For my latest interview I caught up with Ewald Rietberg and Jan-Willem Jekel from Heinde & Verre, who feature in our November subscription boxes. Based in Rotterdam, Heinde & Verre translates to 'Near & Far', which alludes to the company's desire to find the perfect blend of the past and the future, both in terms of chocolate making and design. I think they capture this ethos beautifully.
I was excited to place Heinde & Verre's first ever international order and to share their exceptional Porcelana bar with our subscribers. Be sure to have a read of this interview if you'd like to know more about what's happening behind the scenes...
Who is behind Heinde & Verre and what is your background?
We are Ewald Rietberg and Jan-Willem Jekel, the founders of Heinde & Verre. Our business careers in life started in quite a different field. We met when we were working as corporate strategists for the Dutch incumbent telecom company. Over the years we found out that we share our passion for good food, wine and chocolate. This led to many discussions about food and culinary study trips in the field to discover new food.
Ewald has a degree in oenology from the Dutch Wine Academy (registered Vinologue) and, as he stems from a family of farmers, he has a weak spot for special cow races and cow milk. Jan-Willem is a life long amateur pastry chef, has a deep love for chocolate and is addicted to desserts. He also has a fascination for design and packaging.
What inspired you to start making chocolate?
Culinary trips abroad made us realise there is more to chocolate than mass produced simple supermarket bars. Like fine wines and quality food, the complexity of natural, fine flavour cacao surprises us each time we taste it.
One of our trips led to the Northern UK. After visiting the award winning chocolate maker Duffy (Red Star), driving through the beautiful Yorkshire countryside, we started imagining ourselves what it would be like to start our own chocolate factory.
We both have a great love for milk chocolate (a faux pas in the chocolate world!) which we believe can be great as well. But only if the recipe is right: the right milk combined with the right cacao, in the right quantities.
Inspired by the visit to Duffy and following the rise of the early American bean-to-bar movement we felt it had to be possible to produce our own high quality chocolate, and our enterprise was born.
What was it like learning how to make chocolate from scratch, and how long did it take to become good at it?
It was a process of learning by doing that took us over four years. Visiting other chocolate makers who were willing to share a secret or two gave us a headstart. One of the challenges obviously is to source the right beans. We have built quite an extensive cacao library of different single origins to learn about the flavours and aromas of fine flavour cacao. By following the development of the chocolate over time, we found out that high quality chocolate tends to develop its aromas and flavours when it ages. For that reason, Heinde & Verre chocolate is aged for at least three months to reveal its complex nature.
Another challenge was to have the right machines. As the bean-to-bar industry is still in its infancy, it is not possible to buy a ready made factory. During the four years of preparation we have built machines to our specifications. Obviously the choice of machines and tailored modifications are never “one time right”.
There is still a lot to learn though, not only for us, but also for the chocolate industry. We believe there are exiting times ahead for the chocolate crafters. Compared to winemaking, the chocolate industry still has a lot of room for improvement: think of DNA sampling, cloning of genotypes, research on flavour profiles, terroir, production techniques, chemical analyses, professional tasting skills, etc. We hope to contribute to continued quality improvements to the chocolate industry.
How do you decide where to source your beans from?
As a Dutch maker of chocolate we are in a favourable position. Amsterdam is the largest cacao harbour in the world. Because of this tradition it is still the meeting place for cacao farmers and traders from all over the world. For the origins of choice, we were inspired by the former Dutch chocolate brands that - unfortunately - have ceased to exist. For example, Porcelana cacao was used in the past by the famous Dutch chocolate brand Van Houten. Similarly, our other bar called 'Dutch Blend’ is a combination of origins that existed in the past, but never realised its full potential, as in the old days, fine flavour cacao was hard to source at sufficient scale.
We think it’s important to work with traceable cacao and trade directly with the farmers when possible to ensure they get a fair price.
Your branding and packaging design is immaculate. What inspired the design process?
In the way we approach chocolate (and other culinary experiences) we are inspired by the concept of “reinvent the past”: take valuable traditions to the next level by adopting a modern approach. Thus our packaging is designed to express a synthesis of craft and modernity. The Heinde & Verre design is made in-house and is meant to underpin the relaunch of Dutch quality chocolate.
Quality comes from experience, not from frills. Natural rich quality chocolate is thus best reflected in the minimalistic approach of the design. Particular attention is given to unboxing of our bars. Like the complex flavours of chocolate are slowly revealed by letting the chocolate melt in your mouth, unwrapping this bar slowly reveals the Heinde & Verre philosophy. When opening the box your journey starts with our ‘leitmotiv’: "chocolate is only one of the many flavours the cacao bean may reveal." Then our logo invites to further disclose the Heinde & Verre story, and finally you get a glimpse of our factory.
Is there a strong following for craft chocolate in Rotterdam and the Netherlands?
Craft chocolate production in The Netherlands is only just taking off. Basically three small brands in The Netherlands are producing quality craft chocolate. There is a growing number of chocolate afficionado’s in The Netherlands that appreciate craft chocolate, but the larger audience is by and large not aware of the growing bean-to-bar movement. Obviously we aim to change that. Our mission is to let more consumers learn to appreciate the magic of fine flavour cacao.
Are there any chocolate makers who particularly inspire you?
Brands and chocolate makers that have inspired us are the historic Dutch chocolate brands at the time they were still making quality chocolate: Tjoklat, Kwatta, Driessen, Korff, Ringers, Bensdorp, etc. Some Dutch brands do still exist, such as Droste and Van Houten, but they do not produce chocolate themselves anymore; unfortunately, their chocolate is made with bulk couverture sourced from elsewhere.
We’re featuring your Porcelana bar in this month’s subscription boxes. What’s it like to work with such light and delicate beans, and were they tricky to source?
When working with delicate beans you always run the risk of over-roasting. If roasted correctly, it is a delight to experience the flavours and aromas that our precious Porcelana develop during the pre-grinding, grinding, conching and ageing stages. Notes of honeysuckle, nuts and white fruit can be discovered and linger on when you taste it. As the bean is naturally low in acidity and bitterness you don’t have to conche them for very long.
We work with a family of cacao growers in Venezuela. The country is going through some tough times, but fortunately we have built up enough stock of Porcelana beans to overcome difficulties in the supply chain.
What are some of the benefits of making chocolate on a small scale?
Quality optimisation is the main benefit of small scale chocolate making. In every step of the chocolate sourcing and making process, we get the opportunity to optimise because we control every aspect of the process. All cacao beans are selected by hand. The bean selection process by the way, is outsourced as much as possible to the farmers themselves, in order to let them benefit form higher value share in the supply chain. This integration makes it possible to focus on monitoring quality throughout the process. After selecting the best beans, the roasting process is carefully adapted to each type of cacao bean. Numerous roasting experiments result in the optimal roasting profile, which highlights the flavours we would like to get out of the cacao. The grinding and conching time is optimised for each type of chocolate, and finally we age the chocolate up to several months, to further develop and optimise the flavour.
What’s your favourite thing about making chocolate?
Thanks so much to Jan-Willem and Ewald for taking the time for this interview, and for providing us with most of these photographs. We have a small amount of their Porcelana bar available, so be sure to give it a try!