Reykjavik and the Chocolate Factory
It started off as an experiment, as a passion project. Kjartan Gíslason and his cofounders Óskar Þórðarson and Karl Viggó Vigfússon, the chocolatiers behind Iceland's first bean-to-bar chocolate, started making their cocoa creates in their own kitchens—just to see how it would come out. Inspired by the small-batch chocolatiers like Dandelion and the Mast brothers, the three were thrilled with their almost instantaneous success, friends and family loving their samples. So when an abandoned gas station opened up in Reyjkavik, the three took a leap and established their own little chocolate factory.
Gíslason came up with the name Omnom, something silly that could catch on, something fun. He recruited his friend André Úlfur Visage for the logo and packaging design, and a brand was born. "We're still in a fairy tale, a kid's playhouse or something. We weren't that serious, but when André got the design so nice, we thought 'Wow — we should really go for this!'"
The trained nordic chef believes chocolate should be enjoyed. Sometimes people get too intimidated by serious chocolate brands, but Gíslason wanted to make something fun, something people would want to take off the shelf to try out. People certainly do want to take it off the shelf, and save the packaging when they're done with the bar. Each one is a beautiful piece of artwork.
HOW IT's MADE
During my visit to the Omnom home base, Gíslason walked me through the chocolate making process, step-by-step:
The process of making chocolate starts at the cocoa plantation, and Omnom sources their beans from all over the world. The farmer cuts down the cocoa fruit, and basically puts it in a box to ferment for five to seven days. Sometimes they wrap the fruits in banana leaves, but the point is to let it rot, to break down the sugars in the husk which covers the bean. After that period is done, the beans are dried and shipped to the chocolatiers.
The process at Omnom starts with the roasting, and at the moment they're using a convection oven to do it. The key is to adjust the temperature and roasting period for each bean and each batch. For example, beans meant for milk chocolate are roasted longer to infuse them with bitterness, which will be eventually deluded by milk. Dark chocolate is a little bit less roast-y as it doesn't have much to offset the flavor, but you still have to find the perfect balance between the well roasted beans and the overly roasted, bland bitter bean.
The winnower breaks down the roasted cocoa beans. It separates the nibs from the husks, and a vacuum helps by sucking the lighter husks up, letting the heavier nibs fall into a separate compartment. The nibs are used for the chocolate, and the husks are whisked away, in a process taking about two hours for 10 to 15 pounds.
At the start of the artisanal chocolate revolution, there weren't any small-batch chocolate making machines around — only the huge ones, for industrial giants. A company called CocoaTown out of Atlanta started the trend of modifying grinders used in India to produce chickpea flower, but for chocolate use.
Inside the machine is a granite wheel and floor, which spin day and night for three days. The cocoa nibs are added first, then sugar and sometimes a bit of cocoa butter. If it's milk chocolate, dried milk is added as well. Omnom doesn't use vanilla or soy to change the taste of the chocolate, the goal is to bring out as pure a bean as possible. It takes about 72 hours to make such delightful liquid chocolate, ready to be finished off.
The final stage of the production is tempering, a machine which melts the mix and reheats it to keep it at a stable temperature. When the chocolate first arrives at the machine, the crystals are in all sorts of states and shapes. The tempering heats up and cools down the liquid while keeping it in motion, in order to achieve a nice shiny chocolate with a nice snap to it.
Molding and Packaging
The chocolate is molded and cooled, then aged on the shelves. The packaging is done by hand. The whole process of making a bar, from beginning to end, is about five days.
The ever-friendly Gíslason answered a couple of my questions, post-tour:
Do you make only one type of chocolate at a time?
Yes, we have seven types of chocolate and six recipes. One milk chocolate we have in a variation by itself, and with sea-salted almonds.
- Dirty Blonde is made with an organic Dominican cacao butter, odorized so it still smells of the cocoa beans.
- Milk of Madagascar and Sea Salted Almond Milk are made from Madagascar's deep fruity beans.
- The Dark Milk has a little bit of burnt sugar to caramelize it.
- The origin chocolate is the Madagascar, but there's another dark bar from Papua New Guinea as well.
The Madagascar is the one that really got us going. It's everybody's favorite here at the plant, it's the bean I enjoy the most. It's got some sourness to it, like a citrus acid with a hint
of red berries — raspberries or strawberries. Very fruity, very nice. We actually had this in competition this year, and received a bronze for Europe. But I have loads more beans I want to try, from Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru.
What's it like to experiment?
We look for something special in each. For example, I have one from Ecuador that's really cool. It's from a single plantation when a lot of these are from co-ops, different farms mixed together. And the guy who works at this plantation also does the fermentation. He does these experiments, putting bananas in the box with the beans to make them more sugary, more powerful.
Another fun experiment is a trial with Reykjavik Roasters. We took their coffee beans instead of the cocoa, combined it with a bit of cocoa butter, and cane sugar — it's about 20% coffee beans.
It's more like white chocolate without the milk. At the Roasters, the way they do their coffee beans, I love the way they look. They don't look oily, and all of the flavor is in them. We had five different beans from them, and they all taste so different.
It's like a laboratory in here!
We're so lucky, we have a lot of cocoa importers sending us samples, and it's really fun to try them out. But it's not like a restaurant, I can't put anything on the menu that I got in today. Everything needs to be processed, experimented with. Then you need to get packaging, a bit of marketing. We kind of cornered ourselves with that one, yes. We're getting a little bit self-aware, people are perceiving what we do. We've been in operation for less than a year, but the feedback we've gotten is really fantastic. We want to keep focused, to make the best product we can.