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Family-owned Pinellas Chocolate Company makes chocolate from scratch in Largo

LARGO

Pulverized composite, aerohydraulic cylinder, stirred ball mill. These are not terms we think of when we're standing in the candy aisle, staring down a line of heart-shaped boxes full of chocolate.

And yet here is Addam Vessa, 36, standing in the Largo kitchen and retail shop he runs with his brother, Cody, 29. He's walking me through the process of turning cacao beans into chocolate bars.

Addam and Cody, along with their dad John and stepmother Kim, are behind Pinellas Chocolate Company, a small-batch chocolate producer that began in early 2016 amid a boom of local, artisanal food entrepreneurship in Tampa Bay.

Today they're making their 62 percent cacao chocolate bar flavored with dried datil peppers, one of seven dark chocolate varieties they craft from scratch in this facility off Bryan Dairy Road.

The first step: roasting raw cacao beans. We don hair nets, and Addam walks me to a convection oven in the back of the large commercial kitchen that forms the bulk of the shop, where about 30 pounds of brown beans are being twirled around by a mechanical arm. Each part of the process is denoted by a sign hanging over various equipment, with simplistic icons that convey what's happening at each station; these come in handy when Addam and Cody conduct tours of the facility.

"It helps our cause if people can see how we do it, and teach them that chocolate comes from actual beans," he says. "If often surprises people how many steps it takes to make chocolate."

As the beans spin in the oven, a faint heat emitting from the machine, Addam explains that roasting beans is crucial for developing that chocolate flavor. When he discusses the chocolatemaking process, it all sounds very technical: He points out the pulverized remnants left behind, describes the three-stage mill that is used in Step 3, refers to filling chocolate molds as "dosing the cavities."

After the roasting, we follow the beans to the second station, a machine called a winnower that removes an outer husk to free the tiny cacao nib inside. After that, the chocolate is ground into a more fluid form, then refined and tempered to create the shiny, snappy chocolate bars we buy on Valentine's Day.

I ask Addam, who is in charge of the front-of-the-house while Cody heads the work in the kitchen, if he has a background in science or engineering, something that would make him so comfortable with words like "process impact mill" and machines like a winnower.

No, he says. That comes from years of watching his parents run a chocolatemaking equipment business.

"My folks came from the confection industry," he says. "Our father was doing mechanical engineering for candymaking lines, and our stepmom was involved in flavor development and plant management. They have a lot of expertise from their days in the industry that (Cody and I) draw from to this day."

In 2005, John and Kim relocated the candymaking equipment company they had started in Cincinnati to Largo; around 2007, they began specializing in chocolatemaking machines. The brothers came down in 2011, Cody getting involved in welding and assembly while Addam was on sales and marketing.

Soon, they were making chocolate on a regular basis for equipment demonstrations, showing interested buyers how to make the product in a test kitchen and then giving it away to family and friends. In 2014, the pair decided they wanted to focus on the product itself, "chocolate as the end goal," as Addam says. He and Cody got their test kitchen certified as a commercial kitchen and began to tinker.

"It was through the equipment business that we connected with some artisanal craft producers," Addam says. "We were getting input about how someone from a large chocolate company would make chocolate, and we'd also hear from small-scale companies. We picked up knowledge from both sides of the spectrum."

The craft beer scene in Tampa Bay was picking up, and consumers were becoming more locally minded. It was an ideal time to start a small-batch food company.

In 2016, they officially separated from the equipment business and built awareness through indie markets in St. Petersburg and Tampa, plus popups and collaborations with breweries. They sell some of their nibs for commercial and home brewing, partnering with local brewers who use them in the fermenting or barrel-age process.

"The craft beer audience is a good audience for specialty products," Addam says. "It's easy for them to go, 'I know about local beer, what other category of specialty food is out there?' "

Addam admits that his current job did not evolve from some sort of "calling to produce chocolate." Instead, he and his brother soaked up knowledge from their parents' equipment business and applied it to a business model that has worked for many food producers in Tampa Bay. Currently, they say, they're the only ones in the area applying this local, small-batch method to chocolate.

As a new business, Addam and Cody are constantly exploring different opportunities and recipes that will allow them to grow. Addam says the goal is to be making more chocolate on a regular basis, to have the facility refining up to 125 pounds of chocolate daily.

