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craft chocolate, husk compost,
and fermented flavors:

an interview with julia street

recorded april 2022

Elisa:  What is fermentation?

Julia: Fermentation… I like to simplify it a bit. I taught some vegetable fermentation classes previously during the pandemic as well. I would explain it as a chemical change to food caused by bacteria and yeast or fungi.

It often does the cooking of the foods for you in liquids instead of heat. It's the most natural form of cooking that there is, and I really like it for its benefits. It makes foods more digestible, it makes nutrients more bioavailable and preserves the food… it was such a good pandemic skill. All the people who went in and raided the grocery stores and you could then preserve your food. It adds flavor. And that's where I take advantage of it, through the flavor transformation in chocolate.

Many of the foods we eat, we eat because of the flavor transformation that happens during fermentation. But you know, it's all around us. It's rot in your fridge– that’s a form of fermentation too. And so now I have a new approach. And people always ask me, “Can I eat this?” and I always say “I don’t know, how comfortable are you?” I've gotten a lot more used to scraping mold off of foods. And I mean, it's also so interesting to wonder how anyone ever discovered moldy tofu or stinky tofu? Would you eat this?

E: Totally. So you a background in lactic acid fermentation before moving into chocolate?

J: Yeah

E: What was that transition like?

J: I've always been really into food and food projects and sour flavor in particular I love. I WWOOFed (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms)
in France for a month, and I'd say that's where it really kinda opened up my eyes.

We did everything from making bread to sauerkraut, cider, and cheese. It was a really amazing experience. When I came back my cooking had changed into thinking about how to build out my pantry and my larder. Cause a lot of your basics are flavor enhancers that come from fermentation. 

I'd say it started with vegetable ferments which are really easy with the Lactobacillus fermentation to get started and just expanded more and more.

I got into chocolate because I love craft chocolate, and it was becoming more and more accessible (and taking a toll on my wallet!). I had conquered a lot of big at home projects (whether in fermenting or multi-day cooking projects) and decided I wanted to try making small batch bean-to-bar chocolate at home. And it was really satisfying.

I know that the beans are fermented, which is sad to me because that’s  the one thing I can’t do. It’s funny that I'm working with a fermented food, but I can’t ferment the chocolate itself.

I mean, I could bring in some cacao pods and harvest the beans and try it here, but your ferment is only as good as what you start with. And so I think the cacao farms know what they're doing, but I'm definitely interested, and hope one day to go witness and see some of it happening instead of just looking at pictures.

E: Totally! I just want to take a kind of a quick step back and  talk a little bit more about how you actually transitioned into chocolate. It’s a very different process from buying cabbage at the supermarket and starting a little sauerkraut company. I'm sure there was a lot of thought put into how to even get started working with chocolate.

J: I've always loved chocolate and after I graduated college I actually went and worked at an Eco-Lodge in Venezuela and it was in a very beautiful part, right outside of a forest. And I was like, “Where's the chocolate?” to my friends there, but all that was available was crap. And it was really depressing. I saw some cacao trees, but couldn't taste it because it was all being exported.

“I saw some cacao trees, but couldn't taste it because it was all being exported.”

And I think that's another interesting thing happening in the chocolate world right now, too, which is more chocolate being made at origin, which I think is so important and really cool. It’s called tree-to-bar and seeing that happen is exciting. Actually Chocolate Alchemy, I just saw, has beans that come from the region that I was in Venezuela. So that was like a big part of my journey.

When I came back or, I don't know, maybe it was a few years later when Dandelion Chocolate was first getting started, I saw that they also had beans from this region. So seeing that, it was mixed emotions. It was really cool to be able to try chocolate from this region but also sad that it’s not available to the locals.

When I started to make chocolate, there was a lot of thought. I had started reading some books and then I started considering it. I messed around with cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and sugar. And I was just like, “Wait a second, this isn't the same, like this isn't good.”

