In Focus: Goodnow Farms Chocolate
by Eric Battersby
Several weeks before I sat down to properly pen this In Focus article on fabulous Goodnow Farms, the company owners, Tom and Monica Rogan, graciously sent over a gorgeous gift box filled with bars for me to sample.
Determined to ensure the bars survived until finalizing the story here, I purposely avoided the entire box, tucked away in the pantry, for well over two weeks. After progressing through the first stage of my interview with Tom, however, I said goodbye to my fickle friend, willpower, and opened the first bar.
Delighting in four Goodnow Farms bars (more on that later), while still needing to save a fair portion of each for part of this article, well… not so easy (oh the sacrifices we make at Chocolate Connoisseur). Two of them were “eat in one sitting” temptations, while the other two were still very difficult to abandon for a later date.
And yet, I persevered.
In addition to the chocolate overwhelm of letting ½ to ¾ eaten chocolate bars sit for two weeks, another sort of overwhelm struck as well… the rapid fire of awards. Goodnow started in late 2016, yet in just over two years, the company somehow snagged a remarkable 38 major national and international awards.
They scored a Gold for Best Dark Chocolate at the Northwest Chocolate Festival, won two awards at the 2018 International Chocolate Awards World Finals in Florence, Italy, and most recently, Goodnow pulled in a whopping six Sofi awards, more than any other company has ever won in one single year.
Such an impressive showing, especially considering that Goodnow Farms swept the dark chocolate category, winning Gold, Silver And Bronze (see the three winners, in Gold to Bronze order (left to right), pictured below.
I don’t normally start an In Focus spotlight by counting the awards on a chocolate makers mantle. Between the wonderful experience of the bar tastings, and the rush of accolades heaped upon Goodnow since its inception, I felt compelled to kick off this article as such in order to hit home one distinct point –
Chances are you will absolutely love Goodnow Farms! Now let’s step into the chocolate time machine here to discover exactly why…
A Very Different Life in L.A.
As we oft discover in the chocolate world, this husband and wife chocolate-making team led completely different lives before their cacao epiphany struck. Yes, they now reside in Massachussets, but prior to 2015, Tom and Monica lived in Los Angeles, so far away from their current lives that neither one of them felt any interest in chocolate whatsoever, and, as Tom notes, “Monica actually disliked it!”
Gasp! I’ll give you a moment to recover from that statement before continuing…
In her former, chocolate-free life, Monica worked in real estate development on a variety of different projects, ranging from new school construction to commercial & residential development to historic renovations and even eco-resorts.
Meanwhile, Tom owned Authentic Entertainment, a television production company that produced shows for cable networks, including “Ace of Cakes” and the EMMY award-winning “Best Thing I Ever Made” for Food Network, the EMMY nominated “Flipping Out” on Bravo, and “Cities of the Underworld” on the History Channel.
Both careers sat far, far away from the wonderful world of chocolate.
One Day in Zen Bunni
One fateful day, while taking a break from all that hustle and bustle, Monica and Tom stepped into a store in Santa Monica called Zen Bunni.
Zen Bunni primarily focused on vintage furniture, but in the rear of the store sat a small case filled with handmade, craft chocolate bars. The owners (Zen & Bunni, of course) created the chocolate themselves.
Tom and Monica felt their chocolate disdain melt away with each bite as, for the first time, they tasted true chocolate… not the mass-market, processed food product they’d known to be chocolate before that moment.
Of course, they were both hooked.
“Up until then we didn’t even know it was possible to make your own chocolate!”
About an hour drive from Tom and Monica’s home, Zen Bunni, unbeknownst to them at the time, served as the first seed of Goodnow Farms. On one solo trip, Tom arrived at Zen Bunni ready for a chocolate fix, only to find it closed. As he stood outside the storefront, contemplating his hour-long chocolate-disappointed drive home, he thought, “If they can make chocolate themselves, maybe I can too.”
