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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

Scene in South Bend: Violet Sky

Keri O'Mara | The Observer
Keri O'Mara | The Observer

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There is no denying that there has been a boom in craft products in the past several years. Viewed by some as a revolutionary reconsideration of the quality of our food and by others as a clever marketing strategy to exploit those who spend extra money for specially labeled products, craft products can be found on menus all throughout the country. Most notably, this boom has affected the brewing industry, with an explosion in demand for high-quality and local beers. Increasingly, however, this artisanal spirit is being applied to other culinary realms.

For most people, chocolate is a cursory indulgence. Saved as a special treat or used to modify another dish, little thought is given to the actual quality or the processes that go into chocolate making. Considered a market dominated by giants such as Hershey's and Cadbury, one South Bend resident is slowly taking steps to bring mindfulness back to the process of chocolate-making. Hans Westerink and his company, Violet Sky, have quickly made a splash among those who are pushing for greater quality in what they eat and drink.

Westerink’s passion for chocolate-making goes hand-in-hand with his love of quality beer.

“For me beer came first, but at this point, it’s kind of a saturated market," he said. "I knew I wanted to do something with food, and there was definitely no one else doing this. I used to make handmade truffles for Christmas, five or six years ago. Then at some Christmas party some lady told me, ‘Oh, you should sell these.’ So about three years ago, I began selling them at the [South Bend] Farmer's Market."

The fascination with truffles, however, soon became a wider interest in the art of chocolate-making:

“I didn’t make the chocolate myself, I was just making truffles and selling them," Westerink said. "And then, I just stumbled upon this place that sold beans and had a whole description on how to make chocolate, which I didn’t realize was even possible for me. I was actually looking up cacao beans for home brewing to make a chocolate beer, and this website had 20-25 origins of cacao beans at a time.”

Over the course of the year, this hobby grew into a full-fledged business as more and more individuals were able to taste the chocolate and learn about his process.

As Westerink walked me through the chocolate-making process, I realized how little I actually knew about chocolate or where it comes from. In between descriptions of roasting and “cocoa nibs,” one thing in particular stuck out to me: the location of the beans matter. Despite my rudimentary knowledge of coffee, I knew that one of the important consideration for coffee lovers is the origin of the beans, and this is a principle that also translates to cacao beans. After tasting samples of the different chocolates, I was shocked to learn that the only difference between the bars was the origin of the beans and that something so small can make a large difference in the overall taste.

“All four chocolates that I have and that I make are just cacao beans and sugar, no extra ingredients," Westerink said. "The roast levels are different, but you could just eat the raw beans, and they would taste drastically different. ... It’s the genetics as well as the soil, the altitude and the climate.”

With bars named after the country of origin of the beans, tasters know exactly where their chocolate is coming from. Upon sampling the four bars that Violet Sky currently offers, I was shocked at the differences between the fruity “Madagascar” chocolate versus the very bitter “Venezuela,” differences that arose solely from geographical diversity in the beans.

Westerink not only varies the locations of the beans that he uses, but also the concentration of the cacao beans that goes into his chocolate.

“Chocolate in the United States has to have 10 percent beans to be milk chocolate," Westerink said. "Dark chocolate in the U.S. only has to have 15 percent cacao beans to legally be dark chocolate, which is pretty low, and I’m using 77 percent. In Europe, I think chocolate has to be over 30 percent cacao beans to be considered dark chocolate … here they use tons of cocoa butter and lots of sugar. It comes from the bean, but it doesn’t taste like much, and is kind of just crummy filler.”

Westerink's devotion to the science of chocolate-making is palpable. He showed me the difference between propane and electric in chocolate-making, precise temperature ranges and large machines performing a dizzying variety of tasks. Westerink carefully shows me all his equipment, and the process behind chocolate-making slowly starts to make sense. However, as Westerink began to show me the molds he used for the bars, the art behind what he does slowly began to shine through.

“You don’t want the science to get in the way of the creative aspects," Westerink said. "A lot of it for me is that there’s a lot of science to it, but there’s not a lot of science to base it off of. So it’s kind of trial and error too, and I think that’s where a lot of the creativity comes in, seeing what I like more.”

Acknowledging the balance between the two enriches the experience of tasting the chocolate, according too Westerink. As we joke about the lingo that surrounds chocolate and beer tasting, the reality of chocolate as an artistic medium starts to make sense to me.

With the new year in full force, Westerink and Violet Sky have gotten off to a strong start.

“I want to do as much wholesale as I can, because it’s definitely a much lower price for me," he said. "However, I’m definitely going to be selling to the LaSalle Grille. I want to sell as far as I can, and right now I can sell anywhere in Indiana. I want to see how much I can make, especially selling at the [South Bend] Farmer's Market. Purple Porch, Oh Mamma's, those are places that are both interested in having my chocolate, and those are the kinds of places that I want to be in. Oh Mamma's makes their own cheese, and the people who come in there are the people who are interested in handmade, local stuff.”

Violet Sky doesn’t seem to display any signs of slowing down, and with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, Westerink almost certainly has something special in the works.