I wasn't aware about tempering back then, so the mouthfeel and everything was just all off. So it started there and I started seeing there were courses available, but I mainly just had some books.

But then I did have a coworker at the time who used to work at Dandelion Chocolate, and she said something like, “Oh yeah, chocolate making is pretty easy. You'd be fine.” I was considering getting a tabletop melanger. I think chocolate in theory is not that hard, but it gave me the confidence to say “Let’s do it!”

It definitely has been a big learning curve. I don’t think it’s necessarily easy. There are a lot of steps to get to something that you can sell and it takes a lot of refining. So I guess just me starting and getting this small tabletop refiner which is behind me now [points to melanger behind].

I started making chocolate at home on a small-scale. There are all these sites now where they sell beans in two pound bags. There's this website called Chocolate Alchemy, which is where I got my beans, and now I source them through Meridian, but they both sell small bags where you can buy two pounds at a time. So it was a great way to get started. And that's one of the reasons why there are so many at home craft chocolate experimenters now because it’s accessible.

E: How many bars can you get from two pounds?

J: It depends. If you do a dark chocolate which is 70 percent-ish you could get probably like 10-15, if you're lucky. Maybe not even.  It depends on your mold size… every step of the way you lose chocolate. You start with the whole bean in the husk, you winnow and lose the husk. As part of that process, you lose some nibs. So what started as two pounds, maybe you're lucky if you get 80% of that, but it's more like 70 to 80 on that way.

So once you get a shipment of beans, what actually happens? They're already fermented but dried and unroasted?

J: Yeah. So once I get beans I figure out what I'm going to do with them. Sometimes I just order beans because I want to try a new origin, but I also have a few chocolate bar staples that I do. So right now I'm making a caramelized koji mylk bar. I look at my recipe and scale it up to whatever scale I am going to be doing. I have a slightly larger machine now and I'm  trying to scale up my recipes a little bit, which is exciting. With the koji bar, I'll need to have my caramelized koji rice and all the ingredients ready. I can be caramelizing my koji rice but also roasting my beans at the same time, because I can only do two pounds at a time in my tabletop roaster. I would say that is a big bottleneck right now for me. And then I crack the beans so that it's easy to separate the husks from the nibs. Then I winnow them. The guy from Chocolate Alchemy invented this winnow where you just put a shop vac on and it blows the air at them to separate the husks from the nibs. You have a bucket that collects the husks and then a bowl of your output of mostly nibs. Before I used to do it outside with the blow dryer. So there are easy ways to do it when you’re just getting started. You know, one hand with the blow dryer, one hand lifting up the beans and husks so that the husks float away. But with that method you definitely lose more waste.

Do you do anything with the husks?

J: I’ve been putting them in the garden as a ground cover, but some people make tea out of them which is nice. I know some people sell it as tea. I've been working through it in my garden and then I'll start offering it up on Next Door, because it's a really beautiful garden cover.

Once I have my nibs, I can get them into the melanger to refine. And the melanger is a stone ground machine. It's got two stone wheels and a stone base. It’s actually an Indian, wet grinder and their original use is for making dosas and idli. You can use it to make nut butters and other things as well. But you have to be careful, you can't put them in too big or else the machine will jam. Some people add a fair amount of cocoa butter which makes it easier. I mean, the cocoa butter will naturally come out of the beans once you start refining. And you do need a certain amount of cocoa butter fat in order to temper your bars. The fat content from the cocoa butter is important. And there is some science to it, but these are things I look up before I'm going from bean to bar. You have to have a certain percent fat or it might be too soft or it won't work. I don't like to add a lot of cocoa butter to my bars, it can add a waxy taste. I try to add minimal amounts. So instead how I get the beans into my melanger is using a masticating juicer. I have a Champion Juicer and I put them through there and it basically turns them into liquid cacao. And then from there It's like a sludge and it's really easy to get them into the machine.

