Founded in 2014, LetterPress Chocolate is the first bean to bar chocolate company in the city of Los Angeles. They source the best cacao in the world and carefully sort, roast, proof, crack, winnow, grind, age, temper, mould, and wrap every bar. Their dedication to the craft of chocolate making means that they work in small batches and work directly with farmers and co-ops around the world.
LetterPress grinds beans in stone melangeurs for at least 48 hours before pouring into storage to age for at least a month. They pay premium prices for their cacao, working with sustainable agroforestry and biodiverse ecosystems so that we can have a brighter future. In many cases, the farms and co-ops they work with are Organic certified. LetterPress unrefined cane sugar is always Organic certified. They do not use soy, wheat, or dairy and all their bars are vegan friendly.
FOR THE LOVE OF SUSTAINABLE CHOCOLATE
LetterPress doesn't love how most chocolate tastes the same – artificial, full of sugar and vanillin. They want you to experience the subtle differences in each region LetterPress works with, like coffee or wine. To that end, they source and roast cacao beans that are truly exceptional – not only in flavor, but featuring a truly ethical, sustainable supply chain. They travel to meet farmers in person at the source – Peru, Guatemala, Belize, Dominican Republic, and beyond. They're always looking for new ways to help farmers and small co-ops out, and with them, you can help too! They pay a premium to the farmers to encourage them to keep growing fantastic, lower-yielding and delicate cacao, rather than tearing out and planting bulk over-productive commodity cacao or other crops. Cacao is the future. And LetterPress will help build it. They’ve begun the process of selecting farms they truly believe in – not just buying cacao, but actually investing with them and taking an active role in cultivation. Sending equipment and expertise on site, their goal is to make the best chocolate in the world, in a fully sustainable and transparent way.
LetterPress loves the handcrafted feel of letterpress printing and are docents at the Internatonal Printing Museum in Carson, CA – the largest print museum in the world. They've been very fortunate to train under veteran graphic designers and letterpress printers since they started volunteering there. They found that chocolate making and letterpress printing are their two passions that can work together in similar ways. Hence the name.
BEAN TO BAR
What is Bean to Bar Chocolate? You may have heard of the terms Bean to Bar, Craft Chocolate, Artisan Chocolate, Small Batch Chocolate – but what do they mean? First, let’s separate out the terms Chocolatier and Chocolate Maker.
Chocolatiers purchase large blocks of chocolate made by other companies, melt them down until they’re liquid, then use the liquid chocolate to make confections – bonbons, truffles, ganaches, all sorts of yummy stuff. They are also known as Confectioners. The blocks they buy are sometimes known as Couverture. There are lots and lots of chocolatiers and confectioners out there. LetterPress has many friends who are Chocolatiers and Confectioners and it takes a lot of skill and dedication to be good at it. They do not consider what they do to be inferior in any way. It’s simply different.
Chocolate Makers are those like LetterPress who work with cacao beans – hence the phrase Bean to Bar. They purchase bags or even large shipping containers of cacao beans and bring them in from all over the world. They spend a lot of time with fermented, raw cacao beans (all chocolate in the world is made from fermented cacao beans). There may be some confusion with companies claiming to be bean to bar. When in doubt, ask to see the process. In order to be considered bean to bar, makers need to start with raw cacao beans, and those beans need to be roasted, cracked, winnowed (removing the shell), and ground into chocolate to be considered bean to bar. At LetterPress, they do all of these steps and more. There are no shortcuts. They do not buy nibs, nor do they buy liquor. Because they do this process on a very small scale, LetterPress can provide a level of quality that is impossible at the larger, industrial scale. Therefore, they cannot (and will not) compete on price. It is simply not realistic for them to charge $1 for a bar of chocolate.
