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Chocolate Alchemy
John Nanci
Special Feature written by Tom Rosenbauer


Tom Rosenbauer

In this response we are extremely fortunate to accept an offer from Tom Rosenbauer to share the story of John Nanci, the “Pioneer of Open Source Chocolate.”  Tom,  called a “living legend in the world of fly fishing” in a November 2015 article in Forbes magazine, due to the many innovations he has brought to the sport, and named 2011 Angler of the Year by Fly Rod & Reel magazine has written fifteen books on the topic of fly fishing and has been published in magazines such as Field & Stream, Outdoor life and many others.  Who would imagine that  Tom is also a competent chocolate maker, actively experimenting with different beans and processes and making some very interesting bars.  So, as told by a living legend in one world, we present the story of a living legend in our world of craft chocolate.  This is John Nanci - passionate, persistent, inventive and very open about sharing knowledge -  he is the driving force who  made the craft bean-to-bar movement possible for so many artisan chocolate makers.  Enjoy.

The Pioneer of Open Source Chocolate

It’s been barely twenty years since Scharffen Berger brought their ideas of producing small-batch chocolate for fine flavor to North America.  Since then, hundreds of small bean-to-bar makers have developed businesses in what was once a chocolate monoculture, dominated by over-sugared, industrially-made “special dark” chocolate or mushy milk chocolate from Europe, the epitome of taste to Americans.  Without one man, working  behind the scenes in Eugene, Oregon, we may never have known of fine flavor cocoa  beans or artisan chocolate—or at least not as soon as we did.

If you don’t know of John Nanci, you probably don’t know much about the artisan chocolate business.  If you search the web for fine flavor cocoa beans and you want to buy less than a metric ton, you won’t find any other reliable source than his business, Chocolate Alchemy.  You can try other sources, but what you’ll probably find is one variety of mediocre quality Ecuadoran beans on Amazon.com.  You can try other sources as I did.  One importer claimed to sell fine Venezuelan beans in lots as small as a kilo, but he stopped answering my e-mails when I wanted to place an order.  Another operation that sells chocolate-making equipment claims to sell Brazilian beans but whoever answers the phone knows nothing about it.  A third web site offers eight varieties of beans from three countries but they are always sold out of all but one vintage.  When you finally find Chocolate Alchemy, you’ll find at least twenty (and at times over thirty) varieties of fine flavor beans in stock from across the world, in quantities as small as one pound, roasted or raw, as whole beans or cocoa nibs.

Not only that, you’ll find equipment to make chocolate at home or in a small shop, volumes of information on how to do it, and the owner who answers every e-mail promptly and personally.  It’s not surprising that Nanci is often credited with making the bean-to-bar movement possible, and to this day he supports both commercial artisan makers and home hobbyists like me.  Appropriately, the New York Times called his method of operation “open source chocolate making”.
How did an organic chemist who worked for the City of Tampa Water Department and Lockheed Martin in Florida end up in Eugene, Oregon, supporting this nascent industry?  And how did a self-admitted Luddite when it comes to electronic gadgets end up as a pure-play web retailer?  In 2000, Nanci and his wife moved to Oregon, where he worked for Umpqua Research Laboratory, and while there he became interested in the coffee roasting movement evolving in the Pacific Northwest. He was particularly impressed by Sweet Maria’s groundbreaking support of home coffee roasters.  He had been brewing his own craft beer while in Florida and coffee roasting held a similar appeal to him.  At one meeting of a coffee group he had joined, the Pacific Northwest Gathering (PNWG) one of the members brought a sample of Mexican drinking chocolate, which intrigued Nanci. 

