Los Angeles, California
Chocolate bars, hot chocolate, ice cream
Menkes recalls visiting the Ucayali region in Peru, where the cacao for his most popular bar is harvested. "When I was down there in 2017, I had to have an armed escort," says Menkes. "It is not a safe area." Given that a large percentage of the world's coca, which is processed into cocaine, is grown in Peru, a certain lawlessness presides. Though switching from the cultivation of coca (for cocaine) to cacao (for chocolate) is not as lucrative for most farmers, they no longer need to literally bury the currency they've obtained via the black market: "We can't compete with cocaine," says Menkes, "but what we are able to do is pay them into their bank accounts."
When Menkes adds his personal touch to processing those Ucayali beans into bars in Los Angeles, the result is a chocolate that's been recognized for its high-quality at the International Chocolate Awards. (Their distributor, A Priori, calls their chocolate "scary good.") LetterPress Chocolate's website notes that its flavor hints at "star anise, mocha, pepper, cedar."
LetterPress Chocolate was the first bean-to-bar chocolate company in the world to use Ucayali beans. It's the only chocolate maker in the United States to use beans from the Satocao co-op on the African island of São Tomé and Príncipe. And the company joins other chocolate makers in jointly importing ethically sourced beans from Tanzania (with what LetterPress Chocolate's site describes as its "green banana and peppery mocha finish"), Ghana ("brownie crust, graham cracker"), and Ecuador ("nutty and floral"), as well as five other countries and the state of Hawaii. "We decided that we didn't just want to maximize profits," he affirms of his company's approach. "We wanted to maximize the benefits for the farmers we work with."
Menkes was previously employed in the film industry, at DreamWorks Animation and at Sony Picture Imageworks, where he worked as a Senior Color & Lighting Director. While still at DreamWorks, he began producing his own chocolate, slyly serving his test batches alongside other examples of fine chocolate from around the world at the tasting society that Menkes (a onetime chocolate blogger) had formed within the company. Soon enough, Menkes got requests to sell his own bars. "This group had been tasting the best chocolate in the world for a couple years," says Menkes of that early positive feedback. "I had a very high bar -- literally -- to hit."
What started as an equipment-packed, home-based project for Menkes and his wife and business partner, Corey, soon required its own dedicated production space. They eventually took over all the square-footage at a nearby commercial kitchen, conducting tours and vending their bars (dark, white, and flavored), hot chocolate, and ice cream from their retail space -- until COVID-19 became a concern and they switched to curbside pick-up. Today, Menkes makes the company's 5,000 bars a month, while Corey runs the business operations. They also co-brand for other businesses (such as the Terranea resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA). "Maybe 25 percent of what we do, we do for other people," says Menkes.
After sourcing fermented and dried cacao beans from across the globe, Menkes roasts them in his convection oven. Menkes says, "We like to say that we're very true to the characteristics of each bean: You get a very clean read on what that bean originally tasted like, before we roasted it. We really try to accentuate whatever flavors we taste in the analysis of that original bean."
Next the beans are run through an impact cracker. Then the shells are separated from the valued cacao nibs, using a winnowing machine. Menkes grinds down the nibs using a melanger, which has two stone wheels, sometimes adding cocoa butter (depending on the percentage already found in the nibs) and then sugar, over the course of a few days. The liquid that's formed is conched using heat and air, so that the vinegary aroma resulting from the beans' original fermentation dissipates. Then the liquid's filtered through a mesh sieve to remove any stray shell particles or remaining granules of sugar. After cooling overnight, blocks of cacao are hermetically sealed and aged for a month, to drive off more of the acetic acids.
After the requisite amount of aging, Menkes melts the block of cacao down over the course of 14 hours. Then the chocolate is placed in a tempering machine, which, through heating and cooling, adjusts the internal crystalline structure of the chocolate -- so that it will melt in someone's mouth, but not in their hands. Next, the liquid is poured into molds (sometimes using a depositor machine, and sometimes injected by hand for small batches) bearing the logo for LetterPress Chocolate. Designed by Menkes, the logo is based on a 1921 air mail stamp, featuring a mountain, cacao pods, and a plane, suggesting the global reach of their work.
When he worked in animation, Menkes was the computer whiz who added visual details to scenes: the realistic surfaces resembling, for example, aged wood or oxidized brass, and the shifting shadows based on imagined light sources. Still, Menkes reflects, "I didn't like the fact that, at the end of the day, I wasn't making anything tangible."
Now, Menkes produces not only his company's graphics, but a tangible product as well -- one that customers can see, touch, smell, and most importantly taste. "It engages all your senses," says Menkes about his chocolate.
Challenges: When Menkes began, there were only about 40 bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the United States; now there are around 200. But Menkes says the challenge is still, "Getting people to understand the reason why our chocolate's not a dollar like a Hershey bar is: [It's] because you're supporting an entire supply chain that is completely different -- and so much better -- than what Hershey's or Nestlé do." The price for an artisanal bar from LetterPress Chocolate ranges from $10 to $25.
Opportunities: Spreading the word about their chocolate: "It tastes better than the big guys' stuff, and it's better for the environment. It's better for the workers, it's better for everyone. And I think once people taste the difference, they appreciate that." And the beans they buy don't rely upon exploited workers to harvest them, either -- if not actual slave labor. "An 8-year-old kid should not be wielding a machete," says Menkes. "I'm sorry -- I do not agree with that, at all."
Needs: "Space and power," says Menkes. "We need more square footage. We need more electricity. We cannot grow any more than we currently are: we have completely maxed out at our current location." When the company potentially moves to a new space with three-phase electric power, instead of their present one-phase, additional specialized machines will be able to help the company fine tune their processes even further. And the three-phase power help will help to bring down overall electrical costs.