In 2009, Lake Champlain Chocolates’ Research & Development Coordinator Eric Lampman took a seemingly routine trip to review the Vermont-based chocolatier’s supply chains in the Dominican Republic. His first on-the-ground immersion in cacao growing, however, turned into something extraordinary. Inspired by an immense curiosity about how and why cacao is grown, Lampman returned home to start Blue Bandana as a way to both create and explore chocolate.
Today, Blue Bandana works closely with integrated supply chains across the world – most notably in Lachua, Guatemala, where the company spearheaded the first ever cacao export from the region. In the modern, globalized age of mass experience, Blue Bandana recreates a sense of culinary discovery among its customers while simultaneously reinvigorating intimate, individualized chocolatier-to-grower relationships.
Mood of Living Q&A
Mood of Living: Where does the name “Blue Bandana” come from, and what does it mean?
Eric Lampman: The name comes from a feeling of adventure, a bit Indiana Jones-esque. We are confection makers, and this is an incredible journey to learn about the origins of cacao, the fermentation process, and the cacao value chain. In a more literal sense, I wore a blue bandana during my early trials while winnowing away with a hair dryer. There was a sense of discovery in the process; beans emerged as clean nibs and, eventually, as our very own chocolate!
MoL: What does “fair trade” mean to you and Blue Bandana as part of this journey?
EL: “Fair trade” is a big, subjective, general term. It is different than the certification (that comes with capital F & T). At Blue Bandana, our goal is to visit the farms we buy from and to have direct communications with each farmer or producer group with which we work.
MoL: Where do you source the sugar that goes into your chocolate? Are the sugar and cacao plantations organic and non-GMO?
EL: We use certified organic cane sugar that comes from Brazil and Paraguay. Most of the cacao farms are organic; however, the producer groups we buy from in Guatemala and Tanzania are not yet organic certified.
MoL: Please describe Blue Bandana’s bean-growing process:
EL: Blue Bandana is not a grower; however, we strive to develop long-term partnerships with producers that grow premium cacao around the world. Our partnership with indigenous Maya producer groups in the eco-region surrounding Laguna Lachua National Park in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, began in 2012 as a way to work collaboratively at developing new opportunities for both producers and chocolate makers. Small capacity building investments have been made each year to support the planting and post-harvest production of cacao in the region.
MoL: What drew Blue Bandana to Lachua, Guatemala?
EL: As a family-owned company, we decided that we wanted to directly support a cacao growing community – whether or not we purchased cacao from them. The chance to engage with passionate cacao farmers searching for new market opportunities and farming methods fell right into place with our own goals. We were hoping to build new relationships that both educated us on post-harvest practices and enabled a win-win partnership for future growth focused on quality. Today, we continue to use our interactions with the farmers to educate visitors at our factory about cacao farming and the full process of making chocolate.
MoL: As your company grows, how do you see yourselves continuing to respect and support the indigenous Maya culture of your cacao producers?
EL: With each visit to Guatemala, new ideas for incorporating aspects of the Maya culture return with us. One project we are hoping to develop is up-cycling burlap sacks into fashionable bags with leather strapping. We had one bag made by Kara at CB Sacks and it was fabulous. Proceeds from the bag sales go to Food4Farmers, an organization that promotes diversified livelihoods with coffee farmers – a program we want to connect to the cacao producers in Alta Verapaz.
MoL: What is your chocolate-making process once the cacao is back in Vermont?
EL: Our process at the factory involves testing raw beans upon arrival to our warehouse. We measure moisture and perform quality “cut tests,” a simple and effective way to gauge the degree of ferment. We then hand sort through each sack, removing doubles, broken beans, sticks, burlap thread, and stones.
Our roasting process uses a modified coffee roaster to develop the flavor of the beans. In this process, flavors preset by post-harvest fermentation and drying are uncovered and heightened. We roast our cacao slow and low in a tumbling fashion.
“Machines can be rather simple, yet extremely effective. The melangeur requires time – 2 full days – but with time comes transformation.”
The next step gives the roasted beans a soft crack while they are still slightly warm. This allows them to break – but not shatter – into tiny fragments, in turn enabling winnow separation. The husks of the beans are vibrated and suctioned away as the roasted cacao nibs, heavier in weight, drop into the collection with help from gravity.
The centerpiece in the factory is a vintage melangeur, a refurbished piece we found lying idle in Northern Italy, with a rotating granite slab and two 500 lb. granite wheels that slowly crush the roasted cocoa nibs into a paste. Sugar gets added and refined until nearly undetectable to the tongue. After 48 hours in the melangeur, our chocolate is close to complete, but still in need of a final buff and shine by our refiner conche. Bars are then formed by depositing the chocolate into moulds, where they are cooled and then, finally, wrapped on our refurbished bar wrapper.
MoL: What do you want each person tasting your chocolate to experience?
EL: I want people to enjoy it! I hope they slow down to let it melt and taste the enormous array of flavors it can offer.
MoL: Blue Bandana describes itself as “rejuvenating American chocolate” – what does this mean to you?
EL: American chocolate has for years been presented as consistent and predictable. As a new craft chocolate maker, we see the beauty in the process of displaying unique characteristics. We are part of a renaissance of bean-to-bar chocolate makers that are taking new approaches to things like process, scale, flavor, relationships, and transparency.
“Bean-to-bar” is a process that can be tweaked and honed by each maker, taking raw materials and developing them into a new form: chocolate.”
MoL: Where did you learn your craft?
EL: From many nights spent in a lab that I set up at one of the company’s buildings. It was an old kitchenette area, perfect for tabletop trials. I was curious. I read everything I could find on the Internet, in publications, and in textbooks and then added perspective from conversations with others in the cocoa and coffee industries.
MoL: Where do you look for inspiration?
EL: I find inspiration when I travel. It feels good to get out of the normal scene, and travel can inspire all of the senses through foods, sights, sounds, smells, and histories.
MoL: What is something that you wish you knew before starting Blue Bandana?
EL: Spanish. But there is still time to learn!
MoL: What is the best advice you have ever received, and from whom?
EL: “Get out of your comfort zone,” from Bill Beaney, former hockey coach at Middlebury College.
MoL: What advice can you give anyone looking to start their own business?
EL: Be passionate. A new venture will require you to make choices and tradeoffs. Passion helps you keep working for and finding new solutions. Remember to celebrate when you overcome challenges along the way. Those are the moments of development that will help shape the company, brand, people, products, process, etc.
MoL: We find that people who make beautiful things in ethical ways are more likely to lead an aware, artistic lifestyle. Do you spend time crafting a lovely home, cooking, or entertaining?
EL: I grew up having family meals nearly every night. Often, enjoying fresh vegetables from my father’s garden was part of that experience. I began to learn about food and first discovered a curiosity for flavor while I was picking corn, peas, carrots, and tomatoes minutes before dinner. I continue to try new foods and to be curious about quality and flavor. Biting into freshly cut and peeled back hearts of palm while walking through a farmer’s cacao orchard in Guatemala was one of the purest flavors I’ve ever tasted.
Blog: The Chocolate Wrap
All photos courtesy of Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker and Eric Lampman.