Says Nanci “This fellow, Oaxaca Charlie as we know him, told us about his stash of authentic hand-prepared cocoa, used for making hot cocoa that he acquired the last time he was in Oaxaca lining up his own sources of coffee beans. It was made by a wonderful old woman, Marina, down there who said this was her last year making it. (She had been making it for something like 60 years). Charlie received some 10 pounds of it, which he shared with us at the PNWG (he came all the way from Canada). As he promised, it was out of this world. He grated some, whipped it up with hot water and we drank. It had already been sweetened and was this great, fresh, heady drink. He said it was made by fermenting the cocoa beans, roasting them, peeling them and then working them on a warm, fire-heated stone metate (think a flat mortar and pestle), and with sugar and cinnamon until it was a gooey, chocolatey mess. That was portioned out, rolled into balls and allowed to set up. That was what he brought.

“Anyway, that is what started me on this quest. I figured if this could be made by hand in Mexico, I could do the same. So I started looking for cocoa beans, and learning A LOT along the way. First off, I found there are not cocoa beans available. Second, I hit numerous brick walls in the industry.

“The basic message was you cannot make chocolate at home. It takes sophisticated, expensive equipment and is just too difficult for the average person. Well, I have heard this before in two industries. The first was beer making. I recall wanting to make and sell small batches of good ale about (wow) 30 years ago. I was hit squarely with ‘are you crazy, no one would want to buy your homebrew’. Five or so years later, these microbreweries starting popping up — and what do you know, people liked this ‘homebrew’. Ah well, one missed opportunity. When I got into coffee roasting in 2001, I did some research and found that the big professional roasters said ‘What! You can’t roast coffee at home, it is too technical, and expensive, and there are no green beans and…’ Now I roast at home every couple of days, have built two of my own roasters and the industry has come out with another roaster targeted right at the desires of the home roasting community(over the next 12 years John had built 5 additional roasters).”

Nanci thought “OK, I already missed the boat (an opportunity) twice; I am not going to miss it this time. I’m going to actually build the boat this time”.   So he began experimenting with roasted nibs from Scharffen Berger.  ”They were pretty pricey at around $15/pound, but it let me start experimenting. All the while, I was searching out sources of raw cocoa beans.” He pleaded, cajoled, and basically made a pest of himself to some of the existing cocoa brokers until in late 2002 one of them agreed to sell him a single 135-pound bag of forastero beans from Ghana.  “With that first bag of Ghana beans, the gentleman who got them for me joked about being infamous for the smallest sale on record. Most sales are at a minimum 2,000 pounds, and more often 48,000 pounds.” Nanci experimented with those Ghana beans, trying to hack the process and figure out how chocolate could be made on a much smaller scale than was technically feasible at that time.
That broker closed his business a couple years later, but by then Nanci had connected with some of the other importers and brokers.  Once he started a dialog with them, he basically bluffed his way into getting a much wider and diverse selection of beans, including many of the fine flavor variety.  He now has a much wider variety of beans to choose from, and the tables have turned as now brokers send samples for evaluation to him, many of which he rejects outright because they come from big industrial growers with mediocre quality and questionable labor practices.

After solving the bean-buying problem, Nanci turned his attention to determining a reliable and repeatable way of roasting, cracking, winnowing, refining, and conching chocolate at home.  Tempering had already been perfected by many chocolatiers who bought coverture from industrial chocolate makers and tempered it at home or in candy shops to make various confections.  But no one knew how to get the raw beans to that stage on a small scale.  The roasting process itself was relatively easy because it can be done in a home oven.  Nanci also developed a drum roaster for use with a gas grill that worked well enough, and much later, in 2007 he worked with the people at Behmor to develop a coffee roaster that was also perfect for roasting up to two and a half pounds of beans at a time—the Behmor 1600.   It proved to be so reliable and, more importantly, repeatable, that it is still the best way to roast cacao for hobbyists and even small-scale bean-to-bar chocolate makers.

The process of roasting is simple.  Getting the right amount of heat at the right profile and for the proper length of time was harder.  It took a lot of experimentation, but what he discovered is that every bean needs to be treated differently and even then different roasting regimes may be preferred by different people.  He does give some roasting advice on all of his beans but is notoriously reluctant to give dogmatic instructions on how to roast beans both because he wants his customers to experiment and enjoy the challenge of discovery for themselves and because he believes dogmatic advice does not work well when making chocolate.

