By Katie Maus
I opened the door to the overwhelmingly delicious smell of chocolate. Bryan Graham, Founder of Fruition Chocolate in Shokan, NY, greeted me, ready to share some stories, some facts, and, thankfully, some chocolate.
First, a little background about Fruition and what they do. About six years ago, Bryan and his wife were “burnt out” from their jobs at the Culinary Institute and in NYC. They hadn’t planned to open a chocolate shop, but the two quit their jobs to travel and scout out the perfect location for their new adventure. After about five months of searching all over, they finally landed on a location: home. Both raised in the Hudson Valley, Bryan and his wife decided to purchase their current location, which actually used to be a burger and ice cream joint frequented by both before they were together. The rest, as they say, is history. The wholesale company took off and they decided to make the front of the shop into a small retail store, and recently opened another in the heart of Woodstock. When I asked why they settled on the Hudson Valley, Bryan told me that both locations were perfect for a craft chocolate shop. The original location is on a main road, Route 28, that leads into the Catskills, which is a major destination for folks from New York City and other places who may have more “discerning palates” to own second homes, so they are sure to pass by. As for the other store, Woodstock is clearly a major tourist stop in the area and people are constantly walking around town visiting all the unique, sometimes eccentric, shops, so why not have a retail outlet there? Bryan also tells me that he has formed close relationships with other local businesses, farms, and distilleries, which is important when you use as many local ingredients as possible, as Fruition does in their highly intriguing chocolate- making process. Fruition is a craft chocolate company, which means they import the raw cacao beans and take them through the entire process from bean to bar right there in the shop. Bryan showed me the bags of cacao beans, the cacao nibs, and the chocolate bars they eventually turn into. It is fascinating to see something in its raw, natural state right next to what it will become after some hard work and careful processing.
While we know Bryan uses as many local ingredients as possible, cacao beans aren’t exactly growing on the side of Route 28. So where do they come from? Fruition imports beans from countries including Peru, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rico, Ecuador, and Madagascar. I asked Bryan why he goes through all the trouble of finding beans at all these different places. He told me the type of chocolate made depends on how it’s made, of course, but also where the bean comes from and how it is picked and cared for before it even makes its way to the States. The beans from the Central and South American countries produce more intensity in the chocolate they become. These beans make a “really chocolatey” kind of chocolate, whereas cacao from Madagascar will lead to chocolate with a fruitier flavor, which Bryan says he is able to play up to make the different kinds of chocolate more unique.
It is extremely important to Fruition to have the variety of different types of beans to make their chocolate. Bryan took some time to explain why that is: Major corporation chocolate companies will make a bar of chocolate that will taste the same if you eat one today as if you eat one in twenty years. There isn’t any room for growth. For chocolate made directly from the bean, every little step affects the taste. As the chocolate is made by real humans rather than a machine, there is still room to change the process; find things that may be better or even create a different product. Every batch can be better than the last. This is also why Bryan himself, along with a few highly trained employees, is careful to oversee all of the production, signing off on each individual bar and stamping them with batch numbers. He wants his consumers to know that “one of us was is there, every step along the way, caring for it.”
Craft chocolate is a growing practice, but when Bryan started there were only 20 or so other companies that actually made chocolate. This is including the big-name brands we know so well. The rest make different types of products out of chocolate, but don’t psychically develop the raw material themselves. Many of the microbatch, bean to bar chocolate makers that make up that original 20 have remained close during the growth of their industry. You can find some of their products in Fruition’s shops. Bryan laughed when I inquired as to why he would sell someone else’s chocolate in his store. He considers some of his competitors to be his best friends, so he sells their chocolate to support them and the industry in which they work. Another reason he noted was that his customers might really like his Maranon chocolate, may also really enjoy another chocolatier’s creation using the same type of bean. Though surprising to some, selling his competitors’ chocolates in his shop works out well for Bryan’s customers and his friends.
Speaking of Maranon, Fruition’s Maranon Milk chocolate bar recently won the Gold at this years International Chocolate Awards. When I asked Bryan what he thinks of winning so many awards (a full list can be found at tastefruition.com), he was of two minds. Awards are “subjective,” he says. Of course, there are certain qualities, how it melts, how it tastes, but it ultimately comes down to what people like, and the judges are rigorous. On the other hand, he feels as though awards help to “validate their hard work,” both to themselves and among their peers. When I asked if Bryan had ever expected to be making some of the most respected, best chocolate in the world, of course he hadn’t. He says he’s just “obsessed with making chocolate—making good chocolate.”
Naturally, I wondered which chocolate Bryan makes is his favorite He told me that it’s like having kids, “how do you pick your favorite?” He seems to like whatever is the most recent creation the best. For now? Limited edition Bourbon Barrel Aged 61% Dark Milk chocolate bar. The cacao nibs (what the chocolate is called at some points during the stages between bean and bar) are aged in recently drained bourbon barrels to absorb the “charmed oakey flavor” from the wood, adding a bit of a vanilla flavor despite the fact that no vanilla is added to the chocolate. He uses some caramelized milk when making the chocolate to compliment the flavor taken on from the barrel where the nibs stay for three months. This bar has won this year’s Silver Award at the International Chocolate Awards, so clearly, however outlandish it may sound to age chocolate in a bourbon barrel, this process works! He even sent me home with one to try—and it is a seriously delicious chocolate bar!
As for the holiday season, while he says they don’t make chocolate Santas, Bryan did tell me that there will be some limited edition holiday filled chocolates and truffles coming out; definitely a good gift to bring to a holiday party or dinner.
Check them out at 3091 Route 28 in Shokan, NY 12481 or visit their website www.tastefruition.com to see where else their products are sold!