Interview with John Nanci of Chocolate Alchemy with Victoria Cooksey

Most likely, if you have spent time in the craft/specialty chocolate world you have heard of, or often times had assistance, knowledge and overall mentoring from the one-and-only John Nanci of Chocolate Alchemy. John’s very first blog post on the Chocolate Alchemy website was posted on October 1, 2003.  Now that’s a lot of chocolate making, experimenting and experience! Back when it was thought that there was no way chocolate could be made at home John Nanci thankfully didn’t listen and instead paved the way for people to make both chocolate at home as well as start up their own craft/specialty chocolate business.  John continues to share his knowledge through his Ask The Alchemist posts. It  just so happens that John is also a FCIA 2017 Lifetime Achievement award winner.

And now for the interview.

John Nanci of Chocolate Alchemy

Victoria Cooksey: How has home and small-scale bean-to-bar chocolate making changed since you began Chocolate Alchemy?

John Nanci: It went from not being possible to an everyday occurrence, not unlike home brewing or coffee roasting. Back in 2004 there was the common stance was that it was too complicated of a process to teach someone to do it at home. Now that is easy and there is equipment available for those that want to make chocolate small scale. That too could not be done as there was no small scale equipment. 

V.C.: Some makers have taken an interest in the aging of their beans. Besides aging beans in barrels (bourbon, wine,etc) what are your thoughts on going further than that and aging beans in other ways such as in a Parmesan cheese cave, or with Parma ham, for example, to add in different flavors?

J.N.: I think experimentation is critical for learning more about what is important in the making process. I’ve tasted quite a few chocolates made from beans that had additives in the fermentation and I can’t say any of them were noticeably different from the untreated ones. That isn’t what you asked about though. I’ve tasted chocolate aged in various whiskey barrels and that comes through quite a bit. I’ve mostly observed that the farther back in the process you go, the less effect it will have on the chocolate for the main reason that there is more left in the process that can mute those affects.

V.C.: What are the pros and cons of single-origin bars versus those made from a blend of beans?

J.N.: The biggest advantage of both is developing and/or discovering unique flavors. For me there is an excitement in discovering what this year’s ‘vintage’ is for Tian Giang, as compared to 2015. The problems come in from being closed minded to either one. I’m a huge fan of single malt scotches and single varietal wines. There uniqueness and expression are wonderful. But they can be an acquired taste also and more challenging to make, and when done wrong, the reason for ‘staying pure’ goes away and is just ego. At that point a blended scotch or mixed varietal red wine can be lovely. and really, blends can be lovely and stand on their own if the maker has a particular flavor they are trying to create. This single origin thing is an odd quirk and I’ve seen it in many new craft endeavors, often as a push back again the giant, homogeneous industrial products that stay the same year after year and compromise quality to achieve it. Single origin coffee to fight Folgers. Heirloom grain bread to combat Wonder. Single varietal wine to combat jug wine. With rare exceptions though, my most memorable experiences with many of those products were not ‘pure’. They were careful, delicate, blended crafting of exceptional skill made by someone with the intent to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

If the blend is for the sake of consistency and customer expectation, that is a con. If it is to share an amazing creation it is a pro.

If a single origin is made to gain market share, it is a con. If it is to highlight an amazing flavor, it is a pro.

V.C.: Is there a disconnect in your view between “craft” as a marketing term, and “luxury” or “specialty”? Should there be? How do you define craft chocolate?

J.N.: I define craft chocolate with one word. Intent.

I’ve never heard the term luxury applied to chocolate. I have certainly heard of specialty and craft and I’ll toss in artisan also. At the end of the day I think they are all valid and generally synonymous as separating them from the likes of Kraft cheese, Wonder bread and Budweiser beer. At some point though there is the danger of turning into what you were combating against. I’m not sure what that point is though. If I were a chocolate maker (as opposed to someone who makes chocolate and supports chocolate makers) I think that point would be when I no longer have my hands on the chocolate. That means it is possible to be small and have other people doing all the making and not be craft any longer and also have huge production with a facility and staff to rival the giants and still be craft if you are picking the cocoa beans, developing their roasting profile and formulating the recipes. There is a lovely adage. Remember who you wanted to be…and be that person. As long as a maker remembers why they became a chocolate maker then they can remain craft or artisan. 

V.C.: As the popularity of craft/fine chocolate bars rise do you foresee growing methods such as large-scale greenhouse farming as inevitable or even possible? Would you hesitate to use non-traditionally grown beans? What would these farming techniques have to do to meet your standards?

J.N.: I just don’t have enough knowledge to know if the growing of cocoa in a greenhouse, aside from small scale, would be possible. I don’t have negative feelings about it though. It would depend upon how the resulting chocolate tasted. 

V.C.: Is CNN-51 100% negative? Have you had chocolate made from it? Is it possible to make good tasting chocolate from it?