I let it refine, and after 12 or 24 hours, I add sugar. With the koji mylk, since it's a mylk chocolate, I add all the ingredients at once. I add the cocoa beans, I do the nibs, the cocoa butter, cane sugar, and caramelized koji which has been blended down to a flour. I like to add it all at the beginning and then let it refine together. So depending if I'm mixing it with an inclusion, I may add it at the beginning, otherwise I may add it later. But if I'm doing just like a single origin bar, it’s just literally the nibs and then sugar. And then when I temper, I add a little bit of cocoa butter silk too, so it makes it a lot easier.

Very cool.

J: And then I’ll let it refine for 36 to 48 hours, depending what it is… and then I temper.

E: Oh, wow! That’s a long time. 

J: Yeah, it takes a long time. Part of the reason is that our mouths can feel particles of sand, we can taste really fine particles. You'll also let it refine or it stays in the melanger to breathe (conche), so the flavor can change with the air as well.

E: What steps in this process are the most important when it comes to flavor? How much control do you actually have on the final flavor of the bar?

J: Great question. I would say, and again, you know, I have a bias towards fermentation, but I'd say that probably over half of it comes from the growing and the fermentation stage. And the fermentation also affects the ease of the husks separating from the nibs. If they’re stuck on there, it can be very difficult to work with and will muddy the flavor.

I would say fermentation is when you develop a lot of the flavor, but then you can really unlock the flavor during the roasting process. The heat helps bring out the aromatic volatile compounds when you heat it. So there's a whole art to it as well. Roasting coffee is much different.  You get coffee much hotter, but with cacao beans, you would scorch them if you got them too hot.

“Fermentation is when you develop a lot of the flavor, but then you can really unlock the flavor during the roasting process.”

It makes the process more similar to wine making. You're playing the terroir and seeing what flavors you can bring out. So there's the roasting, I would say is the second most important. And then of course the sugars or the inclusions, all of that can also affect the flavor. Oh, and letting it conche longer can change the flavors too.

But if you start with a bad bean or you burn your beans you can't always mask that. And that's why industrial chocolate is masked with lots of cocoa butter, fillers, and sugar.

“I think it's really interesting to see where the fermentation takes the flavor naturally. As a small craftsperson, things may vary from batch to batch because I'm small, and these bars are made by hand. I don’t have the controls you find at larger manufacturers.”

E: When you get a new batch of beans, what is your thought process in first understanding what flavor profile this batch is going to have? Assuming there's also a lot of variability between batches just based on origin and fermentation. And then how do you think about developing a flavor?

J: It can be a lot of work because for me as a maker, at this point the fermentation has been done. Let's say it's a new harvest year of a lot that I've been used to working with. I would probably start with the same roast that I had been doing, trying to follow that roast profile. I may do a few different changes, but then you basically have to make the whole bar and do the whole process of roasting to the finished product, and then you can taste and find the nuances between the different batches to see which profile you want to hit.

As a small maker, it can be challenging to do so many test batches, or even to replicate it from batch to batch. And I think that’s one of the things I love about fermentation… I'm really into wild fermentation and I love the natural wine movement, where you kind of leave things to their own.

I think it's really interesting to see where the fermentation takes the flavor naturally. As a small craftsperson, things may vary from batch to batch because I'm small, and these bars are made by hand. I don’t have the controls you find at larger manufacturers.

And I think that's what some people say about beer brewing, cheese making, wine making, that when they become big it's a lot of sanitation, it's a lot of control. You're controlling the environment, and that's what so much of industrial fermentation is, it’s controlling these environments. But as a small chocolate maker, even though I'm not controlling the fermentation part I still believe there are natural changes. The koji is another variable that I am controlling. It can vary slightly, probably from batch to batch. Some make it taste a little sweeter, some less so. 

What I love about your chocolate is that you do incorporate these other ferments. How did that come about?

J:  You know, during the pandemic was when a lot of people were pivoting and chocolate and fermented foods were both things I love. Can I put them together? I also did a stage with a chocolate maker and probably the best question he asked, and this was before I was even sure if this is what I want to do, he was like, “What's your angle?”

