Bean-To-Bar: Cider Specialist Moves into Artisan Chocolate

Jason Clement talks about chocolate the way winemakers talk about wine.

He’s passionate about pulling striking and unexpected flavors from his raw material—the cacao bean—to create small-batch dark chocolate.

After finding a niche in the county’s nascent craft cider movement last year with the opening of Bluemont-based Wild Hare Cider, Clement and business partner Ben Baboval recently launched a new venture—Tightrope Chocolate.

Clement uses a similar experimental approach to the one he uses in creating complex ciders to make a unique bean-to-bar chocolate.

Cocoa beans are ready to be transformed into chocolate at Wild Hare Cider in Bluemont. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
Cocoa beans are ready to be transformed into chocolate at Wild Hare Cider in Bluemont. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
“You just kind of taste it and there are all these flavors that are not like anything you’d find in conventional chocolate,” Clement said. “They’re bright, they’re citrusy, there are berry notes, nuttiness. There’s so much dimension to really good quality chocolate.”

Bean-to-bar chocolate is the next logical step in the niche food scene springing up to complement Loudoun’s craft beverage wave, says Loudoun’s Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Hinkle.

“It’s a unique business model,” Hinkle said, noting that while there are a number of craft confectioners in Loudoun, those companies buy bulk chocolate for their creations. Clement, on the other hand, is going through the full complex process, starting with raw cacao beans. And while most mass-produced chocolate includes other ingredients like cocoa butter and emulsifiers to create consistency, Tightrope Chocolate is made with just cacao and sugar, calling for a much more painstaking process. For now, the company offers only one blend: 70 percent cacao and 30 percent sugar, but every batch is different.

“The stuff that mass market places produce, it’s very much homogenized. There’s not a lot of flavor differentials from it—a lot of what you’re tasting is sugar,” Clement said. “When you peel all that back and bring it down to the bean level and you hone in on the perfect roast … there’s a whole art to the process.”

Clement, 38, is a native of upstate New York, who moved to Northern Virginia in 2000 and earned a degree in communications from George Mason University. But food has always been his passion and—for much of his working life—has also been his business. Clement, who lives in Round Hill with his wife Coleen and their two children, opened Pizzeria Moto, a wood-fired pizza catering business in 2010. A few years ago, he became interested in craft cider after tasting a small-batch cider in central Virginia and finding it a far cry from sweeter, commercially produced ciders.

Tightrope Chocolate Co. uses a blend of 70 percent cacao and 30 percent sugar. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
Tightrope Chocolate Co. uses a blend of 70 percent cacao and 30 percent sugar. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
In the same way, Clement was intrigued by the craft chocolate process after tasting chocolate made by DC area bean-to-bar pioneer Ben Rasmussen of Woodbridge-based Potomac Chocolate. Clement was inspired to break down the chocolate-making process and figure out his own blend.

“Inspirational moments that bring me to my ventures are when I try something I’ve never tried before and I’m just blown away by it,” Clement said.

And while chocolate is a passion, cider is still the driving force in his world. The Wild Hare tasting room is open three days a week but the company is growing with new distribution deals making it more widely available.

Clement and Baboval are keeping things small for the chocolate business for now. The bars are currently for sale only at the cidery ($7 for a 1.9-ounce bar). But the partners are looking to slowly ramp up production and move into specialty stores in Loudoun and the region. Clement is also in talks with some area restaurants about wholesaling Tightrope for use in desserts.

For Hinkle, the new business fits in well with the county’s winery, brewery and cidery scene, which opens the door for producers of artisan cheese, chocolate and other niche foods.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in Loudoun. We have a demographic that appreciates the craft movement,” Hinkle said. “It stands to reason that niche markets with food are going to be the next big thing … anything that builds out and complements our craft beverage industry.”
And with his cider business expanding, Clement’s focus for the chocolate side is quality, not quantity for now.

“We’re not diving into it head on. We want to make sure it’s good, it’s quality,” he said. “We don’t want to shortchange it and put out something we don’t believe in.”

And as with craft beer, wine, spirits and cider, there’s a little bit of an educational component mixed in.

“When we share it with people and people are blown away by it, that’s gratifying,” Clement said. “The bigger thing for us, too, is the perception, a paradigm shift: When people try a good bean-to-bar chocolate for the first time and they just have this shift in thought about chocolate. … I love hearing moments like, ‘Wow, I never knew chocolate could taste like that.’”

For more information on Tightrope Chocolate, go to facebook.com/tightropechocolate.

The Wild Hare Cider tasting room is open Friday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m. For details, go to wildharecider.com.

Wild Hare Cider and the Tightroom Chocolate tasting room is in Bluemont. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
Wild Hare Cider and the Tightroom Chocolate tasting room is in Bluemont. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
jmercker@loudounnow.com

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