When he mentioned the idea to Monica she was all for it, which kicked off wave one of chocolate research online, and their first step down a greater chocolate path –
“The idea that chocolate came from a fruit and that it can retain the same flavors as that fruit sparked our creativity. We began making very small batches of chocolate at home, with beans we’d bought online. We roasted the beans in our kitchen oven, cracked them with a rolling pin and winnowed with a hair dryer. Before we splurged on a small 10 pound melangeur we even refined and conched with a mortar and pestle!”
The more chocolate they created, the deeper their fascination grew… so many different flavors to discover, and oh so many challenges as well. They soon stumbled into one of the first big hurdles of chocolate making – trying to source beans with consistently great flavors – as well as one of chocolate’s dark sides – how farmers often receive subpar payment for their cacao beans.
Tom and Monica with farmer William Talaverano on his farm in Peru
As Tom notes –
“We began reaching out directly to farmers to find out more about the challenges they face. When I sold my company in 2010, Monica and I came up with a five-year plan for transitioning to making chocolate full time.”
Although still several years away from fruition, make no mistake… Goodnow Farms slowly started to twinkle in their eyes, as a brand new chocolate adventure dotted Tom and Monica’s horizon…
A Trek to Origin
With a solid five year plan in place, plenty of time still stood between dream and dream-come-true however, as the couple set out to not only create their own chocolate, but to create chocolate the right way.
They didn’t simply refine their own craft, they also reached out to numerous cacao farmers along the way. Connections soon turned into multiple origin trips, as they gradually forged solid relationships with wonderful cocoa farmers. The chocolate couple also discovered, up close and personal, exactly how cacao producers propagate, harvest, ferment, and dry cacao.
The end result? A more consistent supply of high quality beans, plus a better understanding of the conditions at each farm, which they paid directly. And although certainly an intense time of discovery, learning, and inspiration for Monica and Tom, I don’t think they would trade those days for anything –
“We have a lot of great memories from our early origin trips. At that point we knew very little about cacao at origin, and I remember how excited we were to see our first cacao pods in Talamanca, Costa Rica.
The best part of those trips was making connections with so many farmers, and seeing how they and their families lived. Seeing everything firsthand really brought home not only the complexities of finding and sustaining a supply of high quality cacao, but also of how to truly improve the lives of farmers. There are no easy answers, and it’s an ongoing discussion being had by many very dedicated people.”
Sometimes a Goodnow Farms origin trip turns into a family affair
Tom and Monica’s first trip to the village of San Juan Chivite in Guatemala (the source for their Asochivite beans) really had an impact. The couple loved the Chivite villagers dedication to, and pride in, growing fine flavor cacao.
Unfortunately, during the visit, Chivite farmers explained they weren’t sure they could continue producing cacao going forward, thanks to a rapidly aging fermentation and drying facility. They were promised government funding for a new one, but the funding failed to materialize.
Monica and Tom then stepped up, providing funds to help construct a brand new fermentation and drying area, which not only allowed the farmers to keep making incredible cacao, but also increased production as well.
The drying area at Costa Esmeraldas Cacao in Ecuador
In addition to improving the fermentation and drying facility, the couple also hoped to facilitate greater gender equality within the village, as their culture tends to be very patriarchal. As Tom notes –
“Shortly after our first trip, Monica traveled there on her own for the primary purpose of starting this discussion.
She brought all the women together, asked in what ways they wanted to be more involved in things, and no one responded. After some prompting, one of the women explained that she didn’t know how to answer because no one had ever asked her what she wanted before.”
That eye-opening moment pulled back the curtain, shining a spotlight on the important work still needed to truly evolve the chocolate supply chain.
In another memorable moment from her San Juan Chivite trip, Monica also met separately with the men of the village. They asked where Tom was, and when Monica explained that Tom had stayed home alone to take care of their children, the men responded with, “How will he eat?”
They found the concept of a man cooking his own food completely foreign.
Finding the Farm
As the end of Tom and Monica’s five-year chocolate making plan drew near, they set their sights on one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle – moving to Massachusetts, where they wanted to raise their two children. The couple purchased Goodnow Farm in June of 2015 and immediately began building a chocolate kitchen on the property.
“There were a lot of factors that went into our decision to make Goodnow Farm our home and chocolate factory. Most importantly we wanted a good environment and community in which to raise our kids, and the farm has both. In terms of chocolate making, we needed a large enough space to build our kitchen, and the garage next to the barn was perfect.”