And I was like, “Oh, I guess, yeah. I kind of need an angle if I'm going to be another craft chocolate maker.” There's so many two ingredients or bean-to-bar… And so starting out I was such a purist, I wanted to know the beans and taste the beans and the origins, but then I was like, oh, what about adding other things in interesting flavors and textures.

I kinda looked around my pantry. What do I have? Chocolate is also really finicky. You can't really add liquid. Like water and chocolate will cause the chocolate to seize.  A lot of the things I deal with can be a little difficult or challenging and I have to dehydrate them. Or with salt, it attracts water and pulls it out of the air. I'm definitely working with some challenging ingredients that may cause problems further down the line if someone doesn't store chocolate properly. 
Have you heard of amazake?

E: Yeah, it’s a Japanese fermented rice drink that’s sweet.

J: So that was the first idea: I could use amazake as my sweetener instead of sugar. That would be so cool. And so I tried to dehydrate amazake, and I tried several times lowering the temperature and extending the time and more. But when you dehydrate the amazake it turns into a taffy, so I ended up using it on the back of the bar. It wouldn't be something that I could grind, it would just be too tacky and sticky.

Koji actually, because of the sweetness that you can bring out in koji can provide some challenges. And so I've been working with the koji mylk long enough now where I think I've gotten the process down well, but after the amazake failed, I thought about doing a koji mylk chocolate.

And then I'd also had a cacao nib miso around and other misos.  Then I was like “Fermentation is more than just koji” and…there is sourdough bread as well. It's a big one, you know, people love a crunch and I’d done a lot of baking and also taught sourdough classes before.

So I was just trying to expand that. I have one bar with preserved lemons in it as well.  There can be lots of steps to it where I ferment the thing that I had to dehydrate or figure out the form that I can get it into the bar. Cause things can happen after the fact too. I did a bar with some really beautiful olives that I made last year and I tried them in a bar. And afterwards the oil seeped out, you know, like you have like a little oil mark on the back side of the chocolate.

And I was like, oh, interesting. I've been wanting to come back to it. Maybe if I dehydrated them a little bit first, but I liked the chewy aspect of the olive. So just another thing I want to play around with or figure out. 

You have to do all kinds of experiments. Some take more work. Below me here, I have a shelf of fun pantry things. For another bar I’m making, this is ground up lees from making shoyu, so that'll go into a bar as well. I usually am working on restocking a lot of these things, because a lot of these ferments can take time. And then food waste is a big thing, and upcycling food. So some of these are byproducts of food. Instead of me making a sourdough loaf for batch chocolate, I've now partnered with a local bakery and she has day old extra sourdough bread that I can now use. This is great. It saves me some time, and we're rescuing the food and it's getting a second life. It's been fun to do more partnerships like that. I also worked with a local brewery and used some of their spent grain. Seeing the amount of spent grain that they have and what I'm rescuing feels like a joke now, but I’m working up and each time I rescue more and more of it. 

E: When it comes to chocolate and sustainability, it's not necessarily seen as a very sustainable food product. There are labor issues, environmental impacts… What are your thoughts around cacao and sustainability?

There are all these new companies popping up that are either using cellular agriculture or fermentation to produce the same cacao flavor without cacao. What is the role of a small-scale chocolate maker and how do you see the role of industrial chocolate production in all of this?

J: I mean industrial chocolate makers are the problem with sustainability and the poor labor practices. They  keep getting called out for it and hiding or making up their own certifications to make things look good. I think as a small craft chocolate maker,  the more craft chocolate makers there are, the more we can influence the industry and have better outcomes. There is more change if there's more of us, with more buying power we're already starting to see movement. Sourcing has been made easy with these intermediaries who do direct trade where they partner directly with farmers and pay them living wages and make sure there are good labor practices.

