To make good chocolate, it all starts with the right bean.
The cocoa beans manufactured for Hunt Valley’s Charm School Chocolate factory and retail store arrive in 120-pound burlap sacks, with anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000 large almond-shaped nuggets per bag. Carefully but nimbly, Joshua Rosen — the facility’s owner and the company’s founder, frontman, head chocolate maker and business developer — sifts through piles of cocoa beans to weed out those that fall below his company’s standards. They must be whole, not cracked; singular, not adjoined; uniform, not discolored, distorted or dwarfed.
“A lot of reading and science goes into this,” Rosen, 36, says as he sorts through a sample of fudge-colored teardrops from Guatemala. He grabs a pre-sorted bucket of quality-meeting beans and holds it up high. This, the Hampden resident says, is not yet chocolate, but chocolate potential — the foundation of his meticulously prepared, thoroughly researched, award-winning delicacy.
Rosen’s business specializes in concocting dairy-free and vegan milk, white and dark chocolate treats using high-quality ingredients, homemade recipes and even hand-crafted machinery that he helped design, a testament to his short-lived career as a mechanical engineer. Since pivoting to the culinary industry about 10 years ago, his creation has since gone on to take home top honors from the International Chocolate Awards. Charm School Chocolate candies are now sold in dozens of stores and shops across North America, including Baltimore’s 3 Bean Coffee, Little Baby's Ice Cream and Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Mount Vernon.
But at the newly opened, 2,800-square-foot space in Hunt Valley, Rosen seeks to not only expand his chocolate potential but also create a family-friendly experience, one that allows visitors to tour the facility, learn more about the process and enjoy a wide range of tasty, vegan treasures that they can’t get elsewhere.
“For vegans, it’s difficult to find myriad options, so it’s important for us to provide the full spectrum,” he said, adding that the vast majority of chocolate makers have relied on dairy products like milk to achieve chocolate’s sweet taste and soft, smooth texture. “Most chocolate is not dairy free. It’s extremely unusual.”
Nuts about beans
The price of Rosen’s products far exceeds that of most other chocolates: A single bar of his Coconut Milk Chocolate — the most popular chocolate bar — sells for $7.99 online without shipping and tax fees. By comparison, a Hershey’s milk chocolate bar sells for under $2 at many retailers.
But Rosen said that price margin not only reflects the hand-intensive labor involved in the company’s chocolate-making process but also covers the cost of shipping his exquisite beans and fairly compensating his sources for their efforts overseas. His business abides by a direct-trade model, meaning that he works directly with individual farmers and cooperatives and reimburses them for their services instead of collaborating with a third party mediator.
“We want to make sure everyone’s treated well, but beyond that, we go down there and spend time with them,” he said, noting that he’s made two trips to Belize, his primary cocoa bean source, in recent years. “If you buy really amazing stuff, you get beautiful flavors without having to add a bunch of things to it.”
Rosen said his chocolate thus proves more balanced than his competitors’ confections. In addition to no soy and no dairy, there’s no gelatin and less added sugar. The natural beans, grown from rich dirt in warm climates, contain most of the chocolatey flavor.
But without milk or cream, it took about two years to perfect the formula. Now a vegan himself, he recalled setting up shop in his former New York apartment and subjecting his roommates to tireless taste tests until he cracked the seemingly impossible code. He primarily substitutes traditional dairy products with coconut and coconut milk and incorporates a variety of other flavors and spices like maple syrup, pecan, cinnamon and even salt and jalapeño to set his confections apart from the pack.
“The flavor is on point because we showcase the cocoa,” he said. “It’s way more flavor forward.”
During his trips abroad to survey the origins of his prized cocoa, Rosen said he ensures that farmers and co-op leaders employ sustainable growing and fair labor practices, which he in turn looks to replicate in Hunt Valley. For example, after roasting the cocoa beans and separating the nibs from the shells, Rosen gathers the shells back into the burlap sacks and donates them to local farms to use as mulch.
