Kristen Hard calls herself “the bean stalker.” It’s cacao beans she’s stalking, beans that inspired a business that includes traveling the world encouraging farmers to grow heritage varieties of cacao.
In Atlanta, she shares her love of chocolates through CACAO, with two shops and a line of handmade chocolates, cakes, drinking chocolates and more.
“I discovered cacao growing in the Caribbean while working on a private yacht as a chef. It was my introduction to a magical product I wanted to spend my life exploring,” says Hard.
“I saw these big pods growing on trees and had no idea what they were. When I got a pod and went through the steps to transform it into chocolate, it blew my mind. I became obsessed not only with chocolate, but with the growing side of cacao.”
That obsession has led her to spend the last fifteen years working with farms and developing farms so that she could source the best cacao available. “If you are a chef and you want to create the best meal possible, and the quality ingredients don’t exist, you work to find, create and source the optimal materials for your craft.”
Visit CACAO’s cafe in Virginia-Highland and you’ll find a setting right for enjoying a scoop of gelato, a cup of sipping chocolate either hot or cold, or one of the many chocolate confections like CACAO’s famous chocolate salami made with amaretto biscuits and butter biscuits wrapped in dark chocolate.
At the cafe you’ll also find CACAO’s Daily Dose, their healing chocolate sold in boxes of 30 bars. The chocolate is 60 percent cacao and the bars are each a quarter ounce, providing minerals and the antioxidant flavonoid that studies have found can improve heart health. The bars are sold singly as well.
Or visit CACAO’s jewel box of a store in The Shops Buckhead, next door to Shake Shack, and pamper yourself or a friend with a truffle or two from the shop’s premium line.
“Our Buckhead shop is like my gallery, where we’re selling the chocolates I hand make myself. It’s a chance for me to continue what I was doing when I began the company, working with chocolate as an art form.”
It’s also the workshop for custom projects and a place where she can offer chocolates made from the heritage cacao varieties she is working to save. “There are very rare varieties that are disappearing. Not many people are willing to pay farmers to keep growing them. But I buy them, at a premium price, and support the farmers and reinvigorate the marketplace.”
Hard started her chocolate odyssey as a holistic healing chocolate maker, partnering with a nutritionist and herbalist. “I love sugar, and I love working with sugar, but it’s also time to look at what is considered a guilty pleasure and remember that everything we consume is fuel for our bodies and our brains.” Daily Dose is one means of enjoying the healing properties of chocolate and Hard has plans to do even more in this space.
She also has a nonprofit where she trains farmers in several locations in Central and South America on the best way to grow and process cacao for a true quality product. It’s a complicated process that requires care at every step.
“There are 14 ‘points of failure’ in processing cacao on the farm. For example, the beans must be fermented and for the fermentation to be right, the farmer must control for sugar, pH and temperature. It’s like wine or beer. You must pay attention every step of the way.”
Hard is totally self-taught. “I taught myself to make chocolate from cacao as the first female chocolate producer in the continental United States. It’s a continual process. Once I mastered one thing, there was always another.”
She began making chocolates in 2004, then opened her factory and retail shop in Inman Park in 2008. The Virginia-Highland cafe was opened in 2010 and the factory moved to Chattahoochee Avenue.
What’s next for Cacao? Late winter and spring will bring pop-ups at the Virginia-Highland cafe that might include tacos, waffles, gelato or pops. “The cafe is a ton of fun because we can try new concepts there. It’s really an incubator for new ideas and I think our guests will find there’s a constant flow of creativity there.” Hard and her team are working on new pastries like churros to be dipped in hot chocolate and a creative new line of sipping chocolates with marshmallow fluff.
And February will bring publication of Hard’s new book, “Chocolate Alchemy” (Rizzoli, $35). “It’s full of recipes and stories and is really the place where I can share my experience over the last 10 years, uncovering the mystery of cacao from the bean to how to make chocolate at home.”