Sustainability is also just as important, right? There's been so much deforestation for cacao growing or monocropping, which isn't good. And so I've been seeing more and more farms who are planting with other things to help and also doing forest conservation or offsetting.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done and can be done. And I think it's a hard question really, for us all, but I think it's so important and really important to raise that awareness. When you buy cheap chocolate, even if someone promises you that it's ethical… it's kind of like the ‘organic’ label, what does it even mean anymore? ‘Ethical chocolate’ or ‘slave free’, what does it mean? People are making up their own labels, so if you're paying a certain price for something, you probably have to ask yourself, why is it so cheap?

“When you buy cheap chocolate, even if someone promises you that it's ethical… ‘Ethical chocolate’ or ‘slave free’, what does it mean? People are making up their own labels, so if you're paying a certain price for something, you probably have to ask yourself, why is it so cheap?”

There's some places like in Tanzania, where Kokoa Kamili partners with a bunch of nearby farms and then they take control of the fermentation, so they are a central fermentary. You're seeing these models more and more around in the world of the cacao belt. I think that's interesting and it allows them to invest in these farmers, their properties and take better care and eventually get bigger buyers.

I also think that with cellular agriculture and people making chocolate by ways of fermenting other things is super interesting. I would love to see them replace the big chocolate companies. 

I would love that to take over to help get rid of the child labor and all the problems with the industry. I think that could be a really good answer to it. It's funny because I've never been into these replacement foods like Impossible Burger, but I recently saw a talk with David Zilber, and he was talking about how he’s working for a lab where they're developing flavors and textures of our favorite foods. It's like the new GMO, but also not, because it's fermentation, it just seems like a better solution. I'm such a believer in fermentation. These can be good.

But because I am a craftsperson and I am a true believer in the terroir and in the wild fermentation, I think that there still will be a place for craft chocolate and smaller chocolate makers, but if you're big industry you're just creating something cheap and sweet.

And if it can get better from working with these labs, and you can take out all of the problems with chocolate… but who knows? These things usually start out pretty expensive…

E: I think you make a fair point that there is a clear difference between craftsmanship and then just like massive production of chocolate.  Sometimes people just want chocolate and then sometimes people want craft chocolate that comes with a story and an experience to the taste. And those are separate markets.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you faced while producing chocolate at home?

J: I would say scaling probably? And roasting. If something goes wrong with your roast… first of all, I'm limited because I can only do two pounds at a time. So that's a big bottleneck for me. I’ve been reaching out to some local small coffee roasters because buying a coffee roaster is prohibitively expensive, and the next size up is only six pounds. So if we're going from two to six pounds, it doesn't really seem worth it for how much they cost. But if there's a coffee maker I could partner with that could be interesting or it could be a nice symbiotic relationship.

So I'm trying to solve those sorts of challenges, with roasting and just scaling in general. Getting a second melanger has been really big because then I can stagger and start one batch one day as I finish another, it can kind of zigzag along. Packaging is also a huge pain and takes up a surprising amount of work and can also be a bottleneck if the labels aren’t ready on the sleeve! I just redesigned them but am already thinking of a new package to put my bars into… I think it will all be a constant evolution.  

E: It's a process.

J: The beauty is things will always happen. Things always break. Things will always not go as planned, and that’s just part of being a small business maker that I have to remind myself that some weeks are way worse than others.

I was feeling so good yesterday, I was on my third batch of roasting and I was like, “Oh, my roasts are going so well” And then things just started not working and I was like, “Okay, we'll call it quits after this. I'm not going to keep pushing.” Being a “solo-preneur”, if you will, I think sometimes people forget that you do everything, even the shipping. That’s me wrapping up the boxes. So sometimes it would be nice maybe to have a partner, because I maybe drive my husband crazy with every little detail that I consider. I need someone to balance things with.

E: What are the next few steps in J Street chocolate? Where are you seeing the company going? What next new flavor combinations are you thinking about?

