In Focus: Endorfin Chocolate
by Eric Battersby
with Victoria Cooksey
As we continue our unique trek through the wonderful world of outstanding chocolate makers and chocolatiers, here in February I’m excited to not only partner with our associate writer, Victoria Cooksey, in bringing you this issue’s inspiring story, but even more so to write about one of the best in the business, Brian Wallace at Endorfin Foods.
Based out of Berkeley California, Endorfin Foods began in 2013, and as you’ll soon witness, calling it a labor of love for Brian would be a gross understatement. While we all adore our most favorite plant, cacao, Brian’s love for plants takes the entire relationship to a whole new level. Think Batman’s Poison Ivy character, except as a clear force for good, not evil. Once again, prepare to be inspired by yet another stellar chocolate maker whose life journey to chocolate will most certainly enhance, if not accelerate, your own.
A Plant’s Life
As long as Brian Wallace can remember, the connection between human culture and the botanical kingdom, ethnobotany, called out to him… and not in any subtle, “I sort of like plants” kind of way, either. He studied Biochemistry, Ecology, & Genetics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, while also adding in bonus studies at over a half dozen botanical medicine schools.
“I consider myself a biophiliac – a lover of living, breathing, ecological systems, and the earth as a whole.”
It may surprise you to learn that communication, much like most other success stories in this world, holds the key to the entire system, and that includes communication from plant to plant, and plant to human.
“One of the gems from my studies was realizing that terpenes — the naturally occurring chemical compounds that make up essential oils — are used by plants to communicate with each other. These compounds are literally the language plants use to communicate with each other, and many of them also influence the human nervous system in subtle ways to benefit the mind and physiology.”
Brian then mentions Shinrin Yoku, “the meditative practice of sitting in the forest, which we now know (through the lens of science) uplifts mood and decreases stress through the act of breathing in the aforementioned messenger compounds given off by plants.” At Endorfin, Brian distills and extracts these same compounds when making his own essential oils for flavoring chocolate.
“So in a sense, many of our bars are inspired by my ongoing dialogue with the natural world.”
If you seek endless stories of humankind’s connection, throughout the centuries, to the plants that so peacefully keep us alive on this planet, talk to Brian. His love of life (in the more literal sense) and its interconnectedness, led him to the divine chocolate he crafts at Endorfin. It’s quite literally a tale as old as time. Let’s dive in…
Take Me to Church…
Brian’s status as a biophiliac only strengthens when you learn that his wife, a doctor of herbalism and acupuncture, shares the exacts same passion. Indeed, they both feel at home in the outdoors, and both enjoy “keying out and identifying wild plants and foods.”
“We deeply share a love for the world of plants & mushrooms. We forage plants, fungi, and food together, and both agree that our church is out in the woods, digging deeply into the moist earth and appreciating the treasures bursting forth from the soil.
Our book shelves are filled to the brim with books on plants, from keying out different species to the lore and mythology on them that can be traced back thousands of years.
Our entire world revolves around plant medicine, with cacao frequently taking center stage.”
Brian says he’s always been a tinkerer and alchemist, and crafting things with his hands since his very first Erector Set as a child.
For those of you not in the know, Erector sets were essentially Legos on steroids, “complete with electric motors and all kinds of nerdy, complicated tools and building kits,” as Brian fondly remembers.
For the majority of his adult life, Brian’s brewed beer, grown medicinal mushrooms, and grown and made his own food & herbal medicine.
He feels that his experimental nature, combined with all the years of concocting potions and food, directly influenced his love of chocolate –
“Once I started making chocolate, it quickly became an obsession – a way to channel all of my inspirations and background into one craft.”
Initially, the herbal medicine part of the equation especially fascinated Brian, to the extent that he actually hoped to combine chocolate with herbal, medicinal healing. He elaborates –
“Traditionally speaking, cacao was used as to potentiate the therapeutic effects of our oldest medicine — herbal teas — so you could say my work with cacao is an attempt to reinvigorate forgotten traditions in a modern cultural context, including the alchemy of distillation and the craft of making chocolate from bean to bar.
When I started making chocolate, I was incredibly excited about the concept of chocolate being used as a vessel for medicinal doses of plants, and I made some pretty obscure formulations at this time. For instance, there’s a 2,000+ year old Chinese formula called Gui Zhi Tang that is given for colds and various illnesses, and I noticed that it had some overlapping ingredients with “Pumpkin Spice” seasonings, so I spent months working on a chocolate bar that contained all the herbs.
It was really delicious, but it took me 10-15 minutes to describe to someone what it was good for, aside from being tasty. Today my formulation strategy, and to a larger extent my skill set, have grown so much that I’d rather focus on flavor or story telling through plants, versus trying to load up a bar with plant medicine that a person may not need (and may not even care about!).”