In order to liquefy the nibs to prepare them for refining and conching, he tried all kinds of appliances, burning out nearly every brand of blender he could find.  Food processors wouldn’t do an acceptable job, as he found that the roasted nibs he originally bought from Scharffen Berger would just spin around and would pack the nibs against the sides, and also food processors did not generate enough heat to liquefy the nibs.  He discovered that a centrifugal juicer almost worked but it still was not perfect.   The powerful Vitamix tended to burn them. Finally he tried the Champion Juicer, a commercial grade tank of a machine that not only could handle anything he put in it, it would keep the nibs in the chamber until they were properly liquefied and would even strain out any husks left in the nibs after winnowing.  “I wanted everything to be approachable and repeatable and the Champion was perfect”.

Not only that, but he discovered that by removing the screen on the Champion Juicer, he had a perfect machine to quickly and efficiently crack beans prior to winnowing.  “Have you ever tried cracking beans by hand or with a rolling pin? He once asked me.  “It’s slow and inefficient and messy and I’m willing to bet you won’t do it more than once.”  He was right.  He also, for a time, had a hand-operated machine called the Crankandstein for cracking beans, which he had modified from an existing grain mill but unfortunately that device is no longer made.

Finding an efficient and repeatable way to both produce cocoa nibs and turn those nibs into chocolate liquor was what finally launched Chocolate Alchemy in 2004.  At this point not really a business, it was more of a think tank where he shared his experiments and collaborated with other people hoping to discover a way to make real craft chocolate at home.

The process of refining the chocolate mass to get the particle size to less than 20 microns so that the resulting chocolate was smooth, proved to be one of his biggest breakthroughs.  No kitchen appliance or easy-to-reproduce method seemed to work.  “I tried a spice grinder to get the sugar finer but it was still too coarse.  And then I tried ball mills—they would do the job but to do it you needed a few hundred dollars of stainless steel shot, and I couldn’t find a stainless container that could handle the shot, either.”  Ice cream makers had a tolerance and scraping problem.

One day he saw a photo of an old-school melanger on the Grenada Chocolate web site during a Google search.  Melangers are devices that both refine the chocolate and sugar into fine particles and conche the chocolate, or expose it continuously to oxygen so the flavors in the beans get refined and certain undesirable volatiles are driven off.  So he Googled “granite rollers” and discovered an Indian wet grinder that is used to make dosai (rice crepes), idli (steamed rice cakes), and vadai (fried lentil donuts).  The grinders, made by Santha, were made for short-term grinding, and because chocolate needs to conche and refine for between 12 and 72 hours, the units would overheat and the motor would burn out.  Working with the people at Santha, in 2005 Nanci convinced them to ventilate the motor housing and improve the belt drives so the machines would run continuously for days without a problem.  The constant motion of the granite rollers refined the cocoa and the sugar, and the heat generated by the friction kept the mixture at a high enough temperature to keep the mass liquid and free of cocoa butter crystals that would bog it down.

John’s wife passed away in 2009.  He moved to Eugene to be closer to his daughter’s school, and took a job with Analytical Laboratories.  From then until 2011, he was a single dad, worked as an organic chemist full time, and ran Chocolate Alchemy in what little spare time he had.  “I realized I couldn’t do it all” he told me.  “I couldn’t give my daughter all she needed, work full time, and run Chocolate Alchemy in the background.  I decided to run Chocolate Alchemy full-time.  After all I’d been through, it wasn’t really a scary decision and I could set my own hours and work from my home.”

