Bartren is a chocolate bar subscription service based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. They featured us in their most recent subscription box with our Maya Mountain Cacao chocolate! They interviewed David about this award-winning bar.
Husband-and-wife team David and Corey Menkes founded their chocolate company in 2014 in their two-bedroom Cheviot Hills apartment, eventually moving the small-batch bean-to-bar operation to a nearby storefront. For years they’d approached ice cream companies about using their chocolate; then a few months ago, they started making it themselves. The very-small-batch flavors are mostly chocolate, of course, but they’re also experimenting with making ice cream from lucuma, a Peruvian fruit. Right now, the ice cream is available in cups, but the Menkes will start serving it in cones — as soon they teach themselves how to make those too.
2,959,560 million: The number of cacao beans the LetterPress Chocolate company roasted last year.
That’s right, LetterPress Chocolate co-owner David Menkes counts the beans that go into his chocolate bars, which are mostly 70% cocoa. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, if you know that it takes 60 beans to make a single bar of chocolate at his Culver City bean-to-bar factory and retail shop.
Menkes and his wife and business partner, Corey — they have one other employee — molded 49,326 bars of chocolate last year, which adds up to the just under 3 million total. All those beans, sourced at origin — Tanzania, Trinidad, Peru, Belize, Ghana, plus a few other countries — required 2,401pounds of sugar and 72 hours on average to stone-grind each batch. (Some batches take 168 hours, as different origins have different amounts of acetic acid, which are driven off during the grinding process.)
After all those hours of grinding, the blocks of chocolate are aged for an average of 30 days before being tempered into bars. The Menkes hand-wrap every bar: “It takes 1 1/2 hours for the two of us to wrap 250 bars while we listen to audio books,” he says.
LetterPress is getting a second grinder soon, at which point you can double many of these numbers.
LetterPress Chocolate begins conching for flavor development
What is chocolate conching? And why haven’t we ever done it before?
In the most basic terms, conching is heat + aeration. But let’s back up a moment and talk about the bigger issue.
What is the problem?
All cacao we work with has been fermented. During the fermentation stage, acedic acid permeates the cacao beans. Acedic acid has a strong vinegar smell and adds an unpleasant bitterness and sourness to chocolate. It basically tastes like sour cherries. While some cacao beans naturally have a red berry note, generally speaking, this is an off-flavor that needs to be removed in order to get the real flavor profile underneath. Our opinion is, we’re paying all this money for these beans, why not let them be fully expressed? Next time you taste a poorly-made chocolate bar, see if you taste that sour cherry note. It’s a flaw, not a feature.
What is the solution?
We need to use heat to remove the acedic acid. While this can partially be achieved with roasting, that really only removes the acedic acid on the outer portion of the beans. In order to remove more of it, we need to heat up the cocoa mass during the milling stage.
At our scale, most chocolate makers use a melanger which is basically a large bowl with a stone base and two stone wheels which crush the cacao beans down into liquor, then sugar and other ingredients are added. The problem with these machines is that it’s relying on open-air exposure to volatilize the acedic acid, but this take several days and really doesn’t work. We know because we used this method for almost 5 years. While you can get decent results, and we’ve certainly won our fair share of awards using this method, we do not recommend it. What we really need is heat and air. That’s what conching is. And because we’re now adding heat during the milling stage, we can back off on the amount of heat we’re using during the roasting stage. The result is much finer flavor and more indicative of the true notes of the cacao we’re sourcing.
Using Diamond Custom Machines’ Rapid Refiner, we do a few things. First, we adjust the heat to over 150F. Acedic acid volitalizes at 150F so any value above this is a great starting point. You cannot go to hot though because the delrin and epoxy (Polyoxymethylene) becomes soft above 170F and can separate from the stones. We found at least 160F is a good starting point. Next, we load the nibs into the grinder but do not turn the tensioner screws down at all. I cannot stress this enough. We let the weight of the stones and gravity do the work. This reduces shear and viscosity when we add sugar later, but more importantly, it releases the acedic acid slowly over time rather than all at once, so that the refiner and heat work together.
We are proud to bring you a new lineup of our bars using this method – our two new bars this month, Tingo Maria from Peru and Bachelor’s Hall from Jamaica both were conched to bring out their nuanced flavor profiles.
You end up with Letterpress Chocolate, a small-batch, craft chocolate factory and storefront whose every bar is hand-wrapped…
…and custom-designed to feel handmade and olde-tyme.
