In Focus: Tabal Chocolate
by Eric Battersby
Great chocolate tends to find its way into the world via unusual, surprising and oft-inspirational channels. It’s part of what makes chocolate such an amazing food to center a magazine around, and it’s obviously part of the allure (whether consciously or otherwise) for chocolate connoisseurs as well. We all share the same thought – there’s something very, very special to cacao.
This issue’s In Focus chocolate maker, Dan Bieser of Tabal Chocolate, stands as a perfect example of the inspirational side. I fully expect that his chocolate journey will not only make you smile – and of course want to try some Tabal Chocolate – but will also light a little extra fire within you to do a little more. Just a hunch… so let’s find out.
Dan doesn’t shy away from his midwestern roots. He grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee, with a solid family structure that not only supported him, but supported others. His parents and grandparents led him to be an advocate for social justice, by example, resulting in a deep lifelong passion within Dan to make the world a better place.
“All my life I have been involved in working with the underprivileged. As a child I helped deliver bakery, assisted at homeless shelters and meal programs and did community service projects.”
In one of his favorite memories, Dan and his grandparents helped load up the day-old bakery items at Dobkeys bakery, and then delivered the food to various locations in the area, including the House of Peace and a secret Women’s Shelter. As Dan remembers, “it seemed like it was a secret mission in the middle of the night,” and as one might imagine, driving around with a car full of baked goods offered quite the memorable and hunger-inducing smells as well.
Tabal’s Teahouse Matcha. Click the pic to view the bar in Tabal’s online shop.
That served as the overall mantra for Dan’s childhood – his parents and grandparents encouraged Dan and his siblings to watch after those people who were less fortunate than they were. In addition to the bakery runs, he also served meals at the St. Ben and St. Vincent meal programs, and participated actively in the community as a Boy Scouts of America Eagle Scout (the highest rank within the scouts). Think real, true “community,” not just a buzzword.
“My Grandfather and parents often took me to visit some of the local small food businesses in Milwaukee. Small butchers, bakers, chocolate, and grocery stores were some of our favorite stops. Seeing and smelling these places forged strong sensory and emotional memories of fascinating people, community, and hard working small business people.”
Dan also credits his education in the Catholic church, particularly in his Jesuit high school and then university, for firmly establishing his deep roots in the fight for social justice.
“Those early experiences demonstrated to me how lucky I was to have healthy fresh food and how to make the best of those opportunities.”
At an early age he was inspired to eat healthy, unprocessed food, packed with flavor and nutrients, and when a familiar fork in the road presented itself (coffee or tea?), Dan instead went off the beaten path. He chose drinking chocolate.
Yes, in a year where our auxiliary mission here at Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine is to help nudge drinking chocolate a bit more to the forefront, we inadvertently (via our coverage of Enliven Cacao over the holidays and into the new year), stumbled upon a drinking chocolate connoisseur of many years. We love you, chocolate.
Indeed, Dan’s unusual selection of drinking chocolate over coffee would eventually play a much bigger role…
Twists of Fate
First, however, Dan started down his career path as a therapist for autistic adults, foster teens and childern. He then became a guidance counselor, followed by teacher and then, finally, a high school administrator.
With something missing, however, chocolate started calling, and Dan soon began working on a little side gig known as Tabal Chocolate –
“Chocolate served my need for a creative outlet to explore my passions for food, nutrition, world travel, chocolate education, social justice, and social entrepreneurship.”
He launched Tabal after attending several start-up conferences, where he found inspiration from others starting new businesses.
One particular event, a talk at Marquette University on social entrepreneurship, really made a difference, as he met a student, Sean, who expressed interest in assisting with Tabal’s development.
Sean ended up serving as a guide, motivator, and sounding board for planning and implementing Tabal. Then, at another Marquette conference called “Start Up Weekend,” Dan met the founders of MobCraft beer, another important twist of fate.
“Mobcraft has been supportive of Tabal from their infancy. I was at the right place six years ago when we were both starting our businesses and I was part of one of their first guerrilla street research teams…
We went to locations all over Milwaukee one weekend and spoke with people who were at beer establishments, collecting opinions and ideas on beer and how they might support a ‘mob-sourced’ business…
Their passion and enthusiasm for beer inspired me to launch Tabal.”
Of course the business side functions as only one piece of the puzzle – Dan still needed to learn the chocolate side. During spring break in 2012, a friend had planned a trip to Toronto to learn about chocolate making, and Dan asked if he could join him, seeking a much-needed break from the stress of school administrating. Again, one thing led to another…
“Some chocolate makers at ChocoSol invited us up to experience their operation. Four days later I was hooked and came home with some ingredients and tools to start my business.”
The return trip, however, provided a bit more drama than anticipated, and Dan now humorously offers these words of wisdom –
“Note to chocolate makers, if you attempt to cross an international border, be very careful to clearly state ‘I have 100 kilos of cacao, yes cacao, not coca, in the back seat’. That pronunciation is crucial to your safe passage back to the US!”