The one part of the process he was not satisfied with was winnowing, or removing the husks from the cocoa nibs after cracking.  He tried fans but they were messy and blew dust all over.  He came up with a pretty efficient way to winnow with a hair drier in 2005, but it had to be done outside because it again blew the husks and dust all over the place.  “I kept waiting for someone else to come up with a design for a winnower.  All the while I was thinking it through and experimenting.  I tried a bird seed winnower but it failed miserably.  I don’t tinker, I think problems through.  An opportune accident made me realize you needed two air pathways for a winnower.  From my work in organic chemistry with mass spectrometers, where huge magnets turn particles 90 degrees, I got the idea of using a deflector and a second airflow to deflect the lighter particles from the husk into a waste bucket, instead of using a long drop tube to help separate them.”

Finally, a customer who really wanted an automated winnower offered to pay John enough to give him an incentive to build a prototype, and at first it was made with metal but he realized it would be much easier, less expensive, and easier to reproduce with PVC.  So the Aether Winnower was born, and true to Nanci’s open source chocolate philosophy he put detailed plans on his site so that other people could build them at home.  It was first shown in 2009, was commercially available in 2011 and the current version with more improvements was completed in 2013.  It is an automated, large-scale winnower for commercial use, and with the addition of a Champion Juicer will crack and winnow beans continuously.  The Aether Winnower is the result of seven years of observation, three years of prototype work, and thousands of pounds of cracked and winnowed beans. Necessity truly is the mother of invention – when Nanci was hand-winnowing, the cocoa dust caus him asthma-like symptoms. Something had to change and that change has improved the lives and production of small-scale chocolate makers everywhere. 

Building on the design of the Aether, he decided to build a more simplified model, the Sylph, which operates by hand feeding, and is perfect for home use and very small operations.  True to his stubborn insistence on being involved with every aspect of his operation, Nanci builds all of the Aether winnowers himself by hand and his assistant, MacKenzie River, of Map Chocolate currently builds the Sylph winnowers.

The term “busier than a one-armed paperhanger” is an apt description for how Nanci works.  Other than part-time help picking and packing orders from MacKenzie, Nanci builds winnowers, plans his roasts and then roasts beans, cracks and winnows nibs, hauls around bags of cocoa, answers e-mails (he answers e-mails from customers he doesn’t recognize the same day he gets them, regular customers might have to wait a day or so longer), writes his weekly “Ask the Alchemist” column for his site, evaluates new beans, checks his supply lines, and maintains his web site.  In between he might snack on nibs and evaluates cocoa beans (as chocolate) deciding which he will or won’t offer. 

“Actually, you’d be surprised that I really don’t have a sweet tooth,” he says.  “I used to eat chocolate once a week, now it’s two to three times a week.  I take small bites just because it is sitting around--if it’s good chocolate.  I snack on nibs a lot, and put them on a lot of foods.  Of course, when I evaluate beans I sample them at every step, from raw to roasted to nibs to the final steps after melanging.  At each step there is a chance for a possible new bean to be eliminated because the quality is not there.”

He has to like the chocolate.  “On a recent batch of new beans the chocolate was just OK, but I found I was not nibbling on it so I passed.  On the other hand, the new Vietnamese beans I sourced with Marou I find myself tasting frequently.  Hardly ever will I bring in a new bean ‘blind’ unless I have a lot of trust in the source.  Sometimes I will find a bean that is not fine flavor but I still carry it because it is inexpensive and it allows people to get into chocolate making without spending a lot.  For instance, the Ivory Coast bean I sell is fair trade and has a nice flavor profile.  It’s not fine flavor but it’s good.”

“My criteria for bringing in a new bean are as follows:  First, does the quality measure up?  Is it something I like or is it something I know others will like?  For instance, I don’t usually like the bright, fruity beans like La Red or Madagascar, but a lot of people do.  Second, are there many rocks in the shipment?  Stones are a deal breaker.  And third, is it worth the price they are asking?  I won’t bring in beans that have more than one or two percent defects like insect damage or slaty beans.  And, of course, I have to be able to buy a decent amount to meet demand but not a huge quantity.  Sometimes I make an exception—last year I was offered a part bag of Honduran beans that were so good I couldn’t pass on them, but I had to limit sales to five pounds per customer.”