And when you take the factory tour, you can taste any of the 70% dark chocolates from various cacao-growing regions around the world—ranging from Central and South America to Africa.
There’s even one 85% dark and a 36% white chocolate infused with matcha green tea, both made from cacao beans sourced from Ecuador.
But before you taste the finished chocolate bars, you’ve got to drink the juice of the cacao pod—the amniotic fluid that the beans are nestled in and that’s usually drained as a waste byproduct, but tastes like lychee.
After that is when you’re ready to enter the kitchen, behind the wall of letterpress type.
Co-owners Corey and David Menkes spend more time sourcing their chocolate than molding it, ensuring the beans they use come from farms that practice sustainable agriculture and pay their workers fair wages. Today, their operation produces nearly 3,000 bars each month, from simple, barely sweetened single-origin varieties to subtly flavored sweets, like a bar molded with crisp amaranth. A white chocolate bar cleanly flavored with matcha promises a light caffeine buzz.
Small Batch Chocolate-Maker Puts Together Some of LA’s Best-Sourced Cacao
LetterPress Chocolate’s owners want Angelenos to know the vast difference between chocolatiers and chocolate-makers. And while the city is full of the former, LetterPress is one of a few small batch chocolate-makers with a brand new retail store that just opened in Beverlywood on September 15.
Husband and wife team David and Corey Menkes are new faces in the chocolate industry. The couple started by blogging about their favorite sweet, then went on to make chocolates with a tiny tabletop machine in their apartment in 2014. The two opened a commercial space in 2016, but David is quick to point out the distinction between most chocolate shops and LetterPress.
“There’s chocolatiers and chocolate-makers,” says David. “We have tons of chocolatiers in LA, They make truffles and bonbons. They buy industrial chocolate from companies and add flavors to it, along with tons of vanilla and sugar. We are chocolate manufacturers that buy cocoa beans. We roast them, break them down, and make chocolate bars.”
The partners study chocolate in a similar manner to wine or coffee, and perform the entire chocolate-making process in front of customers. They start with cocoa beans from twelve origins, while emphasizing the natural and regional flavors of the chocolate. “Ecuador tastes like a peanut butter and jelly, Ghana tastes a brownie with graham cracker crust, and Honduras tastes like a raspberry tart,” explains David. “We’re not adding any flavors, this is what the cocoa beans actually taste like. We focus on a specific arm or region to bring good flavors.”
See chocolate bars be made from scratch at LetterPress Chocolate’s new Los Angeles store
We’ve become accustomed to restaurants with open kitchens, coffee shops with on-site roasters, taquerias where you can see the tortillas being made — but how about a shop where you can watch your chocolate go from bean to bar? That’s the case at LetterPress Chocolate’s new retail shop in Beverlywood, where you can see the entire bean-to-bar process in the open 1,800-square-foot location.
Husband-and-wife team David and Corey Menkes founded their company in 2014, making micro-batches of single origin chocolate in their two-bedroom Cheviot Hills apartment. After their operation outgrew their home, they moved into a nearby shared commercial kitchen and eventually took over the space. That location, in what used to be a wedding cake shop on Robertson Boulevard, just opened as their first retail chocolate store. The couple are still the Los Angeles company’s only employees, making 4,000 bars a month from start to finish on the premises.
The cozy storefront is decorated with the company’s namesake, made from reclaimed woodblock type, and paneled with reclaimed pallet wood. You can buy bars of chocolate ($10-$18), wrapped by hand and decorated with wrappers that David designed using a 1920s-era South American air mail stamp as a prototype. David is a former graphics designer and both he and Corey are docents at the International Printing Museum in Carson. (That design background came in handy with the ancillary merchandise, which includes T-shirts, made and printed in L.A., and messenger bags made from the burlap sacks the cacao beans arrive in.)
At Picco’s table, a callback was under way. That morning, David Menkes, a graphic designer who makes LetterPress Chocolate, a line of single-origin chocolate bars, had so impressed an Eataly buyer that she contacted him a few hours later and asked him to come meet Picco. He had been unloading a truckful of Tanzanian cacao beans when his phone rang. “Some fell in my pocket,” he said, handing Picco a brown bean. “The chocolate comes out when you roast it, but you still get some of that green-banana note.”
Picco examined a bar of Menkes’s best-seller: Ucayali, a dark chocolate named after a Peruvian province in the Amazon rain forest. “No one’s ever used this region to make good chocolate before,” he said. “It’s mostly known for cocaine.”
Picco’s eyes widened.
