Thursday, February 14, 2013

[EID Feature] Mindo Chocolate Makers: From Ecuador to Dexter, from bean to bar

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg. 

Mindo Chocolate Makers, located (as owner Barbara Wilson describes it) “in the middle of the woods” in Dexter (she’s not kidding), is Michigan’s only artisan bean-to-bar chocolate maker. What this means is that they are involved with every single step of the chocolate-making process, from working directly with the farmers who grow the cocoa beans right down to making the chocolate itself.

Mindo Chocolate Makers is owned by Barbara Wilson and her husband of over 30 years, Jose (“Joe”) Meza. Joe is originally from Ecuador but hadn’t been back to his home country in 31 years. Described as a “serial entrepreneur,” Joe was ready to retire so Barbara left her job as an educator at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and off they went to Ecuador.

“It was me who kept saying, ‘Let’s check it out, let’s check it out, let’s check it out,’’” says Barb. “When we did he absolutely fell in love with this place. He wanted to sell our house, pack up everything and leave.” Barb wasn’t quite so keen on living in a small town in the middle of the Ecuadorian jungle, but she agreed to spend the winters in Mindo, Ecuador. “It’s a lush town with a population of 3,000. It’s been isolated for many years; there is a lot more diversity of plants and wildlife than anywhere else in the world and that really appeals to him.” So they bought their property in 2007 and started building a little house for themselves in 2008.

Mind you, this is all with the idea of retirement in mind.

Now Joe – who is, as previously noted, a businessman by nature – still owned Arbor Motion in Ann Arbor, which provided him and Barbara a continuous income while they stayed in Ecuador. But he needed to stay in touch with the guys at home running his company, and the Internet is very expensive in this tiny little part of isolated South American rainforest. (Like, $700/month expensive … and WE complain!)

Barb’s solution was a practical one and certainly proves positive the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention.” She had been roasting her own coffee for several years and said, “Why don’t we open our own little Internet café?” Income from the café would help to offset the cost of a high-speed Internet connection; locals and tourists alike would have a reliable WiFi outlet; plus they’d get to serve their own house-roasted coffees. Everyone wins! So their construction plans then came to include the café as well as three additional rooms for family and friends to stay (those rooms are now available for travelers to rent).

So they had their café where they roast their coffees and make their coffee drinks. All was well in the world. Then Barb started making brownies to serve with the coffee. Ecuador isn’t really a country known for its desserts, so the brownies became instantly popular and the café started getting a reputation worldwide for their brownies. But there was just one problem.

“I didn’t like the chocolate I was finding there.”

Yes, in the land where the cocoa grows there was no good chocolate to be found. Ecuador was growing some of the best cocoa beans in the world, yet Barb couldn’t find any chocolate she liked there.

(It is perhaps worth noting, if only anecdotally, that at this point in our conversation Ecuador and Columbia were rocked by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. I lost my connection with Barb but she called back not too long afterwards. Apparently the buildings were all swaying. This was certainly a first in all of my interviewing experiences.)

Barb was bringing in Callebaut chocolate from the U.S. and making her brownies with that. “I thought, this is crazy, so I started reading about how chocolate was made. I didn’t know much about it; I knew it was made from cocoa beans but that was about it.”

She and Joe later found out that, much as is the case with coffee beans, all the good cocoa beans are sold to the United States and Europe (who pay a premium for them). So she and Joe decided to take a trip around Ecuador to source green cocoa beans, and ended up finding a cooperative of cocoa farmers. This was how their education in cocoa started.

The cocoa farmers offered to sell them some beans but they had to buy a full lot – 53 pounds of beans. “We figured, let’s just do it, so we took them home and tried it.” They fermented, dried and roasted theses beans and made their first batch of chocolate in 2009. Barb remembers thinking, “Oh my God, this is what chocolate is supposed to taste like.”

She started making her brownies with her homemade chocolate. One customer said, “It is a religious experience eating your brownies.” After that Barb knew there was just no going back: she had to make her own chocolate from now on.

“We started sourcing beans from around us, really good, clean beans. As we dug into it we learned more about how different beans have different tastes and smells.” She started making chocolate bars, wrapping them in foil and selling them from her café counter. Tourists would come in and buy $100 worth of chocolate from her directly.

With her background as a health educator, Barb is prone to thinking in that health education mode. So she started offering chocolate tours in Mindo. “Those things are crazy popular. We probably get at least 30 and sometimes up to 60 people a day here, seven days a week now.” People come in by the busloads; this is one of the most popular destinations with tour companies offering travel packages to Ecuador from the United States.

Then people started asking for her chocolate in the U.S. She agreed to make it for a friend in the food business to sell, then realized she couldn’t make it all herself. And this was how the Dexter location of Mindo Chocolate Makers was created – an operation that is, quite literally, run out of the kitchen of their home in the middle of the woods in Dexter.

As a company, Mindo strives towards economic and ecologic sustainability, paying fair living wages and treating employees and suppliers justly. The beans are certified organic and direct trade. They pay triple the market price to the small family farmers they work with, and promote the growth and sales of the Nacional Variety heirloom cocoa beans native to Ecuador (which were largely being replaced by a hybrid bean cultivated for high production but with an unpleasant flavor).

“The President has called [this cocoa bean] a national treasure. This is the only country where it grows. We’re helping the farmers realize that the U.S. and Europe would prize that.” As a result of their work as chocolatiers, Barb and Joe are helping to change the cocoa supply in Ecuador and Peru. “[These farmers] had never tasted chocolate bars made with their cocoa before. We’ve invited them to come visit us to see how we’re making chocolate; some are even now making their own. It’s kind of coming full-circle, and it’s been a long time coming.”

The reason there was no good chocolate to be found was because the local people couldn’t afford to eat their own chocolate because it was too valuable and they couldn’t afford to pay the prices Americans and Europeans would. Now the local cocoa is becoming a part of the local culture. “We’re proud to be a part of that chain but we can’t take credit for it,” Barb says humbly.

Mindo Chocolate Makers products are now available in about 30 stores throughout Southeastern Michigan and Grand Rapids. (Also, if you’re a fan of the Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Co. locations in Midtown, Bloomfield Hills and Lake Orion, they use Mindo’s chocolate sticks to make their mochas.)

While education is certainly in Barb’s blood, the remote Dexter location isn’t conducive to regular chocolate-making classes or group tours. She does occasionally offer them (check the website or Facebook page), and is more than happy to arrange one for a group on request. Otherwise, a trip to the South American jungle could be just what you need – they are offering full-on bean-to-bar (including harvesting on the farm) classes in Mindo, Ecuador this June.