Ghirardelli, Hershey, Guittard—some of the most recognizable U.S. chocolate brands can be found in the East and on the West Coast. But there’s an artisanal chocolate revolution quietly brewing elsewhere: Utah.
There’s no doubt that the Beehive State has a sweet tooth. A 2015 study sponsored by the Hershey Company found that Utahns buy candy at the highest rate in the country, at nearly twice the national average. In Salt Lake City, there’s even the Utah Chocolate Society, a band of self-proclaimed “chocolate geeks,” who (before the pandemic) would gather each month at Caputo’s Market and Deli to discuss—and taste—all things cacao. And there’s certainly no shortage of locally made chocolate for the Society to sample: Utah has an almost disproportionate number of chocolate makers. For every 100,000 Utahns, there are about five candy or chocolate shops that call the state home. And many of those chocolatiers are creating bean-to-bar confections.
Bean-to-bar chocolate making takes a much different approach to the craft than large-scale manufacturers. Rather than melting down and retempering bars of premade chocolate, bean-to-bar artisans work with raw cacao that’s typically sourced from a single origin. Much like wine and coffee, cacao beans are affected by the terroir (the soil, topography, and climate) of a farming location—beans grown in Madagascar will not taste the same as those grown in Belize. The beans are then roasted and ground in house by chocolatiers, and yields are usually small and sold in “micro-batches.” Because chocolate makers have a hand in every step of the process, they have much more control over the taste of their final product.
Anna Sear, cofounder of award-winning company Ritual Chocolate, got into chocolate making after visiting San Francisco in 2009, where she sampled bean-to-bar creations for the first time. She was immediately enamored and resolved to learn as much as she could about chocolate making. Sear opened Ritual in 2010 with business partner Robbie Stout in Denver, but five years later moved to Heber City, Utah (about 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City).
“When we moved here in 2015, there were already a lot of chocolate makers in comparison to other places,” Sear says. “The Utah market is just further ahead on their knowledge of chocolate and interest. It’s amazing how it’s taken off.”
Enthusiasts and chocolate makers alike seem to agree that one man sparked the craft chocolate craze in Utah: Art Amano. Founder of Orem-based Amano Artisan Chocolate, he’s considered to be something of an O.G. in the Utahn chocolate bean-to-bar industry. Amano established his company in 2006, and a few years later in 2009, he took home gold and silver in the dark chocolate category for his Madagascar and Ocumare bars at the Academy of Chocolate Awards in London—the first time an American had ever been ranked so highly by the Academy. Since Amano Artisan Chocolate’s initial win, both Amano Artisan and other Utah chocolate companies have continued to rank highly in confectionary competitions worldwide; Utah chocolate officially became a player on the international stage.
Caputo Market and Deli’s senior manager and director of education Adrianna Pachelli said Amano’s 2009 win had an explosive effect on the budding chocolate scene in Utah, a state that is admittedly better known for its natural beauty and national parks than for its culinary prowess.
“When it came to food, we’d truthfully been written off,” Pachelli says. “When people say ‘flyover state,’ we were included in that. But to have something like that happen, which came from our backyard, and from one of our neighbors—that was something really special.”
For Deann Wallin, owner of Murray-based Solstice Chocolate, tasting Amano’s Madagascar bar was a revelation. Before trying it, Wallin didn’t think she even liked dark chocolate. She’d grown up making chocolate with her grandmother at Christmas, but Amano’s spurred her interest in the bean-to-bar process and helped inspire her to start her own company in 2013. Since the U.S. bean-to-bar chocolate movement was still in its infancy then, Wallin did her own homework and experimented frequently at home.
“It was a lot of trial and error to get it to where it was palatable,” Wallin says. “Even though it’s very few ingredients, [chocolate] is hard to make and it’s hard to get it to taste really good.”
So, why exactly is craft chocolate so popular in Utah? Pachelli has a working theory: With more than 62 percent of the state’s population belonging to the Church of Latter Day Saints, many residents can’t indulge in other artisanal goods like wine or coffee, since the faith prohibits practitioners from consuming both alcohol and caffeine. Craft chocolate allows people who must abstain from certain vices to indulge in a refined, luxury food that they can become an expert in.
“[Chocolate] is much more inclusive than a lot of other specialty types of food,” Pachelli says. “Chocolate is pretty universally beloved, and it gave everybody here a place where they felt like they could really get into something.”
And for artisans who want to share the love of their craft, chocolate has no shortage of fans—especially in a place like Utah. The receptive audience has allowed chocolatiers like Sear to play with a wide-range of unconventional flavors in chocolate. Some bars currently offered by Ritual include additions like juniper and lavender, raspberries and champagne, and pine nuts. But for Sear, despite how fun it may be to experiment, her art is all about her original love of the cacao bean.
“If you have really good beans and you make it the right way, cacao can have this full flavor profile where you taste the fruitiness, the nuttiness, and all these amazing nuances,” Sear says. “That’s what got me excited and that’s what I wanted to share with people.”