Down on the Farm
Quite fittingly, Brian actually grew up farming, in a small agricultural community within California’s fertile Central Valley. Fortunately, on the small farm he worked, the farm owners took care of their employees, many of whom were originally from Mexico and Central America.
Once Brian threw his hat into the chocolate ring, which included learning all about the history of the cacao trade, he felt deeply motivated to ensure his business compensated workers fairly, just like the farm he worked on back in younger days.
“This has been a major motivating factor in my work in cacao, and brings my work back around full circle to growing up on a farm myself. I know how hard it is to work the land, and it is incredibly meaningful for me to be an intermediary between hardworking farmers and chocolate lovers.
I think of what we do at Endorfin Foods as the slow food or farm-to-table equivalent of a
chocolate company, which is why I decided to call our newsletter and origin reporting blog Slow Chocolate. We were the first to use this kind of terminology, and I am thrilled to see the concept spreading like crazy to other companies that have their own, similarly inspired idea of what this means.”
A Chocolate Sabbatical
Once Brian officially decided to create a chocolate business, he took drastic steps to prepare for the new endeavor. How drastic? He moved away from most of his friends and family and lived like a recluse, crafting all different kinds of chocolate, all day, for nearly an entire year!
As he almost ironically notes, “I’d say this period of intensive self-study is when things became serious.”
He dove deep into learning technique, from making finished confections all the way to creating bean-to-bar chocolate.
Brian also wanted to learn and truly understand cacao’s cultural context, historically speaking, which of course he discovered typically involved ritual and ceremonial settings that were often celebratory in nature.
He started consuming cacao & chocolate as “an adjunct to mindfulness practices and exercise, like yoga,” actually developing a ceremonial cacao method from the beginning of his chocolate journey – no surprise whatsoever considering his botanical background.
Indeed, unbeknownst to Brian at the time, his educational path immensely prepared him for a career in chocolate –
“To this day, I’m elated that I studied science and chemistry before coming to chocolate. I grasped the concepts of tempering — especially tempering by hand — very quickly, without any person to actually explain the process to me. I studied charts and diagrams of what was happening on a molecular level, and once I got that, I was able to work chocolate from an advanced level faster than most.
I specifically remember the first batch of chocolate I successfully tempered by hand — it happened on the first try directly after this. Before that I was just following procedures, working with bean to bar chocolate and trying to learn tempering from YouTube videos of French chefs working with commercial couvertures. It was a nightmare… But as soon as I read the science, I could almost temper with my eyes closed. It was utterly exhilarating to put my overpriced degrees to use in something I was so infatuated with!”
In addition to his own, intense self tutelage, Brian also completed a couple of Ecole Chocolat’s online courses, noting that the school’s chocolatier course offered several tricks for recipes (mostly confections), that he often shares at dinner parties.
He noted, however, that he doesn’t release those confections through Endorfin Foods, and “probably never will.” Yes, we share your disappointment, but perhaps one day Brian will be persuaded otherwise…
Lasting, Ethical Relationships… Intimate Cacao
Brian’s experience growing up in a small farming community set the ethical question front and center for him when the time came to properly source cacao for his chocolate (always important). In fact, he doesn’t even care much for the word “sourcing” itself, noting that, for him, “it was never going to be about sourcing, it was going to be about developing relationships with real people and real places in the world.”
We all unfortunately know that many cacao farmers work in areas lacking the ethical stuctures needed for proper, healthy chocolate economies… structures starkly different from the farm labor crews Brian worked on when growing up. He envisioned the right, or no way, plain and simple –
“I saw a big opportunity to have a business that supported similarly hard-working, real human beings. I see the procurement of ingredients as a two-way relationship, and tend to grow into these relationships instead of hopping from bean to bean, working with the newest popular origin that other chocolate makers have been winning awards with recently.”
Such a different approach stimulates an important, unique element to Endorfin’s chocolate – it lets Brian develop an intimacy with each cacao variety, so he can uncover the complexities of each origin over an extended period.
“Every origin has strengths and weaknesses, and having a commitment to experimentation and striving for excellence means that I still uncover different aspects of beans over time, even after working with an origin for years.”
It’s worth pondering that for a moment, because such differences between chocolate makers offers wonderful, variable experiences for us as chocolate connoisseurs. Where some makers love to work with many different cacao varieties at once, which of course holds value of its own, Brian prefers to focus on fewer, diving deeply into each, individual bean. So pick your poison, because regardless of the track taken here, we as chocolate lovers win each time!
