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Emily and Dayton Koons
The owners and operators of The Chocolate Conspiracy at their shop in Salt Lake City. From left, investor/manager Steven Ohlson, owner/chocolate maker AJ Wentworth and chocolate maker Michael Watkiss.

For Art Pollard, the road to chocolate began with physics.

“I used to work for the physics department at (Brigham Young University) while I was going to school, and I was eating a chocolate bar one day in the early '90s,” Pollard said. “And I thought it would be really interesting to make my own chocolate, like it would be interesting to make a crème brûlée. And all my co-workers said I couldn’t do it. They said it was too hard, and I love stuff that’s too hard because that means it’s interesting.”

The result of Pollard’s chocolate-making endeavors — after putting the project on the back burner for several years, followed by 10 years of trial and error — was Amano Artisan Chocolate, Utah’s first artisan chocolate maker and “America’s Most Highly Awarded Chocolate Maker,” according to its packaging. Located in Orem, the company began selling chocolate in 2007.

Now, Utah is home to eight artisan chocolate makers, with a ninth launching in June. The breadth of chocolatiers has made for a booming artisan chocolate scene in Utah: the annual Caputo’s Chocolate Festival, a variety of chocolate-tasting classes around the state, and the kind of chocolate network that means “you can just walk into your local little coffee shop or local grocery store and find just an incredible selection of chocolate from all around the world,” said Robbie Stout, a co-founder of Ritual Chocolate in Park City.

Artisan vs. mass-market

The difference between artisan chocolate and mass-market chocolate, according to Pollard, is in how the chocolate is treated.

“Fundamentally, artisan or craft implies that you’ve got somebody there … that’s ultimately responsible for the quality of the chocolate,” Pollard said. “(But) in larger companies they come up with a standard recipe, and good-quality ingredients and bad-quality ingredients all get treated the same, and the recipes are designed to standardize the flavor, which also means you lose a lot of really great flavor.”

Additionally, according to chocolatiers.co.uk (run by a member of the Academy of Chocolate in Britain), artisan chocolate makers are fundamentally small-batch chocolate makers. This usually means that they’re “bean-to-bar” makers — that is, they source their own cacao (pronounced ca-cow) beans from farmers all over the world and create their chocolate from scratch in small, complex-flavor batches, whereas mass-market chocolatiers get their chocolate premade in large, one-tone flavor batches.

“(In artisan chocolate making), you have this incredible variety without adding flavors or ingredients to (the chocolate),” said Morgan Coleman, a co-founder of Taste Artisan Chocolate in Provo. “Vanilla, fruit flavors, these things are all standard or naturally occurring in the beans themselves.”

Coleman and his wife, Char, opened Taste in 2012, where they specialize not only in making their own chocolate, but in selling fine chocolate from all over the world. They also host regular chocolate-tasting classes, which allow customers to try the variety of flavors found naturally in cacao beans and taste the differences depending on how the beans are roasted, ground and mixed.

In addition, “Terroir influences flavor, meaning flavors are naturally influenced by where they’re grown and who grows them,” said Stout, of Ritual Chocolate. “So wine tastes different from all over the world because of the soil, climate, the weather and techniques at the origins.”

Stout got his start in 2010 in Colorado, when he and co-founder Anna Davies noticed a gap in the market for fine chocolate. They moved to Utah in 2016 for a change of pace, which also conveniently put them closer to Salt Lake City.

“(Salt Lake City is) an international destination,” Stout said. “So it’s a way for us to personally reach a lot of customers that we could have around the world.”

Chocolate central

One reason Utah has become an artisan chocolate hub may have to do with its climate, according to Dana Brewster, a co-founder of Millcreek Cacao Roasters in Salt Lake City. Water ruins chocolate, so Utah’s dry climate, which leaves little humidity for sugar to cling to, is a desirable trait; in addition, “I think part of (chocolate’s success) is, in general, Utah has a very industrious people,” Brewster said.

Another reason chocolate does well in Utah may simply have to do with how many chocolatiers have roots here — seven of Utah’s nine chocolate makers have founders or partners who are originally from Utah.

AJ Wentworth, founder of The Chocolate Conspiracy in Salt Lake City, said he also thinks the culture in Utah is a factor in why chocolate has done well here.

“There's also a high Mormon culture that doesn't have caffeine or have vices, and dessert takes the place of most vices,” Wentworth said. “There are a lot of cookies and cake and cupcake manufacturers. Utahns really love their desserts, and chocolate just falls into line with that.”

DeAnn Wallin, a co-founder of Solstice Chocolate in Murray, however, said she doesn’t think there’s any dominant factor influencing chocolate’s success in Utah.

“I just think that something caught on and people appreciated it,” she said.

Regardless of the reasons — geography, culture or nothing at all — “I think that a lot of people in Utah are wanting real food and better quality,” said Rebecca Carroll, a partner at Mezzo Chocolate in Salt Lake City. “People here are recognizing that that’s really worth it, and they’re willing to put their money into it because they like the good quality of it.”

Looking ahead

So what does all this mean for the future of Utah’s artisan chocolate?

“It’s just going to grow, just like the coffee industry, just like the wine industry or the liquor industry,” Wentworth said. “The more education people (have) about high-end chocolate, the more people will relate to the concept of buying a $9 chocolate bar over a dollar candy bar.”

Wentworth is a certified holistic health practitioner who graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. He originally planned on moving to San Francisco to open a healthy dessert shop but soon realized he’d have to learn how to make his own chocolate if he wanted to make everything from scratch. It didn't take long for chocolate to suck him in. After graduation, his brief stay in Utah (where he’s originally from) turned into a permanent stay, and his company, The Chocolate Conspiracy, will celebrate eight years in August.

Wentworth believes the Utah fine chocolate industry is only going to get bigger from here.

“We’re going to see more bean-to-bar chocolate makers. I already know a few that are kind of in the works,” he said.

One of those in-the-works chocolate makers is The Cacao Bean Project, founded in Sandy by husband-and-wife team Lance and Shannon Brown. Lance Brown has been dabbling in chocolate for six years, and recently he and his wife decided to make a business out of it. The Cacao Bean Project launches on June 1 and, since it’s still a cottage business, it will be available at farmers markets in Provo, Orem and Murray.

Brown said there’s been talk of time-sharing chocolate-making machines or establishing a chocolate guild so companies could save money with combined purchasing power, although those conversations have yet to result in anything serious. He also said if chocolate makers worked together, a large-scale chocolate festival in Utah could be possible.

“I think Utah offers a unique landscape to have some really great events,” he said. “I think we have people here that know more about chocolate than just about anybody, anywhere.”

Ritual Chocolate's Stout agreed. “There are kids in Utah now that literally are growing up on fine craft chocolate,” he said. “From a young age, their parents are buying Ritual, Amano or other Utah brands, but also brands from all over the world, and that’s what they’re growing up on … and that’s just so unique.”

Eric Durtschi, the founder of Crio Bru and Durci Chocolate in Lindon, said the future of artisan chocolate in Utah is exciting.

“We’re still in the infant stages of chocolate, but I believe at some point … there will be collectors, chocolate bars, $50 chocolate bars,” Durtschi said.

“It’s crazy how it’s evolving. I’m excited for it.”

Kaitlyn Bancroft is a communications major in the news media emphasis at Brigham Young University. She is interning at the Deseret News in the Arts and Entertainment section. Email her at [email protected]