For Valentine's Day weekend, their chocolates will be paired with brews at Pair O' Dice Brewery and Mastry's Brewing Company. They're also testing a new product, a candy that would combine their own chocolate with caramel from Arkane Aleworks (made by reducing the wort from one of the brewery's sour beers).

It moves them more into the realm of chocolatiers, as opposed to chocolatemakers, which Addam describes as the difference between a coffee roaster who perfects the base product and a barista who crafts the drinks. More artistic, less technical. A new challenge for the brothers who got their start selling machines.

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.

.IF YOU GO

Pinellas Chocolate Company

10550 72nd St. N,

No. 504, Largo;

(727) 914-9866

The Pinellas Chocolate Company's seven flavors — 62 percent cacao Orange, Salted Lime, Cinnamon, Peppermint, Datil Pepper and two

80 percent cacao bars — are sold as 2.2-ounce bars at dozens of retail locations from St. Petersburg to Tampa to Lakeland and beyond. (At the Largo shop, it's $8 for one bar, $14 for two and $20 for three.) See pinellaschocolate.com for more.

What goes into it?

The percentage on a bar of chocolate refers to the percentage of the recipe that is pure cacao nibs, as opposed to additives like sugar. Pinellas Chocolate Company sells 62 or 80 percent bars.

Dairy is not necessarily needed to make chocolate, especially dark chocolate. The Pinellas Chocolate Company's products are entirely vegan.

Cocoa butter is an important part of the chocolatemaking process. It involves pressurizing chocolate liquor until all of the fat is extracted. The fat is the cocoa butter; the hardened brown "press cake" that is left behind can be crushed to make cocoa powder.

What's the process?

The small-batch chocolatemaking process has seven distinct steps. On a recent production day, the folks at Pinellas Chocolate Company walked us through their method, which begins with raw beans and ends with wrapped chocolate bars.

Roasting The Vessa brothers get their cacao beans from various producers in Honduras, Venezuela and West Africa. The first stop for these beans, which resemble almonds in their original state, is the roaster, a convection-style oven that cooks at a low temperature over a period of about 45 minutes to an hour. Roasting helps develop the chocolate flavor and get rid of contamination and other potential food safety issues.

Winnowing After the beans are roasted, they head to a winnower, a machine that looks like a series of funnels and is used to remove the fibrous outer husk of the bean to reveal the cacao nib inside. The beans are crushed in the funnels, which separate the husk from the nib and then send both parts to a set of vibrating screens that further separates them. A vacuum is used to remove the shells, and the nibs go into a large stainless steel pot. (The fragments are scraps that the Vessas have previously sold to vendors for use as exfoliates in soap or in candles for the scent.) Most of a cacao bean's mass is lost in this process; Addam says a nib makes up about a quarter of a bean's original weight.

Grinding Next, it's off to the impact mill, where the cacao nibs get ground into a pastelike substance. It looks like when you start to melt chocolate on the stove, and it's not quite done yet: grainy, thick and distinctly chocolatey. As the nibs are ground, they release fat and become more fluid, turning into what the chocolatemakers call cocoa liquor.

Refining The cocoa liquor is then placed in a stirred ball mill, which uses dozens of small hard chrome balls to transform the grainy mass into a smooth texture. This is also where any added ingredients, like cocoa butter and sugar, are mixed with the chocolate.

Sifting At this point, the chocolate is in a fluid, liquidy form, but before it goes to the final stages of production, it is passed through a fine screen. This removes any unrefined particles that may be lingering and creates that smooth "mouthfeel" of a chocolate bar.

Tempering This is a key step in the chocolatemaking process. It's what gives a piece of chocolate its shine and that firm snap. Tempering involves cooling the chocolate in a controlled manner, which encourages the fat cells in the cocoa to crystallize. This also allows the chocolate to melt evenly.

Molding After being tempered, the chocolate is hand-pumped into molds, then placed into a refrigerator that cools the molds to about 60 degrees. After about a half-hour in the fridge, the chocolate is gently taken out of the molds, like you would remove ice from an ice cube tray. Then the bars are sent onto a conveyor-belt machine that wraps them.

Family-owned Pinellas Chocolate Company makes chocolate from scratch in Largo 02/06/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 7, 2017 10:34am]
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