Friday, April 29, 2016

Upchurch Chocolate, Richmond's Own Bean-to-Bar Brand

The current product line from Upchurch Chocolate.
On a recent trip back to Richmond, VA to see family, I visited one of my favorite purveyors of fine chocolate, For the Love of Chocolate. Located on the Carytown strip, For the Love of Chocolate sells all sorts of brands, from the somewhat obscure Galler from Belgium to the often seen Baci from Italy, from Seattle-favorite Fran's Chocolate to Brooklyn's Mast Brothers, from brands with flashy mix-ins like Chuao and Vosges to bean-to-bar brands like Taza and Theo, from artisanal chocolate bars from Valrhona and Michel Cluizel to low-quality British-exclusive candy bars like Yorkie and Crunchie. All this in addition to the truffle case. It offers such quality and variety that, during my college years at VCU, an unrealistic expectation was set that all large American cities would have such a shop. Alas!

Walking around, I noticed a tiny display at the cash register of four different bars marked as being a Richmond brand. Always a fan of local flavor, I took a closer look and discovered that the brand, Upchurch Chocolate, was a bean-to-bar company with ingredient lists that are short, just as the chocolate gods intended. Each bar is organic cacao and organic sugar, with two of the bars featuring a single additional flavor. Nothing else. Also featured on the packaging is a handwritten batch number and the maker's own flavor notes. A little internet research reveals that the young company, started 2015, was founded by a VCU undergrad (Go Rams!) and a recent grad from nearby Mary Washington with some helpful seed capital from VCU and Lighthouse Labs totaling $25,000. With Richmond being one of the country's up-and-coming medium-sized cities for young people, culture and beards, here's hoping Upchurch Chocolate puts RVA on the chocolate map as well.

Needless to say, I bought all four bars and hosted a tasting for my family. The main distinguishing feature is the texture of chocolate, which is tempered, yet manages to feel partially--oh, let's say 20%--stone-ground (like one finds in popular brands like Taza). This means the texture was primarily smooth with a touch of rough, enough to feel alive but not enough to be gritty. Here are the other findings from our tasting, in order of bar preference:

The Bouncy Bar - Cacao from Tanzania, added ingredient of goat milk
Since my first introduction to goat's milk chocolate, I've jumped at the chance to purchase other brands' take. The Bouncy Bar features the rich and slightly sour qualities of other bars I've had, but in a way that somehow feels more simplified. It felt like the chefs were using sleight-of-hand to make themselves disappear and only the ingredients shine through. My family's unanimous vote for favorite bar in the bunch.

The Sassy Bar - 72% Cacao from Madagascar
Nothing but cacao and sugar in this bar, meaning the emphasis for the tasting is the beans' source, in this case Madagascar. The chocolate-making process has various steps that impact the flavor, but the effect of the cacao plants' soil, climate, etc. is the most interesting to explore. Like the best chocolate bars always offer, the Sassy Bar is a roller coaster of flavor, hitting numerous notes from when the bar touches the tongue all the way until the lingering aftertaste. A rich, dark, earthy bar and my dad and I's second favorite.

The Party Bar - 72% Cacao from Tanzanian
As the only other bar in the current line to only contain beans and sugar, it felt natural to compare it to the Sassy bar. We found that when we tasted the Party Bar independent from the others, it had more tart nuances to its flavor, but when we tasted it after the other bars it was delicious but somehow seemed less exciting than the other bars.

The Hype Bar - Cacao from Tanzania, added ingredient of coffee
The most polarizing of the Upchurch bars, the lone coffee-lover in my family declared this bar to be his second favorite of the bunch, saying he found the coffee flavor to be light. Meanwhile, the non-coffee drinkers (who obviously hold a negative bias) did not care for the bar and found the flavor to be like huffing coffee grounds. Coffee lovers, take note of this bar.

Like Upchurch Chocolate on Facebook. Then check out the website's "Find" tab to see if the chocolate is anywhere near you. (As of this writing it is principally in Virginia with an outpost in St. Paul, MN and another in Missouri.) Or shop online and have it shipped to you.

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