Benoît Nihant is one of only a few chocolatiers worldwide who starts his chocolate making process from the beans he procures in different plantations worldwide.
Known as bean to bar production, this Belgian chocolatier, who has his workshop in Awans, close to the Belgian city of Liege, has been producing his own chocolate from the beans he procures for the past six years.
It was not an easy journey because he had to start from scratch not only to find the raw material but also the machines he uses in his workshop.
Finding the right quality of beans can be a challenge particularly since farmers are used to dealing with large corporations though he acknowledges that it has now become easier.
A mechanical engineer by education, he decided to follow his passion and quit his corporate job together with his wife just before they turned 30. Together, they set up Benoît Nihant and today they are reaping the rewards of their work by being recognised as one of the elite chocolatiers in the world.
It has not been an easy process. Apart from finding the right cocoa beans to work with, Nihant had to procure a roaster from the 1950s in Asia because there was no small roaster in production. His press, from the 19th century, was purchased in Greece where it was used to decorate a factory entrance before it was re-configured to the press which makes the chocolate at Nihant’s workshop.
We recently visited the workshop of Benoît Nihant. Here is our interview with Benoît.
I am interested in your story. You had a job as a mechanical engineer but decided to quit the corporate world to make chocolate. What triggered the change and how did you finally decide to take the plunge?
Chocolate and pastry were always my passion. Since I was five years old, I was making pastry and dessert for our family meals. I always liked chocolate since I was young. When I was young my father had business relations in France and when we used to be there on vacation we would always stop at various good chocolate makers.
Since I did not have any problems at school, my parents let me study without showing me a way of how to go into manual work. I graduated as an engineer and before I finished my studies, I received a job proposal. At 23 years old I agreed.
Before I turned 30, my wife and I (we met during our studies), had the feeling that our professional life was taking a direction we had not chosen. We were doing well but it was not the direction we wanted.
We decided to work on a project together. Chocolate looked like the obvious choice at a certain moment. We decided that I was going to quit my job first. I left my job in the mechanical industry to go and work at Wittamer. I was there as a normal worker without being paid just to practice. It took me about 1 and a half years before I was able to feel normal with life in a chocolate factory.
At the same time, we were preparing our first recipes in the back of my parents house in a garage that was being refurbished to meet food security standards.
Since we did not have any relatives or family in the gastronomy sector, we decided to give samples to famous restaurants in Brussels, the Comme chez Soi and La Villa Lorraine. We just wanted feedback and recommendations from well known chefs. We came out of those meetings not with recommendations but with our first orders. So we were very satisfied since there are more than 400 shops in Belgium and we were completely new and those people decided to trust us and to buy our chocolate.
Did you start immediately as a bean to bar chocolate maker?
When did you start with bean to bar?
We started the chocolatier in 2006. From the beginning, we were the only Belgian chocolate maker not buying industrial chocolate. We were buying couverture from a small artisan in France and we were using that raw material. At the beginning, we were experimenting with bean to bar without selling it. We were doing this to learn about plantations and to understand what a good and bad bean is.
This is complicated because farmers show you what they want to sell. It took us a few years before we were able to understand everything and became comfortable with buying beans instead of chocolate.
Did your engineering background help you in the process of going from bean to bar?
When we started to think about bean to bar, there was no machine on the market for small producers. The machines we found where industrial which could produce 30, 40 to 50 tonnes a day which does not make sense for a small manufacturer like us. The only possibility was to find old machinery. We are working with a roaster from the 1950s, we have a grinder from the 19th century. For the rest, as I was working in the mechanical sector in the region, I knew a lot of small warehouses which had a lot of knowledge of how old machines worked. We rebuilt small machines for our own use. Now it is getting easier for those who want to launch a bean to bar because you can find turnkey solutions.
How do you procure the beans? Does it entail a lot of travelling?
In the beginning it was very complicated because what we are looking for are very rare beans. These beans constitute less than 1 per cent of the global production. At the beginning we were travelling without finding anything. We were finding beans but not the ones we wanted. Then little by little, we started to get known in producing countries. Now, we are invited by foreign ministries of agriculture and it gets easier as they take us to places knowing the quality we need. But the beginning was very difficult.
What we look for are farmers that dry and ferment the beans the old way. What we are also looking for are old trees but most farmers are switching to new trees as these produce larger fruits though at the end they do not have the same taste and quality.
Bean to bar is a special production process that puts you among the elite chocolate markets in the world. How difficult was it to establish yourself in Belgium? Now it seems easy being a bean to bar manufacturer. But how did you differentiate yourself when you started?