“Seriously,” Menkes said. He wore a white T-shirt and had earbuds around his neck. “The U.S.A.I.D. found out that we were actually helping cacao farmers and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come down?’ ” He spent part of the summer there. “We helped this farm go from three hundred kilograms to thirty tons of cacao per year.”
David and Corey started out as chocolate bloggers in 2011, with the bean to bar blog Little Brown Squares where they reviewed and photographed craft chocolate from around the world. Also in 2011, they visited their first cacao plantation in St. Lucia. Armed with a pound of cacao beans and a mortar and pestle, the couple began making tiny batches of bean to bar chocolate in their home kitchen. Soon their entire apartment was overrun with machines whirring 24/7. Eventually their landlord told them to move everything out, so they found a shared commercial kitchen right down the street. A little over a year later, and the kitchen went up for sale, and the couple bought it.
LetterPress Chocolate now has a retail shop on Robertson Blvd in West LA, where they offer tastings and education to visitors near and far. Their little company has won several prestigious awards for their chocolate and packaging, including the Good Food Award, the Sofi Award, the International Chocolate Award, and the Academy of Chocolate Award. The company is still small – they produce around 2500 bars of chocolate a month – but it is their focus on craftsmanship and quality that keep customers coming back.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Two moments come to mind. One was when we nearly burned down our apartment when one of the grinders seized at 3 o’clock in the morning and started smoking, filling the house with a burnt plastic smell that took days to dissipate. The other was when our landlord found out we had an entire chocolate factory in our apartment and told us to move everything out. In both cases we could’ve given up, but we didn’t – and have grown exponentially as a result!
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about LetterPress Chocolate – what should we know?
LetterPress has always been about quality. We know that there’s a tendency in the industry to grow as much as they can as fast as they can, and that’s just not us. There are tons of chocolate bars out there for $1, and now quite a few for even $7. But we’d rather focus on smaller batches that are absolutely perfect. We also deeply care about the environment and the impact we can have on farmers who also care about quality over profits. Each and every bean we source has been vetted for its environmental, social, and flavor qualities. We’d rather work with smaller projects that produce fewer beans but at a higher quality. The results speak for themselves.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We are quickly becoming known as one of the best chocolate makers in the country, and we’re hoping that we can play some small part in the flowering food scene here in LA.
Address: 2835 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034
Today’s La Masica, Honduras 70% Dark Chocolate bar (Batch #0018) from LetterPress Chocolate LLC (Los Angeles, CA) was made with cocoa beans grown in/at La Masica, Honduras.*
This bar contained only two (organic) ingredients: cocoa beans and unrefined cane sugar. It had a very pleasing smooth, dark chocolate aroma, and black raspberry or loganberry (raspberry-blackberry hybrid) flavor with a hint of cafe latte.
Tasting notes on the packaging read as follows: raspberry, mocha, cedar.
*Honduras was once a major exporter of cacao; however, a 1979 hurricane (that destroyed cacao trees) and other factors slowed down production for many years. It’s encouraging to see more chocolate coming from this area in the past several years. The government has funded programs that help farmers produce fine cacao and chocolate makers in the U.S. have both contributed to and benefited from local, in-country expertise. La Musica is affiliated with FHIA, a non-profit “agroforestry project that serves as a gene bank for other projects in Honduras,” and in today’s case benefited from the presence of an expert in fermentation (Daniel O’Doherty) and related in-country expertise crucial to producing great cacao for chocolate makers.
We got a sample last year from Dan and immediately fell in love with it. We found our roast quickly and developed the bar in a way that preserves the natural nutty and floral notes, and we’ve loved seeing everyone’s reaction to tasting it.
We worked directly with the Salazar Family and Dan O’Doherty of Cacao Services to bring you some of the best cacao in the world, and a prestigious Good Food Award!
Here we all are (from left to right) – Dan O’Doherty, fermentation. David Menkes, chocolate maker. Freddy Salazar, farm manager. Corey Menkes, chocolate maker.
Thank you to everyone who has supported our tiny factory since we started in 2014!
A lot of people are asking us if we’re still operating out of our home kitchen. Our landlord asked us to move all the processing out, so we moved our tempering operation into a shared kitchen. While this allows us to mold our bars and roast and proof our beans, we still have to winnow and grind – tasks that don’t lend themselves to a shared kitchen space. We’re looking at options for where to continue grinding, and will announce when that aspect of our production is back up and running.
In short, as we are now in a certified kitchen with a wholesale health permit, we are no longer a Cottage Food Operation.
