Chocolate By Way of Coffee: Jonny Nuckols, Shark Mountain Coffee
IN A KITCHEN THE SIZE OF AN ample shoe closet, tucked into the iLab at UVA’s Darden Business School, Shark Mountain Coffee owner Jonny Nuckols and his chocolatier Christian Anderson are busily turning fermented cacao beans into their new line of dark-chocolate bars.
You read that right. This is a coffee shop. And, yes, Nuckols and Anderson are making chocolate. “Coffee and chocolate are so similar, just a different bean,” says Nuckols, who in fact roasts the cacao beans in the very same machine he uses to roast coffee, just set at a lower temperature. “My background is in coffee, so I apply the same understanding and philosophy to how I do chocolate.”
That means the beans are roasted in a speedy eight to ten minutes—not unusual for coffee, but a good bit faster than the norm for cacao, which typically can take anywhere from 20 minutes to a full hour.
Last evening, Nuckols roasted this particular batch from the Dominican Republic, scooping the almond-size brown beans from one of the 130- to 160-pound burlap sacks lined up against the wall. Except for the fermentation process that they undergo onsite at the farm where they are grown, these cacao beans arrive essentially untouched, unprocessed.
“From a chemistry standpoint, the faster you roast, the more momentum you get,” says Nuckols, an expert after just a year, thanks to his two years of reading up on other bean-to-bar start-ups. “And with more momentum, you get more complexity of flavor—that brightness, that tartness, that nuttiness.”
He’s not kidding. The Shark Mountain chocolate bars—all of which are single origin, made from cacao beans harvested in one country—include no ingredients other than cocoa and sugar. But they still have pronounced fruity or nutty notes that are born not of flavorings but from the cacao bean itself.
Take the one from Peru, for instance. It tastes like a wonderfully rich dark chocolate, yes, but let it coat the palate, and there are distinct zings of citrus. The one from Nicaragua, on the other hand, has a creamy, vanillin quality to it, with a walnutty linger. And then there’s Nuckols’ favorite: the Dominican Republic, which is so fruity, he likens it to a Fruit Roll-Up, and likes to pair it with a glass of fruity red wine (see pairings chart below).
Detecting these nuances aren’t as challenging as one might assume. Sample the bars one after the other, and the differences reveal themselves without much effort from the taster. The Papua New Guinea, for instance, starts off fruity but then after about six seconds turns to a spicy, hickory smokiness. Follow it with the Nicaragua, and the creamy nuttiness is unmistakable. (At any given point, Shark Mountain is usually making bars from four different countries, each with its own distinct characteristics and flavors.)
Nuckols and Anderson are able to elicit these flavors from the cacao beans themselves (a) by roasting them in the aforementioned quick fashion and (b) by keeping the sugar content as low as possible (usually in the 26 percent to 28 percent range). “We’ve figured out it can’t be too harsh, but it also can’t be too sweet,” says Anderson as she funnels the roasted beans into a small machine sitting on the counter. Its job is to pull out the husks and liquefy the nibs.
After about an hour in that machine, the liquid cocoa spends about 24 hours in the “refiner,” along with some pure cane sugar. This particular refiner is a new addition to the shop. With its arrival, capacity was doubled to 10 pounds per batch (enough to make about 80 bars). It was a crucial investment, as output can’t go beyond what the refiner will hold.
Ten pounds per batch is still small-scale production. Even so, Nuckols sees potential for much more—collaborations with breweries, wineries, even restaurants. “I never expected to be doing chocolate,” he says, motioning to the coffee-centric space that surrounds him. “But it does feel like we’re sort of on the cutting edge. Right now, chocolate is like a frontier.”