basically had sugar and milk with chocolate flavoring, “not real chocolate.”
That difference — between “chocolate” and chocolate — is the energy that drives Wallace’s sustainably sourced, herb-infused creations. From Ghirardelli to Scharffen Berger, the Bay Area has long led the way in the craft of chocolate. As we learn more and more about how our food choices affect not only our bodies but the world we live in, confectionary innovators like Wallace are offering sophisticated chocolates that strive to combine flavor, quality, and ethics.
Wallace is also an ethnobotanist, and his study of the human uses of naturally occurring plants led him back to chocolate, despite his youthful aversion. A cottage industry of passionate advocates for the healthful qualities of chocolate has sprung up in the East Bay. These alternative, small-scale chocolatiers — including the Oakland Chocolate Company and Coracao Confections — are revising our understanding of chocolate. We may know by now that dark chocolate is a superfood that’s good for our hearts and our blood pressure. But does that mean we have to skip the Nutella and chew on unsweetened raw chocolate?
Wallace wants to demonstrate the pleasure of the chocolate bean’s natural flavors, especially when combined with what he describes as herbs and roots that “benefit or modulate the health of the body,” including wormwood and ginger. Chocolate should never be a chore, so the spoonfuls of coconut sugar added to Wallace’s vegan chocolate keeps these bars firmly in the “treat” category.
Despite the legal hurdles that have dissuaded many idealistic boot-strappers, Wallace has found support in the community of like-minded health and food activists in Oakland. He is committed to the ethos of a local economy, and has been able to learn from and grow alongside the many local, small-batch chocolatiers benefiting from the Bay Area’s enthusiasm for locavore food.
Endorfin makes delicate vegan chocolate bars flavored with ancient recipes for tonics to improve overall wellbeing. Community Supported Chocolate is the company’s subscription line that includes drinking chocolate, truffles, as well as flavored nut butters and Endorfin’s infused chocolates.
Wallace explains that he uses only unroasted chocolate (not technically raw, since in the necessary fermentation process, the temperature of the bean can reach more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit). This allows for the preservation of many healthy properties, as well as of the subtle range of flavors innate in chocolate.
“Some people say that roasting develops the chocolaty flavor, and I think that it develops a certain set of chocolaty flavors, and diminishes other ones,” Wallace says. He has developed several flavors intended to do more than just satisfy the tongue: his Buddha Belly dark chocolate bar brings together the heat of ginger, the aromatics of cardamom, and the clean flavor of licorice.
While Bay Area foodies might be blasé about cinnamon combined with chocolate, or even chocolate studded with chilies, Endorfin Chocolat’s blending of herbal flavors into chocolate strikes a new chord.
Eating an Endorfin chocolate bar reminds you that chocolate is a plant product, like wine or beer or coffee, and that one can appreciate the food’s complexity instead of just scarfing it down. Wallace said he chooses flavors carefully to highlight the changes we taste as chocolate crosses the tongue. While we might think “sugar” when we hear “chocolate,” a carefully manipulated chocolate also releases elements of sourness and bitterness, which are becoming more popular with American palates these days.
Wallace’s bars, including the herby, chewy Absinthe and intense Turkish Coffee flavors, distill plant-based chemicals into complementary flavors that don’t compromise on pleasure. It’s akin to the pleasure derived from a very good cocktail rather than the rush of a shot.
Beyond simply bringing unexpected flavors together, Wallace also hopes to use his chocolates to open customers’ eyes to the story of the food that we eat. He cooperates with other local, small-batch chocolate makers to purchase ethically sourced cacao beans, which are wild-harvested in Ecuador. Each of his herbs and other plant-based flavors is carefully researched to source that those that are environmentally sustainable and respectful of the laborers.
The Endorfin founder explains that he came to study chocolate-making only after immersing himself in the science and ecology of the cacao trees.
“I needed to be out there, harvesting from the tree. Once I knew the plants, I decided to invest myself in going to chocolate school.”
Wallace now wants to spread that knowledge. He excitedly describes the new packaging he envisions for his 1.5 ounce bars, which would allow the buyer to open a cardboard envelope to reveal both the chocolate and the stories of the bar’s ingredients. He wears his chef’s hat and his educator hat simultaneously.
Wallace is determined to be as ethical as possible in everything from packaging to distribution, which means that his bars aren’t cheap, starting at $5, but he points out that they are fairly priced, considering the choices made at each stage. For instance, along with supporting harvesting practices that do not contribute to Amazonian deforestation, Wallace also avoids sourcing any chocolate from West Africa, where most chocolate is grown. Instead, he supports foragers and wild harvesters in cacao’s native Amazonian and Andean environments. As was revealed by the 2010 documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate, the giant cacao farms in Western Africa frequently rely on child labor and human trafficking to keep their prices down, and most mainstream, big brand chocolate comes from those farms. Thanks to a greater awareness about these practices, many smaller producers are turning to South American cacao instead.
Wallace is ramping up production of Endorfin Chocolates and his Community Supported Chocolate deliveries this month, and to do so, he’s turned to loans from Kiva and is also beginning a Kickstarter drive which he says will allow him to create “sustainable, frustration-free” packaging for wholesale distribution.
Chocolate is necessarily a global product, but Wallace and other local, small-scale makers still emphasize community and one-to-one connections. There is a link of trust between the consumer and the small-scale producer. If you buy vegetables through a CSA, you have a direct connection to a local farm, and Wallace wants to be the trustworthy conduit between chocolate eater and cacao grower.
For Wallace, chocolate is a connection of an individual to the world around them. “Chocolate is the gateway into understanding what you are putting in your body,” he said. Because it’s so common we think we know all about it already – but there’s so much more to learn.
Some Enforfin chocolate is currently available at Oaktown Spice Shop and Five Flavors Herbs, both in Oakland, at the Jack London Square farmers market on Sundays, and at the Endofin Chocolat online shop. Wallace said he hopes more local stores will carry the chocolate brand by the new year.
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