Americans shower their loved ones with gifts on Valentine's Day, with chocolate being the most popular gift-giving item, according to a recent National Retail Federation survey.
The organization estimates consumers will spend $1.7 billion on chocolates this year. That keeps Ben Rasmussen, who creates award-winning chocolates, especially busy.
The main ingredient in Rasmussen's one-man chocolate factory in Woodbridge, Virginia, is cocoa beans.
"Once the beans are cracked in the winnower, the nibs, which is the meat of the bean, goes into the grinder. ... And it just spins round and round and grinds the nibs into liquid called coco liquor. To that I add sugar. That is all my chocolate is. Just coco beans and sugar," he said.
That sounds simple, but making a good craft chocolate is anything but, he says.
"What you're eating is results of the chocolate maker's creative choices," Rasmussen said. "How they process that could be how they roast it, how they grind it or how they conche, how they do all of these myriad things that go into the flavor of the chocolate. So my chocolate is a direct expression of my taste in my creative process, which is distinct from other people's, even if we use similar equipment."
A winning beginning
For Rasmussen, his love of chocolate started about eight years ago when he tasted a sample of gourmet dark chocolate. He said he fell in love with it instantly and started learning to make it himself.
"I learned how to make it just through the internet and trial and error and kind of teaching myself on reading old books and just doing it, got some used equipment and started messing around with it, fell in love with the process, and that's basically how it started," he said.
In very short order, his company, Potomac Chocolate, was born. The bar from the first batch of chocolate he made in his kitchen was a finalist in that year's Good Food Awards, which is based out of San Francisco.
"That bar also won an Academy of Chocolate Awards in 2011," Rasmussen added. "I won a couple of Academy of Chocolate Awards and a few International Chocolate Awards for four different bars."
Winning those awards led to a high demand for his chocolate, and soon he moved his production out of his kitchen and to his basement, where he now makes the chocolates. Rasmussen also has built most of his equipment by himself. But chocolate-making is not his full-time job.
For the love of chocolate
"I'm a Linux system administrator, a computer nerd," Rasmussen said. "So finding out how to balance the work at my day job and chocolate is a real struggle, especially considering the fact that I've got family, four kids; I am a busy guy."
The busy guy makes about 140 kilos (300 pounds) of chocolate every couple of weeks, and sells it online and in high-end gourmet specialty stores and coffee shops.
"My customers are just people who love great chocolate," he said. "The craft chocolate market is really exploding. Lots of lots of people are coming to it, and … those are the people who appreciate really high-quality food and who want to know where it's from."
Rasmussen's cocoa beans are from four places: Costa Rica, Venezuela, Peru and the Dominican Republic. Each of his 10 flavored bars indicates the origin on the wrapping.
"I make all of the chocolate myself, so it's a very small company, but it continues to grow," he said. "Every year has been better than the year before. Last year was the best by far."
Rasmussen says he constantly strives to be better today than he was yesterday, and to make the best chocolate he can.