Raising the Bar
By Ettie Berneking // Photos By Travis Duncan
Featured in FEAST Magazine December 2014
It might sound unexpected, but Shawn Askinosie’s path from successful defense attorney to award-winning chocolatier in Springfield, Missouri, began with one made-from-scratch apple pie. One simple, homemade apple pie led to a life-changing career move, a year crafting the perfect cupcake and then eventually to making artisanal chocolate.
Shawn is a self-described obsessive-compulsive who, once interested in something, can’t let it go. It’s a personality trait that served him well during his successful run in the courtroom, and since making the move into the ever-changing world of chocolate, it has helped put him on the map. But to fully understand Shawn and his passion for small-batch chocolate, you have to go back to the courtroom in Springfield and back to that homemade apple pie.
At the time, Shawn was at the end of defending a murder case and was with his client’s mother. “We were waiting for the jury to come back from deliberations, and you run out of things to talk about,” he says. “We were talking about apple pie. [She] was telling me about this recipe where you put the pie inside a paper grocery bag and bake it in the oven.” So Shawn went home and made the pie. The difficulty of carefully assembling the perfect flaky and buttery pie crust sparked an interest in him, and like so many other things, he couldn’t let it go. He was hooked.
After his first brush with baking, he bought a Big Green Egg and started experimenting with grilling. He tried out all sorts of recipes for hamburgers, chickens and steaks. He started cooking turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner, and then he moved on to using a lodge kettle to whip up ham and beans. Then he went back to desserts – but this time, it wasn’t pie that kept his interest; it was cupcakes. For a guy who was still busy practicing law, evenings spent piping buttercream icing onto cupcakes and making a trip to Magnolia Bakery in New York City were not the norm.
“My other colleagues probably thought I was nuts,” he says. “I was on an upwards trajectory in my career and was making a lot of money. By all outward appearances, I was doing pretty good. But I was just ready for something else.”
It took close to two-and-a-half years for Shawn to fully leave his law practice behind and dive into what is now Askinosie Chocolate. Before he made the switch, he came close to buying a bakery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when fate intervened in the form of another dessert: chocolate budino. A chef Shawn knew in Santa Fe gave him the recipe for this Italian chocolate pudding that’s served in demitasse cups. One spoonful in, and Shawn knew he had found his next obsession. A few months later, he was on his way to the Amazon to see a cocoa pod up close.
“That’s where I learned how cocoa beans can really make the flavor of chocolate depending on how farmers treat the beans post-harvest,” he says. “I came back from that trip planning to quit law, learn more about chocolate and start this factory.”
After rehabbing an abandoned storefront on Commercial Street in his hometown of Springfield, Askinosie Chocolate hummed to life in 2007. At the time, Shawn was learning the chocolate business through trial and error. There were no books on how to source cocoa beans, and no one in the business was readily sharing their know-how. The fact that his team of four – made up of his wife, daughter and son-in-law – were able to make a chocolate bar at all is impressive, and Shawn readily admits there was a fair amount of luck involved. But then luck turned into skill.
Seven-and-a-half years after opening its doors, Askinosie Chocolate has earned national recognition for its lineup of small-batch chocolate bars. It won a Good Food Award two years in a row, with a nomination this year, along with seven Specialty Food Association awards. It teamed up with James Beard Award-winning restaurant Cafe Pasqual’s to create a chile and pistachio bar with dark chocolate. The company was awarded five medals in the Americas round, plus one World award, by the prestigious International Chocolate Awards. And in October, Askinosie Chocolate announced that its long-running partnership with Intelligentsia Coffee was expanding, and Intelligentsia cafés would now be using Askinosie Chocolate to make mochas and hot chocolates, in addition to continuing to sell its bars at every location.
With just 15 full-time employees and one not-so-large factory, there has been a lot of recognition for a small business based in the middle of Springfield. But Shawn isn’t surprised. “We should be doing this well, or we’re doing something wrong,” he says. “There is a lot of good chocolate out there, so it’s meaningful to us that other people recognize our product.”
Part of what makes Askinosie Chocolate so delicious and award-worthy is the way it’s made, in small batches with everything done in-house. Another element of the company’s success belongs to Shawn’s business model, which hinges on being a good neighbor and citizen. That means that when Shawn sources his beans from small farmers in any of his four growing regions – Mababu, Tanzania; San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador; Davao, Philippines; and Cortés, Honduras – he goes himself every year. He meets with the farmers. He brings the company’s financial statements translated into whatever language is needed. He employs profit sharing with them and, most importantly, he shows them how to make growing the best beans possible.
Shawn isn’t looking for the rarest cocoa beans he can find. He’s simply looking for quality. “For us, the emphasis is on finding the right people and developing relationships with the farmers,” he says. “The relationships that we have with the farmers allow us to make better chocolate.”
Much like coffee beans, the flavor of chocolate beans varies depending on where they’re grown. For example, the beans the company sources from Davao, Philippines, are a subvariety of the Trinitario bean, which Shawn says makes up less than 10 percent of the world’s cocoa bean supply. Askinosie Chocolate works with a small cooperative of farmers in Davao who produce beans, which the company describes as “…when roasted, elicit the warm, earthy flavors of brown sugar and vanilla with a clean, caramel finish.”
Back in Springfield, Shawn and his team do everything in-house. “We import it ourselves, we store it, we roast it, we package it and we ship it,” he says.
Out on the factory floor, the whirl of machinery hums, and the sweet scent of melted chocolate hangs in the air. The process of turning raw fermented cocoa beans into bars takes eight to 10 days.