Originally, they intended to use only the second floor for making chocolate, but things grew quickly, so chocolate production now “takes up every square inch of the space!” As Tom adds, “Not having a place to put the cars during snowy winters is a pain in the neck, but chocolate is worth the sacrifice!”
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Goodnow Farm served as a working farm for almost two hundred years, so it includes a barn that’s ready for almost any kind of animal. With the couple’s laser focus on chocolate, the barn currently sits dormant.
The farm also includes gardens, however, where Monica and Tom grow food not only for themselves, but also as ingredients (mainly herbs and spices), which they’re already using in various test batches. Tom says they hope to incorporate those ingredients into a bar release at some point soon.
Becoming Chocolate Makers
All throughout the five years of their chocolate master plan, Tom and Monica continued to work hard at their craft. As we see so often in chocolate makers today, self-taught often wins the day, and our Goodnow Farms couple also took that route – along with all the feisty cacao bumps and bruises that tend to accompany it –
“We have absolutely no professional training in chocolate, or in food for that matter. For the most part we’re self-taught, learning everything we needed to know as we went along. Initially we gleaned some information from the internet, although at the time we began making bean to bar chocolate there still wasn’t much information online about it.”
They also read lots of books, including Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate and Industrial Chocolate Manufacture and Use.
“But, at the end of the day it was all about trial and error and lots of practice – roasting lots of beans to get the right roast profiles, grinding and conching over and over again to find the right conche profiles, etc.
During our learning process one thing we discovered is that pressing our own cocoa butter made a tremendous difference in the flavor, so we added that step to our final process. As we began working with the press many hours were spent wiping cocoa liquor off walls, floors and even the ceiling following press explosions!”
Ethical Sourcing and the Labeling Conundrum
Goodnow Farms sources their Signature Line beans directly from numerous farmers throughout Latin America., and only from places they’ve traveled to… from farmers they now know personally. Their current origins are Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.
For the future, they’re currently looking to Colombia as well –
“This past winter we traveled to visit farmers in Colombia, which was an incredible trip. We met farmers for whom fine flavor cacao is a very new product, and which for many supplants coca (cocaine) as a cash crop. The enthusiasm we saw for creating fine flavor cacao was inspiring and we plan to add Colombia as an origin later this year.”
Ethical sourcing stands tall as one of the founding principles behind Goodnow Farms Chocolate, hence Tom and Monica’s travels to origin for all of their cacao beans. They know the farmers, they know each farm’s working conditions, and they even know how much the farmer pays his or her workers.
In true direct trade fashion, they also negotiate the price directly, and always pay a premium well above commodity prices.
Each year presents different harvest and post-harvest conditions, so maintaining a dialog with farmers helps tremendously when it comes to cacao consistency as well.
As we know, so much of the chocolate supply chain suffers from imperfections, which can lead to confusion, and even controversy.
When it comes to certifications, Goodnow Farms Chocolate walks the similarly delicate line we’ve seen many chocolate makers walk in recent years, as Tom elaborates –
“As for certifications we avoid putting them on our labels. As we learned more about organic and trade certifications, we found the systems to be imperfect, and they can sometimes do more harm than good.
Regardless of how well certifications do or do not work, they still take a percentage of profit away from the farmer.
By traveling to farms, we can be sure the farming practices that are being used are sustainable, with no pesticides or other chemical use. And from a labor standpoint, it helps to see the farmer’s books and talk directly to the workers.”
That’s certainly a touchy subject, and one we’ll undoubtedly dive into again, to a deeper level, at some point in the near future here at Chocolate Connoisseur.
One thing holds true, however – whether a chocolate bar shows an organic certification or not, there will always be an inherent element of trust involved in chocolate production (see this issue’s Chocolate News for more on that subject).
Remember, an organic certification on any product doesn’t mean a USDA representative lives on site monitoring production 24/7. That’s not how it works. Even with certifications, a level of trust must exist.
Tasting Goodnow Farms
Now that we’ve walked hand-in-hand with Tom and Monica all the way through their five year chocolate journey, it’s time to reap the rewards of all their hard work… yes, it’s chocolate time!
