Utah companies take chocolate drinks to new heights
Beverages • Mezzo Chocolate and The Chocolate Conspiracy are among Utah companies intent on showing why their bean of choice rivals its famous cousin.

By Heather May

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: August 30, 2013 07:08PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:33PM
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Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune For a story on the pros and cons of chocolate milk.

Hot or cold, Utahns love a good chocolate drink.

And two Salt Lake City companies — Mezzo Chocolate and The Chocolate Conspiracy — are elevating that sweet indulgence to gourmet status. They don’t dilute their drinks with cocoa butter or mask the taste with too much sugar, so the natural flavors of the cacao beans shine through.

“I’ve never wanted to market this as the Mormon coffee,” said Topher Webb, owner of Mezzo Chocolate. “What I want this to be is the chocolate for coffee drinkers, the chocolate for people who appreciate fine wines or cheeses, people that get into flavor and flavor tones and texture and have a palate and appreciate good food.”

The Chocolate Conspiracy, which has been making artisan chocolate bars for several years, started selling three flavors of chocolate smoothies at the Downtown Farmers Market this summer including a chocolate raspberry made with Utah-grown berries. The smoothies also are available at the Conspiracy retail shop in Salt Lake City.

“People love drinks,” said owner A.J. Wentworth. “Watching people at the market, they have three drinks in their hand. It’s part of the culture.”

Mezzo and Chocolate Conspiracy aren’t the first Utah companies to make gourmet chocolate drinks. Cocoa Metro makes a Belgian chocolate milk sold at Whole Foods and Harmons stores. The company was started by University of Utah graduates Mike and Lizzy Dunford.

Cherry’s Hot Chocolate, run by Ryan Lufkin and Marissa Nichols, also has entered the market recently. The traveling van with a built in hot chocolate machine launched in June and has been selling frozen hot chocolate — made with milk, ice and a custom powder mix — at Granary Row. A 16-ounce cup is $5, add a handmade marshmallows for $1. Cherry’s will be setting up at University of Utah football games and Food Truck Thursdays at the Gallivan Center.

There also is Crio Bru, based in Lindon, which sells roasted and ground cacao beans which are brewed like coffee. Celebrating its three-year-anniversary, it now distributes to more than 500 stores in the United States and to Australia, Canada, South Korea and Japan. It also recently started selling blends of beans and natural spices.

Owner Jon Fotheringham credits the growing popularity to chocolate’s health benefits. A natural superfood, cacao is high in antioxidants and may be a appetite suppressant and energy booster.

“We normally don’t associate cocoa as being healthy because we add so much sugar and marshmallow. Cocoa in it’s pure form is one of the healthiest foods on the planet,” he said. And “it tastes better than broccoli, spinach or kale.”

Bean to bar • Mezzo’s roots were formed in a failed attempt to create another Utah favorite — ice cream.

Webb initially wanted to sell gelato, but couldn’t find an intense enough chocolate for his taste. So the 46-year-old architect made his own. In researching the confection, he became enamoured of its history in Mesoamerica, where Mayan and Aztec royalty, priests and warriors drank the fermented and ground beans, thought to have magical properties.

Just as coffee beans and grapes have distinct flavors depending where they’re grown, so do cacao beans, said Webb, who runs the company with is his wife, Shannon, and partner Tom Williamson.

Because he isn’t turning his beans into a bar, he doesn’t have to grind them for hours. After roasting them, Webb blends his beans for under a minute so the nutty flavor of the Venezuelan bean or the floral taste from Bolivia comes through, he said.

He also doesn’t add ingredients typically found in chocolate bars, such as cocoa butter, milkfat, emulsifiers or artificial flavorings.

The Salt Lake City commercial kitchen, inside what appears to be a storage unit, is an inviting space, decorated in bright blue and orange and room for future tasting parties. On the counter, sits glass jars of cloves, peppercorns, ginger and rosemary, and tubs of raw cane sugar.

Once the ingredients are ground together, they solidify into a cake-like shape which is chopped and bagged. To drink the chocolate, Webb suggests mixing 4 tablespoons chocolate with 8 ounces heated milk, water or dairy alternatives. The mixture can be consumed warm, or cooled in the fridge.

The drinks are rich and sweet, but it’s not like drinking a candy bar. And the endorphins released while eating or drinking chocolate means you’ll feel good after a few sips, said Webb. Mezzo’s six flavors of drinking chocolate are currently available at Pirate O’s Gourmet Market in Draper and at Caputo’s Market & Deli, in Salt Lake City for $11.99 for a 7.5-ounce bag. The Mezzo drinks also are served at Salt Lake City’s Frida Bistro for $4 each.

While the bagged chocolate can be used in baking or as a replacement for cocoa powder and chocolate, Web is developing a 100 percent cacao baking bar for the same purpose. He’s also creating a line of vanilla extract; casks of vodka, rum, tequila and bourbon stuffed with vanilla beans line a wall in the kitchen. He’s making a tea using the cacao husks released during roasting.

Mezzo has also teamed with Charming Beard Coffee, which roasts single origin coffee, to create a mocha mix, made of Paulos Blancos Bolivian cacao beans and Guatamalen La Flor coffee beans, which will be sold at Harmons.

When Charming Beard sells its coffee at the Downtown Farmers Market, it doesn’t offer cream or sugar. “For us to be combining our beans with something else hopefully makes a statement about high quality it is,” said Josh Rosenthal, one of Charming’s founders.

Eye on health • At The Chocolate Conspiracy Wentworth aims for the healthiest chocolate possible. He uses unroasted — or raw — cacoa beans, which he says better preserves their nutritional value and inherent flavors. Instead of sugar, he sweetens the bars with Utah honey. The bars are made with other natural ingredients — such as aged balsalmic vinegar and truffle-infused sea salt — and come in unique flavors such as wild spice and blackberry ginger.

For the smoothies at the Farmers Market, Wentworth combines his own chocolate mix with coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut powder, vanilla bean and coconut sugar. The sweetener, made from the flower buds of the coconut palm, is more healthy than the white sugar, said Wentworth who is also trained in holistic health counseling.

It “is probably one of the best sweeteners for diabetics [and] anyone trying to cut sugar out of their diets,” he said.

Wentworth sells four flavors of smoothies: plain chocolate, raspberry, chai, made with tea from locals The Tea Grotto and The Emperor’s Tea; and coffee made with an extract from Salt Lake City’s Rimini Coffee. A 16-ounce container costs $7-$8.

Shoppers are skeptical about the taste when Wentworth tells them it’s healthy, but he assures them it’s “better than Wendy’s frosty.”

hmay@sltrib.com