Sweeten the Deal… and Give Milk Chocolate Its Due
Like so many health-conscious chocolate makers today, Brian made the conscious decision from the very beginning to sweeten his chocolate with coconut sugar… and for two important reasons. First, as he happily notes, “It tastes divine.”
Second, coconut sugar is a simple, unrefined sweetener, and one whose health effects are most certainly not lost on Brian. He notes, with perhaps the slightest twinge of guilt, that he tends “to not eat a lot of refined or heavily processed foods, so I selfishly wanted to make chocolate I’d be happy eating myself.”
He also always felt that milk chocolate was never given the love it deserved, “mostly due to the poor quality cacao, milk, powders, and other ingredients used to make it.” Perhaps the biggest problem, however? “Milk counteracts the bioavailability of all the good stuff in chocolate,” Brian says, and with cacao sitting proudly as the highest antioxidant food on the planet, he really wanted a non-dairy option for smooth, creamy chocolate like we experience with milk chocolate varieties. Twas not, however, an easy task –
“My wife encouraged me to stick with my attempts to make a coconut “mylk” chocolate, and after almost two years of it being a work in progress, I finally nailed some novel processing steps to make a new, beautiful style of dairy free milk chocolate, which has been a main component of the offerings at Endorfin Foods ever since.
We were really at the forefront of this, and countless of other chocolate makers have followed suit now, releasing coconut milk chocolate bars of their own over the last few years.”
In addition to incorporating his signature “caramelized coconut mylk” into the majority of Endorfin’s bars, other unique aspects of Brian’s chocolate include his oft-unusual inclusions & flavorings, most certainly a product of the experimental nature he’s held for so long.
And, of course, the fact that he’s likely the only chocolate maker out there with a background in biochemistry & botany.
That background even allows Brian to distill his own herbs and spices in house, which he uses to flavor Endorfin’s chocolates. It’s a labor of love –
“This is an incredible amount of work, and arguably as complicated as chocolate making, so I really take a lot of pride in this part of my craft, even though there are very few people in the world that “get” this part of my process.”
Brand New Flava in Ya Ear
For the last five years, Brian’s crafted two to three new chocolate bars every single month for Endorfin’s subscription boxes. That, is a lot of chocolate, and as Brian tells it, it’s required him to “innovate in flavor and develop originality as a skill on a serious level.”
In addition to crafting the new chocolate, every month he writes a story about each of the limited edition bars. One of his favorites is the Absinthe bar. The chocolate doesn’t actually contain any absinthe liquor, but is instead crafted “with a combination of individual essential oils made from the plants used to make classical absinthe, in the original ratios as I discovered them in classical European literature,” Brian notes.
The oils serve as incredibly efficient flavorings, as only one drop of essential oil from some plants can flavor ten chocolate bars, while a drop from a different plant may wind up flavoring fifty, or even more, bars.
For Brian, ’tis a labor of love, as he notes that “Making and working with essential oils is extremely complicated as such, and balancing the symphony of flavor perfectly is a serious challenge – but worth every moment of effort.”
Right now, he’s pretty obsessed with a matcha based bar he’s been working on for our Endorfin’s chocolate subscribers. Like the golden mylk bar, its made with caramelized coconut mylk and cocoa butter. Although, technically speaking, the bar looks closest to white chocolate, since Brian formulates the bar from the ground up, he makes it with only the same amount of coconut sugar as a dark chocolate. He elaborates –
“It’s called “Matcha Latté” and tastes exactly like its namesake. As a maker, white chocolate and milk chocolate — especially the dairy free kinds — are much harder to make and fine tune than the single origin dark chocolates that everyone is uniquely obsessed with.
Don’t get me wrong — I love dark chocolate too — I just think that we’re at a time where there are hundreds of makers that craft great dark chocolate bars, and very few that make a reasonable milk or white chocolate. It’s in my nature to push the boundaries of creativity, and making a matcha bar like this is a testament to this habit of mine.”
Chocolate with a Kick and a Little James Bond Twist?
When we asked Brian for his bestselling bar, he actually found the question difficult to answer, because Endorfin actually sells different chocolate through so many different channels. He made one important distinction regarding bar popularity –
“Sometimes popularity is based on trends… having the right bar to offer at the right time to the right person. Zooming out a bit and considering the bigger picture, we make unique chocolate and people love us for it.”
He did note, however, that lately they’ve had a lot of interest in their Golden Mylk bar – essentially a dairy-free white chocolate bar with turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, & caramelized coconut mylk.
Although he initially made a version of the bar years ago, now that turmeric is all the rage, he’s seen demand skyrocket for turmeric infusions. Indeed, Endorfin soon plans to launch a Kickstarter in order to finance the purchase of new chocolate making equipment, which will allow them to release the Golden Mylk bar to the public. They also plan to purchase a new set of custom sculpted molds as well.