We did not start with the idea to have a good story to sell. We did not want to sell plenty of chocolates. Selling plenty of chocolates is very easy. You produce middle range chocolate and you sell a lot each month. What we wanted to do was produce the best Belgian chocolate. We had the feeling that Belgium produced very good chocolate but there was no more innovation. There was a good reputation and a good image in the world but there was no improvement. So we wanted to go a step further and to show that Belgian chocolate was still top quality.
So when we started, we had a choice. We could either position ourselves with others and export medium to low quality chocolate which would have been easy. But what we wanted was to change our life. That was the main purpose. We wanted to get rid of our job in big industry. When I was working as a project manager in big industry, it was very interesting but you realise that even if you are not there, the company still works. What you do is abstract. We wanted to get rid of this feeling.
We wanted to build a life where we would produce something, to make something really authentic. That was the purpose of starting our business.
So this was the question that started the business?
Yes, we wanted to have fun every day.
Going to the fun. Belgium had a very good reputation. If I get what you are saying, you are innovating by going back to the past which is where most innovations happen. How difficult or easy is it to be innovate with chocolate particularly when you are dealing with raw materials?
Bean to bar is very complicated. It is easier to buy machinery that is available for all chocolate makers, buy ready made chocolate and use a recipe and standard machines. But we didn’t want this. We wanted to be independent to choose what we want to do. We wanted to have the real experience with the bean, have real partners in the plantation.
We hear a lot about fair-trade in chocolate. How do you buy your cocoa? How do you work with farmers?
We are more than fair trade. We do not buy fair trade to be able to put it on our label. What is fair trade? The standard cacao beans are sold at a price that is determined on the stock market in London or New York. Roughly it is about 3,300 dollars per tonne at the moment. To put fair-trade on a label you pay 10 to 15 per cent more than the price on the stock exchange. But if the price is low, then the farmers get little revenue. In this case, the price does not depend on the farmer but rather on speculation.
This is unfair because the farmer does not have the power to dictate the price. For example, if there is someone from the Middle East who wants to buy a large amount of beans, he can impact the price not because of what is happening in the plantation but because of speculation.
So we do not think that it is a good system. Fair trade should be good for the farmers. Our way of doing things is to buy direct, there is no middle man. We never negotiate the price and it is the price that is set by the farmer. So if the quantity is low, the price is higher. We do it for two reasons. One, we like to ensure that the farmers we work with can pay the people working with them well. They have access to water and electricity at their home which is very rare. Most of the time, many are living like slaves used to live 200 years ago.
Here they are really treated well. We also want them to avoid switching to new cacao trees. Sometimes they might see that their neighbour has switched to new trees because the cacao fruit is big and not the normal size. The farmer will have beans that are bigger. The trees which make these pods are resistant to sickness. But if we pay the right price to the farmers, he can keep the old trees because these give much better flavour.
I don’t know much about cacao trees. So it it like wine in a way? With old vines you make better wine and with old cacao trees you make better chocolate?
That is the way it is. What is also important is for the farmer to not mix varieties. Sometimes the farmers have four/five different trees and they would mix the varieties if they do not know.
If you do not mix the beans, you ensure that you have the proper flavour. Even if you have four different beans that are good, if you mix them, you flatten the flavour. We make sure that farmers do not mix the beans.
Since the farmers deliver to industry they do not necessarily care about the variety so industrial chocolate could be the mixture of the crop from 100 different farms. If one farm has a problem one year, they replace it from another farm so the taste remains the same. That is exactly the opposite of what we are doing.
And how old are the trees?
It is not a matter of age but rather the type of cacao tree. They need to be planted under the rain forest. A normal tree has to live in the shade of bigger trees. The new types can live in the sun. The more sun they get, the bigger the fruit will be. Now you can find plenty of cacao tree in Africa and India but they are using bad trees.
How do you go about your chocolate creations. How do you determine what works with what? Is it by taste? Do you analyse? Is it a scientific process?
Yes, there is a big part of the analysis which is scientific mostly when we work with the beans.
It is very complicated to understand what bad fermentation will do to chocolate. The first step is to go to the plantation, taste the pulp. The beans are inside the fruit. The beans are covered by the cacao pulp and we have to taste this. It gives us a first impression of the maturity of the fruit. We have to analyse it, determine the PH and many other characteristics. We do not know what will be the result but we can already see if the work of the farmer is good or not. We also see the registers to check the fermentation and drying process.
