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Lee Benson, Deseret News
On location in Ecuador, Dana Brewster examines fine cacao beans after they are harvested.
Back in Mayan times, this was currency. —Mark Delvechio

SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Delvecchio gazes at the almond-size beans in the palm of his hand with a look that can only be described as awed reverence.

"Back in Mayan times, this was currency," he announces.

"And this much right here" — he jingles the beans and grins — "would get you a wife."

But times have changed. These aren't ancient times. Gone are the days when a palmful of beans will get you a wife.

Now they'll get you Salt Lake's hippest new chocolate company.

The beans Mark is holding are cacao (pronounced cuh-cow). A month or so ago they were growing on a farm in the heart of the Ecuadorian jungle. Now they're in a kitchen on south Main Street in Salt Lake City, about to be sorted, roasted, cracked, winnowed, milled, mixed with cocoa butter and sugar and turned into one of modern man's favorite legal addictions.

Mark looks at Dana Brewster, his partner in Millcreek Cacao Roasters, with a conspiratorial smile.

They followed their bliss … and turned it into their business.

A year ago, Millcreek Cacao Roasters wasn't even a pipe dream. Mark, who has a master's degree in education from the University of Utah, was in Ethiopia where he was the principal of a high school. Dana, who helped start Millcreek Coffee Roasters in 1992, was back home in Utah, looking for her next adventure.

But Mark and Dana didn't like being apart. They had a good relationship going. They decided the best thing to do was find something new they could do together.

They shared a passion for chocolate, and not just any old chocolate you could buy at the 7-Eleven, but pure, rich, high-end chocolate made from the finest ingredients, meant for the most discriminating palate.

Why not make and sell what they both loved?

In May, Dana enrolled in an online chocolate-making course from Canada called Ecole Chocolat. Part of the chocolate-appreciation process was undergoing blind-tasting tests (someone has to do it).

Every single time, the flavor she blindly chose as her favorite was Ecuadorian.

Then she had Mark take the tests.

Same thing.

The next thing they knew the two of them were on their way to the jungles of Ecuador, south of Quito, the capital, where they were introduced to a man who raised not just cacao beans, but the finest cacao beans in all the world, called arriba nacional.

They made arrangements to buy arriba nacional beans from this farmer, whose name and location they prefer remain anonymous (They are his only American customers and they'd like to keep it that way).

They also arranged to buy indigenous cocoa butter from Ecuador, to give their chocolate a smooth, luxurious feel.

Dana's experience with coffee roasting helped them design and refine their chocolate-making operation. They modified equipment, experimented with recipes, concocted a variety of flavors and designed packaging — doing it all in their makeshift kitchen/laboratory at 657 S. Main.

By October they produced the first chocolate bar to earn the Millcreek Cacao Roasters stamp.

Then they started cloning it.

Ever since, they've been hoisting chocolate devotees onto the cacao bandwagon. A dozen or more local stores are now stocking Millcreek Cacao Roasters chocolate bars (you can look up their locations at www.millcreekcacao.com), and several local restaurants are buying Millcreek's Ecuadorian chocolate in bulk to use in their desserts.

"One thing just led to another to another to another — and really rather quickly," says Dana, who, when she looks around, admits she's slightly bewildered at what she and Mark have wrought.

They're surrounded by chocolate. There are worse ways to go.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: [email protected]