Interview with Hans Westerink of Violet Sky Chocolate

Hans Westerink is a craft chocolate maker located in South Bend, Indiana.  I have been lucky enough to have been able purchase his bean-to-bar chocolate in November at the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA.  In my opinion, Violet Sky Chocolate features one of the loveliest chocolate bar packaging which is so colorful and often shiny which really makes it stand out, and Hans often uses unique inclusions in his bars as well.  Read on to find out more about Hans!

Hans Westerink of Violet Sky Chocolate with his wife Alison

Victoria Cooksey: What was your first experience with tasting craft chocolate?

Hans Westerink: It was Mast Brothers. I ordered some of their bars after reading an article about them online. I had found it randomly, through something called Stumble Upon which sends you to random web pages based on interests that you input. Otherwise it may have been awhile before I knew that craft chocolate existed. Mast Brothers was the first single-origin chocolate I had tasted, various origins side-by-side. After that I ordered some Dandelion which I really enjoyed. Tasting chocolate made with cacao from Madagascar that tasted like strawberries was very memorable. In fact I would say it shattered my perspective on chocolate. Something I had always really loved, and only then did I start to realize what it even actually is. Chocolate is not just chocolate. There is more. 

VC: What are your top 3 criteria in choosing cocoa beans to use in your bars?

HW: Flavor, transparency, small.

For flavor personally I like something unique, fruit and floral flavors, brightness and intensity. Having a range of different cacaos is important to me as well, through. Soft and earthy cacao is just as beautiful in its own way. The great thing about cacao is how much variety there is in genetics, terroir and processing which leads to such flavor variation. The balance (or lack there of) between bitter, sweet, astringent, acidic, which leads to a different experience. So it is fun to try new things, I will never stop trying new beans. 

Transparent trade is nice, and it goes together with small. What I mean by small is small farms, small lots, small importers. Being small makes transparency easy, when the cacao is coming from the one farm or a small group of farmers. The cacao does not pass through multiple companies before reaching the maker. Transparency means knowing exactly where the cacao comes from, how much was payed to the farmers, and being able to communicate directly with farm managers and people involved with export. Direct connections with small business seems better to me, rather than trying to ensure that the mega importers and farms do a good job through certifications. Closer connections involve trust, and honestly I don’t fully trust a fair trade stamp on mass produced chocolate made with beans from who knows where. 

I buy a lot through Uncommon Cacao, they do great work with farms and importing transparently. There are lots of great small and more transparent importers these days, it is hard to pick between them, as I want to buy so much of the cacao I taste!

VC: Given the huge cultural and even ceremonial significance chocolate has held in the past how do you see it’s place in culture today? 

HW: Often chocolate is seen as candy. No surprise given the low quality and purity of most things sold as chocolate here. Of course there is still some concept of better chocolate, something more pure, whatever dark chocolate is (the exact meaning rather mysterious to many, even those who prefer dark chocolate), and it is probably from Europe if its good. And even the good chocolate just tastes like one thing, chocolate. The complexity is missing. 

Often we are disconnected from our food, even things that grow locally, so it is not surprising that chocolate is rather mysterious. Generally people have no idea what chocolate is even made of (really neither did I before I started making it). So there is just a lot of education necessary as craft chocolate grows. It is exciting to see a global community of farmers, small importers, and chocolate makers leading to a revival of something that was once revered, even worshiped, now reduced to candy with laboratory flavors and modified oils, only brown because it is dyed so. I think fake chocolate cake is the saddest thing I’ve ever tasted.  

VC: What was the inspiration behind your colorful bar wrappers?

HW: It is something different and so it should look different. It is not something made by a machine in the largest quantity possible as fast as possible.  The main intended purpose is not profit. Beautiful things existed before someone had the idea to sell them. 

The paper and colorful stickers and foil are supposed to be an introduction to the chocolate. It catches your eye, hoping to make you stop, for a moment. Maybe question some things. 

Remember that the things unknown will always be more than the things known. Remember that nothing lasts, but it is OK. You are here now, so be here. Live while you can, enjoy life, be vibrant. This is really the inspiration behind the name Violet Sky, which the packaging reflects. These concepts carry over into the chocolate itself. 

Violet Sky Chocolate Bars at the Nov 2017 NW Chocolate Festival 

VC: You have included juniper berries along with many other interesting ingredients in your bars. Where does the inspiration come from for deciding on which inclusions to use? 

HW: Ingredients themselves inspire me, the seemingly endless variety of fruits, flowers, seeds and leaves the the earth produces, an incredibly huge palette of flavors. Each cacao is so unique too, and tasting them leads to thoughts of what to try combining it with. Combining flavors does not just add one flavor on top of another, flavors play off of each other and are changed by the presence of something new. I think that is why flavor combinations with chocolate can be so interesting and unexpected. 

Often inspiration also comes from my family, something they particularly enjoy or use while cooking a meal. My brother made some amazing za’atar chicken one day, and then I put those spices on a bar. The Cloud Walking bar is based on a truffle made years ago at home, when I asked my sister what flavors to use and she said banana & cinnamon. The perspectives of others makes my try different things and always keep learning. 

