For my latest interview I caught up with Mads Stigborg from Bean Geeks Chocolate in Denmark, who feature in our April subscription boxes. Formerly a photographer, Mads found a love of fine chocolate when travelling in Costa Rica and - after a few years of learning the process - went into the chocolate making business with his partner Mikkel Borg Bjergsøe, founder and master brewer of the world-famous Mikkeller Brewery. I worked in craft beer before craft chocolate so it was fascinating to discover this crossover between the two industries, and I had to find out more about one of the most exciting new chocolate makers in Europe...
How did you make the transition from photographer to chocolate maker?
I had taken some time off with my wife and children and was travelling the World. Along the way I was browsing the fields for new challenges. Upon randomly discovering bean-to-bar chocolate in Costa Rica my fascination for this craftsmanship and its flavours was so big that I almost instinctively knew this was it. So I instantly dropped my camera and decided to spend the last 8 months of our travels on a beautiful Canary island learning the craft and developing the project. I ordered a sack of beans from my farmer in Costa Rica, apparently being the first person to ever import cacao beans to the Canary Islands in modern times, so just getting them out of customs was a challenge of another world. Then I went crazy on Youtube and Google, praising John Nancy and his generous teachings. I was quite nerdy about his profile roasting techniques so I quickly made some decent chocolate batches.
Why did you decide to approach Mikkel about your chocolate making idea?
Copenhagen’s food scene is moving extremely fast but the craft chocolate revolution has not entered it yet. Thinking that tomorrow everybody will be making chocolate there I wanted to speed up and start on a bigger scale than from my own little kitchen. My vision was there but I had no experience in building and running a business like that. When researching potential investors I suddenly came across Mikkeller and had the feeling that Mikkel’s history of beer making as well as his talented “rock and roll” approach to business would be the perfect match.
Are there skills or experiences from Mikkel’s brewing that have been transferable to chocolate making?
For sure his wild, impatient energy and curiosity. I think way too much about every little detail where he has run three marathons and opened five new businesses in the meantime. That is very inspiring to me. On top of that he has a really good feeling of what works and what doesn’t.
Do you think craft chocolate will become as successful as craft beer one day?
I really hope so. Everybody eats chocolate but 95% of it is crap. So there is a high potential for improvement for sure.
What made you decide on the two cacao bean origins you currently source?
Because of the lucky way I stumbled into this in Costa Rica, one of my first chocolate experiences was visiting the beautiful, biodynamic farm of Daniel South and getting to know him personally. It was his heirloom beans from old variety trees he has gotten from friends and neighbours in the jungle that I tasted in my first craft chocolate bar. Deep chocolatey aromas, roasted nut, burned wood. In a way a crowd pleaser and a great start. Then, when building our factory in Copenhagen, a former Danish soldier and friend of Mikkeller’s CEO walks in with a sack of beans, fully dressed in his dessert uniform and claiming he has a little farm in Guatemala where he grows Cocoa of Excellence awarded cacao. I get curious about life's random miracles once again and decide to try them out. Super fruity cacao, very complex flavour profile. Fine fine quality. Again a perfect match. Now I’m looking for a new bean. It’s challenging though when you prefer to know the farmer personally.
What are some of the advantages of making chocolate on a small scale?
The beautiful, open source and super helpful community of bean-to-bar makers is a great advantage. I love this approach to business. We don’t have company secrets. We share info openly because we all know that, what makes our chocolate special is us and our tastebuds. Not some custom made machine, technical approach or secret, artificial ingredient.
Is there a strong following for craft chocolate in Denmark?
No unfortunately not yet. There are great chocolatiers here and world-leading chefs but most use poor quality chocolate in their bonbons and desserts. Still we have Friis-Holm and now us, so hopefully this will change soon.
Can you tell us some of your favourite chocolate bars, other than your own?
Ara’s Chuncho is my all time favourite. Dandelion’s Madagacar. Pallette de Bine Wild Bolivie. Svenska Kakaobolaget’s Tanzania. I really like the flavours of two ingredient chocolate where cacao butter is not killing all the subtle aromas. On top of that I’m super fascinated about Raaka in general.
What’s your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?
Like with being a photographer the attention to detail that is needed is very satisfying - every little adjustment matters. Being a pioneer in the change of a broken and nasty industry too. And of course eating proper chocolate every day!
Are you a geek?
Oh yes! You should see my handwritten note book of roasting profiles when practising in the Canary islands…
Thanks so much to Mads for taking the time for this interview. Be sure to try his Beer Geek Crunch bar while we have it in stock - it's a unique beauty!
Photos credit: Bean Geeks