Interview with Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate Co.
Mackenzie Rivers’ skills are as varied as her Map Chocolate is creative. She has been a Grand Canyon river raft guide, a writer, a bean-to-bar consultant, has had an apprenticeship at Chocolate Alchemy, and is winner of two Academy of Chocolate Awards in 2017 and so much more.
I personally have always enjoyed the lovely wrappers she chooses for each bar, the quality of the bars, her creative ingredients for Map Chocolate bars and hearing about the inspirations behind each bar. In my mind I think of Mackenzie as a bean whisperer because she seems to be able to take an idea for how she wants a bar to be and then gets the beans to bring forth the flavors from out of those beans and/or imagine the perfect inclusions to match the beans, all to create the chocolate taste experience that she desires.
And now, the lovely inside and out of Mackenzie Rivers:
Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate
Victoria Cooksey: Many chocoholics have tried Map Chocolate and love it, but how would you describe Map Chocolate to someone that hasn’t tried it yet?
Mackenzie Rivers:I hope that it is the chocolate that, in the back of your mind you’d really like to find, but that is rarely if ever on the shelf–meaning, it steps outside the mold of “fine chocolate” in a new, unexpected direction. That is my goal, anyway. I would also say it is “inspired” and by that I mean it is about the flavor, but also just as importantly about the entire experience–the beans, memories, the act of eating something new, these are things that inspire me as I make chocolate, and that I hope to somehow pass along in the bar so that the person eating it is inspired in their own way. The bar steps out of the typical “this is fine chocolate” mold and in heading in a new direction takes the person eating the chocolate in a new direction.
V.C.: You’ve mentioned working at Chocolate Alchemy in past interviews (Well Tempered pod cast and with Estelle Tracy of 37 Chocolates). How did being exposed to so many different types of cacao beans through working at Chocolate Alchemy assist you when making your own chocolate?
M.R.: I still work there, two days a week, and in September will have been there 3 years. It is a true apprenticeship–recently John did 30 pound roasts of 3 different origins, doing 4 roasts of each bean. He pulled beans during every single roast at short intervals and then made chocolate from every single roast sample. We then could see exactly the changes that took place throughout the roasts. Then we compared. It was (a) a lot of work and (b) a lot of chocolate and (c) incredibly enlightening about how exactly to nail a roasting profile. This kind of trial is hard for a small maker with a limited supply of beans and time, but for John it is just what he does. And I get to benefit from it, and learn. Sometimes I will think of experiments and we’ll talk over the science etc and then run with it.
And even though I am busy with Map one of the reasons I love working there is because of all the bean samples that come in. so.many.beans. Alchemy is the only place where there are 30-40 different origins to see/smell all in one place, and that has chocolate made from each origin. John makes a batch (test batches are always 80%) from every single sample that comes in, and then we try the chocolate. Sometimes we go back and compare earlier harvests. So, for example, when the Belize arrived this week, John will make chocolate and compare it not just to the approval sample he was sent, but to earlier harvests. As a scientist he keeps detailed notes on everything.
V.C.: Sometimes when reading about chocolate in various places I’ve run across two sets of cacao bean varieties listed in some chocolate literature. First is the often seen list of Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario, and then a second list is also sometimes noted (Maranon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonnado, Purus, Nacional, Guiana). As a chocolate maker that has experimented with several types of cacao beans, which list seems to be accurate, or do you see a completely different “list” of beans out there? What should consumers really know about bean variety to make informed chocolate bar purchases?
M.R.:I think the first list is over-simplified, in the way that saying there are eating apples, cooking apples, and storage apples. Amongst those there are many many different flavors of apples. I personally am not caught up in the list notion, I choose the beans I work with because (a) the farming/oversight practices align with what I value in cocoa production and (b) I like the flavor and the potential of the bean. I don’t choose a Criollo or a Nacional simply because of those labels, any more than I (personally) would choose a chocolate bar because it has an award label on its wrapper. That’s not to say I would not choose those, just that a label of any sort is not the definitive criteria for me. For people new to good/craft chocolate, I would say pick out three different origins, at the same %, from three different makers. If your budget allows for 9, then I’d say choose three makers, three origins, at 3 different %s, then compare.
One bar is a start, and that’s okay. It is a first step in a journey of discovering what we each like. There is no way for someone to “know” if they like a Peru Tumbes or a Vietnam Lam Dong until they try them…and of course, there will be differences from maker to maker.
V.C.: There are many generalizations out there regarding single origin chocolate flavor such as chocolate from Madagascar contains notes of fruit. Do you find that such generalizations hold true? What are some unexpected flavors you’ve noted from various countries of origin/cocoa beans?
M.R.: All beans have “chocolate” which is of course, not just a single flavor–there is no such thing as “just” chocolate. So in a bean the flavors that make up that origin’s version of chocolate can be slanted toward fruit or nut or vegetable, etc.
From a chocolate maker’s standpoint what interests me is how within the standard descriptions there are variations that can be experienced–Tanzania is often described as fruit (berry) but that berry can be highlighted in a way that it becomes deeper, more like berry jam than fresh berry; that’s a big difference. A Madagascar can have wafts of spice behind the fruit, which when crafted to bring this out can be cinnamon. A Peru Norandino can be coaxed towards vanilla, or even a caramel profile. The roast is where the flavors are either pinpointed (developed) or not (and by not, they are either obliterated or left undeveloped, either way not ideal). I did not prefer Norandino until I experienced a roast that produced a sweet, caramel taste. Now when I smell the raw beans I get hints of that same flavor…it was there, I just had never had chocolate that highlighted it.