Surviving the customs embarassment, Dan finally set out to create the chocolate. Most of my skills are actually self-taught, although under the guidance of many chocolate makers from coast-to-coast who generously shared their knowledge and skills with him.
Tabal’s Peru 70% Bar. Click the pic to view on Tabal’s website.
For any budding chocolate makers out there, the chocolate community as whole (with a few exceptions of course) tends to be extremely friendly and giving. Plenty of room exists for chocolate makers around the country, and unless you’re looking to set up shop in someone else’s area, chances are you’ll find ample support from within.
Just make sure you’re willing to share as well, and make it a point to never become one of those aforementioned exceptions). Dan, David Menkes, and countless others will attest to the sheer awesomeness of the chocolate community, and that’s a huge part of why we re-launched Chocolate Connoisseur Magazine in late 2016. So take heart – if you’re considering a career in chocolate, a road most certainly exists for you!
Indeed, Dan wholeheartedly offers thanks to all those who helped him along his own chocolate journey –
“I am continually grateful to the fine people at French Broad Chocolate, Dandelion Chocolate, Raaka Chocolate, Patomic Chocolate, and others who graciously shared their knowledge when I was getting started.”
Dan officially started Tabal Chocolate in the summer of 2012, out of his home and garage, looking for a significant change from his high school administrator gig.
“In the garage days I was selling chocolate at any event that I could find, including church fairs, farmer markets, street fairs, and vegan and fair trade events.”
Before long, however, Tabal moved into its first professional location at the Amaranth Bakery and Café on 33rd and Lisbon, in the Washington Park neighborhood of Milwaukee. They shared the building with Amaranth for about four years as they worked to grow a healthy customer base.
Dan’s lifelong drinking chocolate obsession came into play here as well, as it played a significant role in the creation of Tabal Chocolate. He really wanted to bring amazing cacao and chocolate drinks to the Midwest, where a huge void existed.
“One of the first reasons I started this company was to design a world class drinking chocolate. This journey began with the need for a cocoa butter press. To make a true single origin drinking chocolate we can either use a chocolate that we make or we could make a cacao powder which requires a special press to squeeze the cacao butter out of the cacao liquor (stone ground nibs). We’ve worked with Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) for the past two years to develop our own custom cacao butter press, and we’re in the final stages of getting that up and running.”
According to Dan, once you can make single origin cacao powder it’s only one short step to then crafting a drinking chocolate. So yes, Tabal currently offers six different single origin drinking chocolates, including Chai, Matcha, Peppermint, Bolivia 58%, Dominican 70%, and Costa Rica – Sea Salt. They also offer all flavors in a European-style sipping chocolate – a step thicker, served in an espresso cup with whipped cream and limited edition chocolate gems on the side.
Now for the good news/bad news. The good news? Tabal offers all six varieties at its store in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. You can walk in on any given day and enjoy a fabulous single origin drinking chocolate!
The bad news? Although development for retail sales packaging is indeed underway, you cannot order any of Tabal’s drinking chocolate online at this time. At “press time” we’re working on a chocolate offer with Tabal, but it doesn’t sound like it will include drinking chocolate. No worries, however, as Tabal offers much, much more…
Chocolate on Display
If you’re yet unfamiliar with Tabal, Dan crafts only single origin chocolate from bean-to-bar, via traditional stone grinders.
He’s developed some one of a kind chocolates infusing Rishi Tea including Blueberry Rooibos, Vanilla Bean Black Tea, West Cape Chai, Matcha, Peppermint Rooibos, and Earl Grey. Tabal also sells some exotic coffee chocolates including Dominican Republic Espresso Crunch and Colombian Salted Coffee.
I’ve yet to taste a tea chocolate bar, outside of the award-winning Earl Grey bar from Rawclates (which is divine), and know very little of the process involved in crafting such a bar. Dan elaborates on how and why tea became an integral part of Tabal –
“We have never used extracts in our chocolate, and we avoid water at all costs, so bringing additional flavor into a chocolate was a challenge. We landed on tea when we experimented with mint leaves and discovered that a lot of dried mint leaves give very little flavor to a chocolate.
We were friends with the fine people at Rishi Tea and have been developing a long term relationship with them nearly since we started. We’ve been experimenting and taste testing for the past five years and have discovered over many trials that tea works really well in the right combinations and with the high quality of RIshi tea.”
Dan also notes that Joshua Kaiser, owner of Rishi Tea, offered great support as well, and as one of the world’s foremost tea experts, Joshua proved to be an invaluable resource in Tabal’s product development journey.
As for the coffee blends, Dan wanted a bit of crunch in the Colombian Salted Coffee Bar, and of course he also wanted to work with some Wisconsin-based organic coffee roasters. The search eventually let to Kickapoo Coffee Roasters, and as a result, Dan happily professes that Tabal’s “Colombian, Dominican, and Bolivian Coffee bars are some of the most unique chocolate you will ever find.”
