Taylor Kennedy’s Bean-to-bar chocolate is all about putting the farmers first.
BY DAVID LENNAM
If you don’t know Sirene by now, chances are you don’t like chocolate. Real chocolate. Since 2013, the locally made, ethically sourced, artisanal chocolate bars, in their unique flat, not-quite-square shape, have been fêted by the media, winning a passel of awards (they still win six to 10 a year) and delighting aficionados who prefer the unadulterated and sophisticated taste of Sirene to a Mars bar or even, dare I say, a Big Turk.
Some have called it the best chocolate they’ve ever tasted — and not just kids devouring a pound of it on a sleepover. (At nine bucks a bar, they probably wouldn’t be allowed to.)
There was a great line from Adam Cantor in Eat Magazine some years ago that summed it up better than I could. “The best way to describe trying Sirene chocolate,” he wrote, “is to say that after tasting it, one has to take every other piece of chocolate ever tasted and rearrange them into lower tiers.”
The creator of Sirene, Taylor Kennedy, is, steadfastly, not a chocoholic. What attracted him to making chocolate from scratch was his fascination with the cultures that, for thousands of years, have worked with cacao. He sources the beans from small farms in South America, Central America and Africa. He was introduced to some of the farmers during his 18-year stint as a photographer and photo editor with National Geographic.
“We in the West have literally just been introduced to chocolate, even though it’s been a couple of hundred years now,” he says. “We’re just barely scratching the surface of the human culture of chocolate.”
Pure and Precise
The fortysomething lives in Fairfield and makes his living steps from his back door. As far from Willy Wonka’s confectionary Disneyland as you can get, the modest Sirene factory is a converted workshop that could pass for a garden suite.
Several larger-than-kitchen-size stainless steel drums hum and spin, taking cocoa beans from their raw state through a month-long process that begins after three weeks of aging the beans, then sorting, roasting, cracking, winnowing, refining, conching, tempering and moulding.
The air is heavy, very heavy, with the fragrance — nay, the taste — of chocolate. It’s almost unbreathable, although for the sweet-toothed, drowning in this would be a fitting end.
There’s a second, smaller room for aging the beans and a third, even smaller, space piled almost floor-to-ceiling with a mound of burlap sacks of imported cocoa beans from Guatemala, from Tanzania, from Uganda.
Kennedy says most people, even those who enjoy his bars, don’t understand how his chocolate-making business differs from the big business of chocolate.
He’s making pure chocolate from cocoa beans. Everyone else (save for a small handful of tiny operators like him) is making chocolates (with an “s”), like truffles, buying blocks of industrial chocolate and adding their own flavours and fillings.
That’s chocolatiering, an art unto itself, but far removed from Sirene, he notes. Kennedy’s small-batch chocolate is made with the precision and passion of a winemaker who grows their own grapes, a craft brewer who harvests their own barley, a whisky distiller who digs their own peat.
I ask if he’s obsessive.
“That’s the thing about chocolate making,” he replies. “It’s very much like winemaking. Each step of the process — and there’s a whole bunch of steps — is very precise. And if you make one change here, you don’t make just an incremental change here. You need to pay attention… You have to be focused on each step, detail-oriented, take good notes, know what you’re doing. So, with that precision, I can see why people might say obsessive, because you have to be very precise.”
Sirene is precisely pure bean. No sugar or additives. One should be able to taste the land where it was grown. “It’s an important distinction,” he notes. “If you don’t work with the farm and have access to various cocoa beans, it’s all just the same flavours.”
Kennedy’s direct-trade-with-farmers approach is creating an ethical alternative to the chocolates we’re most familiar with — and he’d have it no other way. He visits those farms, hangs out with the farmers, exchanges gifts. And he pays them up to five times more than the set price of the commodity.
If he ever expands, he’ll empower those growing the crop. Instead of the farmer shipping the cocoa beans to Kennedy, he’ll teach them how to make the chocolate. They’ll ship it, pre-tempered, so it doesn’t melt en route, and Kennedy will finish it off.
“It’s sort of like here in B.C.,” he says. “No raw log exports. No raw cocoa bean export.”
Kennedy, who was once destined for medical school and also studied economics at Cambridge University, found his calling at National Geographic. That’s why I kid him about being the cultural anthropologist of chocolate.
He wouldn’t have started selling a bar bearing some throwaway name with no good back story. It seems as much thought has gone into the presentation as goes into the process of chocolatification. (I made that word up.)
The name Sirene (pronounced SIR-n) derives from the sirens of Greek mythology whose songs would lure sailors to crash upon rocky shores. Those songs, says Kennedy, promised wisdom to those hearing them. “They were saying, ‘We can tell you anything you want; what do you want to know?’ It was knowledge they were luring people in with.”
That’s sort of what he’s doing with Sirene.
“I’m trying to give you that knowledge, about this Tanzanian farm, or that Guatemalan farm. Here is their culture. They’re growing this cacao as they have for literally thousands of years in this place. Eat it and learn about it and enjoy it.”
At Sirene, chocolate is made painstakingly by hand. The cacao pods are sourced from farmers in Tanzania or Guatemala, then fermented, dried and shipped to Victoria, where they are roasted and cracked. The cocoa nibs are ground and then “conched,” a process of mixing and agitating that evenly distributes the cocoa butter and develops flavour. Finally, the chocolate is tempered and made into bars.