–by Jonathan Eisenthal
Two years ago, newlyweds Kristin and Josh Mohagen honeymooned in Napa Valley, ready for an adventure in wine-tasting. What really piqued their tastebuds, though, were the exquisite products of chocolate makers they found in the valley and in San Francisco.
Today, the Mohagens are creating artisan chocolate straight from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, with just two ingredients—cocoa beans from a plant whose scientific name “Theobroma Cacao” means “food of the gods,” and sugar.
While the chocolate is made in Minnesota, the flavors come from all over the world. Where and in what soil a cocoa bean is raised changes the flavor characteristics. Even the vegetation that surrounds the cacao plant influences the flavors in the bean. The Mohagens made it their mission to create a ‘taste of place’ in their chocolate, hence the business name Terroir Chocolate. “Terroir” means “sense of place” in French.
“We make 13 varieties of chocolate bars right now showcasing cocoa beans from seven different countries,” says Josh. When you go online to order, or find their display in a growing number of Minnesota stores, you will encounter an ever-changing menu of taste adventures. “When we open a new bag of cocoa beans, we are ready to discover the nuances of flavor unique to that harvest.”
The Mohagens buy their 140-lb bags of cocoa beans directly from the farmers in Latin America and Africa. Fair and sustainable trade is an important value in their business.
“We have a Madagascar cocoa been that is very citrusy, like a tart raspberry,” says Kristin. “Contrast that with a Guatemalan cocoa bean that is dark and earthy and has flavors to green tea. We used the same amount of sugar and cocoa butter in each of those, and they come out completely different.”
Though the ingredient list is short, the art of chocolate-making requires meticulous care and lots of patience. It starts with cleaning the beans, putting them through a fourth generation sanding mill, and hand separating them according to size. Then the beans are roasted; they must be tasted throughout the roasting to get the flavor just right. Once the beans are cracked, and the nibs and husks separated, the nib goes into a powerful grinder. It can take up to 10 days of grinding to transform the chocolate from the solid cocoa nib state to liquid chocolate.
“The first part of the grinding time is about crushing it and creating the chocolate, but the later part is about flavor development,” says Kristin. And that’s when the sugar gets added. When the mix has reached the right consistency, it’s put into a tempering machine that heats and cools the chocolate and gives it “sheen and snap,” Kristin explains.
The Mohagens also have milk chocolate and toffee in their product line-up. They include whole bits of cocoa nib in a number of their bars, suspended in the chocolate, to give a concentrated burst of cocoa flavor. Wanting to highlight our terroir of western Minnesota, the Mohagens created a Maple Toffee using maple syrup from Camp Aquila on Star Lake. The Minnesota Maple Toffee has been a hit in stores especially during holiday season.
The idea stage for Terroir Chocolate took place mostly in the basement of Kristin Mohagen’s parents’ farmhouse. When Josh and Kristin Mohagen—he with a degree in business and her with training at culinary school—were ready to take their dream primetime, they found a whole network of resources ready to help them.
First was Harold Stanislawski, who was then economic development director for the city of Fergus Falls. He’s known Josh since he was a little neighbor boy. When Stanislawski heard about the business venture, he knew the Mohagens needed to talk to staff at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) to grow their businesses. As Harold worked with the Mohagens, he himself transitioned to a position as project development director at AURI, with Terroir Chocolate as one of his first clients.
“Harold’s encouragement from the beginning was huge,” says Josh. “He helped secure funding for equipment, and connected us to a few media outlets that generated some excitement about us and what we could do.”
Charan Wadhawan, a food scientist at AURI who has since retired, helped with nutritional analysis necessary for labeling and provided product shelf-life assistance and scale-up assistance And now, another AURI scientist, Al Doering in Waseca, is helping the Mohagens develop a method for cracking their beans more efficiently. “We’re trying to recover 20 percent of the bean that gets lost in our current process,” explains Josh.
The city of Fergus Falls, a regional center 180 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, sees small business as the key to the community’s future prosperity.
“Josh and Kristin are astute entrepreneurs,” says Hal Leland, mayor of Fergus Falls. “They are really working toward a success with Terroir Chocolate…It’s extremely exciting. It’s great to see local people become involved and have a passion, and accumulate the know-how to have a successful business.”
Leland credits AURI’s technical support and a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Value-Added Producer Grant as essential to Terroir Chocolate’s success. The funding helped Josh and Kristin afford their own commercial kitchen facility. From there sales volume grew quickly.
The Mohagens’ got their facility set up in September 2014, and the business hit the ground running that November. Since the holiday season, marketing has been a major focus. Every weekend Josh and Kristin hit new retail locations and spend hours giving out samples and winning new customers. The business grew from 15 to 50 retail sites in three months, including food co-ops, gourmet food shops and coffee shops. “Chocolate and coffee do pair very well,” Josh says.
“We have to have the grassroots efforts that entrepreneurs can bring to us,” explains Mayor Leland. “This will help create a job market and a business processing support throughout the whole community…And AURI will be a crucial partner.”
What does the future hold for this fast-growing chocolate maker? Like a winery, Mohagens foresee making Terroir Chocolate into a destination, as well as a place of production.
“One of the things that would be fun, that we really hope to be able to do for people, is to have a place where they can come and see the chocolate-making process,” says Josh. “A lot of people eat chocolate but don’t know how it’s made or where it comes from. When people learn about chocolate firsthand, it creates a new way of looking at chocolate and an appreciation for what chocolate can be.”