Creative entrepreneurs

From bean to bar

Artisanal chocolate-making from the bean up

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Jo Zander making chocolate (photo credit: Courtesy Jo Zander)
Jo Zander making chocolate (photo credit: Courtesy Jo Zander)

Jo Zander doesn’t seem all that interested in talking about his chocolate, or the Strauss chocolate boycott, for that matter. Then again, Zander, founder of Holy Cacao Chocolate, former New Jerseyan, and fourth-generation baker, is busy going back to basics.

Holy Cacao beans (photo credit: Courtesy)
Holy Cacao beans (photo credit: Courtesy)

“I like making chocolate, that’s really my focus,” said Zander of his business with partner Zev Stender. Besides roasting their own cacao beans for eight varieties of chocolate bars that are sold to a selection of wine stores, health-food shops and upscale bakeries throughout Israel, Zander and Stender own six hectares of cocoa bean trees in Peru. For them, it’s all part of the bean-to-bar process.

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It might seem far-fetched: two Americans living in Israel, one in the Hebron Hills, producing carefully considered artisanal chocolates from their own cacao beans grown in a distant land in order to maintain the intrinsic flavor of true chocolate. But not to Zander.

“If I put my own lens on it, cacao is like the tree of knowledge, part of the creation story,” says Zander, a strictly observant Jew. “I look at everything in totality; I’ve been given the opportunity to get to Peru and take part in what I’m growing. If everything is good at the source, then you’re set.”

Holy Cacao beans (photo credit: Courtesy)
Holy Cacao beans (photo credit: Courtesy)

Before Holy Cacao began growing its own cacao beans, it roasted beans in a secondhand clothes dryer adapted for the process. That was the very beginning. It then took a long, hard search to find and purchase a hammer mill for the proper liquefaction of cacao beans. And then Holy Cacao bought land in Peru. But it’s not diversification; it’s all about the chocolate.

“We’re pretty fanatical,” says Zander, who thinks he inherited that personality trait from his grandfather, a master baker in New Jersey.  “We’re not interested in making boring-tasting chocolate. We’re always searching, looking for cacao bean varietals with the best flavors, and finding farmers who care as much as we do.”

Zander figures they can produce six to seven tons of chocolate per year from their crop, which is plenty for Holy Cacao. They’re starting to sell their own chocolate to larger chocolate companies — he won’t say which firms — and are starting to look into making white and milk chocolate as well. The larger plan? They hope to sell online and in the US.

“We’re not interested in being the largest producer of artisanal chocolates,” said Zander. “But I want to create better bars and make larger amounts of chocolate more inexpensively. I like being involved on the ground level and trying to really flesh out all those needs.”

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