Rogue Chocolatier: Why You've Never Heard Of The Best Chocolate Maker In America
Megan Giller is on a journey to explore the real world of American craft chocolate with her digital project Chocolate Noise. 15 makers. 15 stories. 1 story per month. Her in-depth coverage goes beyond reviews and top 10 lists to capture the unique moments and personalities behind the bean-to-bar revolution. Subscribe to the series here.
Colin Gasko eats about two Snickers bars a month. “They taste fucking delicious,” he tells me, and I picture him taking a big bite of the candy bar.
That’s Colin in a nutshell (or, more accurately, cacao shell). Self-deprecating on the outside, ego-driven on the inside. The intellectual 29-year-old worries more about making meaning than money. But he’s not an artist, he’ll tell you; he’s a fanatic. The first time I ever talked to Colin, I thought we’d exchange pleasantries, maybe eventually get into the nitty-gritty of the business. Nope. Within seconds, he had launched into a conversation about whether or not art is constrained by consumption, about whether you can make something meaningful and sell it at the same time.
“I want to spend about a year making the perfect chocolate slab,” he said. “Then install it in a white room, where no one would ever be able to eat it.”
Artist Janine Antoni's "Lick and Lather" sculpture features a chocolate bust of the artist (as well as one of soap); photo courtesy Flickr user KellyTheDeluded
That may be his fantasy project, but in reality he spends his waking hours trying to make the most perfect-tasting chocolate possible, for people to eat and enjoy. And by many accounts, he succeeds. In 2008 Martha Stewart hosted Colin on Martha for a segment called “Making Chocolate With Colin Gasko,”
“Colin is probably the best chocolate maker in the country right now. He’s the future of American craft chocolate.”
So what makes his chocolate so special? “It’s hard to describe,” Cacao co-owner Aubrey Lindley explained, “because it’s not a story of excess. It’s a story of restraint.” The best chocolate, chocolate like Colin’s, doesn’t taste like anything else but, well, chocolate.
That sounds strange, but like wine grapes, cacao beans from different regions taste different. Beans from Madagascar often have red fruit notes, whereas beans from Venezuela taste much nuttier. Try a bar made with beans from Papua New Guinea and you’ll often get a mouthful of smoke.
For example, when I tried his Jamaica bar (which runs for $18, by the way), I didn’t transport to a bed of forest leaves with a brilliant sun peeking through the trees, but I finally got what the fuss was about. The mild bar sings with personality, a creamy, yeasty sweetness with a hint of star fruit and spices but mostly chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. That rich taste that you know so well, without any off flavors to distract.
So how does he do it? “Colin captures that magic moment in roasting,” said Lindley, “and hits on flavors that are delicious and unexpected without being overpowering.” Lindley continued, “Colin really listens to the beans’ story and elicits the best flavors from the beans.”
Translation? The introverted, bespectacled maker has a unique ability to look at raw beans (smell them, taste them, finger them) and distinguish which flavors should be highlighted and which should be eliminated. “In any aesthetic pursuit,” he explained, “you have to make choices.”
That sounds obvious, but a raw cacao bean tastes nothing like chocolate, and the process to make it into something delectable is arduous, confusing, and far from standard. “For example, when I conch,” Colin explained, “the way that it tastes there isn’t how it tastes when the chocolate bar is finished. Typically you have to conch until the point where you think you totally fucked it up flat.” Why? After conching, the acidity creeps back into the mix, changing the flavor. Colin has to decide how long to conch each batch in order to get the final subtlety he’s going for. That means he tastes along the way, intuiting what the final chocolate will taste like from only a rough outline in the middle of the process.
He goes through stages in the way he wants his chocolate to taste: At one point he focused on bringing out more of the “aggressive qualities” of the cocoa (like acid), and now he’s “playing around with roasts to make something more vibrant and fresh” to highlight the terroir behind the beans, like with wine.
“Colin has a level of control over the process that’s unmatched by anyone else,” Lindley claims. But Lindley also thinks it’s like what happens in the darkroom when you develop a photo. You need to master the process, but the “best photos are the ones that have a magic component to them, that are slightly out of control.” To reach that level of mastery, you have to be one with the chocolate.
Colin considers chocolate a reflection of himself not only as a maker but as a person. Existentially. “I obsess about this 24 hours a day. My job is my life and creating meaning,” he says.
But who is Colin Gasko? “I don’t have a pretty, black-and-white story,” he confessed. “I didn’t start out as a lawyer.”
A series of low-paying jobs at chain coffee shops and Whole Foods--where his B.A.-bestowed colleagues earned the same meager wages--convinced Colin that college wasn’t the answer. “Nothing could really hold my attention,” he admitted.
But then something changed. A boss at Whole Foods with a background in confections taught Colin to make ganache. Soon he was roasting cacao beans in the oven at the sober house he ran for college kids, grinding them with a jury-rigged Indian spice grinder in the basement. Nothing had ever captured the self-described “fickle” intellectual like chocolate did, with its combination of technical know-how and artistic refinement.