First off, let’s look at Goodnow Farms Special Reserve line. These bars “highlight unique and interesting flavor combinations”, such as their Putnam Rye Whiskey bar, one of the four bars I received in my shipment. As Tom describes the Putnam Rye Whiskey Bar –
“We loved the berry jam flavors in our Esmeraldas chocolate and loved eating it with whiskey. The two went so well together we had to try putting the whiskey in the chocolate. We tasted a LOT of whiskey… and even after we found the one we liked best, it took numerous test batches before we found the one that was just right.
For example, one thing we learned early on is that the sweetness of the rye really helped bring out the berry notes in the cacao, so for our testing we focused primarily on rye. We also did a lot of tests to determine the percentage of nibs that should be soaked in the rye, since too much would overwhelm the chocolate and too little didn’t give enough whiskey flavor. It was a long but delicious testing process!”
Well, good things come to those who wait, because the 77% Dark Putnam Rye Whiskey Bar tastes postively amazing. Goodnow lists the bar’s tasting notes as “berry jam, cabernet grapes, baked apple, spiced pear, and vanilla.” For my palate, the cabernet grapes notes actually dominated the bar (in a good way), obviously a result of the whiskey pairing.
If you’re not a red wine fan (I’m sure there are three or four of you out there somewhere), this bar may turn you off, but otherwise, you likely won’t be able to get enough. The vanilla came through as well, albeit more subtly. The bar’s only downside is a bitter aftertaste that’s unusual… I couldn’t quite place it… but the rest of the experience dwarfs the aftertaste.
Goodnow Farms Putnam Rye Whiskey Bar is one of those rare chocolate bars that just leaves you feeling sad once it’s gone. It’s that good.
After all the talk of Tom and Monica’s experiences in Guatemala, I had to try the Signature Line Guatemala Asochivite 77% Bar next. This delicious cacao concoction, winner of two silver awards in 2018 (in addition to the 2019 Silver Sofi award mentioned earlier), tasted spectacular.
The tasting notes referenced green banana and mango, but I actually didn’t notice the mango during my tasting, and only slightly picked up the green banana; instead, I enjoyed deep, burnt salted caramel notes, which again… did I mention spectacular?
I loved this bar more than the Putnam Rye Whiskey, and also found it easier to eat slowly, a welcome bonus to ye olde waistline as well.
Next up… the 73% Dark Costa Rica Coto Brus Bar, a drastic turn away from the Asochivite. Goodnow suggests caramel, plum and walnut tasting notes, and for this bar I 100% concurred.
I found the plum notes dominant, however, followed by the walnut and only a touch of the caramel. A very enjoyable bar, and a great option for small chocolate snacking, because even one small square goes a long way.
Finally, I closed out my Goodnow Farms tasting experience with their own unique take on Peru Ucayali cacao, one of our all-time favorite origins. Trailblazed by LetterPress Chocolate, Goodnow Farms now takes Ucayali to new heights, ordering a significant amount of cacao from Ucayali River Cacao on the regular.
Plus, Goodnow Farms did not disappoint. Their 70% Dark Peru Ucayali Bar actually rose up as my favorite bar of the four. With tasting notes of lemongrass and peach indicated on the packaging, yes, absolutely. The peach simply bursts right out of the bar with one little nibble, and as I let the remainder of the square slowly dissolve in my mouth… absolutely delectable.
This bar scored a Bronze and two Silver awards in 2018, and I’m not at all surprised after experiencing one for myself. It also delivered the best mouthfeel of the quartet as well.
If I had to recommend the bars in a particular order for trying yourself, I’d undoubtedly start with the Guatemala Asochivite 77% Bar, then the 70% Dark Peru Ucayali Bar, followed by the 77% Dark Putnam Rye Whiskey Bar, and then the 73% Dark Costa Rica Coto Brus Bar to round out the experience.
As always, however, chocolate is subjective and personal, so I’m simply sharing my own take on these wonderful chocolate bars.