J.N.: It is absolutely not 100% negative. That stems directly from making good chocolate from it. Granted it can be a challenge, but it is completely possible. The flip side is true. I have tasted many times the rare beast Porcelana and walked away looking for something to get the taste out of my mouth. No bean is 100% good or bad. It is what you do with it. Some are more challenging than others though. Also, in what way do you mean negative? Clearly it is around because it has advantages. It is robust and can be a fine producer of cocoa butter.  Likewise, it can out compete other less vigorous cacao and that is often a mark against it, but 100% negative? No.

V.C.: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario beans are often mentioned in books and listed on chocolate bars. What does Criollo really mean as far as making a flavorful bar? Will you explain a bit more in-depth about a few of the sub-varieties and some of the tasting profiles, if possible?

J.N.: Your question hints at one of the large problems surrounding those three designations. It has been my observation that because Criollo is deemed rare and valuable, it is also deemed as making the most flavorful chocolate. That is rarely ever the case. It very often makes a nuanced bar. In multiple blind tastings I’ve held over the years, it is a rare day when someone is presented with the three variaties that Criollo comes out on top. 

Usually Trinitario is the top winner with their myriad of fruit, nut and chocolate flavors making a very dynamic bar. And not to forget Forastero, in truth, they can be the most flavorful, but often in poor flavors, being generally speaking higher in bitterness and astringency. But when fermented and roasted well, those bitter/astringent notes balance the fruit and chocolate for great depth of flavor.

I really can’t speak much for sub-varieties and shy away from generalities as it is, since degree of fermentation and ripeness can have such a drastic effect on the outcome, quite often overshadowing genetic potential. Even so, for the majority of beans I have sampled over the years that information has not been available so I don’t have a solid base of knowledge there to generalize from.   

V.C.: When conching times/hours are listed on chocolate bar wrappers how should consumers interpret that information? What information should be listed on wrappers?

J.N.: I don’t see much reason at all to include that kind of information on a bar. It just leads to mystique and one-upmanship which has little place in my opinion, plus the potential misinformation that more is better. There is the vaulted benchmark of 72 hour Swiss chocolate, and in the days of harsh tasting bulk chocolate, maybe it had a place, but given the delicate natures of some single origin chocolate nowadays, 72 hours would turn them into flavorless brown paste. For me I want to know what the maker wants me to know (disregarding legal nutritional and ingredient requirements). Organic, Direct Trade, percentage of cocoa – all those are fine. I rather wish the percentage listed was based on whole cocoa instead of cocoa plus cocoa butter to distinguish a 75% bar that is made with 65% cocoa and 10% cocoa butter from one made with 72% cocoa and 3% cocoa butter.  As I think about other specialty products I buy, I am not interested in how many awards the maker or this chocolate has won, nor (sacrilegious as it sounds) how a fair price was paid for the beans. I want that latter to be a given. I do like to see tasting notes though so I have a reason to pick a given bar. Sometimes an origin descriptor is useful there so I can taste and compare different expressions of the same bean from different makers. A production date or crop year would not be amiss either. Mostly I want to know what excited the maker, that they were drawn to make this chocolate and share it with me. 

V.C.: What are some things a person should take into consideration before diving into the making of bean-to-bar chocolate at home?

J.N.: I think it doesn’t need to be a dive. It can be a wade-in, since it really doesn’t require that much. Do you have a place you can run a melanger for 24-48 hours? That is all you need at the most basic level. You can purchase roasted nibs or even a turnkey kit. If you like the results, and want to continue, then you can dive. You need to consider how you will roast, crack and winnow. At the moment there are only a few options, so really it comes down to space. I think the thing NOT to consider is worth and payback period, but whether it will bring you joy. I will be the first to admit the full setup isn’t cheap, but neither are many of our hobbies that bring us real joy. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on my home brewing set-up and 1000s on my coffee roasting and espresso indulgence. I do neither because I could save money on ale or coffee but because they fulfill a need in me that is priceless. 

V.C.: What direction would you like to see bean-to-bar making go in the future? What type of advancements still need to occur to improve chocolate making equipment?

J.N.: I don’t think anything would make me more happy then to see a small 1 lb melanger in Target. Would it make great chocolate? Probably not, or no more than a $20 coffee grinder will make great coffee, but it will be a sign that bean-to-bar has reached a level of saturation in the public’s mind. When I grew up no one thought of grinding their own coffee beans (let alone roasting them) but now, even if you don’t do it yourself, it is really hard not to know lots of people do grind their own. Similarly, I submit it is hard to find a person that does not know that you can brew your own beer or bake their own bread, even if they don’t do it themselves. I want chocolate making at home so common the general public takes it for a given. 

Thank you so much for taking your time to share some of your vast chocolate knowledge for this interview John Nanci!

Victoria Cooksey

Find out more about John Nanci/Chocolate Alchemy:

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