Sweet times for award-winning
Mutari Chocolate in Santa Cruz
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
Heavenly is the first word that pops into my head as the elemental essence of chocolate wafts from the Mutari factory and shop on Front Street in Santa Cruz. Inside, piles of cacao beans in burlap sacks imprinted with their country of origin line the floor, while empty sacks adorn the walls.
This isn’t just a chocolate shop; it’s a window on the world of cacao.
Owners Katy Oursler and Stephen Beaumier took over Mutari three years ago. Gourmands to the core, the couple stone grinds ethically sourced, single-origin cacao beans to create their drinking chocolate and confections under the Mutari and White Label brands.
“We are one of only about 150 bean-to-bar makers in the U.S.,” says Beaumier, a chef with a pedigree from Michelin-star restaurants Cyrus and Quince. Chocolate connoisseurs often visit Santa Cruz to seek Mutari out.
Explains Oursler, “Cacao grows in the rainforest belt around the equator. We travel around the world meeting farmers. Each farm has its own terroir, which you can taste in the beans.” The owners currently source from 11 different farms and typically pay four times fair trade for beans.
Oursler, who hails from Ithaca, N.Y., helped found Outstanding in the Field with Jim Denevan and specializes in farm-to-table events. Beaumier, a New Hampshire native, considers cacao one of the most challenging ingredients he’s ever worked with due to the combination of science and artistry needed to produce high-quality products.
Both live just four blocks from the shop, where Beaumier spends many an hour dialing in the ideal roasting time and temperature for each type of bean. A friend fashioned a drum basket for the eBaysourced Henny Penny rotisserie oven that was actually built for roasting chickens. Beaumier and Oursler paid $1,200 for it. A typical cacao roaster would have cost them $50,000.
When I break open a fresh-roasted Honduran bean, it imparts the aroma of chocolate-dusted pecans, and tastes much the same. Its crunch and flavor have me hooked. Oursler reminds me that cacao contains theobromine, a stimulant and antioxidant far more subtle than caffeine. A vasodilator, it can help lower blood pressure. Yep, chocolate really is good for you.
Mutari owners Katy Oursler and Stephen Beaumier firmly believe chocolate makes you happy
Oursler walks me through the cacao to cocoa process. After harvesting and cutting open the cacao pods, which contain between 30 and 50 beans attached to a placenta, farmers ferment the beans in wooden boxes with the white guava-tasting pith that coats the beans. After fermentation, the beans are dried, preferably slowly, to reduce acid.
Upon receiving the sacks of beans, Oursler and Beaumier handsort them before roasting. Beans are then cooled, cracked, winnowed to remove husks, ground into nibs and refined in liquid form. They are then blocked and aged for a month, before being conched and tempered in large melanger vats with paddles that revolve slowly for three to five days. Tempering ensures a sharp snap, a glossy appearance and an even, creamy melt. It’s time consuming and labor intensive.
Mutari produces about 100 pounds of 70% chocolate per week, from 100 pounds of beans. About 30% of the chocolate is lost in processing, with organic sugar and a touch of residual molasses making up the difference. Husks are used for fertilizer and to make cacao tea.
To preserve the terroir of each batch of single origin cacao, the two don’t add any dairy. “We only use Native Organics full-cream coconut milk in our hot chocolates,” explains Oursler.
So, how does it taste? Earthy, rich, multi-layered and contemplative— Mutari chocolates engage your every sense.
Choose from Himalayan pink salt, spicy Mexican and straight up hot chocolate, all flavors swirling in mixing machines on the counter. Served in ceramic mugs handcrafted by Jonas Davidson of Permanent Vaclaytion, the hot beverage approaches a ceremonial experience.
Even richer is Mutari’s sipping chocolate, with a whipping cream texture that defies quick drinking and is more like liquid pot de crème. Oursler says the frozen dark chocolate, made with 77% Costa Esmeraldas Ecuador Ganache, topped with housemade organic whipped cream and chocolate syrup, is a fan fave. No wonder people come from far, far away for these decadent treats.
Earthy, rich, multi-layered
chocolates engage your
Cacao is sourced from 11 tropical farms and roasted in a repurposed chicken rotisserie
Mutari offers a selection of truffles, chocolate bars and baked goods, all made in house. The brownies are life changing. Snag a bar of Wild Bolivia (blueberry and blood orange), which won a silver medal out of more than 1,000 entries, at the 2018 International Chocolate Awards. The business won bronze for its Honduras La Masica (explosive raspberry and roasted hazelnut) in 2017.
If you really want to geek out on cacao terroir, partake in Mutari’s drinking flight, $15. Much like wine, you might enjoy Costa Esmeralda from Ecuador because you like cabernet for its tobacco, earth and pepper, while others might prefer Anamalai from India for its high acid and olive notes, more like cool climate syrah.
And, it’s all alcohol free.
Tours and tastings are available by appointment for eight or more guests for $20. Oursler says she and Beaumier plan to offer chocolate fondue parties, as well as special gift sets, during the holiday season. Oh, and they make their own marshmallows, too.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.TV, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.
Factory and Shop:
504 Front St., Ste. A
Pop-up Chocolate House:
1108 Pacific Ave.