Chocolate Makers Start from Scratch
It might surprise you that Affinity Craft Chocolate began with an intense love for coffee beans. But then again, it might not. The cocoa bean, after all, shares many traits with its coffee brethren: Grown in tropical regions and roasted to tame and coax varied yet distinct flavors, both beans are widely beloved.
Chris Campbell, Affinity’s head chocolate maker, met Bryan Hibbard of Fort Bend Coffee in early 2014 during an interview for his blog Coffee Bean Junkie. Hibbard invited the fellow coffee geek to help with his booth at the farmers market at Imperial in Sugar Land. A couple months in, Campbell initiated a bottled, cold-brewed coffee line for the company. His girlfriend, Marisol Bravo, led the way in selling to family, friends and coworkers.
While brainstorming for a new drink for winter, Marisol recalled watching her grandmother prepare Mexican drinking chocolate from scratch back in Puebla, roasting beans on a cast-iron comal over a wood fire, shelling and then grinding them by hand with a metate before steeping the resulting paste with piloncillo, milk and cinnamon. It inspired the couple to start Affinity Craft Chocolate as a bean-to-bar operation.
Sorting out broken beans is still a manual effort (and a family affair, thanks to five helpful kids), but Chris and Marisol’s chocolatemaking also benefits from modern mechanics. Inside a Fulshear warehouse shared with Fort Bend Coffee, an electric coffee roaster replaces open flames. Beans are cracked and winnowed from their shells through an innovative setup: “In the bean-to-bar craft movement, you make a lot of rigged things like this or you’d never be able to get off the ground.” The resulting bits of cacao, called “nibs,” are run through the stone wheels of a wet grinder for 12 to 48 hours to create the smooth mouthfeel Campbell desires, before being aged, tempered and molded.
Unlike many European companies that add smoothing agents and preservatives, Affinity takes a bare bones approach typical of the American craft chocolate style. “We prefer to let the bean shine,” says Chris. “The grinding and aging processes bring out the naturally occurring flavors in the cocoa bean.” Intensely dark single-origin bars are blended simply with raw sugar; some varieties are paired with ingredients that enhance the chocolate’s complex flavor profile, including cinnamon from Ceylon, crushed Fort Bend Coffee beans and dehydrated goat milk.
They source organic, fair-trade cocoa beans from Tejas Chocolate who import from reputable producers in the Dominican Republic, Peru and Belize. “The process of growing, harvesting and fermenting is a very intensive process, and we want to honor it by ensuring fair wages to farmers,” Chris says. Tejas Chocolate, the only other bean-to-bar operation in Houston, has joined Fort Bend Coffee as a major supporter of the couple’s emerging chocolate business.
Ideas for future products include bars with nuts, chai spices or chiles and even aging chocolate in whiskey barrels. They also hope to begin sourcing directly from farmers next year. For now, with Chris focusing full-time on chocolate making, they’re just trying to keep up with demand.
Affinity Craft Chocolate (affinitycraftchocolate.com) is a vendor at the farmers markets on Saturday in Sugar Land (198 Kempner St., 9am– 1pm) and Memorial Villages (10840 Beinhorn Rd., 9am–1pm), and on Sunday at East End Street Market (2800 Navigation Blvd., 10am–2pm).