The craft chocolate boom continues to gain pace the world over, nowhere more so than in Japan. One expert estimates that a country that had less than ten bean-to-bar chocolate makers just a few years ago now has over 70, and that number continues to grow.
With their long-held love of European confections, and exceptional culinary expertise, the Japanese have evolved a discriminating palate for the many permutations of the cacao bean. Connoisseurs observe a high degree of refinement in the notes and nuances – the flavor profiles – of even the most mainstream Japanese chocolates. Those who aren’t experts, but know Japanese sweets, will surely agree: even bars bought straight off the shelf of Japanese convenience stores are delicious.
Hence this writer, an admitted chocoholic of the latter type, was happily surprised to hear that a Japanese craft chocolate maker recently looked to America for the most essential piece of chocolate-making machinery; the grinder, or more properly, the melanger, which churns the cacao nibs to a puree – the heart of that concoction we all so love.
The machine in question is the Rottar, the creation of Sam Ratto, a chocolate maker in Raleigh, NC; the new owner is chocolate and pastry shop Ushio Chocolatl, of Onomichi, near Hiroshima, Japan.
Seeking to improve the flavor of his own bean-to-bar chocolate, and dissatisfied with the quality of the available grinding equipment, Mr. Ratto decided some years ago to design and build his own stone-wheeled melanger.
Basing his design on traditional South Asian grain mills (long-used for turning rice to paste, but imperfect for the chocolate trade) and sourcing his materials in the U.S., he designed and built the first Rottar, completing it in 2014.
It worked well. In fact, it worked very well. No sooner was he using it to produce his Videri brand gourmet chocolate, than friends began advising him to put the machine on the market, too.
And when he did, it wasn’t long before artisanal producers around the world – Europe, the UK, Canada and Australia – began taking note of it, and placing orders for this modern remake of old-world technology.
When Shinya Nakamura, the Factory Manager at Ushio Chocolatl, learned about the Rottar in 2016, he wanted to see the American-made melanger for himself. He planned to increase chocolate production at his shop, but there was no domestic machine that fit his scale; he knew he would have to import one. He wanted a reliable, quality-built product (and like Sam Ratto, knew that most on the market were not), and he had an additional desire; he wanted to buy it from people he could work with – not just people selling for a buck.
Through the language barrier, and the typical translation hurdles, his correspondence with Rottar gave him a sense that these were the right kind of people. Not only were they kindred spirits in their passion for chocolate; in the way they reached out, they seemed to care as much about the new relationship as he did.
Mr. Nakamura ended up traveling all the way from Japan to Raleigh, NC, to learn more about the Rottar machine, and the man who had created it.
And what he discovered there was a perfect melange of passion and craftsmanship – just what he was seeking. Not only did Sam Ratto refit the Rottar to work on the electrical cycle in Onomichi (at first no one was sure if it was 50Hz or 60Hz – in Japan both frequencies are used, depending on the region), he then sent a support team to Japan to make sure that Nakamura’s staff at Ushio Chocolatl were 100% satisfied with their new machine.
And were they? Well, just six months after taking delivery of the first machine, Ushio Chocolatl ordered two more Rottars.
Next time you’re near Hiroshima, and crave that delectable something, find your way up to Ushio Chocolatl. It’s a short train ride to Onomichi.