What does he think of the small-scale chocolate industry today?  “I see more and more fine flavor beans and I think it will only get better.  It used to be we would bring in any beans to help the small farmers, but now with an increase in knowledge and communication between makers and growers there is an increase overall in the flavor profile.  I think it will follow the coffee industry, but in my opinion it will be a decade before people are as educated about fine flavor chocolate as they are about coffee.  Most people still don’t have any idea what chocolate should, or can, really taste like.”

There is one trend in artisan chocolate making he feels has dubious merits—the raw chocolate movement.  He feels that people are taking a bigger risk on their health by eating something that was lying on the ground in a tropical country fermenting for three days without sterilizing it than any benefit they might get from eating raw chocolate.  And as a scientist, he sees no compelling evidence that raw chocolate is any healthier than chocolate that has been properly roasted to remove microorganisms.  In fact, he maintains that there is also the question as to whether raw chocolate’s nutrients are as bioavailable as they are when beans are roasted.  He also points out that there is lots of data out there that cooking (but not significantly overcooking) is significantly more nutritious.  Besides, he just
doesn’t think it tastes as good.  “If you enjoy it and want to take that risk, knock yourself out”, he says of raw chocolate. 

“At the Northwest Chocolate Festival I tried some chocolate from Raaka that was pretty good.  It was fermented but un-roasted; however they refined it at 150 degrees so it was not technically raw.  And they refined it to 11 microns, at which point you’re damaging many living organisms.  They are also very careful and do bacteria counts, so in this case it’s a chocolate that is made under sanitary conditions.  So I have broadened my view on un-roasted beans, but I still don’t buy that almost religious fervor that many people get about raw chocolate.”

From my perspective as a hobbyist, Nanci seems to be the only game in town, but I’ve often wondered how influential he is in the wider world of commercial artisan chocolate.  In all the books out there on the world of bean-to-bar chocolate, he’s hardly mentioned.  But people in the industry do appreciate the work he has done.  Toby Gadd at Nuance Chocolate calls Nanci the “patron saint of Nuance Chocolate”, and says that he is responsible for Nuance’s very existence.  Sam Ratto of Videri says “John Nanci is a huge help for home makers of bean to bar chocolate and to small business owners in need of educated, diligent and intelligent chocolate information. When we started, John was the first person I called, about bean varieties he was offering and equipment manufacturers he had worked with or recommended. His knowledge is incredible and his passion for good chocolate is virtually unmatched! A true gem in an industry still trying to figure out what is or isn’t a gem.”

And he continues to be important to up-and-coming makers.  Andy Jackson of Middlebury Chocolates studied Nanci’s forum before taking the plunge from being merely a confectioner to a bean-to-bar maker.  “We did much experimenting through the summer of 2010 and began selling our first bean-to-bar chocolates in September of 2010. Over the last five years, we have sourced many things through John; our first winnower (the Sylph), a couple large Santha refiners, and of course some wonderful cocoa beans. John continues to be an excellent resource and without a doubt an integral part of the craft chocolate movement.”

And he continues his work as a mentor, as Erin Andrews of Indi Chocolates in Seattle states:  “John is really the Rock Star of bean-to-bar chocolate.  He had the vision and the talent to develop the equipment needed to make chocolate on a small scale.    Even more important, he has fostered a culture of sharing knowledge in the artisan chocolate industry.  He’s always been very giving of his time, and has never asked for a cent in return.”

Despite being such a driving force in the fine flavor chocolate industry and having, in effect, no competition in the market he created, Nanci still likes to play behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t call him modest—he knows the contribution he’s made—but he is content to keep doing what he has been doing, all the while improving the equipment he builds and designs and the beans he sources.  He says “I’ve always been like that.  When I was a chemist I worked behind the scenes in the lab, and I also used to do theatrical makeup.   I prefer being backstage as opposed to out in front.”