Raising the Chocolate Bar
Burnt sugar. Tobacco. Olive. Cultured cream. The flavors of Violet Sky chocolate stopped us in our tracks. Our chocolate-tasting party sampled a dozen varieties of single-origin bars from around the world (including some from among the biggest names in craft chocolate), but it was the chocolate made by Hans Westerink in his family’s South Bend, Indiana, kitchen that had everyone exclaiming, “Wow! What is that?”
Weeks later, our recipe editor confided, “I can’t stop thinking about the taste of that Violet Sky chocolate.”
She wasn’t alone. I was also hooked. I knew I needed to find out more from Hans—and sample more of his phenomenal chocolate.
‘Purity and Beauty’
I met with Hans in his parents’ home in the historic Harter Heights neighborhood. Hans and his wife, Alison, both 26, have their own home nearby, but Hans uses his parents’ well-equipped kitchen and basement to craft his chocolate. (He is in the process of setting up a commercial kitchen.) I ask Hans to tell me how he thinks about his work as a chocolate maker. Soft spoken and eloquent, he says simply that it is about “bringing back the purity and beauty of chocolate.”
There are, Hans explains, lots of chocolates out there with all sorts of fancy add-ins and toppings—gold flakes, bacon, even coconut ash—but Hans believes there is rarely enough attention paid to the chocolate itself.
For Hans, the complexity and depth of flavor of the chocolate is paramount. A meticulous crafter with an exceptional palate, he starts with the best-quality beans (organic and typically direct trade) and coaxes out a remarkable range of flavors—sour, fruity, spicy—through careful roasting, refining, tempering and molding.
In Violet Sky truffles, Hans accentuates and contrasts the flavors of his chocolate with ganache filling confected from chocolate extract made with cacao nibs and 18 Vodka (locally distilled in Mishawaka, Indiana) or Redemption Bourbon, fresh cream and a variety of herbs and spices, some from his family’s kitchen garden.
A truffle made with dark Madagascan chocolate with lavender ganache is deliciously tart, floral and bitter. Another, with cacao from Belize (Hans’s current favorite) and Southern Tier Chocolate Stout and allspice ganache, is creamy with slightly astringent spice. My favorite of all is the Peruvian cacao with smoked serranos (Hans not only grows the chilies, he also smokes them himself ), Tahitian vanilla and chocolate bourbon extract; each bite offers lush vanilla and tobacco notes followed by an intense smoky heat tempered by flavors of fruit and cocoa. Heavenly!
Also of note are Hans’s coffee bars, which look like glossy chocolate bars but are, in fact, made from organic cocoa butter and super-finely ground coffee. The bars I sampled were delightfully smooth with a concentrated coffee flavor and were made with direct trade Nicaraguan coffee from South Bend’s Zen Café.
Hans, like many children, loved chocolate from an early age. Growing up, he often traveled with his parents to Europe (his father is originally from Holland), where he tasted Dutch, French and Swiss chocolates.
While studying philosophy at Indiana University South Bend, Hans began experimenting with making his own chocolate confections. A batch of simple rolled truffles—Christmas gifts for friends and family—led to a stint at the South Bend Farmers Market selling truffles under the name Westerink Chocolates. Then, inspired by the Mast Brothers—artisanal chocolate makers in Brooklyn, New York, whom Hans discovered online a few years back—he decided to take his chocolate obsession to the next level: making bean-to-bar chocolate at home and launching Violet Sky Chocolate.
Hans researched the chocolate-making process, purchased 100-pound burlap sacks of cacao beans, invested in some basic chocolate-making equipment and joined the small but growing ranks of American bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers. He currently makes chocolate two or three times a week and will soon begin marketing Violet Sky chocolates commercially.
Raising the Chocolate Bar
Craft chocolate, Hans points out, has parallels with the craft beer movement: At its core, it is about making the best possible product with the best ingredients and, in the process, challenging consumers to rethink their expectations about what beer—or chocolate—can taste like. Hans, not coincidentally, is an avid and accomplished homebrewer and his wife, Alison, works part time at Bare Hands Brewery in Granger, Indiana. (Violet Sky, Bare Hands and Zen Café are currently teaming up to make a chocolate and coffee stout.)
Eventually, Hans hopes to sell chocolate from his own storefront—perhaps a chocolate shop that also offers baked goods and savory foods. Buying chocolate, he believes, should be like buying meat from your neighborhood butcher or vegetables from your local farmer or beer from your community’s craft brew pub: a delicious personal connection between the producer and consumer.