Back in March, I published a post about Raaka, a Brooklyn-based craft chocolate company that’s entirely nut-free. In that post, I noted that Raaka offers 45-minute tours of their factory in Red Hook to anyone who’s willing to part with $10 and don a hair net. It’s taken me a few months, but I finally got around to going—so I figured I’d share some photos.
Some important information first, though. None of Raaka’s products contain any gluten, dairy, soy, or nuts. Their FAQ states that no nuts are allowed in their factory, but that their chocolates aren’t certified nut-free, as they cannot guarantee that their vendors’ facilities are equally safe. Everything they sell is vegan, non-GMO, and organic—and most (if not all) of their bars are kosher, too.
(In spite of the whole vendors’-facilities thing, I’ve still categorized Raaka as truly nut-free, as their own plant is nut-free, and that’s about as much as I can ask for. Plus, I kind of like the fact that Raaka isn’t defined by its allergy-friendliness; it’s just a normal chocolate company that also happens to not use a few ingredients.)
Raaka is really big on their whole virgin chocolate thing, which refers to the fact that they use unroasted cacao beans in their chocolate-making process. As the folks at Raaka frame it, many lesser companies buy low-quality beans and then roast them to hide their flavor, which leads to a one-size, homogenous sort of product. Raaka, in an attempt to “bring you true cacao flavor,” does no such thing; instead, they buy high-quality beans and are thus unafraid to showcase those beans’ natural (unroasted) flavors. As long as it tastes good, right?
Onto the photos, though. Enjoy.
When Sam and I walked in, we were immediately hit with the unmistakable smell of dark chocolate. We were 10 minutes early, and the woman who took our names encouraged us to help ourselves to some free samples. Of course, we did—we both tried every flavor, even though we’ve had most in bar form before—and all of them were delicious.
I found myself enjoying the sample discs way more than I’d ever enjoyed Raaka’s bars, and that’s not just because the discs were free. They’re comparatively small and soft, so they’re way less overwhelming than the bars, flavor-wise—especially if you (like me) struggle with the bitterness of dark chocolate. Seriously, though: All the flavors were great, and come tour time, Sam and I both had trouble stepping away from the chocolate, even though we knew there’d be plenty more to come.
Soon enough, our tour-mates arrived. After a quick rundown on the difference between roasted and unroasted cacao beans, our guide led us to the bean room, where we’d soon learn more than we’d ever wanted to know about cacao. I can’t relate all that much information, because I got…um, lost in my thoughts (super-pressing questions like where are all the Oompa Loompas? and how many Willy Wonka jokes do these employees have to fake-laugh at per week?) but I swear our tour guide taught us a whole lot of stuff.
First, he taught us how to eat a cacao bean. Apparently, he’s spent a lot of time working farmers’ markets, where he’s met his fair share of that super-effete Whole Foods type who tend to just walk up to his stand, grab a cacao bean, say something to the effect of “mmm, antioxidants” or “ooh, a superfood,” and then pop the whole thing into his or her mouth, husk included. That, our guide warned, is not the way to go. Cacao husks are about as tasty as peanut shells—and after we’d been warned not to eat the beans whole, it was sampling time.
As we gathered around for our rations, our guide explained to us that cacao beans grown in different regions tend to pick up different flavors. He gave us each two nibs (a nib is a bean-chunk that’s had its husk removed), one from the Dominican Republic and one from…somewhere else, at which point we all realized that he wasn’t kidding. Though both beans were shockingly bitter, their flavors did have different undertones; one had distinct notes of earthy dirt, while the other was more of a dirty earth. (Sorry. They both tasted terrible to me. But they did have totally different flavors.) Nearly everyone made a sour face, and one of my tour-mates declared that he didn’t like chocolate—and then it was time to move on.
Still in the bean room, our guide went on to explain the winnowing process (by which the beans’ nibs and husks are separated). Again, I had trouble focusing—why would you pay $10 to tour a chocolate factory if you don’t like chocolate, Red Shoes?—but the process involves three rounds of running cacao beans through a machine that removes and then sucks away their husks and only their husks. Neat.
The folks at Raaka used to have to spend all day removing husks by hand, so they were all rather thrilled when they were finally able to purchase a machine to do the job for them. They also recently picked up an optical sorter, which (I think) they use to make absolutely sure that there’s nothing but pure, unadulterated cacao nib going into their grinders—no husks, no rocks, no nothing—which is, of course, another job that used to call for human attention.
