The City Magazine Since 1975

15 min with Michael Hoffman

February 2016
15 min with Michael Hoffman
PHOTOGRAPHER: 
Chocolatier Michael Hoffman tends to stay behind the scenes, but his Bitte Chocolate milk and dark chocolate bars are garnering attention and selling fast at Sugar Bakeshop, Elliotborough Mini Bar, The Veggie Bin, and The Daily. We spoke with Hoffman about his bean-to-bar biz

CM: When did you first try making chocolate?
MH:
I knew in high school I wanted to be a chef, and in my junior year, I’d narrowed it down to baking and pastries. I probably wasn’t that great, but I loved baking, and I was accepted to Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. I got really into chocolate at school, during my first chocolate class. By my senior year, I was experimenting with making my own from beans.

CM: How did you learn?
MH:
Honestly, I just looked it up on the Internet. I’d heard of Mast Brothers, the big bean-to-bar manufacturer in Brooklyn, so I knew it was possible. When I first started making my own, I didn’t have the right equipment. I was just using a mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients, so there were tiny chunks of cocoa beans and sugar—the bars were a little crunchy.

CM: What inspired your move to Charleston?
MH:
I graduated from college in 2012. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Providence, and there wasn’t much work in my home state of Connecticut. One of my best friends told me about Charleston’s food scene, and I moved here sight unseen. I got a job at Sugar Bakeshop, where I’ve been since.

CM:  When did your passion turn into a small business?
MH:
In 2014 I bought a bigger melanger (used to grind the beans), and I brought a finished batch into work. One of the owners suggested I sell the chocolate. I was hesitant at first; chocolate was my hobby, and I didn’t want to start a business only to find out I didn’t want to continue. So I began slowly and soon realized that wasn’t the case.

CM: What do you love about chocolate?
MH:
It’s very scientific. For instance, if you don’t follow the tempering process to a “T,” the chocolate separates into different colors. I also love that you can manipulate the chocolate and get really artsy with it, for example dying it and sculpting it.

CM: Where’s your factory?
MH:
Well, I wouldn’t call it a factory. It’s a one-man show, and it happens after hours in a corner of Sugar’s kitchen. I’ll typically work at the bakeshop from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., then go home and take a nap or do some paperwork. I’ll go back into Sugar’s kitchen at 7 p.m. to work on my chocolate until about midnight. Sometimes I’ll go in on Sundays, too.

CM: How long does it take to produce one bar?
MH:
The whole process is roughly four weeks from bean to bar. Right now, I have the equipment to make around 40 bars at once. I’m making about 80 bars per week, so it’s still a small operation.

CM: Where are your beans from?
MH:
Peru. I use a bean variety called Tumbes, which is part of the Criollo bean family. Criollo beans make up only one percent of the world’s cocoa beans. They’re hard to grow but produce the best flavor.

CM: Bitte’s packaging is very pretty. Is there a story behind it?
MH:
It’s a watercolor of a cocoa flower, painted by Maddie Thieringer, a former coworker at Sugar. Then Tami Boyce, of Tami Boyce Designs here in Charleston, turned the original painting into a label and added all the text.

CM: How does it feel to be growing your own business at only 25 years old?
MH:
It’s exciting, but it’s also somewhat nerve-wracking—I’m anxious that something financially will go wrong. But when I’m working at the shop and see people head right for the chocolate, it’s all worth it.

CM: Are you here for the long run?
MH:
Yes, and I’d love to get my own shop and expand production. No one else is making bean-to-bar chocolate in the Lowcountry. So I’ve found my niche. —Jenny Ouellette

Resources: