UI grad student turning beans to bars of chocolate

UI grad student turning beans to bars of chocolate

URBANA – Daniel Harry Schreiber is fairly positive he's the only person in Illinois who makes his own chocolate.

That's right, he buys fair-trade, organic cacao beans (his most recent investment came in the form of a 110-pound bag from Panama) and, through processes full of careful calculations and obvious passion, carefully transforms them into chocolate.

"Usually when people make chocolate, they're not quiet about it," said Schreiber, a 23-year-old graduate student who lives in Urbana. He's not – you can read his blog about it at www.danielhschreiber.com/blog.

Schreiber's goal is to make chocolate in the best way possible. His product is fair-trade and organic, with each batch handmade from bean to finished bar. Its flavors, he said, are more complex than those found in wine. Right now, he makes dark chocolate but is interested in learning how to make milk chocolate and even products like Nutella.

Schreiber works hard to make his hobby work. He raised money for equipment and supplies on www.kickstarter.com. But still, he's spent more money than he raised, so you might have seen him around Urbana's Market at the Square, approaching people to ask if they'd like one of the homemade chocolate bars he has in his backpack.

He started making chocolate this summer as a diversion from his studies. "Grad school can be a depressing type of place, I think," Schreiber said. He likes hobbies with positive reinforcement – last semester, he memorized portions of James Joyce's "Ulysses."

Schreiber is a University of Illinois doctoral student in computer science. He completed his undergraduate degree in the same field at the UI. The Palo Alto, Calif., native said he is not related to the Dan Schreiber who frequently writes letters to The News-Gazette.

Schreiber said his newest hobby is a much better topic of conversation than his research.

"I've met no one who doesn't want to talk about chocolate," Schreiber said.

And in the process, he's plugged himself in with a community of local people who make and love food.

Blogger Jason Brechin, a Savoy resident who runs www.cleverfoodblog.com, got involved when Schreiber contacted him about supporting his chocolate-making drive on kickstarter.com. Brechin donated and wrote a blog post about Schreiber's, because he saw value in the idea.

"I kept in touch with him and met up with him once he had made a couple batches," Brechin said. "Trying his chocolate for the first time was relieving – my money wasn't wasted – and joyful – it was really good."

Brechin said he appreciates Schreiber's chocolate because each piece is different, unlike a chocolate bar from the grocery store, which is processed in a way to make each piece consistent.

"The feel of chocolate that wasn't smashed into 'perfect' particles by stainless steel mills is, for me, more attractive," Brechin said. "It's not gritty, by any means, but it has just a little texture to it that you want to feel in your mouth as you taste the different flavors from the chocolate."

(For more about how Schreiber actually makes the chocolate, please see below.)

Schreiber also connected with Bill Chapman, a chocolatier (which means he makes products from already-made chocolate) from Mahomet who is working with Schreiber on things like renting a certified commercial kitchen so they can sell their chocolate.

Chapman made some salted caramel for Schreiber to include in his chocolate bars. In his own truffles, Chapman has combined chocolate with flavors like mint, amaretto and butter rum and even things like pepper and Coca-Cola.

"If Dan can ever keep his friends from consuming all of his work, I'm looking forward to trying to match up some of these flavors with the complex chocolate Dan is creating," Chapman said.

He's also met with Laurence Mate, a Champaign man who cures and prepares meats and runs www.thislittlepiggy.us.

Mate and Schreiber have experimented with their bacon and chocolate together, and the result is a delicious blend of salty and sweet.

But chocolate is supposed to melt on one's tongue so you can taste its complex flavors, Schreiber said, so he has also experimented with things like cinnamon and sea salt, along with raisins, almonds and other add-ins.

Eventually, Schreiber would like to see if he could make chocolate work as a business. Of course, he would need to upgrade his equipment and secure financial backing.

But he feels strongly that chocolate should be made of cocoa beans and sugar, and nothing else. He loves the science of food and to make things the same way people did 1,000 years ago. However, he frowns upon what he calls "food science" and eating things made of unpronounceable ingredients.

"I don't really feel comfortable eating random acronyms," he said.

And as Chapman pointed out, Schreiber makes his chocolate in a precise, carefully measured way.

"Dan's chocolate making is very scientific," Chapman said. "He does a lot of background research, synthesizes what others have done and then re-engineers a better way to do things. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but he is always thinking and tinkering."

How it's made

Here's how Urbana resident Dan Schreiber makes his chocolate:

He roasts cacao beans in the oven of his apartment house, checking them often with an infrared thermometer. He wants them to reach 240 degrees, but "really, you roast by taste," he said. He uses his cell phone as a kitchen timer.

Roasting the beans develops their flavor, Schreiber said, but it also makes it easier to detach the beans from the husks surrounding them. The fats in the beans warm up and melt, making the husks come off easier. The water in the beans also vaporizes, puffing up the beans and pushing the husks away.

A mill cracks the roasted beans into smaller pieces, called nibs. But because they still have their husks, Schreiber puts them in a steel bowl and uses a hair dryer to winnow them.

"More advanced people have special machines," he said, and he now has a prototype of a device that's a little higher-tech. It involves a series of ramps and a Shop-Vac.

Next, the nibs go into a contraption Schreiber uses as a melangeur-broyeur, French for "stir-smush." The base and wheels inside its bowl are made of solid granite. The motor spins the bowl and the wheels, as you probably guessed, stir and smush the nibs into chocolate liqueur.

This is the stage where the fat in the chocolate liquefies. (Fun fact: Because Schreiber has such a small chocolate operation, he uses an Indian kitchen appliance, a wet grinder, as a melangeur-broyeur. Commercial versions are much bigger, he said.)

This step accomplishes two things. It refines the nibs into tiny particles, which makes the chocolate smooth on your tongue. And it conches them, which involves a stirring process that uniformly coats each molecule of cocoa powder with cocoa butter so the chocolate isn't chalky. It also burns away any bitter compounds and mellows the flavor of the chocolate.

For his Panamanian chocolate, he conches it for about nine hours. Different beans require different times in the melangeur-broyeur.

Schreiber tempers his chocolate by hand on a huge slab of marble. As it cools, it produces crystals. Chocolate can form into six different crystals as it cools. Schreiber prefers the fifth because he says it makes the chocolate more stable and shiny; it will snap when it's broken.

If the chocolate is tempered wrong, the wrong kind of crystals forms and the chocolate will melt in your hand.

Tempering is a reversible process, so if something goes wrong, Schreiber can do it again by melting the chocolate.

After the chocolate is tempered, Schreiber puts it in chocolate molds and cools it for half an hour in his fridge.

Because he started making chocolate in July, he didn't anticipate the problems he'd have with temperature this fall.

"The big issue is that I'd have tempered chocolate and I'd have no way to keep it warm at that temperature," Schreiber said. It would thicken before he had a chance to mold it.

If he adds anything to the chocolate – he's tried salted caramel, bacon, almonds, raisins, sea salt, cinnamon and chili pepper – he'll add it in the mold before the chocolate cools.

Schreiber stores the chocolate in a cabinet in the basement because the temperature is more stable there. He dryly calls it his "chocolate cellar."

He then wraps the bars in a waxy paper and wrappers designed by his friend Keihly Moore. Schreiber also keeps chocolate bars in his desk at the Siebel Center for Computer Science for the same reason as in the basement – it has a more controlled temperature than his room or kitchen.

People who work in his building have started coming to him for chocolate, and he sometimes uses it to stay awake as well. That's because chocolate contains theobromine (not caffeine, he said), which keeps you awake and has a more prolonged and gentle effect than caffeine.

Topics (1):Food