J: There are so many things. I'm constantly thinking about all of them and how to stay on top of them. I want to do more. My current goal is to get into more retail stores. I've been in talks with a couple already but I'm making people wait because I’ve realized that I take a cut when I sell wholesale, but also with the coordination and the shipping and all of that, I didn't realize how long shipping takes. “Am I going to make it to the post office on time?” And now that summer is coming, it's heating up. I'm trying to be environmentally friendly, as with everything, and shipping causes more emissions.

All my shipping packaging is upcycled, so I include a little note because sometimes it may look a little frumpy or different from the last time. It's because I've been collecting packaging to reuse from ourselves and neighbors. We don't need more stuff.

So instead of that, maybe focusing some efforts on retail… that's the next immediate step. And then I feel like before you know it, I'll be gearing up for the holiday season. I launched late summer last year so I wasn't really sure what to expect and I couldn't really keep up with the holiday demand, but this time it'd be nice to see, “What could my potential be?” Through Valentine's day it just felt like it was nonstop. I don't also love leaning into the chocolate holidays but it is so important for business. Maybe one day a little storefront cafe thing would be fun.

Just kind of like a final question, if someone was interested in making chocolate or wanted to just learn more about producers that you think are really great, what are resources that they should look up?

M: Yeah. Chocolate Alchemy which I mentioned before is huge. Not only do they provide a huge array of beans you can choose from, but he has endless blog posts about how to make it. He has a whole video series from the bean to the bar. Dandelion chocolates cookbook, I think it's called “Making Chocolate” is pretty good, and I used that a lot as well.

If you're more serious and ready to take a course, Mackenzie Rivers from Map Chocolate has a new school called The Next Batch. I took her courses all online. I took it last fall because even though I'd been making chocolate for a few years it was all from what I've learned myself. And I had done a day-long stage with another chocolate maker up in Sonoma county where I learned so much just seeing and doing and being able to ask questions. So I took Mackenzie’s course and she covers everything from the origin, and she starts at the beginning and goes all the way through packaging. And I love that she keeps her course centered around small batch makers. I was already getting intimidated or overwhelmed by everyone else I talked to before, thinking “Oh my God, I'm going to have to scale up my equipment really quickly.”

Her approach is rather than scale up to bigger machines, she just gets more, she just gets more melangers. I realized that was the type of chocolate maker I want to be. I want to be able to make really fun chocolate. For some of that I’d have to stay small and just be able to do it myself.

For the most part I'm not saying I'm against it, you know, the business grows, I will definitely hire help, but I want to be small, I'm not looking to be the next Dandelion Chocolate or really big chocolate maker. I want to be a small craft chocolate maker that’s doing interesting things and playing with fermentation and upcycled foods and single origin.

There's also YouTube series called Craft Chocolate TV by Manoa chocolate. They're out of Hawaii, and they have endless videos. It’s a good place to start, he's got a video for everything.

And I’m always happy to answer questions.

E: Is there anything else you wanted to kind of talk about or wanted to make sure you put out there?

J: If you're paying, if you're buying like $3 chocolate, you should question it. Just to hammer that in.

“If you're buying $3 chocolate,
you should question it.”

E: And where can people find your chocolate?

J: My chocolate's available on my website right now. You can buy it directly there. And then I'm in a couple of places locally here in Bayview and Oakland, and am always doing pop-ups.

E: Cool, thanks so much for taking the time!

J: Yeah! Great, thank you.

Julia Street
is  the founder of JStreet Chocolate, a craft-chocolate company based in the Bay Area.  Julia crafts bean-to-bar chocolate with beans from around the world and pairs them with interesting fermented and upcycled flavors. Fermentation has always been a passion and when she had the lightbulb moment to combine the flavors with her other passion of making chocolate, she never looked back. It also led her to think about food waste as there's often by-products of foods when fermenting or making other foods (like beer, shoyu, nut milks) and how she could integrate those as well. She's a one-woman show doing everything from the bean sorting to marketing!

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