There may be a bit of a chocolate covert op going on here as well, however! When we asked Brian if the bar is available now in some limited capacity, since he mentioned the high demand, he answered “Yes, it is available in extremely limited capacity right now — but I can’t tell you where .” Cue the Mission Impossible or James Bond music…
If we can find out where you can score a Golden Mylk bar to try before it’s available in much greater capacity in the future, we’ll let you know. In the meantime… perhaps Goldeneye or Goldfinger will suffice.
Although the Golden Mylk Kickstarter isn’t close to launch quite yet, according to Brian –
“Our Kiva Direct to Social Entrepreneur crowdfunding loan is almost live. We’ll be using the money we raise from it to purchase the world’s first shipping container of 100% regeneratively grown cacao, which is pretty revolutionary when it comes to buying cocoa from small producers, especially since we’re the first company in history to pay a premium for the extra work it takes to grow cacao in this way.”
We’ll let you know via our Chocolate Blog, and in more depth via our Chocolate News column, when both crowdfunding endeavors officially launch, so keep an eye out. As Brian notes, “We could use all the support we can get!”
LATE FEBRUARY KICKSTARTER UPDATE: Brian reached out to us shortly before publish date with an update on the Golden Mylk Kickstarter campaign. It is indeed LIVE, and Endorfin would love your help! Click Here to view the Kickstarter page, and we can’t wait to taste the Golden Mylk Bar once the campaign succesfully finishes!
The Path to Connoisseur
As someone who’s been living in the chocolate world for several years now, the changes it’s undergone recently are certainly not lost on Brian. When he started, no huge culture appreciating specialty chocolate, or the nuances of bean to bar processing, or how fair trade isn’t always enough for cacao growers to making a living from, even existed, at least not on the much larger scale it does today.
Even if you look at the chocolate world from when Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine first started in 2013, it’s grown incredibly. As Brian elaborates –
“I’d say that I’ve been making chocolate long enough to have noticed when it really started “trending” a few years ago, which was really incredible to watch from the inside. It’s been inspiring to watch chocolate consumers turn into chocophiles, learning as much as they can about the complexities of chocolate.
Within a few years, I’ve seen the culture grow into its own, with social media “influencers,” many more awards competitions, and many more industry meetings where makers and chocolate professionals gather to discuss things like the definition of craft chocolate.
We really need chocolate consumers to understand the nuances of what chocolate makers do on a day-to-day basis, and help us spread the gospel of cacao!”
Brian also notes that we still “have a long way to go to catch up with the culture of sharing surrounding craft beer, the level of commerce in coffee, and the appreciation of terroir in wine, but we’re definitely growing in all of these capacities by leaps and bounds.”
A Deeper Meaning
With Brian’s elaborate background we covered earlier, it’s crystal clear that a deep dive into cacao sat before him as destiny. It’s only fitting that the most complicated plant on earth would eventually call to him…
“I’m a hedonist and endorphin junkie down to my bones, and feel to this day that chocolate has many things to teach people if we only take a moment to listen.
The alchemical side of chocolate making is what I love. I know today that no matter how much I experiment, how many origins I familiarize myself with, or how many techniques I perfect, there will always be something else to learn. I think of chocolate making as a meditative process in this way…
Sometimes I’m “in the zone” and craft something perfect on the first try, other times I need to finesse a formula twenty times before I think its ready to release to the world.”
It’s a process that truly never ends, and that’s part of cacao’s beauty… its intricate complexities that humankind may never fully master. As Brian continues,
“No matter what happens I’m learning every step of the way, making it better every time. I have chocolate bars I’ve been making for five years – like my Absinthe bar – that I’m still making minor adjustments on every time it’s made.”
Connect with Endorfin in Person
Endorfin participates in plenty of trade shows, chocolate festivals, and other events around the country, including the Fancy Food Show on both coasts, and many of the chocolate festivals around the west coast in particular. You can keep up with them all via Endorfin’s official links below, and we’ll close with Brian’s kind words to one of the best west coast festivals we all know and love –
“I’m really fond of the Northwest Chocolate Festival, and wish a festival like this existed in all the major cities across the country. Their commitment to educational programming is top notch, and really required if the industry is going to sustain the growth we’ve been experiencing the last few years.”
We hope you get the chance to experience Endorfin soon if you’ve yet to do so. Simply use the store locator link below to make it happen, or order from them directly.
Last of all, BIG THANKS to Brian and also to co-writer Victoria Cooksey for helping put this article together over the past few months. It’s been a wonderful article to write, and we hope you enjoyed it!