Michael Hoffman, founder, owner, and sole staff member of Bitte Chocolate, will admit to you outright that he is currently in love. With chocolate, that is. In 2014, Hoffman founded Bitte in Charleston, South Carolina, the first (and only) bean-to-bar chocolate producer in the Lowcountry. Every lacquered bar coming from Bitte is local, artisanal, and small-batch; not because those adjectives are buzzy, but because that’s the only way Hoffman knows how to make chocolate. Good thing, because that’s how it tastes best. Mixing business with pleasure is always a risky gamble. Hoffman, however, seems to find joy in every detail of the chocolate-making process, from the act of grinding the cacao beans to working with a local artist to craft the label for his chocolate bars (a cacao flower, of course). In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, TLP sat down with Hoffman to talk about his edible romance; how he got acquainted, how his relationship with chocolate has progressed, and about his plans for the future. If you don’t have some form of chocolate within easy reach right now, find some—a craving is imminent.
The Local Palate (TLP): How did you first become interested in making chocolate?
Michael Hoffman (MH): In high school I decided that I wanted to become a pastry chef, so I attended Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. I took my first chocolate-making class there, and I immediately fell in love with everything about the process.
TLP: So you started making chocolate after you graduated?
MH: Actually, I started making chocolate while I was still in culinary school. One day I said to myself, ‘Oh hey, people make chocolate professionally—I could do it, too.’ So I researched the process online, ordered some cacao beans, and made a few batches of chocolate with a friend.
But it wasn’t at all the same product that I make today. When I first made chocolate, I just used a mortar and pestle to mix the ingredients, so I could never make the finished product totally smooth. Today I have a melanger, which is a mechanical stone grinder that rotates constantly for a few days, crushing the chocolate mixture so finely that you can’t feel any of the grit.
All of that was at school, and after I graduated I moved down to Charleston and started working at Sugar Bakeshop, where I still work today. At the beginning of 2014…well, when did I buy my boat?
TLP: Wait, you had a boat? What does that have to do with making chocolate?
MH: I did. But it was a total money pit, so I sold it. And then I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with all this money now that I don’t have to spend it on the boat?’ So I invested in a melanger and a really good bean grinder, and I just started playing around with the chocolate-making process. I brought the finished product into work one day and Bill Bowick [one of the owners of Sugar Bakeshop] encouraged me to turn it into a business.
At first, I was skeptical about the idea because chocolate-making was something I really loved to do, and I didn’t want to turn it into work. So I decided to take it slow. It took me about eight months to perfect the formulas for the two chocolate types I sell right now: seventy percent and milk chocolate. The milk chocolate has forty-five percent cacao, which is really high for that type. Next, I started working on packaging, and then the only thing left was to decide on a name.
TLP: How did you settle on the name Bitte?
MH: I was having a really difficult time choosing what to call my business. One day, my roommate suggested “Bittersweet,” which made me think of the German word “bitte.” Bitte means a few things, including “You’re welcome.” It fits perfectly. It’s short, it’s sharp, it’s strong, and it’s got a little edge to it.
Bitte means a few things, including “You’re welcome.” It fits perfectly. It’s short, it’s sharp, it’s strong, and it’s got a little edge to it.
TLP: Your chocolate is intentionally simple so that people can focus on the flavor of the cacao beans instead of the flavors of the mix-ins or fillings. Are you planning to develop more complex varieties in the future, or remain simple?
MH: My goal would be to find a larger production space first. Right now Bitte is still operating on a very small scale. I’m limited to making eighty chocolate bars per week because my melanger only fits ten pounds of chocolate. The entire process takes two days, and then the chocolate has to sit for a couple of weeks to age. It gives the tannins time to mellow out and lose that sharp tang, so you can taste more of the flavor of the cacao beans.
But yes, after I find a bigger space I would love to make some bars with different cacao percentages and different flavors. I’ve got a chai tea chocolate in mind that would pair really well with the flavor of the cacao.
TLP: Speaking of flavor, where do you get your cacao beans?
MH: I get them from Peru. I use the Tumbes varietal, which has a little maltiness and some high fruity notes.
There are several varieties of cacao beans, and they all have their own flavor profile—and they’re all really expensive, mostly because you can’t grow them outside of the rainforest. There’s a certain bug called a midge that lives in the rainforest; it’s the only insect that can pollinate cacao flowers. The midges just fly around and happen to run into a cacao flower, then they run into another, and that’s how the pollen gets distributed.
Cacao beans won’t fruit anywhere without those midges, so they are pretty difficult to cultivate. That said, I would love to grow cacao beans locally—no one has done it yet in the US, but I think it’s possible. I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but it’s something I’m looking into for down the road.
TLP: Finally, what is it about chocolate that so attracts you?
MH: I love how temperamental chocolate is, how fragile. Chocolate has to be at a certain temperature, there’s a certain procedure you need to do in order to get it right. I love that it’s scientific. If you mess up one little part, you have to start all over again. But it’s also incredibly versatile; there are so many different things you can do with it. It’s really special.
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