“We want to bring this back to being where we live,” says David Menkes, referring to what used to be his dining room and is now home to four chocolate grinders on a plastic folding table. Here in their second-story apartment on a quiet residential street in Beverlywood, Menkes and his wife sort, roast, proof, crack, winnow, grind, age, temper, mold and wrap chocolate. The couple founded their bean-to-chocolate company, Letterpress Chocolate, in 2014 — and despite the recent arrival in L.A. of Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers, they contend that they are the only small-batch chocolate makers in the city.
“When we first heard [Mast Brothers] were moving in, I looked at it as a good thing,” Menkes says. “Now more people will see what this is, and we won’t be the only $10 chocolate bar in town.
“It’s an interesting dynamic that we have a much larger bean-to-bar maker coming in, because now a lot more people will see the process, which is cool.”
Despite his optimism, Menkes points out how vastly different Letterpress is from Mast: “They’re not artisanal. They bought $500,000 in cacao last year. We bought $5,000. They’re a $10 million company.” His crowded, cacao-scented apartment is lined with a small library of books with chocolate-related titles and scattered with tools, gadgets and a large fridge filled with finished bars. It should be obvious to anyone familiar with larger chocolate makers that Letterpress is an altogether different operation.
“My wife and I are the entire company,” Menkes says. “We make about 50 to 100 bars a day. I just folded up about 55 bars this morning.”
Menkes, a former computer graphics artist at Sony, left his day job two years ago to pursue a career in chocolate. “I want to do something that I’m going to enjoy and that I can dedicate the rest of my life to,” he says. Menkes’ enthusiasm is as much about making a delicious bar as it is about making an ethically responsible one.
The intricate process taking place in the couple’s apartment doesn’t begin until after they’ve hunted down what they consider to be the best cacao beans on Earth. They’re able to find many of them through collaborations with other small bean-to-bar chocolate makers.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the sources is Liberation Cocoa. The program, headed by San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate, supports the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Liberia by reintegrating them into sustainable chocolate farming jobs. “So, here it is,” Menkes says, pointing to the table-top grinder that’s swirling chocolate. A piece of tape is stuck to the table beside it scribbled with the word “Liberia.”
Menkes says he and his wife work directly with the farms they source from to ensure the workers are being fairly paid. “There’s a whole bunch of crazy stuff going on in West Africa, where they literally kidnap kids and then they enslave them and make them work their whole lives for free,” he says. “We like to visit the farms or we work with other chocolate makers. We’ve never made chocolate from beans where we haven’t at least known someone who’s gone down there and said it’s on the up and up.”
In addition to discovering various sources, the couple has invested in their own farms. In Belize, Letterpress has planted 4,000 trees as part of the co-op Maya Mountain Cacao. In Guatemala, their farm is part of a sustainable agro-forest called Izabal Agro Forest. “All around our farm is just monoculture. It’s cattle pasture. All of the rainforest has been completely clear-cut. It’s all gone.” The profits of Izabal Agro Forest are going toward buying back the surrounding land to be reintegrated to its natural state.
Once the beans make their way to Los Angeles, Menkes and his wife sort through them one by one — a process that for the large industrial chocolate companies involves only de-stoner machines, for getting rid of rocks that could break the machinery. “All of the other crazy stuff that’s in there that we get rid of, they don’t get rid of that,” Menkes claims. “We’ve had to sort out a decent amount of stuff.” Menkes describes finding sticks, rocks, newspaper, bullet casings and worms when sorting through beans from Liberia.
After sorting, they roast the beans in their own oven, which hasn’t seen anything but cacao beans in two years (since the smell of cooking food would permeate the chocolate production). The couple cracks the beans by hand, separating the nibs from the husks in a winnower machine that was custom-made by a close friend. The nibs are ground on their table top for days and then aged, tempered, poured into molds and wrapped, imperfectly, in their “wrapping room” (a converted bedroom).
How does this kind of hands-on care affect the quality of the product? There’s already a waiting list for their bars. In addition to a small handful of boutiques around L.A. that sell Letterpress, Menkes drops off a case of chocolate to a buddy’s office at DreamWorks, where he sells bars to co-workers from his desk. Letterpress also is one of the featured vendors at the Unique L.A. Market on April 30 and May 1.
Despite its popularity among people in the know, Letterpress has yet to turn a profit. Menkes and his wife have invested every cent they’ve made back into equipment, cacao farms, beans and materials. It might not be long, however, before they turn over a new leaf. “We’re hoping that this year,” Menkes says, “we can afford a little production space.”