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Escazu's new line of micro-batch chocolates

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Part of the pleasure of selecting bean-to-bar chocolates at Escazu is knowing that you'll be tempted by something different at every visit. Arrive today and you're bound to find a whiff of winter, perhaps even a hint of Christmas Future, captured inside a dome of artfully painted chocolate that was crafted only hours before and just a few feet away.

Recently, head chocolate maker Hallot Parson and his partner, head chocolatier Danielle Centeno, created something so legitimately unique that it might become a second, differently named line for the almost 5-year-old business. The result is a collection of micro-batch bars that replicate the distinct flavors of the shop's four popular drinking chocolates: Spain, Xochiaya (Mexico), Italy and France.

The 1.25-ounce specialties are not yet positioned alongside Escazu's established line of award-winning chocolate bars, but those in the know have been asking for them "off-menu" for weeks. Samples were handed out this fall at the TerraVITA Food & Wine Event in Chapel Hill. The Spain flavor, Parson's favorite, was selected as a grand jury finalist in the Americas division of the 2013 International Chocolate Awards.

"My desire is that we can grow that line separately, maybe even under another name and another production site," he explains from the one table in the shop's small sitting area. "We are committed to this neighborhood, but we can't do much more in this space."

Historic records document that chocolate's first application was to produce beverages fit for royalty. These thin, densely flavored drinks provide strong contrast to richer and sweeter American-style cocoa.

"It was a chance for us to educate what already was a very open customer base," says Parson, who tested them with a group of regulars who provide useful feedback on new flavors. They gave the beverages, which are spicy and not sweet, a thumbs-up.

"I want our customers to be happy, so I always explain that they are different, especially the one from Spain," he says of the variation based on what is believed to be the first recipe for drinking chocolate, which was published in 1631. "Of all the ones we make, this is the most complex."

Modernizing the four drinking chocolate recipes to current processing standards was a challenge Parson conquered about 18 months ago, when the shop first placed them on the menu board. Converting them into bars that met his high quality standards took several more months.

Escazu uses whole spices to steep the drinking chocolates, which are made with hot water, like a strong tea, as opposed to milk-based American cocoas. The beverages are strained and frothed with the steam spigot of an espresso machine just before serving.

Parson had to experiment with ways to incorporate the ingredients to not only match the flavors but also produce an appealing mouth feel. "The big concern for me was that the spices would become gritty or sticky in your mouth," he says. "It was essential that they melt with the chocolate to give the experience people expect."

Parson mastered the texture by adding the spices with the cocoa beans and sugar during the initial grinding. Tweaking the ratios of cocoa beans and spices, and ensuring that all particles that comprise the chocolate bar are the same size, made all the difference.

"Now that the spices have been in the grinder, we can't use it for any other purpose," he says. "It's a very expensive machine, so it shows how dedicated we are to this project."

Labels currently are being designed for the line, which will debut officially around Valentine's Day. Because of the specially sourced, extra-mild cocoa beans and exacting focus needed to produce these micro-batch chocolates, they sell for $4 each—about double the per-ounce price of their established line.

If you can't wait until February and don't mind getting your bar in a plain packet, head over and whisper your order. Tell them Hal sent you.

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