Shoppers who frequent the Old Town Farmers Market may be familiar with the locally based, award winning chocolatiers from Stone Grindz.
Around the Scottsdale apartment complex where they’re based, no one would ever guess that a bonafide chocolate factory resides within one of its units.
But inside Steven Shipler and Kasy McCaslin’s humble base of operations, visitors are confronted with an overwhelming cocoa odor, posters of packaging designs, drawers filled with bars by competitors from around the world, and a medley of home-cottage-law-compliant, homemade equipment for producing their popular product.
Cocoa beans go in and chocolate bars come out.
Shipler said they sold around 20,000 bars last year, and each one was crafted within their modified, two-bedroom chocolate factory apartment that doubles as his home.
“We have 2,000 pounds of cocoa beans over there and apparently it takes four acres of a cocoa plantation to produce 2,000 pounds of cocoa,” Shipler said. “It’s kinda crazy to think that we have four acres of cocoa in our living room right now.”
Terrior is a French word for all the environmental factors that contribute to a crop’s particular makeup. It is often used in descriptions of wine and coffee, and is understood to result in the unique flavor imbued by the place in which a thing is grown.
Single-origin coffee has exploded in popularity as of late, in part due to a cultural fascination with terrior.
When all other variables are removed and beans from just one particular farm are used, the flavor of the region comes through.
McCaslin and Shipler are obsessive about the beans they use and the farms they come from. At the moment, they are sourcing beans from Ecuador, Peru and Boliva, but that is liable to change.
“We’re always analyzing, doing test batches, just making sure that the cocoa that’s going into our chocolate is the best possible,” said Shipler. “We’re always going for ultimate flavor profiles.”
Massive chocolate producers like Mars, Nestle, and Hershey’s source from a medley of farms — largely in Ivory Coast) — and alkalize their batches in an industrial process that homogenizes the flavor, squashing out any nuance along the way.
Each of these corporations have failed repeatedly to honor nearly 20 year-old pledges to produce their beans without the use of child labor, Shipler noted.
“The state of the chocolate industry is as if the wine industry was based on one bulk commodity grape, all the wine bottles at the store were crafted from this garbage, moldy, slave-trade grape,” said Shipler. “You can’t find the fine wine of chocolate at the store.”
For whatever reason, chocolate has lagged behind coffee and wine, but that is changing, and Stone Grindz is on the cutting edge.
McCaslin and Shipler have been making chocolate together since 2012 when, as co-workers at Bread Basket Bakery, they saw a YouTube video of someone making bean to bar chocolate.
“When we started seven years ago there were half as many people in this country doing craft chocolate. We haven’t been doing it that long, but I feel like we’re an old school maker almost,” McCaslin said.
“There’s a general interest in getting back to making things and actually understanding the process, not just going to Fry’s or whatever.”
The beans, which come having been dried and fermented at their farm of origin, are first roasted at a low temperature in a home oven to preserve their natural flavor.
Then, they go into a homemade winnowing machine that separates nib from husk. The nibs go to a stone grinder and the husks become compost for McCaslin’s home garden.
Ground numbs are then conched, a heating and mixing process that produces a silky chocolate goo that runs through a tempering machering (necessary in the absence of commercial thinning additives like soy lecithin) before finally going into the fridge, where it hardens into a finished bar.
Stone Grindz’s bars have been recognized by the chocolate-critics community as some of the best in the world.
For the past three years, McCaslin and Shipler’s craft chocolate have been awarded medals by the International Chocolate Awards, Good Food Awards, and Northwest Chocolate Festival.
Each year, their bars fare better. In 2018, they won three silver medals and a gold at the International Chocolate Award’s first national round, then went on to win bronze at the world competition in Italy for their 70 percent Ucayali, Peru bar.
Recently, Stone Grindz have added a rotating selection of inventive truffles to their repertoire. The recent “Vegan Latte” variation features almond milk, earl grey, blueberry and lavender.
During the Old Town market’s summer break, you can find McCaslin and Shipler at the Uptown and Gilbert Farmers Markets, respectively.
They also sell their bars online, shipping them in insulated packaging designed to prevent melting.
Soon though, their chocolate may be significantly more accessible.
Kacey and Stephen have their sights set on graduating from the apartment building to a proper commercial kitchen with a convection oven, bigger stone grinder, and (eventually) a store front.
“We had Whole Foods and AJ’s reach out to us and they really want to carry our chocolate but they can’t carry anything made out of a home kitchen,” said McCaslin.
Until then, they’re enjoying their time in the apartment.
“I really like the process of chocolate,” Shipler said. “It’s awesome. It’s super fulfilling to be in control of our own space and what we’re doing. And it’s an amazing feeling to have created something that the local community is really into.”