A delicious cure for a bad day.
What is it about chocolate? According to Robbie Stout and Anna Davies, owners of Ritual Chocolate in Charleston, it’s a lot of things! The two business partners recently moved their chocolate-making factory and café to the Heber Valley. And they want to invite everyone to experience their unique flavors and chocolate-making process.
The café opened for business in October of 2020 and was the culmination of a 10-year journey. Stout is originally from Midway, UT, and Davies comes from Essex, England, although her mother is American. After Anna finished University she went to Colorado to spend time with her mom. “I met Robbie, and we started talking about chocolate,” she said. “I think really it was just a progression. We had the idea in Boulder, but neither of us really knew much about chocolate.”
Stout shared, “The first motivation was we wanted to start a chocolate company and have our own brand and have chocolate bars — because it sounded like fun. But then, immediately, when we were looking into it, we learned about how difficult the process is to make it, and how important single origin can be, and [the importance of] where you get your cacao from. We could’ve just made a brand and had somebody else make it, but there was just so much opportunity to do something different if we made it ourselves.”
They decided to learn how to source their own cacao and create something totally different from anything else out there. “So, that’s the path we chose,” Robbie explained, “which is the difficult path, because it’s expensive to have the machinery, it’s expensive to make it, and it’s hard to source the cacao from everywhere and trust that supply.”
Anna recalled, “We just started really small . . . in a tiny little studio, we bought some equipment, and we were just making it in our studio. It was really fun in the beginning to just have random beans that we’d mess around with.” They began with a $5.00 budget, and grew from there, eventually renting a small chocolate factory in Denver. A man at the factory taught them some basics about the process and the equipment. They have since modified the experience into their own original process.
Stout and Davies moved to Utah because they both loved the mountains and enjoy activities such as mountain biking, Nordic skiing, hiking, and backcountry skiing. They opened a successful café and factory in Park City but outgrew it. Although the café in Park City remains open and is currently being expanded, Ritual Chocolate has moved the entire production facility to its Heber Valley location, along with a second café.
The chocolate produced at Ritual is shipped to over 800 stores around the country, with about 1,000 bars a day heading out from the Heber Valley. The delicacies include such varied flavors as Honeycomb Toffee, Juniper Lavender, and Pine Nut Chocolate. And for a pure chocolate experience, there are single-origin bars, which allow the different flavors of regional cacao beans to shine through, such as Ecuador, Belize, and Mexico bars. Each region’s cacao beans have evolved into a distinctive taste. The Madagascar bar, for example, has natural “tasting notes” of raspberry, citrus, and peanut. The Peru bar has a floral, herbal, toasted peanuts, and stone fruit taste.
Stout explained why the chocolate tastes are so different. “Obviously cacao doesn’t know national boundaries, but depending on where you are, the local cacao will have had its own history and relationship to people. Like in Mexico, that area was farmed for about 4,000 years with cacao, so there was selective breeding happening just through what people wanted to eat. [They would] pick from that tree and not the others because it tasted better, and [they would] plant seeds from that tree because they tasted better.” He continued, “Over time, some regions got better just because of the amount of time that people were eating cacao. Some of the more wild areas, that haven’t had as much time, still have good cacao, but it hasn’t been through that same process. And there’s been a lot of breeding now through selective breeding. There are hundreds of varieties now.”
The owners work with several carefully selected farms to ensure that they are purchasing quality cacao from heirloom trees. They also are particular about the farming practices, using only those farms that harvest, ferment, and dry their beans properly.
There are only about four companies making 70% of the world’s chocolate. These large companies use high quantity, but poor-quality, beans. To hide the bad flavor, the beans are over-roasted. Any nuances in the beans are then gone, so the companies will add artificial vanilla, cheap oils, emulsifiers, sugar, and milk to disguise the taste of bad cacao. This cacao generally comes from West Africa, and the only thing that matters is the weight. The farms will harvest it early, ferment and dry it quickly, and ship it off to keep the price low. The entire business model is to strip out as much bad flavor as possible using high heat and a lot of processing.
Ritual Chocolate, on the other hand, tries to maintain the flavor of their high-quality beans. “We definitely push to have the smoothest texture that we can. . . . If anything, our process is very gentle because we’re really not trying to take flavors out, were trying to keep it all in and keep the chocolate really smooth,” said Davies. “We barely even roast the beans. It’s more like a light toasting.”
“Our definition of success with the product itself is we want to get as much of that original flavor through our whole process into the final bar.”
“We’re trying to not lose any of that so that people can actually taste what the cacao tastes like — which is the complete opposite goal from these bigger brands,” explained Stout.
The name Ritual Chocolate is a reminder of history. “It was a bit of a call back to the history of cacao, and how it ties into the ceremonies and rituals that the Mayans and Aztecs used chocolate in,” said Davies. The Mayans and Aztecs made a drink with the cacao, after adding spices, maize, and water. “It was considered this really powerful drink that could give you strength and would sustain you all day,” added Stout. “When they used it in ceremonies it was also symbolic of lifeblood.” The cacao beans were even used as currency! The Latin classification name means “food of the Gods.”
Davies and Stout want to share their love of chocolate through the new café and shop. Customers can get coffee, lunch, or a light breakfast for now. “Once Covid is not as big of a threat, we’ll open up our private tasting room here for classes and tours, where we can actually bring people in. We hope that this will be another destination in the Heber Valley for families and everyone from around the area,” said Stout.
“We hope people will come out here to check the café out, because really we want it to be a community space,” offered Davies. “Our vision and our hope is that tours aside, in the summer if people come up here to go to the lake or they have a Saturday free that they’ll pop in and have sort of a different experience. We have fun, different offerings, and this is somewhere people can bring friends. We want it to be a destination for people.”
What is it about chocolate? Head on over to Ritual Chocolate and discover for yourself how it’s a lot of things!