BEAN TO BAR (CONTINUED)
Why isn’t Bean to Bar chocolate cheap like supermarket chocolate? It really boils down to two factors – quality and scale. To give you an idea, a typical supermarket milk chocolate bar contains around 12% cacao solids, 55% sugar, and 33% made up of other fillers, stabilizers, soy lecithin, or other ingredients. LetterPress 70% Dark bars are typically 70% cacao and 30% sugar. They use certified organic unrefined cane sugar which is vegan. Refined sugar (both cane and beet) that the large companies use are not vegan. The next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up a chocolate bar and look at the list of ingredients. One of the terms you may see is cocoa processed with alkali. Why is that? Most of the cocoa (or cacao – the terms slightly overlap) that these larger industrial makers source is of very, very poor quality. Not only does the cacao not taste very good, but it’s farmed in huge monoculture clear-cut projects that strip the soil of nutrients and are harvested by workers that are paid less than $1 a day and employ slave labor and child labor. LetterPress works with farms that are ethical, pay their farmers living wages, and grow fantastic, high-quality cacao. All of their farms are pesticide-free, and many are already certified organic or are in the process. It is very important to understand that many of these farms are very small and cannot afford certification, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars – they simply don’t have that kind of money, and frankly LetterPress would rather they spend the money feeding their families and maintaining their farms. Right now they're operating at a very, very small scale – most days they manage to temper just 50 chocolate bars from batches that are around 4kg. But each and every one is a labor of love.
What is the difference between good and bad cacao? Most of the world’s cacao is grown in the Ivory Coast of Africa and is usually a poor genetic clone called a Forastero. In Ecuador, Criollo and other premium trees are being torn out and replaced with a clonal variety called CCN-51. This variety is disease resistant, grows in direct sunlight, and produces an astounding number of pods for harvesting. However, the tradeoff is taste. This cacao tastes so bad, industrial makers have to neutralize the acidity by treating the beans with an alkali solution prior to processing. That is the cocoa processed with alkali mentioned earlier. The cacao LetterPress uses is of the highest possible quality, often only available in very small amounts. Large industrial companies simply wouldn’t have a use for it as it would cost them too much to try to extract and then blend with every other origin they work with to meet their quotas. To give one example, Hershey’s produces about a million pounds of chocolate per day. That brings down costs but also quality. There simply isn’t enough good cacao for them to bother. For comparison, one of LetterPress's favorite co-ops, La Red Guaconejo in the Dominican Republic, produces only about 48,000 pounds of cacao beans per year.
The difference between Fair Trade and Direct Trade? Fair Trade sounds nice on paper – a set minimum premium paid to farmers above commodity cacao price. However, this price has nothing to do with the quality or ethical background of the cacao. And from what LetterPress has found traveling into different countries, talking to farmers and their families, the model is flawed. Direct Trade is their preferred method of sourcing cacao. With this model they pay farmers a premium for the quality of their cacao, in addition to environmental aspects like growing their trees in a sustainable agroforestry or permaculture system. LetterPress has invested in more than 20,000 cacao trees for a farming and forestry project in Guatemala, Izabal Agroforest - a shining example of a sustainable, profitable agroforestry system that pays their workers a great wage while supplying fantastic cacao.
David Menkes (Owner and chocolate maker)
David worked in the visual effects industry in Hollywood for over 18 years. His passion for food and chocolate in particular culminated in a visit to a cocoa plantation in St. Lucia in 2011. In 2012, David and Corey started Little Brown Squares, a chocolate blog dedicated to bean to bar makers. After being sent to the Northwest Chocolate Festival on behalf of Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine, they quickly realized there were no makers in Los Angeles and decided to change that.
Corey Menkes (Co-Owner and CFO)
Corey has worked in finance for over 5 years and has a degree in Ecology. Those two fields were perfectly suited to the other half of LetterPress’ operations. Corey’s passion is researching bats around the world (and spent time in Costa Rica doing just that in Monteverde) and wild dogs of Africa. In addition to managing the finances of LetterPress Chocolate, Corey is also well-versed in every aspect of chocolate making.
In March of 2014, David bought a small bag of cacao beans and roasted them in his toaster oven, hand-peeled the beans, and hand-ground them using a mortar and pestle. The resulting chocolate was terrible, but David was determined to continue. Eventually, the couple would acquire small tabletop melangers which could grind the beans for days at a time. Eventually, their landlord asked them to move the operation out of their apartment, and they moved into a shared commercial kitchen in West LA. There, they grew their tiny operation to a small factory, producing roughly 2,500 bars per month. They are currently looking to expand, purchase larger equipment and move into a larger dedicated space, and make decisions on financing.