Q& A with the Chocolate Maker Michael Caines

Posted by Courtney Drake-McDonough on Nov 30th 2020

Q& A with the Chocolate Maker Michael Caines

Meet Michael Caines, co-owner and chocolate maker at Moksha Chocolate. The name of the company comes from Sanskrit and means a “liberation of the cycle of life’s struggles.” In this Q & A, Michael shares the story behind the company with honesty and insight into what it’s like to try to find a more meaningful life – through chocolate.

In Good Taste Denver: Where is your business located?
Michael Caines:
Our warehouse is in Boulder but the majority of our operations are in Peru where our chocolate is actually grown. Our processing is done here.

IGTD: Why did you decide to open an artisan chocolate business?
I’m Australian. I’m originally a horticulturalist and I spent many years as a chef and cooking food so, for me, food and where food comes from has always been very important to me. At the time I moved here, I was working in a very unrewarding job buying and selling IT hardware. It just happened one day when my wife’s brother called me and asked if I’d like to buy a chocolate farm in Peru. So that’s how that came about. But the reason for making the chocolate business is to service the actual flow of cacao which, to me is a more important part of the job.

IGTD: What would you say is unique about the business and products?
The most unique part is our transparent supply chain. We make chocolate and I think it’s good chocolate but more importantly is our insistence on transparency around where our chocolate comes from and also how much we pay our farmers. We aren’t just a transparent supply mechanism, but we’re a transparent vertically-integrated farm-to-bar company. So for us, we’re able to show not just what region or what cooperative our chocolate came from, but we can show we’re paying, not just a fair price, but an equitable price for our cacao.

But in addition to that, from the beginning, we decided that we wanted to be a plant-based company and took the big leap of using coconut powder instead of powdered milk. We are proud that our chocolate is single-origin, so one of the first machines we bought was a cocoa butter press. Very few chocolate companies press their own butter, but we are adamant that all of our chocolate is made from our Peruvian Criollo beans. The hand-crafted taste is in the chocolate.IGTD: Why a CBD line as well as regular chocolate? 

MC: We are a chocolate maker. Making chocolate is something that not many companies do - most buy their chocolate. So every part of the process is important to me – the picking of the pods, the fermentation of the cacao, the transportation, etc. but also the painstaking part of making the chocolate. The thing that’s so interesting about making chocolate, and I think the reason it was so sought after in previous times and was worshipped, was because of the chemical compound inside cacao. Chocolate isn’t just brown stuff and sugar. It’s 400 different chemical components depending on situations and varieties. And some of those are like the cannabinoid that we find in marijuana, hemp, or CBD. The thing that interested me so much was just how many similarities there were between CBD and all of the cannabinoids. So getting something where you could not only get the flavor and the synergistic properties, but also add CBD to it, just seemed like the best of both worlds. We definitely saw that there was a space in the market for the product like ours. But it wasn’t just opportunistic, we really thought that it would just be the best combination.

IGTD: When someone goes to your website to shop, is it obvious which is which (plain vs. CBD chocolate)?

MC: We have separate pages. All of our CBD products are heavily labelled that they contain CBD with a gold bar indicator on the packaging.

IGTD: Does CBD change the flavor of the chocolate much?
Yes, you get flavor characteristics of the hemp which I feel has an earthy, grassy note which I think goes well with our chocolate. You can definitely taste a “green” taste.

IGTD: What’s one of your “unsung” products that you think is really amazing?

MC: Our vegan milk chocolate is a really unique product. We have lots of vegan friends who absolutely adore it.

GTD: Your chocolates are beautiful. What’s your vision of what you wanted them to look like?

MC: To be honest, the look flows naturally from the ingredients.

With my Inclusion bars, we use the finest quality ingredients we can find like wild, organic blueberries and freeze-dried raspberries. When we add those to our products, they sort of reflect, I suppose, my artistic side. If you look at a piece of chocolate and it shines, that means it has been done properly.

IGTD: When you were planning your business, what did you envision?