First, the factory’s Colombian roaster – a modified coffee roaster – is set to a specific temperature depending on the origin of the bean, and beans are then dumped into the hopper. Shawn says that it’s crucial to pay close attention to the roasting process, as this step, along with fermentation and drying, most affects the flavor of the finished bars. Once beans are finished roasting, they are transferred to the cooling tray and then placed in buckets before entering the winnowing process.
Winnowing is another crucial part of the company’s bean-to-bar process. The factory’s winnowing machine sends a current of air through the roasted beans to remove the chaffs, or outer hulls, leaving nibs, the slightly nutty, bitter morsels inside. The winnowing process is repeated several times, and nibs are also visually inspected, all to ensure that no hull or shell remains in the batch. Shawn says he also tastes the nibs to guarantee quality and consistency with the company’s standards.
From here, nibs are ground into a paste called chocolate liquor in the factory’s universal refiner and hand-carried into a holding tank. Before liquor is removed from the refiner, the particle size is examined based on whether the liquor will be used to make cocoa butter.
If being made into cocoa butter, the chocolate liquor is placed in an agitation tank and then pumped into company’s custom-made cocoa butter press. Once inside the press, intensive pressure is applied to the liquor to separate its natural fat, or cocoa butter, which is removed and later used to add to the chocolate. Rarely do small-production chocolate companies make their own cocoa butter, but as with every step of the chocolate-making process, Shawn believes it’s necessary to enhance the smooth texture and quality of the final products. A by-product of pressing the cocoa butter is cocoa powder, which the company also packages and sells.
Chocolate liquor not destined for the cocoa butter press is given a dose of organic cane sugar in the universal refiner, along with the single-origin cocoa butter. Shawn says that the particle size of the chocolate is carefully monitored at this stage with a measuring tool and through several tastings before it’s removed from the refiner. Finished chocolate is then hand-carried from the refiner to a 100-year-old conche, a surface-scraping mixer and agitator that evenly distributes the cocoa butter into the chocolate. Shawn says he continues tasting the chocolate to monitor its flavor and texture, and when the time is right, the chocolate is hand-carried 20 feet into a holding tank in the molding room.
In the holding tank, the temperature of the chocolate is raised, and it’s then poured into a pre-tempering tank, where it’s monitored until it reaches the desired viscosity. The temperature is then lowered, and the chocolate is tempered in a continuous tempering machine and molded by hand – once chocolate is inside the molds, it passes over a vibrating table to remove air bubbles, and is then weighed for consistency before entering a cooling tunnel. Chocolate bars are then removed from molds and placed on a table, where they are inserted, by hand, in 100 percent-compostable and biodegradable inner wrappings and finally slipped into unbleached outer wax paper packaging. The outside of each package proudly displays the face of one of the farmers who produces the chocolate beans used to make the bar.
All in all, Shawn counts 70 steps that are involved in getting the beans from farmers and into bar form. It’s an involved process that requires some serious quality control, especially when you consider how few ingredients Shawn adds to his chocolate. “One distinguishing feature is we don’t do anything to hide the flavor of what the farmers have grown,” he says.
When you look at the ingredient list on the back of the single-origin bars, you’ll find just two ingredients: cocoa beans and sugar. Limiting the ingredient list means Shawn has to start
with the best beans possible, which is why he spends so much time traveling to visit farmers and check on their beans.
“To test flavor, we literally put the beans over fire and roast them with the farmers,” he says. To fully unlock the tantalizing perfume inside the roasted beans, Shawn crushes them in his hands and takes a deep whiff. “That will give you an idea of what they’ll taste like,” he says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s the best way we know of without being able to make chocolate right there.”
Outside of the single-origin bars, Askinosie Chocolate has CollaBARation bars with several national names in food and drink: Intelligentsia Coffee, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Cafe Pasqual’s, a small Swedish licorice factory, Lakritsfabriken, and, as of this November, that list now includes a toasted coconut and dark chocolate bar made in collaboration with the nationally popular food, craft and lifestyle blog A Beautiful Mess.
“We haven’t made it any secret that we’re big fans of Askinosie Chocolate,” says Emma Chapman, who runs A Beautiful Mess with her sister, Elsie Larson. “We use his chocolate on the blog, and we like to recommend awesome stuff to our readers. But [Askinosie] usually does collaboration bars with tastemakers in the culinary scene, and this was a whole different process for them. I commend them for thinking outside the box.”
Chapman and Larson met with the Askinosie team and taste-tested several bars and tossed out new flavor ideas such as lavender, something with honey, something tea-related and finally coconut. It was as simple as that. And four months later, the gals at A Beautiful Mess officially have their hands in Askinosie’s lineup of chocolate bars.
Whether it’s coming up with new CollaBARation bars, traveling to source new cocoa beans or working to share his methods and business strategy with newcomers in the chocolate world, Shawn is still constantly on the move. And that’s a good thing.
Even with a slew of awards that can attest to the quality of Askinosie chocolates, Shawn readily admits he’s still learning about the product he works with. From discovering how to best work with farmers to how to rehab a piece of equipment used on the factory floor, Shawn never stops. He’s always learning something new, and that’s what he loves most.
“This is one of the most professionally challenging things I’ve ever done,” he says. “It doesn’t stop. In law, cases end. A jury comes back, and it’s over, and you move to the next challenging case. But in manufacturing, something that requires a raw material that’s hard to source, it never stops.”
Askinosie Chocolate, 514 E. Commercial St., Springfield, Missouri, 417.862.9900, askinosie.com