After a long, long talk about husks and winnowing and optical sorting, we moved onto the the grinding room, where the nibs are ground (for three days!) into silky-smooth chocolate. That day, the Maple & Nibs vat was the furthest along, so that was the one we got to try.
At the prospect of getting to sample something sweet, our tour-mates finally started to look excited—and legitimately so, because that shit was good. Warm, smooth, and sweet, it was very dissimilar to the nibs we’d eaten in the previous room, and I was finally starting to have some fun. (Sugar. That’s all it takes, people. Also, dairy. But that one’s a lost cause at Raaka.)
After the chocolate comes out of the grinders, it’s still a little gritty, so it gets fed through a machine that looks a lot like a set of rolling pins for further smoothing. Then, it’s scraped into buckets and brought over to the tempering machine, which is in the factory’s main room.
The tempering machine repeatedly heats and cools the chocolate to encourage it to crystallize properly, which makes sure the product comes out looking nice and shiny, gives it that satisfying chocolate-bar snap, and keeps the bars’ surfaces from going gray (for a while, at least). Then, after it’s tempered, the chocolate is poured into rectangular molds. If that day’s flavor calls for the addition of nibs or fruit or whatever, they’re added to the chocolate while it’s still wet, and then everything goes into a big ol’ fridge for half an hour or so to cool.
Finally, the chocolate is wrapped and labeled. The wrapping machine, which is straight out of, like, City of Ember or something, can wrap around 400 bars per hour—way more than Raaka’s employees had been able to wrap by hand before they discovered this weird-ass machine in “the back of a warehouse in the Bronx.”
The labeling machine—way less steam-punk—applies labels (shocking!) to wrapped chocolate bars that glide by on a conveyor belt…and that’s it, really. That’s Raaka’s signature bean-to-bar process, of which they’re (understandably) rather proud.
(I know nothing and it’s showing—sorry. I’m here to talk about food allergies and share a few highly-compressed photos, not to pretend to be a chocolate expert. It wasn’t as if I was standing there taking notes, nor was I able to focus on nib-talk for long. I was hungry, and my thoughts were doing a lot of wandering. How many blocks do you think I’d have to walk to get a bottle of milk?, etc.)
And then—then—it was chocolate-sampling time. While we’d been on our tour, the woman who’d welcome us had laid out five plates of samples for my tour-mates and me. On the menu that day was Bourbon Cask Aged (82% cacao), Maple & Nibs (75% cacao), Pink Sea Salt (71%), Piña Colada (60%), and Coconut Milk (60%). We sampled from darkest to lightest, as that’s apparently how it’s done, and each and every flavor was absolutely delightful.
The Bourbon Cask Aged was a little too dark for my 20-year-old, sugar-loving palate, but it wasn’t bad by any means. Maple & Nibs was refreshingly sweet, by contrast, and Pink Sea Salt was salty and satisfying, as expected. My favorites were the last two, though: Piña Colada was very sweet, with chewy bits of pineapple throughout, and Coconut Milk was creamy and soft. Perfect, really.
After we’d all sampled each of the five flavors, the tour was over, and my tour-mates and I were set free…to the area with the rest of the samples. No one insisted we leave; no one pressured us to buy anything; no one sneered at us for taking too many little chocolate disks. We were under strict instructions to eat as much as we wanted—it was lunchtime, and our guide actually encouraged us to fill up on chocolate—and so we did.
Still, I couldn’t leave without making a purchase. I figured I’d go with the 3-bars-for-$15 deal—Piña Colada (my favorite), Raspberry Lemonade (of which there were no samples), and Sunflower Seed Butter (same deal as Raspberry Lemonade). But when I found out Piña Colada wouldn’t be for sale until the following month, I decided to just go with Sunflower Seed Butter ($8).
Anywho. I’m a shithead with the attention span (and palate!) of a toddler, but I had a wonderful time at Raaka’s factory (…when I wasn’t being shoved out of the way by one of my eldest tour-mates, that is). Our guide was super friendly, and he knew a hell of a lot about chocolate—and the folks at Raaka are very generous with their samples, which was a pleasant surprise.
In all, it was a great experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in chocolate. Plus, Raaka’s factory is a 15-minute walk from Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, which is totally nut-free, save for a packaged dessert or two. Make a day of it, if you’re into that sort of thing.
(Also, in the interest of accruing some bragging rights, I’d like to mention that I walked home—to Lower Manhattan—from Raaka’s factory. It was 90° and raining. I had boots, chocolate, and company, but I did not have an umbrella. Talk about making a day of things.)