I’ve wanted to check out SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier on one of my annual East Coast excursions for several years, but something always got in the way: their location in the northern ’burbs of DC, winter storms, lack of time (when visiting family and friends is top priority), various illnesses that come with travel… I once managed to get inside the store, but it was Christmas Eve, and like any good chocolate shop, the place was mobbed. No chance of talking to anybody, much less taking photos of the space.
Finally, this year was the charm. We stayed at my sister-in-law’s house close by, the weather was great, and they were open the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day when Cacaopod and I had a chance to drop by, chat leisurely with the managers, and try some of their chocolate.
Farm-to-bar & beyond
The reason I wanted to check out SPAGnVOLA (pronounced spang-vo-la) was their story. Husband-and-wife owners Eric and Crisoire Reid have their own cacao plantation in the Dominican Republic, and when they couldn’t get a decent price for their cacao beans, they learned how to make their own chocolate which they sell in their own stores in Maryland. Their single-estate, organic chocolate products include handmade truffles, bonbons, and bars. They also serve hot chocolate and espresso drinks (from Dominican Republic beans, naturally) at their shop. Plus gelato, sorbet and macarons. Whew!
According to an interview with Eric, they started with the farm in the Dominican Republic, originally raising livestock, then transitioning to growing fruit and finally cacao. They couldn’t find buyers for their beans initially because Eric and his wife were focused on growing and processing beans organically, using sustainable traditional methods and treating their farmers fairly. Buyers were only interested in quantity and low cost, so Eric said to his wife, “Let’s make our own premium chocolate from our own beans.”
It only took one batch to convince them to go their own way. Crisoire is their head chocolatier and learned to make chocolate at the Barry Callebaut Chocolate Academy in Chicago. They opened their boutique in 2011, and their chocolate factory is in the same building.
Vertically integrated business
In interviews, Eric talks about SPAGnVOLA being a vertically integrated business, but it is more than that. By keeping all of the critical elements of their business (growing, fermenting, roasting, grinding, molding, marketing & selling) under their control, they seem to have a more secure future and hence more freedom to shape their business to their vision.
And their vision seems to be about community and treating customers, staff and farmers fairly. For us customers, that means quality assurance from farm to factory to store — since it’s all a continuum at SPAGnVOLA — and little perks like free samples and free tours (sign up on their website). For employees, it means a commitment to hiring, training and promoting local staff for their stores and factory (they currently have 2 stores), and maintaining a convivial working environment.
Taking care of farmers
Most uniquely perhaps, is their commitment to the farmers. If you know anything at all about the cacao farming industry, it’s that farmers are often exploited. There are chocolate companies who don’t exploit farmers, and it behooves us all to seek out and patronize those who treat their farmers fairly. Since SPAGnVOLA started on the farming side of the equation, they probably understand the situation better than most, and they are very committed to fair labor practices in the field.
With their own farmers, in addition to paying them a living wage, SPAGnVOLA allows them to grow their own produce on the plantation which the farmers can then sell to make additional money for themselves. SPAGnVOLA also includes them in the loop, educating them about chocolate beyond the raising and processing of cacao beans. For example, they send samples of their finished products back to the plantation so the farmers there can understand the importance of how they raise and process the cacao.
In an interview on YouTube, Eric said, “Most farmers have never tasted chocolate. And most consumers don’t know where chocolate comes from. So we connect that, through our tours and though the education, both back home and here in the United States.”
Helping cacao farmers help themselves
With a proven business model, Eric is now working to help other cacao farmers become self-sufficient. In Barbados, Eric is working with a university to set up a chocolate manufacturing plant, so cacao from different Caribbean countries can be processed into final products locally. The factory would also serve as a training center to teach local people how to manufacture high-end chocolate and become chocolatiers.
Eric is involved in a similar plan in Ondo State in Nigeria, where they have established a “cocoa academy” to teach locals, especially cacao farmers, how to process cacao into chocolate. Ondo is the leading cocoa-producing state in Nigeria, but has lacked the industrial infrastructure to capitalize on this valuable resource fully. When the governor of the state visited SPAGnVOLA in Gaithersburg, he saw a working system for increasing the value and wealth of cacao farmers and decided to work with Eric on developing the same for Ondo State.
This past Christmas, SPAGnVOLA had the first results of the Nigerian experiment: single-origin bars made from Ondo State beans. We didn’t try them when we were there, and now they are sold out on the website, so maybe next Christmas…
But we did try other chocolates. In the Gaithersburg store, they have 3 cases full of truffles and bonbons with flavors ranging from tropical fruits (of course) to nuts, booze, berries, and some savory choices like chipotle and rosemary. There were also several seasonal options available. It’s guaranteed that you will find something that interests you — probably more than one something.
Elvis Compres, a manager at the store, helped us assemble a collection of dark chocolate-covered bonbons and truffles that spanned the range. Overall, the chocolates are pretty, the shells are a nice thickness with a good chocolate taste. However, like a lot of East Coast chocolates, they were mostly too sweet for me.
Not all of them, however. For example, the Vienna Cinnamon Truffle was very smooth, not too sweet, with a slightly hot cinnamon spice flavor (as opposed to a hot cinnamon candy flavor like Red Hots). And the Honey Truffle was a good simple dark ganache that ended with a honey flavor. The seasonal Apple Spice was also not too sweet with a taste that moved from cinnamon to apple and back to a cinnamon aftertaste.
And some others that were very sweet still worked for me. For example, the Banana Caramel Truffle is dusted with confectioners sugar, but it had a pronounced banana flavor and aroma, and the powder was a nice addition sensation-wise.
The Mint Bonbon started out with a strong peppermint flavor, which I liked, then ended sweet and milky. The Passion Fruit Bonbon, which Elvis recommended because, “It reminds me of home,” had a strong enough passion fruit flavor that it balanced the sweet white chocolate ganache. And the Cappuccino Bonbon had an earthy, mushroom-y undertone that balanced the ganache’s sweetness.
What I liked best from SPAGnVOLA Chocolatier are their single-estate premium chocolate bars. They grow, harvest and ferment the cacao themselves, then ship the beans to their factory in Gaithersburg where they roast, grind and mold the bars.
The bars come in 3 strengths, 70%, 75% and 80%. All of the bars are beautiful with a good color and snap and a nice aroma. They take a while to melt in your mouth, but the texture is very smooth. The packaging is pretty, and the bar molds separate the chocolate into handy little squares with a nice rendering of cacao pods on them. They will make great gifts for dark chocolate aficionados.
The 70% was very good. It has a distinctive smoky, fruity, slightly nutty flavor that is not too sweet. It has a nice savory finish.
While the 75% had a stronger chocolate aroma, it was not as flavorful as the 70%, and it seemed a little bitter with the fruity overtones moving more toward a fermented alcohol taste. It was waxy and had a powdery cocoa aftertaste. It’s better than dark chocolate from big commercial processors, but it was my least favorite of these premium bars.
The 80% was excellent, the best of the 3. It was the showcase for these fruity cacao beans. It wasn’t bitter, it had a good mouth-feel, and the flavor lingered.
Good-for-you that tastes good
For me to proclaim the 80% best means something, since I prefer chocolate in the 65-75% range and usually find higher percentage bars too bitter. SPAGnVOLA has it worked out — the 80% bar contains only cacao solids, organic sugar and organic cocoa butter, and it’s not bitter at all. If you’re trying to eat higher percentage bars for health reasons but often find them too bitter, stock up on these.
Because good-for-you can also taste good — if you know where to look.
SPAGnVOLA Chocolatiers, 360 Main St., Gaithersburg, MD or 181 Waterfront St., Oxon Hill, MD.