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A conversation with. . . Steve DeVries, chocolate maker

Published February 14, 2008 at 12:05 a.m.

Steve DeVries

Steve DeVries

Don't expect to see DeVries Chocolates pumping out heart-shaped boxes of Valentine's Day bonbons anytime soon.

Steve DeVries is a pure-play chocolate maker, hunting down the best cocoa beans at small Latin American plantations and then using vintage equipment at his Larimer Street factory to combine the beans with nothing more than sugar. Even though DeVries has been selling his handcrafted bars and cocoa nibs for less than two years, food bible Saveur magazine last month anointed DeVries Chocolates No.7 on its list of 100 best things about 2008.

DeVries, who worked in glass for 20 years before his conversion to self-taught chocolate artisan, hasn't let the publicity go to his head.

"Chopped liver was number four. I was behind chopped liver!" he says with a merry chortle.

Even with the publicity pop, DeVries is staying small for now so he can stay true to his motto of "One Hundred Years Behind the Times."

His chocolates, which sell for $7.35 for two 1.15 ounce bars, are available only on the DeVries Web site and at four places in Denver: Apothecary Tinctura, Dietrich's Chocolates & Expresso, the Tattered Cover Book Store and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

DeVries recently sat down with Rocky Mountain News reporter Joyzelle Davis to discuss, among other things, why shoppers won't see his bars at their neighborhood supermarket anytime soon.

How has life changed since the Saveur piece?

I can't even tell you how many people have contacted me because of Saveur - wanting me to wholesale. It's just this assumption that, 'You're a chocolate company. Let's set up a wholesale account.' Well, I don't wholesale at this point, except for a few local stores.

When you wholesale, you have to do at least three times the volume to gross the same revenue. And that's assuming that everything else stays the same, which it doesn't. So you're looking to source three or four times the amount of beans, and, right now, you cannot.

Because of the size of the plantations that I'm working with, I just can't upscale it.

That means that you'd have to lower your quality.

If I lowered my standards and went into wholesale, I could make more money. But that's not my long-term strategy.

You not only make small amounts, but you then age it for six months on the shelf. Why?

Each of the beans has its own thing. Before it's aged, it's like a Beaujolais Noveau. The idea is that once the beans come out of the conch, most factories would cook out the acids because they want the beans to be ready to eat immediately. I'm experimenting with leaving some of the acids in and thinking of the aging as part of the process. I'm trying to see what the possibilities are.

Until recently, when someone put chocolate in their mouths, there was no discussion of the subtleties of flavor. It was either dark chocolate or milk chocolate. It would be like walking into a wine story and having them ask, "What kind of wine do you want: white or red?"

So why is your chocolate different from, say, a Ghiradelli or a Lindt bar that claims to be 80 percent cocoa?

The big factories make 100 tons a day and, because of that, they have similar processes. While every factory has its signature, they're going to be similar chocolates.

There will be smaller differences, but not like the differences you'll see in wine where the vines are coaxed out of the ground in a specific place where people have been working them for millennia, and they're pruned and picked at just the right hour.

Most people will eat just a corner of my bars. I knew a woman who said she was a chocoholic and could eat two Hershey's bars no problem, but she said with this she was satisfied with just half a bar. We use seven times the amount of cocoa beans. People who eat Hershey's bars are more sugar freaks than chocolate freaks.

Why do you put so much energy into the roasting and the sourcing beans?

The sourcing is 85 to 90 percent of the potential of the beans. That's why six or seven years ago at the Fancy Food Show, there were 58 companies selling chocolate and 55, 56 of them were about how fancy the box or presentation was. The differences were minor because they all came from large factories. Things are changing but not as fast as some publicity would have you believe.

Chocolate is food. But until it gets almost to the factory, it doesn't get treated like food. Because of the quantities involved, there just hasn't been the care. The factories got so large that the artisanal part died off a 100 years ago. To survive, you had to get big.

One of the things that attracted me to chocolate is it's a flavor food that wasn't being taken care of the entire way. It's kind of a puzzle: How can people be making chocolate and not even, in general, be talking to the people who grew it? Until recently there was very little contact with the producers and the growers.

I'm still learning incredible amounts of stuff. Manufacturing is a small part of what you're going to get as flavor. It's an agricultural product. People recognize that with grapes. If you don't have the bean base as good as possible, you can't get the best out of it, no matter how good you are.

davisj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2514

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