Raising the Bar
Local brand takes chocolate-making SRSLY
It's no surprise when people moon over chocolate. After all, everything from its rich taste and smooth texture to its mood-boosting power and antioxidants is constantly celebrated. But it takes a little something more than puppy love to pursue the chemistry and art of artisanal chocolate-making. It takes some serious dedication.
With his Alton Brown-esque confidence, SRSLY Chocolate's Bob Williamson is the type of person you want on your team for pub trivia. One gets the sense that once he becomes interested in a subject, he quickly gains expertise. "I've always been interested in different food processes," Williamson says. "I've worked making cheese, brewing beer ... I've always looked for the right food process that had everything I was interested in." Chocolate would prove to be just the thing. While baking chocolate croissants to sell at a farmers' market, he decided to try making the chocolate from scratch. Thus began an obsession.
The obsession eventually led to success. Williamson's labor of love can now be found on the shelves at Wheatsville Co-op, Whole Foods Market, and some specialty stores, but it took Williamson and his wife, Robin Simoneaux-Williamson, relocating an almost 3-year-old operation to get there. "Austin may be a little more conducive to a craft chocolate-maker," Williamson says. "[Tallahassee, Fla.,] doesn't quite have the food scene that Austin has. I instantly fell in love with it."
Though the social climate may be perfect for growing a small-batch chocolate business, Williamson says he's been poked fun at by his northern colleagues for picking a place that can easily scorch the tempering process. Ideal temperatures would be a cool 70 degrees; last year, Williamson says they had to temper an exceptional amount more before the dog days of summer just to stay on production schedule.
Otherwise, the process of making SRSLY's bean-to-bar chocolate is fairly straightforward – even if there is little room for error if the desired result is a fruity, delicate bar with a velvety mouthfeel you'll dream about for days. Williamson's approach is "low and slow," he says, roasting the fermented cacao beans he receives from the CONACADO cooperative in the Dominican Republic for half an hour to drive off the vinegar notes and tease out the chocolate flavor. Once roasted, the beans are cracked to remove the cacao nibs from their husks. The nibs are roughly ground through a juicer, where they naturally transform into a paste, before getting scooped into a granite stone mill and continuously refined for 72 hours.
"Once it's fluid enough, I'll add sugar to the process because you want them to be in contact with each other and grinding for the most amount of time," Williamson says. "It lets you commingle the flavors and get a superior product." Then the tempering comes in to stabilize the fat crystals and create a smooth product with sheen and a high-quality snap. After being piped into molds, the chocolate is cooled, packaged, and ready to be devoured.
Currently, SRSLY Chocolate is available in four varieties and two bar sizes – 70% cacao, a richer 84% cacao, sea salt and almonds, and Oaxacan Espresso, made with Mexican chipotle peppers and Austin's Third Coast Coffee. Williamson says using other local ingredients is the next step, and he's currently perfecting a recipe with Texas olive oil. "I really want to incorporate local products into these chocolate bars, and it's hard to do when your basic ingredients come from 2,000 miles away," Williamson says. "It's hard to establish a local flavor."
Local or not, ethics are important to the SRSLY brand. "Respecting the cocoa bean goes in so many different directions," says Williamson. "That's making sure that I buy organic, Fair Trade cocoa beans, that the farmers are getting a fair cut, that the environment doesn't have a lot of pesticides. It's kind of a holistic thing." That's not just talk. Williamson and his wife plan on visiting the CONACADO cooperative this May to help with the harvest.
Back home, the couple will keep focusing on wholesale, and invest in larger equipment to keep up with demand. And they hope to move the operation closer to home. They have been traveling back and forth to a Pflugerville commissary kitchen, but the couple has sweet dreams of bringing the operation to Austin and possibly opening a storefront. SRSLY is a serious business, but it is always nice to have a little more time for fun.