Sweet Bean Helps Cleveland Catch Up On Craft Chocolate

As with wine and coffee, chocolate is said to be affected by terroir, deriving certain flavors from the region in which the cocoa beans are grown. The husband-and-wife team behind Sweet Bean (216-912-8822, sweetbeancandies.com), Bob and Kristin Barnes, were inspired to treat Clevelanders to small batch, artisan chocolate after realizing the niche market had not yet been filled in their hometown.

"We've been enjoying craft chocolate for a long time," says Kristin, seated in the living room of her Euclid home, which also serves as headquarters for the cottage food business. "The closest person doing anything like this when we started was in Michigan. We thought, let's be the ones who do it here. It'll differentiate us from the other chocolatiers."

Kristin's rich Belgian chocolates already stand out, packaged in visually appealing assortments of four or 12 treats in eye-catching colors. Each chocolate is hand-painted with colored cocoa butter, molded into the size of a button, and lacquered with a thin coat of luster dust to create metallic marble or Pollack-inspired spatters. "I'm very into pop art, Lichtenstein and Keith Herring, so I love all of these really bright, poppy colors."

The bonbons are created from dark, milk and white chocolates. They are then filled with an assortment of signature-flavor ganache or caramel, including honey-lavender, Mexican hot cocoa with cinnamon and cayenne, maple creme, chai, or, for Valentine's Day, a seasonal strawberry rose. "We're not doing anything super elaborate," Kristin explains. "Instead of putting a bunch of different flavors together, I've been focusing on a big punch in one bite."

What began as a one-off class in Boston advertised through Groupon quickly snowballed into the establishment of a small business. Kristin enrolled in a professional program through Ecole Chocolat and they both participated in a food business incubator offered by the Economic and Community Development Institute (ECDI), a lender that works with the Cleveland Culinary Launch Kitchen. Soon after, they applied to vend at the Cleveland Flea and were accepted in the fall of 2013; however, the busiest months are November through February.

Recently they've expanded to offer single origin bean-to-bar chocolate as part of their brand. These aren't your run-of-the-mill Hershey's; each bar contains 45- to 72-percent cocoa sourced from countries like Peru, Mexico, Ghana and Venezuela, all represented in their hand-roasted varieties. This has been a big step for Bob, who latched onto the science and artistry behind making chocolate straight from bean, a relatively rare craft in Ohio.

Purchasing from a distributor in Oregon, Bob selects beans to roast a few pounds at a time, sorting them once they're in hand. "I roast in my oven. That's one of the biggest things that determine the flavor, or I use the term 'point of view.' That's really what's driving the end product," he explains. Once the beans are roasted, he winnows them to remove the paper-like outer shell and cracks them into nibs before grinding. The cocoa is mixed with sugar and cocoa butter to achieve just the right taste, consistency and firmness. It is tempered before it can be molded into a bar.

"You can do what everyone else is doing or you can create your own point of view," Bob says. "We're really accentuating the opportunities in chocolate that people don't know are there. Coffee roasters are doing very similar things."

For a unique post-Valentine's Day activity, the Barnes have teamed up with Brandon Riggs of Rising Star Coffee to offer a coffee and chocolate pairing from 6 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 16 at the Roastery (3617 Walton Ave., 216-651-7827, risingstarcoffee.com). See the website for details.

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