Sourcing beans from Brazil, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, Harper Macaw has been making bean-to-bar chocolate in Washington, DC since 2015. Named for the harpy eagle and strikingly blue hyacinth macaw, two at-risk birds found in Brazil’s rainforests, the company's new cafe in Georgetown lures passersby with the scent of chocolate made on site (or, at least it does when we aren't in the thick of a pandemic). EatOrToss’s Rachael Jackson checked in with the small business about the impact of coronavirus and asked Harper Macaw co-owner and chocolate maker Matt Dixon how the company keeps things low-waste and sustainable.
RJ: What does “bean to bar” mean?
MD: "Bean to bar" means that we make our chocolate starting with fermented and dried cacao beans from the farm, and end up with bars of wonderful chocolate at the end. I like to say we're also bean to baked good, and bean to bonbon too!
RJ: What happens to the beans once they arrive at your DC factories?
MD: Once sorted, the beans are roasted. After they cool, they go through cracking and winnowing which removes the shells and leaves us with nibs. We then put them in our stone grinders to be ground into smooth chocolate. We'll also add sugar and milk, if it's milk chocolate, and once it's smooth we mold it into bars or use it in our other various treats.
RJ: Once you’ve extracted the cocoa nibs from the beans, what do you do with the beans’ shells?
MD: We take a good portion of them and use them in our cafe to make cacao tea. We also sell bags of them for making cacao tea at home. The second thing we do is donate them to local farms or composting companies to turn into really rich and healthy compost.
RJ: What does that tea taste like?
MD: The tea is lightly sweet, delicately chocolate-flavored; not intense like drinking chocolate. Its aroma is freshly roasted chocolate and it's slightly earthy. It's a really light and comforting experience.
RJ: It sounds great! Just to play devil’s advocate, if you imported only the nibs and not the whole beans, might that mean less shipping weight and a lower carbon footprint?
MD: The truth is that the beans have to be roasted and winnowed before making it to the nib stage, so either they'll be shipped here as beans and converted by another company then brought to us which would actually be more transporting, or converted at the origin which could be a labor/payment issue for the farmers if they even have the equipment and local infrastructure to do it. This also doesn't give us one of our best points of control for developing the flavor of our chocolate, which is roasting.
RJ: What about the big colorful cacao pods [pictured at right] that the beans come from? What normally happens to them?
MD: At the farms, the pods are typically used as a compost. They're dumped around the base of the trees that they came of off and left to reinvigorate the soil.
RJ: Recently, a few food companies have started looking to the other parts of the cacao pod. Do you see any future Harper Macaw products using more of the pod?
MD: Yes, I've seen some interesting products coming out. The flesh of the pod isn't very tasty, and it's very tough. The pulp is very delicious and sweet, and a major part of the fermentation process of the beans for chocolate making. We have been looking into sourcing that pulp, and using it to make a variety of fun things in our cafe, but we need to make sure we can do it in a way that doesn't interrupt the fermentation that is so important in making chocolate or take income sources away from the farmers, via reduction of high-quality bean production.
[Note: In the image at the top of this piece, Matt is holding up beans freshly pulled from the cacao pod, still encased in their pulp]
RJ: Would a product made from other parts of the pod taste like chocolate?
MD: They actually won't! Even the pulp and beans right out of the pod don't taste much like chocolate until after the fermenting and drying process. The pulp tastes like an intense tropical smoothie and the beans taste like bitter dirt; they're not pleasant.
RJ: Other chocolate makers have struggled to ensure that their products aren’t contributing to deforestation or child labor struggles, particularly in Africa. How do you handle these challenges?
MD: We visit all of our farms and stay away from large growing regions in Africa that have those issues, we follow the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute guidelines for this as well, and try to keep ourselves educated on changing trends and needs of the farmers and socio-economic conditions. We try to work with farms that have additional reforestation missions and ensure that they're practicing sustainable agroforestry.
Harper Macaw co-owner Samuel Carvalho makes bite-sized chocolate squares for sampling and use in the company's bakery.
RJ: Speaking of challenges, coronavirus has hit small businesses hard. How are you guys holding up?
MD: We're doing the best we can given the situation, thank you for asking. Like most small businesses and especially service industry businesses we are indeed being hit very hard. We've had to close our doors to all customer service and send our baristas and kitchen employees home. We're applying for every grant, loan, and insurance claim we can so that we can remain stable and pay our staff. We're hoping this won't last very long but there is a very real chance our business won't survive this. It's an amazing time to be alive, and a wild time to be a small business owner. All we can do is take it day by day and see what happens next.
RJ: Ugh. We're pulling for you. Since we all need ideas on how to relax and destress these days, how about some chocolate inspiration. What’s your favorite way to eat chocolate?
MD: This is a hard one. I love eating chocolate in so many different ways. If I had to take only one with me to a desert island I think I would pick eating it on lightly toasted crusty bread with oil and sea salt. Now I'm hungry thinking about that.
RJ: Yum! On the flip side, after years of literally working in a chocolate factory, have you ever (the horror!) gotten tired of chocolate?
MD: Haha, I actually haven't. It's really only made me more excited about chocolate and curious about new techniques and flavor possibilities. I will say it's maybe made me a bit of snob. I think I'm a tougher critic of chocolate these days, including the chocolate we make!
While Harper Macaw has closed its doors to the public amid the current pandemic, look for the company's chocolate online.
This interview was conducted over email and has been edited and condensed. Photos courtesy of Harper Macaw.