Edible chocolate boxes, avocado margarita truffles and bean-to-bar chocolate with rose petals and cranberries — these are just a few of the Austin-made chocolate gifts you might be giving (or getting) for Valentine’s Day this year. But the artisans who make them are committed to chocolate 365 days a year.
At Chocolaterie Tessa on Burnet Road, owner Tessa Halstead is making high-end truffles, some made with single-origin cacao beans. Over in her chocolate lab at Delysia Chocolatier in Northwest Austin, Nicole Patel experiments with hundreds of truffle flavors to keep customers’ palates from getting bored.
Srsly Chocolate owner Bob Williamson’s artful bars tempt customers at dozens of markets and grocery stores throughout the city — and he’ll soon open a retail shop in downtown Taylor.
The local chocolate industry is still expanding, but it has changed significantly in the past 10 years. That’s when Patel first started selling filled chocolate truffles, which few customers knew very much about. “They were familiar with fudge, but we had to do a lot of education about why the 99-cent bar wasn’t so great,” she says. “Dark chocolate was a hard sell, and now customers ask for 75 and 80 percent cacao.”
It wasn’t until Patel opened her tasting room four years ago that customers finally had a place to sample her ever-evolving product line. “The most exciting thing about being a business owner is that customers are always asking for new things, new flavor profiles,” she says. “We don’t have to do all the thinking.”
She also makes sipping chocolate and other sweets, but most of her sales are little squares with both traditional and envelope-pushing flavors inside. You might expect peanut butter, raspberry, mango lassi and red velvet, but only Patel would think to make a Home Slice Pizza pepperoni mushroom chocolate truffle for her Taste of Austin collection.
“It’s fun to see how people are so open and willing in Austin to embrace the new and unique, even if they don’t want to walk about with the box of them,” she says. “We have a brisket caramel truffle that people go crazy for.”
Tessa Halstead grew up in the chocolate industry in Dallas watching her father become one of the first well-known chocolate makers in Texas, and she still spends a lot of time educating customers about specialty chocolate.
“People know about as much about chocolate now as they did then,” Halstead says. “The experience of going to a chocolate shop still intimidates people. That part hasn’t changed, either.”
Halstead says she tries to keep that in mind every time someone walks through the door of the retail space she opened in 2015, which is also where her team produces thousands of truffles that are meant to showcase the chocolate itself, not necessarily the filling.
For the holiday season, Halstead added a pop-up location at Domain Northside. It will close after Valentine’s Day, but its success has inspired her to look at options for a permanent second location.
Williamson’s Srsly Chocolate is the city’s only commercial bean-to-bar chocolate maker. He sells his bars at dozens of local shops and markets and is trying to build up the collaborative spirit of the local chocolate scene. Williamson makes the bars that Lick Honest Ice Creams uses in all its chocolate ice creams, and he provides some of the single-origin chocolate that Halstead uses in her specialty line.
The two business owners have become close friends over the past few years; each became a first-time parent within the past year, and they find ways to promote each other’s products. They each expressed an excitement to see customers’ palates maturing and the industry’s embrace of new techniques and sourcing practices.
Williamson and his wife, Robin, worked at Wheatsville Co-op when they first moved to Austin from Florida about five years ago. About two years ago, he was able to turn Srsly Chocolate into his full-time job. Now, the couple work full-time to make chocolate bars, teach chocolate-making classes and host events with other local businesses. In a few weeks, they’ll open their Taylor store that will double as their production facility.
Cacao beans don’t grow in Texas, but Williamson is trying to localize the product by using other Central Texas food products, including Confituras jam and Third Coast Coffee, in the chocolate bars and a new line of truffles that Robin is working on.
“We’ve worked hard to play up our partnerships to create these lasting relationships,” Williamson says. He barters with Third Coast to roast the cacao beans, and then uses Third Coast coffee beans in one of the bars.
At those monthly workshops to teach people how to make chocolate, about five former students have taken it seriously enough to buy a machine and make bars at home.
They might become competition, but Williamson says he is excited about the idea of having more chocolate-makers in Austin. “Austin could have a much bigger chocolate scene,” he says. “People (in the industry) are usually pretty willing to share their knowledge. There’s room for everyone to grow.”
Former Austinite Megan Giller, who in 2017 published “Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution: The Origins, the Makers, and the Mind-Blowing Flavors,” says that there are more than 200 bean-to-bar makers in the country. “Just like craft beer or specialty coffee, people are focusing on flavor and the ethics of where they are sourcing the beans, so they are creating the best-tasting chocolate I’ve ever had and something that is changing how we think about chocolate,” she says.
“What’s special about working with these kinds of single-origin chocolates is you really do taste the difference,” Halstead says. “They aren’t commodity chocolates. Madagascar chocolate is fruity and tart. Papua New Guinea chocolate is smoky and earthy. You don’t have to be a chocolate connoisseur to figure that out.”