MC: When we started, I already had a warehouse space which, over a number of years, I converted into a chocolate-making space. But it was functioning as an event space as well. Boulder has such a rich foodie community, we started engaging people with chocolate making classes – we really wanted to engage people but at the same time use that as a mechanism for educating people, not just about our farm in particular, but about the process of how cacao finds its way through the system and comes to market.

IGTD: Is there a certain or recommended way to consuming your chocolate, similar to how one is supposed to experience the various complexities of wine?

MC: When you eat it, let it come to room temperature. Then look at it - is it shining? Does it snap when you break it? Smell it - what are the lingering aromas? Is it consistent in color? When you taste it, it’s a very personal thing. You can break off a piece and push it to the top of your mouth with your tongue and let it melt and spread out. The thing with really fine chocolate, it’s a sensual experience so give yourself time to enjoy.

For me, it’s been a journey from the moment cacao is picked, tasting the sweet juice that covers the cacao which is an indicator of the different kinds of sugars there are so that during the ferment, you get different characteristics. When I spent time in Peru for the first harvest, every day, every batch, was a new sensation.

IGTD: You and your wife, Jen, work together. What’s that like?

MC: I make it, she sells it. It’s very simple. In every business I’ve been in, there’s always this tension between sales and production. When it comes to my wife being sales and myself being production, it does inject a new, curious, aspect to our relationship. But we’ve taken on this job and, very fortunately, my wife has decided to come along on the journey. We just constantly work. There’s no real separation – that’s the way it is with a small business. You work around the clock. I dream about chocolate making!

IGTD: What about food and drink pairing? Is that a “thing” with your chocolates?
It goes well with heavier red wine. Wine and chocolate. Whiskey and chocolate. Bourbon and chocolate. All of those things definitely have far more to give chocolate. With the CBD chocolates, there’s no big change there. You just have to account for the grassy notes.

IGTD: What’s a typical day like for you?

MC: I like to reserve the morning for a leisurely start. I like to be able to play LEGOs with my son or make a mocha for my daughter. But then I go taste what happened overnight. There’s always chocolate moving and turning in the machines. My daily task is pressing cocoa butter. The biggest part is running from one machine to another but always listening for the butter press and watching the trickle and then pressing it into a block.

It’s the smell when you walk in – everyone will walk in and be like ‘oh my goodness, that smells amazing.’ To me, that’s in the background and I’ll smell one little thing and go over to a particular machine and know how things are going. So the moment I walk in, it’s the subtlety of smell that tells me if anything’s going wrong.

I generally work the line. There’s always something to do whether it’s cleaning molds, pouring chocolate out of the grinder, roasting beans, etc. I’m going all day. Sometimes, I come back in the evenings after my kids go to bed and that’s when I can get some of the packing and preparation done for the next day.

IGTD: Do you feel this career is very different from your previous one? Or is there some cross-over?
MC: I grew up on a farm. I’ve always been involved in growing and producing. For me, food was always important. Moving away from horticulture was pretty much an economic thing. In my mid-twenties, I thought I should do something that had a better return.

All I was really doing was buying and selling something and shipping it and moving on to the next thing. It didn’t really have a reward. I knew it wasn’t offering me anything personally. It wasn’t contributing to anything I held dear.

One of my jobs now is importer/exporter. I know how to do that because of having done that in my previous job. The technical aspects (of my other job) helped me understand the complex machinery and now I build my own equipment for my chocolate production. So when you look at the intricacies of it, it really isn’t that surprising. It’s just that I started out as a gardener and I really like food. So now I’m growing cacao and making chocolate. It’s a better life.

IGTD: Do you feel like this is what you are supposed to doing?
We bought our farm five years ago, so it’s really only in the last 2 we’ve been in the chocolate business. But it’s definitely something that I can happily work into for the next 5-8 years and then either move into a different phase or retire from. It’s certainly something I am happy to do but my heart’s really in the jungle - the sourcing and the commodity systems and to find the people who are far more passionate and more technically adept in the processing system. But picking cacao from a tree by a river in the Amazon and then moving it all the way through the production system, there’s still a lot more for me to learn.