Prioritizing Virgin Beans, Raaka Confects Chocolate Bars and Social Consciousness in Red Hook

What differentiates Raaka from other cocoa manufacturers is not only its approach to the beans but the market, too.

Raaka, a “virgin chocolate” outfit that’s newly based in Red Hook, is a treat for the body and soul. Focusing on creating a better deal for farmers, legions of sweets aficionados and local residents alike, this is chocolate with a unique sense of purpose.

Beans here are massaged into blissful dark and flavorful chocolate without being heated above the mark separating virgins from the more seasoned commercial offering. Raaka’s chocolate rarely goes above 150 degrees, in contrast to the 200 to 300 degrees of mass-manufactured bars. Keen to avoid the sometimes misleading label of “raw” chocolate, Raaka sticks to the science since, technically speaking, any fermented cocoa bean cannot be considered “raw” (this is the case with almost all harvested beans). Instead Raaka distinguishes itself as “low-temperature chocolate,” meaning that the cocoa is unheated aside from heat generated by friction required to turn each hard bean into paste.

The decision not to roast was borne of a desire to guarantee good taste. Heating cocoa beans can destroy much of their flavor. Just like coffee beans, too much heat cancels out both subtle top notes and bolder flavors distinguishing one cocoa batch or varietal from another. These notes are often roasted out of commercial reconstituted chocolate where different batches and grade beans are roasted, mixed and recombined to create consistent profiles. Every bar is engineered to taste the same.

Instead Raaka celebrates diversity, and the result is a depth of flavor that can catch the average eater off guard. For example, bars with hints of “forest floor and mushrooms,” fondants mixing coffee and cocoa with a surprise twist or dark offerings with surprisingly light and floral top notes are unusual to say the least. Each Raaka product highlights the full range of its precious beans — and precious they are. The cocoa commodity market is lucrative business patrolled by heavyweight commercial conglomerates. What differentiates Raaka from other cocoa manufacturers is not only its approach to the beans but the market, too.

The company, co-founded by Ryan Cheney and Nate Hodge following Cheney’s transcendental experience with handmade cocoa truffles in Thailand, grew from “a desire to impact the local community.” Raaka seeks to fulfill that pledge in three ways. Firstly, cocoa shells removed from beans in American-made winnowing machines at their facility are donated to local schools under the national Edible Schoolyard Project, spearheaded by Alice Waters. This plant matter is high in nitrogen to feed the soil and doubles as a great organic compost.

Secondly, Raaka is part of a national group of small-batch producers seeking to provide an economic counterweight to the large commercial commodity traders. Their goal: create better returns for farmers and create incentives for ecological, sustainable and economically viable practices. Thirdly, Raaka partners with smallholder cooperatives to plow money back to the local communities. Maya Mountain Cocoa in Belize, for example, has worked to increase school attendance in cocoa farming communities by 85 percent thanks to partnership and funding from craft businesses like Raaka.

This “direct link to the farmer” facilitates improvements for the farming community as much as the chocolate manufacturer: Raaka shares feedback with its farmers to help improve the quality of their beans but also educate them about better land management and practices. This practice ultimately benefits the farming community by creating better returns as the quality of their beans increases. One such farmer, visiting the Raaka facility from the Dominican Republic, was fascinated to learn more about the manufacturing process. Understanding the challenges posed by beans that haven’t been properly dried for example, which require a lot of manual sorting, was a huge gain for both sides. The farmer went home armed with actionable feedback to improve the quality of their product, earn more per bean and also help Raaka.

This desire to impact the local community and create something special even permeates through to the packaging. Created from sustainable materials, Raaka partners with a small Philadelphia-based graphic team to create unique hand-drawn designs for every bar.

The results are heartening. After only four years in the chocolate business, Raaka’s reputation is already firmly established. Customers across the nation can stock up on bars at local food outlets, larger chains such as Whole Foods and directly via their website. Fans keen to either learn more about low-temperature chocolate or make their own Raaka-based products can sign up for tours and classes at the new facility that now produces approximately 5,000 to 6,000 bars a week. The core range includes eight different bars with two monthly surprises for “First Nibs Chocolate” subscribers and regular seasonal variations.

Plans are afoot to launch a new range of truffles in time for the holiday season. Watch out for pumpkin seed, olive, coconut and sesame oil based truffles coated in dark Raaka chocolate and dusted with butternut squash powder. Each ingredient is locally sourced, organic and satisfying. An extra bonus: Unlike almost all commercial chocolate processed in facilities containing nuts and dairy products, Raaka’s range is entirely vegan and allergen-free. Hodge emphasizes his desire to make a product everyone can enjoy: “We all know someone with a food allergy.”

A perfect excuse to stock up and even better reason to cast chaste food abstinence aside.

Photo credit: Molly Leon

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Ruth Temianka is a writer, editor and entrepreneur.