V.C.: Do you have a dream ingredient, or cacao bean you hope to get a chance to create with someday?
M.R.:There is a chocolate maker named Luisa Abrams, who sources her own beans from the Brazilian rainforest, from wild cacao. I’d like to source beans with her and make chocolate from them. I can only imagine what the experience must be like of choosing the trees, the pods, harvesting, fermenting, drying, and then making chocolate must be like. I’m working more with micro-lots and single estates, small crops that can be “now you see them now you don’t. I use the apple metaphor a lot, but it works: years ago in stores you’d find red and golden delicious and maybe Granny Smith. Then Fuji came around. Now, even in a basic grocery store there can be Romes, Newtown Pippins, Cameos…not to mention the array of heirlooms found at Farmer’s Markets. So that is what interests me–experiencing a Cox’s Orange Pippin for what it is, and that is what I love about cacao–the diversity. But status quococoa 🙂 did not highlight diversity (and does not). As for ingredient, well the sky is the limit! But i don’t try an inclusion just to throw something in the bar (like nibs, which is pretty standard, or salt). It has to make sense, work with that chocolate. I am working with a special inclusion made for me that I have not yet figured out which chocolate to use. Sometimes it is difficult, but that’s the part I love.
V.C.: What helps you decide the percentage to make each chocolate? Why do you think so many makers are still stuck in the 70% only formula for dark chocolate?
M.R.:I think (ok, I know), 70% is easy. It has enough sugar to hide any defects. There are many industry people who promote 70% as a way to get more consumers to try craft chocolate, so in that way it is a marketing tactic, and craft makers are ‘told” it is what people prefer. But if craft chocolate does follow the craft beer and wine and coffee industries over time as makers deviate from the norm then consumers will accept new flavors, i.e., higher %s.
For consumers in an uber-sweet world 70% is “approachable,” and also, if someone has a sweet tooth, it is simply sweeter than a darker chocolate and so they tend to think they prefer it, maybe because it has a more familiar, milder flavor. I have a friend who worked for a well-known winery; when she was in school studying oenology they had rigorous taste tests, and were told in order to have an exact palate and succeed at creating stellar wines they should stop eating sugar, sugary foods etc. I can only think this approach would help with chocolate too.
For me, I choose the % after my roasting trials. I make each trial at 75%. If the taste is off it won’t be hidden by the sugar. If I’m doing an inclusion that is a huge factor in deciding. I use a range of %s because sometimes I simply want to experience a bean in a new way.
V.C.: How do you decide which Map bars to continue making, and which ones to switch out for new seasonal bars?
M.R.:This is the hardest! I would offer more bars all the time. There are so many I want to make…it is torture to “try” to limit the collection, but as you know, besides the bar each has its own wrapper etc. An idea for a bar sometimes swirls in my head for months before I make it. A new bar for summer has been an idea since I started learning to make chocolate. I eat seasonally, so for example, the Still Life with Pi bar has an heirloom orange I can only get for a short window, and then orange season is over, so that bar goes on hiatus…some bars like Nightswimming feel like old friends so I keep them. Everything though depends on sourcing the beans. Last year the Belize crop was bought by a large(r) maker, and many smaller makers had a hard time getting the beans, this year there seems to be plenty. Though now seems to be a shortage of Tien Giang…which might mean goodbye to Love Shack 🙁 As a small nano maker sourcing the beans is the hardest aspect but I think it is the key to what keeps craft chocolate on its toes.
V.C.: Clearly a lot of thought goes into your packaging and writing for each bar. Where does the inspiration come from, and when do you find the time to write?
M.R.:I am blessed with an active imagination. It is hard to describe…but ideas just seem to fall out of the sky and into my thoughts, or I’ll be reading something and my thoughts head off in a direction and then I’ll have the name and the story. I read a lot of physics which seems to be an idea springboard for me. I listen to a range of music. I sit down when it is time to write the notes and it just flows.
V.C.: How has your thoughts on chocolate changed since starting Map Chocolate Co.?
M.R: I think of it as an agricultural crop, which in the days of eating Hershey’s kisses I did not. And when the connection between plant + product was made, I started to understand a bit more about the cocoa industry, the history, the treatment of the plant and the people who work with it. A jute sack is filled by hand. a cacao pod is cut off the tree by a person. I love the idea of small chocolate (making) shops, everywhere. I started and I never had the thought “one day Map will become a factory” and now I see how important my vision was and is. By definition “craft” is not factory. There are factory craft makers I adore–Raaka for example. But there are very small makers calling their businesses factories, as if “factory” implies credibility. And that is sad to me. Our culture needs more examples of small that works, because small enables more people to do what they love.
V.C.: Besides your own chocolate, what other chocolate you do you have in your stash?
M.R.:The truth is, I rarely eat my own chocolate once it is in bar form. Like, never. While I’m making it yes, I taste it. My stash includes Pump Street Bakery (now, Pump Street Chocolate) as I have never been disappointed by anything of theirs I’ve tried and I admire their daring with inclusions, and %s. Their Ecuador Hacienda Limon 100% is amazing. I’d love to try Hummingbird and Dormouse. I like trying chocolate as much as eating it, maybe more. Maybe that’s odd? The fun for me is so much in the experience. Some new maker I haven’t tried, the way they chose to package it, what % they used, the origin, how their creation is unique. That, to me, is the beauty of craft.