Tabal’s Domincan Espresso Crunch Bar. Click the pic to view in Tabal’s online shop.
Tabal also serves up a few special flavors, including a Costa Rica Coconut Milk (with coconut butter), Guatemala Nibs and Sea Salt, and Bolivia or Belize 100% Cacao. They use sea salt from exotic locations like Bolivia, Cyprus and Hawaii to flavor some of the bars. Speaking of sea salt, Costa Rica Sea Salt registers as Tabal’s best seller –
“Our Costa Rica Sea Salt Bar stands out because of the high quality of the cacao and the unique flavors of salted caramel, fruit, and nuts that naturally occur in the chocolate.”
Acopagro Cacao Harvest in Peru
Beyond Costa Rica, Tabal also sources cacao beans from Nicaragua (via Enliven Cacao), Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Fiji, Guatemala, Belize and the Dominican Republic. As you might expect from Dan’s upbringing and life experiences, ethical sourcing holds the utmost importance in Tabal’s operations. They source all cacao from single estate small farmers and single origin cooperatives, striving for direct trading relationships.
“We embrace transparent trade with small shareholder farmers and co-ops, and search for women-owned farms to promote gender equity. We build long term relationships with farmers built on trust, training, and mutual support.”
And that’s no lip service, as all origins except Fiji, Guatemala and Belize sport their own individual profiles at TabalChocolate.com. We’ve linked to them below (it’s too much to put in one article here), and highly encourage you to click on each pic to visit Tabal and learn more (and no worries, each click will open a new window so you don’t lose your place here).
“Tabal is a Mayan word for relationship, and it is these farmer relationships that we create to develop stability and success for all. Equally important, we’re committed to making one of the best-tasting, single origin, bean-to-bar chocolates in the world.”
Dan says Tabal also loves building relationships locally, with schools and in the community –
“We love educating people about chocolate, ingredients and the bean-to-bar process. We love the intimacy we are able to develop with customers, guiding them on their chocolate journey.”
And, as you’d also expect, Dan goes the extra mile with every single ingredient – all vegan, gluten free, organically grown, and of course non-GMO.
Although Dan no longer works as a school administrator, he does work as a chocolate educator with local schools, including University of Wisconsin at Madison, MSOE, the Shorewood School District, the School District of South Milwaukee, and others too.
Tabal’s 58% Bolivia Drinking Chocolate
As noted earlier, MSOE helped Tabal develop custom machines for processing chocolate, and Dan says he also looks forward to working with other engineering schools and senior design projects in the future. He’s worked with a middle school for the past three years as well, helping them raise funds for their trip to Costa Rica by aptly selling Tabal’s Costa Rican chocolate.
Dan sees even deeper partnerships on the horizon –
“I am looking forward to doing more elementary and high school collaborations and a dream I have is to start a chocolate academy workshop focused on social entrepreneurship, social justice, and entrepreneurship for high school students… culminating in trips to meet the farmers who grow the chocolate in their home country.”
The goal there will be to open the marketplace for small shareholder farmers, in hopes of creating long-term market stability while fostering relationships of mutual respect. Dan says this year Tabal will focus on scouting women-owned and women-led cacao businesses to promote gender equity.
For the past three years Tabal worked with a small farmer named Miguel in Santander, Colombia (see his picture and profile link above). As Dan notes, “Miguel is truly a community leader, trying to preserve his culture and stabilize the economic opportunities available to the youth of his village. Now after three years of samples, his cacao is some of the best we’ve ever tasted!”
With so much ambition, the future looks both bright and extremely busy for Dan and Tabal. In addition to everything else, Dan says they hope to fill the growing supply need for cacao nibs at craft breweries, and the increasing demand for high quality chocolate in coffee shops and fine food stores.
“Our dream is to purchase another larger building and expand our chocolate production, café, bakery, and gelato offerings.”
Tabal’s made so much progress in just six years, one can’t help but see the sky as the limit for the future. We’re very much looking forward to it.
In the meantime, if you’d like to connect with Tabal, we’ve of course provided all the different online channels for doing so below. You can also catch Dan and company at The One of a Kind Show in Chicago, The Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle, The Kohler Holiday Festival, The Milwaukee County Winter Farmers Market, The Fair Trade Festivals in Madison and Chicago, and many more. Just hop on their email list to stay in touch.
Epilogue: Two Quick Recipe Recommendations
I’m sure you’ve noticed the frequent appearance of recipes here in Chocolate Connoisseur from our In Focus artisans. Although Dan didn’t send over any specific recipes for this issue, he did offer a two quick cacao-o-licious tips that we wanted to share with you –
“Use cacao NIBS in your salads, with yogurt, on ice-cream or gelato, on cereal, in salads, as a trail mix, as a snack, or to improve the flavor of your home brewed beer!
Try our pure cocoa butter in your coffee as a “Bullet” coffee, adding flavor and nutrition.”