From a health perspective I think we crave different flavors because we are supposed to eat a large variety of things to stay healthy and feel good. Eating artificially flavored things tricks our brains into thinking w have had something but our body misses out. So to me it is always essential to use real flavors, delicious things that make you feel good. 

Other cultures and cuisines are an important thing as well. Thai, Indian, and Mexican food are some of my favorites and there will be chocolate bars and bon bons inspired by all of these in the future (we already have tried out many variations). 

Restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and other artisans that I love with and what they are doing has been super influential as well. The best ones are based creative and passionate people that love what they do. It is important to have reference points, and people and places that give you energy. If any of us are using a particularly interesting ingredient, it may catch on and other will find their own way to use it. At a certain point this collaboration and learning can start spilling over into the building of culture (something sorely needed in norther Indiana). 

Also other chocolate makers and chocolatiers inspire me by what they do. Especially, Mackenzie of Map Chocolate, her chocolate is really unique and beautiful. There are so many ways to incorporate different ingredients and she shows us how few boundaries there are. So, so very many other chocolate makers and chocolatiers (currently enjoying Chocolatasm, so good) are doing innovative and delicious things, it is a great time to be a chocolate lover!

VC: What are the pleasures and the difficulties when it comes to barrel aging beans? How did you first get into aging them?

HW: I had heard of barrel aged chocolate (Raaka bourbon barrel aged) but hadn’t really considered making it. The chef at a restaurant/brewery here in South Bend (Crooked Ewe) asked my friend who roasts coffee (Zen Cafe) to barrel age some coffee for them. They were my first customer to buy bulk chocolate so I decided to try it out.  We always go with raw whole beans based on the concept that roasted cacao will oxidize (making fats rancid) much more quickly than raw. Moisture is not the friend of roasted cacao, generally. 

For the first run I thought I would try something different so I used a wine barrel (from one of the southwest Michigan wineries that actually makes good wine) into which went a small amount (20 lbs) of raw cacao, to test. It worked really well, so in went 60 lbs, which pretty quickly got moldy and had to be thrown away. Wine barrels are tricky, apparently, it seems they need to be very freshly drained, then filled immediately with cacao and aged no more than a month. Recently, I tried two wine barrels and aged 100 lbs of cacao in each, one worked great and the other one molded, and must be discarded (even after sorting the molded beans, they will all taste a bit off). When it works it does taste really good. I may try filling wine barrels with nitrogen from now on, to slow down microbial growth (suggested by the vintner as a possible solution to molding). 

One time we used a brandy barrel, and also once a honey brandy barrel (distilled mead. Both of these were awesome. I really want to try it with rum barrels, or something like port. Overall it is a fun method of infusion with some great flavor potential. It is rather expensive to do ($125 – 300 for a used barrel) and adds a good amount of extra time and potential loss. As a bonus you are later left with some great barrel furniture or planters. 

VC: Since starting to make bean-to-bar chocolate what have you discovered about yourself?

HW: I’ve always enjoyed tasting things, especially tasty things. (Haha) Now I have to do it all the time, paying closer attention, analyzing, comparing, translating. Then combining flavors and seeing what happens. When you do this all the time your brain adapts (neuroplasticity) and I definitely feel like flavors are more of a language now. Cooking and home brewing beer really helped this happen too. And in turn being a chocolate maker has changed the way I cook. Ingredients like rose water and orange blossom water, and miel de cacao (fermented cacao fruit syrup), are some of the ingredients that started in chocolate and I now use at home all the time. Just in general the way I think about food and flavors has changed, for the better. 

I have become better at analyzing things, coming up with recipes and roast profiles. I have also learned that sometimes its better to not over analyze, and go with instinct of sorts. Of course this sometimes backfires horribly, and sometimes leads to something I wouldn’t have found without going out on that limb. It has taught me to not be afraid of failure (throwing away 60 lbs of chocolate that took almost a week to make isn’t easy). I would rather try and fail a thousand time than have never tried at all. Life without some risk or exploration is hollow.

VC: What is your intention/purpose for making and selling bean-to-bar chocolate? 

HW: To make more surprises. The more color and variety we have in the world the better. Nothing makes me happier than thinking of chocolate being given as a gift, maybe to say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or just to make someones day a bit better. 

Partially I hope to help change peoples perspective on chocolate, as part of a change in the way we produce and consume food. It is important to know (or at least be able to find out, even vaguely) where your food comes from, what it is, and to produce it in a way that is not harmful to the earth or to innocent people  or animals. This is important for health, happiness, and the future of our world. 

Cacao is really beautiful, it deserves to be treated better than it is. In turn, good chocolate enriches the world. Whether it is people who enjoy eating a chocolate chip cookie or people who spend their lives caring for the land and trees. It is so enjoyable to work with cacao, it’s aromas and flavors and all of its transformational properties, watching it turn from a seed to a paste and then into a glossy liquid. I think it has the power to transform people, too. Oh, and it just happens to be solid at room temperature and melt perfectly when warmed in our mouths. It is really just an immensely beautiful food and process that I love deeply.  

Thank you for this interview Hans!

Violet Sky Chocolate:

Victoria Cooksey

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