The chocolate maker said his respect for the planet and for animal welfare motivates nearly every decision he makes, even if it entails extra effort or more cash on his end. And above all, he won’t compromise on the beans.
“At charm schools, the idea is you take people who are rough around the edges and refine them into something beautiful,” he said. “Here, we take the beans and we refine them.”
A ‘sweet genius’
Jodi Rosen helps her son run his business. She said there’s no reason why Charm School Chocolate can’t be a household name someday, like Wockenfuss, Lindt, Ghirardelli or even Hershey.
Rosen said she initially questioned why her son would trade the lucrative field of mechanical engineering for culinary school. But after reading his meticulously outlined business plan, her skepticism quickly faded.
After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Rosen experimented with his pastry skills in different cities and with different instructors. He’s lived and worked in San Francisco, New York, Tuscany and even on a cruise ship. Eventually, he become the pastry sous chef at Mario Batali’s lavish Del Postro restaurant in Manhattan, where he started noticing a common trend.
“I’d make these intricate dishes and time and time again, people would say ‘I’m allergic,’ or that they couldn’t have dairy,” Rosen said. “I wanted to start making things that people could enjoy.”
He noticed few dairy-free chocolate products on the market, none of which impressed him. His brain’s gears began to turn.
The idea sounded simple enough — chocolate, sans dairy. But the execution required patience, trial and a lot of error.
“Chocolate requires a super technical know-how. It’s a beautiful blend of art and science,” he said, adding that cooking meats and other savory dishes often demands less precision, less attention to detail and less research. But in making chocolate from scratch, he said a true expert must firmly grasp the chemistry involved, down to the molecules.
In 2012, he tested his luck on the Food Network’s “Sweet Genius,” where he won first place and $10,000. He used this money to help create Charm School Chocolate, which first hit the shelves about six years ago.
But with most chocolate companies operating at much larger scales, he struggled to find the right equipment.
“I modified, built or custom-made everything myself,” he said. “We’ve had to figure everything out ourselves.”
Such is the mentality at Charm School Chocolate, where Rosen and his three-person staff tackle every single step of the process, from sorting, roasting and grinding to molding and packaging. They concoct their own recipes — fillings, toppings and all — and have begun the process of expanding their offerings to include hot chocolate, baked goods, bonbons and other candy-coated bites.
Joanna Leach, an assistant chocolate maker at Charm School Chocolate, said Rosen’s science background adds depth to the company. She said it takes a special kind of person to make their own chocolate without cutting corners.
“It’s a whole different sphere,” she said. “You really need to have a math mind to do these things.”
Busting down walls
Rosen moved back to Baltimore in 2013 to grow his company with the help of his family — and with cheaper rent than he could find in New York. Conducting the vast majority of sales online, he initially operated out of a small facility on Security Boulevard that customers repeatedly asked to tour and visit. But he said he lacked the space to open the factory to the public.
But he yearned to provide the community with “something extra,” and hopes the new Hunt Valley facility will soon host everything from tours and tastings to classes and parties. In addition to hot chocolate, he’s started selling coffee from local brewers and incorporating more regional products into his recipes — like the Sagamore Whiskey caramel bonbon.
In one sense, Rosen achieved what he set out to accomplish: He’s created a wide assortment of dairy-free, vegan candy that’s not only grounded in sustainable, ethical practices but also doesn’t sacrifice taste. But he sees potential for something greater.
“We want to be a mainstay of the community,” he said, noting that most people he meets don’t know much about his line of work. “If you ever go into the chocolate-making business, a third of what you’ll be doing is education.”
He also said he’ll keep looking for ways to engage and entice the vegan community, which he said has showered him with support since the company launched. He said he wants to do right by them, adding that vegans have traditionally lacked proper attention from the culinary industry.
At his current scale, he knows he can’t fully reinvent the wheel. But, with a new 3-D printer in the mix, he can try.
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“I want us to be as big as we can while maintaining this quality,” he said. “And, I want to show how amazing and delicious animal free can be.”