“I thought the idea of making chocolate was totally wild. It’s so involved and difficult,” Colin told me. “And the story of finding good cacao sounded like an Indiana Jones journey to me. I thought it would be an adventure.” When Scharffen Berger sold out to Hershey’s in 2005, Colin “committed to building a business based on integrity for the long run.” In April 2007 he incorporated Rogue, a name bestowed on him by a Whole Foods cashier.
From there his obsession with the craft grew and grew. “It was a crazy thing that I could do that no one else was doing,” he said. “Craft chocolate is a movement that was going to happen.” He continued, “I haven’t been successful in any other area of my life, but I believe I’m good at this.”
He’s more than good at it. Fast-forward eight years and Colin has changed the way American chocolate tastes. In 2010, when he wasn’t happy with the beans he was getting from South America, Colin invested in a batch from a single farm (Colin calls it a “nanolot”) in Peru and made a bar called the Piura (the one Leibovitz liked so much).
Lindley explained, “Peruvian beans weren’t really around at that time, but after Colin brought out his bar, the Peruvian government did a big push, with a giant international chocolate festival.” (Of course, that might have had something to do with Peru wanting to curb coca production for cocaine too.) Now you’ll find tangy beans from Peru on almost every chocolate maker’s list.
A year or so later he did it again. Colin discovered a farmer named Vincent Norero in Camino Verde, Ecuador, who treats cacao beans like wine grapes, using advanced technology to ferment and process beans differently than most. Colin bought beans from him and made what he calls the Balao bar, a 75 percent blend of two differently fermented beans from the plantation (the first single-farm blend ever) that tastes mildly floral. After Colin’s delicious bar premiered, Norero quickly found a market in the U.S., and now other top-notch makers like Ritual also offer a Balao bar.
Next, in 2013 Colin revolutionized the prized Porcelana beans from Venezuela by removing much of the sugar. His is the first real American bar made with those particular beans (Scharffen Berger had a vanity project a while back but didn’t even sell the chocolate). The result? An 80 percent bar that surprises the heck out of those who know Porcelana for being delicate and mild: Colin’s is “punchier and more dynamic than I’ve ever tasted,” Lindley told me. When I tried it, its bitter, harsh notes almost took over, though I could still taste the peachiness underneath. Though it’s not my favorite Porcelana, he certainly showcases what the beans can do, and makes a point. He said,
“I was trying to push boundaries and show what’s possible in chocolate.”
So why isn’t Rogue a household name like Mast Brothers? It boils down to control. Colin runs Rogue almost completely on his own, without other employees besides his longtime girlfriend. A normal one-man operation could turn out only so much product, but Colin limits it even further by sticking to his convictions about quality. That means obsessing, tinkering, and often going back to the drawing board without sending out chocolate.
Not surprisingly, stores around the country regularly beg Colin for more bars. “He won’t send out anything that he doesn’t think is perfect, and he feels like everything he does is a compromise,” Lindley said. “Colin will stop at no end,” remarked the Chocolate Garage’s Sunita de Tourreil. (When they can get their hands on his chocolate, find Rogue bars at specialty stores like Cacao, Chocolopolis, the Meadow, the Chocolate Garage, and Cocova.)
As a result, you’ll find Colin, his girlfriend, and their daughter living in his parents’ house. “When you’ve been in business for six years and can’t pay rent, you have a problem,” he said, laughing nervously.
“People think I’m screwing them by not sending out chocolate,” he continued. “In reality I’m racking my brain, going crazy trying to get this shit out the door.” But he knows it’s not shit. Colin only wants to send out the most artful, meaningful creation. That means logistical issues (hello, machinery) translate into extreme obsessing and what he calls “harebrained solutions.”
For example, at the moment Colin is obsessing over how to create a clamshell package to hold chocolate inside the Rogue wrapper. He’s looking for a specific aesthetic style that will still maintain the chocolate’s integrity of taste, and he wants to make it out of a synthetic biodegradable polymer that has high barrier properties for oxygen and aromas that, of course, isn’t commercially available yet. “Once you’ve called the company Rogue,” he said, “you’re in trouble.”
Recipe: Water-Based Drinking Chocolate
You might have heard that water and chocolate don’t mix, but this simple recipe from Cacao, in Portland, proves that old adage wrong. Flavor notes come alive when you melt chocolate and drink it, leaping from subtlety to center stage on your tongue. Using water instead of milk or cream intensifies the experience without introducing any other tastes. Alternatively, if you chill the drinking chocolate in the refrigerator, the mixture turns into a nice, creamy vegan chocolate pudding.
- 120 grams 68% to 75% dark chocolate
- 3⁄4 cup water
Heat water in covered small pan to boil. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Cover and let sit for 30 to 45 seconds.
Whisk gently and scrape bottom of pan with rubber spatula to make sure chocolate isn’t stuck to bottom of pan. Put pan back on the burner (turned off) and let rest for 2 to 3 minutes to melt the chocolate.
Whisk vigorously for a minute or two to emul- sify completely. Check consistency by sheeting the mixture on the back of a clean spoon. If it is lumpy, keep mixing. If it is smooth, you are fin- ished. Don’t confuse the clumps with bubbles: Small air bubbles are ok.
Serve immediately or let cool until desired temperature (should still be above room temperature). The flavors and texture will evolve as it cools and rests.