Two brand new Special Reserve bars: Lawley’s Rum and Las Palomas Coffee
New Bars and a Bestseller
Looking ahead, Goodnow will release two new bars over the summer, a rum bar and a coffee bar. The coffee bar pairs single origin Guatemala coffee from George Howell with Goodnow’s single origin Guatemala Asochivite beans. As Tom adds, “The folks at George Howell brew the coffee to perfection and we then soak the nibs in it before drying them to make the chocolate.”
Right now, Goodnow Farms Special Reserve Putnam Rye Whiskey Bar fittingly registers as their best seller. Although you won’t find that surprising after my rave review above, Tom and Monica were indeed somewhat surprised, since the added cost of the whiskey (not to mention the extra time and labor it takes to craft the bar), gives it a higher price point.
Tom offers a little extra insight –
“The flavors in the bar are so exceptional it’s really addictive. We think it helps to pair with such a great local company, Boston Harbor Distillery. Their Putnam Rye already had a large fan base, which definitely helped!”
The Cocoa Butter Difference
Goodnow’s chocolate philosophy and hard work shines through in all of their products. For Monica and Tom, chocolate is all about flavor.
“We love opening people’s eyes to the fact that chocolate is a fruit, and that great chocolate has unique flavors in the same way that a great wine or cheese does.
It’s amazing how many people we meet who have never had any chocolate other than what’s produced for the mass-market, and who have no idea that chocolate can taste any other way!
Our philosophy is pretty basic – find the best, most flavorful beans and work directly with farmers to ensure the quality remains consistent, their farming practices are sustainable, and their labor practices are fair.
Then take those beans and highlight the distinct and unique flavors of each one.”
If you remember, a bit earlier we noted how Monica and Tom discovered the unique difference in pressing their own cocoa butter. That added step to their chocolate making process continues at Goodnow Farms.
Tom elaborates –
“It’s an extremely time-consuming and costly process, but it makes a huge difference in flavor and mouthfeel. When you see cocoa butter as an ingredient in chocolate bars it’s almost always bulk cocoa butter that’s made from many different beans and then deodorized.
When it’s added to chocolate it dilutes the flavors in that chocolate and can even add off flavors. We spend so much time and effort to find beans with unique flavors we don’t want to dilute or adulterate those flavors in any way.
We press butter from the same beans we use to make our chocolate, so the butter retains the flavors of those specific beans. This not only enhances the flavor but make the chocolate exceptionally smooth, as well.
When we first started pressing our own butter we were amazed at how different the flavors were straight out of the press – it makes a huge difference!”
If you’re a Chocolate Connoisseur regular, you’ll likely remember the last chocolate maker we featured who presses their own cacao butter – Zak’s Chocolate in Scottsdale, AZ. It’s great to see more chocolate makers embracing the concept, and as my taste buds will attest, Goodnow Farms clearly makes excellent use of the practice.
More than chocolate bars, Goodnow Farms also crafts their own single origin hot cocoa
Connect with Goodnow Farms Chocolate
If you’re looking to connect with Goodnow Farms, they tend to stick to local events, especially since Tom and Monica also place a high priority on spending time with their two young children (see the photo below for proof of that!). So you’ll likely need to find them near the Boston area, although they do sometimes attend the summer Fancy Food show and Good Food Mercantile events.
You can always look for them at the Boston Food Festival, and earlier this month, Tom and Monica opened their first ever retail shop at the Boston Public Market as well. Located in the heart of downtown Boston, the market showcases some of the best food and other products made in New England.
The couple couldn’t be happier –
“We’re looking forward to having a place we can educate people about the joys of single origin chocolate, and do tastings of all our bars.
We love that we’re helping bring a whole new food experience to people, and that in the process we’re raising awareness about fair and sustainable sourcing.
We also love the close-knit community of chocolate makers who share our passion for incredible flavors as well as our sourcing philosophy.”
We love it too, and we can’t wait to see what other great chocolate creations await us connoisseurs as the Goodnow Farms Chocolate journey progresses…
For more on Goodnow Farms Chocolate, and to view all of their bars (including several we didn’t include here), CLICK HERE to visit the Goodnow Farms website.
And click the links below to connect with Tom, Monica, and company on social media as well.