From each crop, we ensure that beans are not mixed. We then test batches in our workshop to determine whether we will buy the beans or wait for the next crop. To understand what the chocolate will taste like, we need to roast the bean. That is very important.
So it is a very long process?
Yes. Every time, when we go to fairs, we receive plenty of proposals from people selling beans but they do not understand that we are not buying beans like the industrials do. Industrials want to have a certain amount, we need to have precise quality. Only a few farmers have the possibility to deliver this quality. And it is very complicated to find this quality.
You are growing slowly. You have four shops in Belgium and also export to Asia. Is there a risk that you lose the artisan approach? Is there a point where growth becomes problematic?
We are far from growing to quickly. The biggest concern is to grow to quickly because we would need investment and that would mean selling shares in our company. That is precisely what we want to avoid. We left our jobs as employees and we want to avoid having to go back to the corporate world.
We want to still be able to work everyday in our workshop, to produce and work manually and make choices that are not linked to money. We do not want to seek permission to visit the same plantation three times in one year. We want to be free. So we are growing but it is controlled growth. I believe we can still grow without impacting quality. Our customers come to us because of the way our chocolate tastes and we are not willing to change this.
If our roaster is not big enough, we will not buy an industrial roaster but a second roaster that does the same as the one we have.
How do you go about producing chocolate? Does it vary from season to season?
We have a lot of repeat customers so we need new things the whole year round. We normally brain storm after Easter and before September because this is the period when we have more time to carry out trials.
How does the brainstorming work? How do you go about the process of creating something? Where do you find inspiration?
We know we have a couple of months to prepare things that must be ready for the next season.
We do not sit at a desk in front of a white paper and think. It does not happen like that. We have to be in a special mood where there is enough space for creation. One day, I can wake up with an idea. We will carry out some trials, we might have time in the factory to do so.
Other people in the workshop get involved, give their opinion, change, maybe we try a different spice or a fruit.
We created the pecan praline after a trip to the United States. A praline is a mix of dry fruit and sugar though sometimes in industry they use apricot nuts which are dehydrated and then mixed with sugar. If you respect the rule, a praline is made with hazelnuts, almonds and sugar. We thought we would do the same using pecan instead. In the coming months we will create a praline with coconut and one with peanuts. The principle is easy. We roast the dry fruit in the caramel. When the caramel has the right colour, we stop the cooking, we put it on a marble table to cool down and then we grind it. When the heat goes up in the machine, the fat inside the fruit goes up and forms the paste. So we can achieve the same thing with many dry fruits.
Do you have people, maybe chefs, who you normally consult with for your flavour combinations?
No, actually, in the beginning we did this. But then we realised then we have a good palate.
When I was young, I was not eating complicated things or dishes with ingredients coming from different countries in the world. What I was eating was good, simple and tasted good. We realised our palate was good after the first time we went to Comme Chez Soi and La Villa Lorraine. Now chefs are coming to us without us having to ask them.
Have you inspired chefs with their dessert creations?
I don’t know. We have two types of collaborations with chefs in restaurants. Some prefer to buy our chocolate rather than the industrial chocolate even if ours is much more expensive. Others buy our chocolates to serve with coffee.
How long does it take to make a chocolate once you have an idea?
That is very difficult to say. It changes and each time it is different. I was talking about the pecan nuts. I can come back from Japan with a matcha tea and we do something very quickly. Otherwise we might have something special like clementines from the South of France which motivates us to create something quickly. Innovation comes through meeting people and artisans who are also following tradition. Sometimes we have good ingredients but we do not find the balance. We find that the taste might be very good in the first 10 days but then the taste goes away even if we do not know why and we need to rethink the whole process.
For example, with coffee, we made plenty of tests as we felt that the coffee tablets that we could find on the market were not so good. There was a problem that you got the grain of the coffee on the teeth and it was not good. Innovation there was not to make a special recipe with a special ingredient but rather to remove the grains. We decided to put the coffee bean together with the cacao bean and to grind them together. We were still using the real ingredient while others might use special flavouring. We had the right taste inside the chocolate by using the real ingredients.
We did the same thing with sea salt. You find plenty of tablets with sea salt that is sprinkled before the chocolate solidifies. We decided to add sea salt in the recipe while we were grounding the cacao beans so the grain completely disappears.
Innovation can come by mixing different ingredients but it can also come by changing processes.
Who would you consider your mentors? Did you have a mentor?
When I was at Wittamer, I was very lucky to meet Louis Briffaerts. At first it was very complicated to get there because they did not understand why I was quitting by job to go and work for free. They were frightened. They did not understand the purpose so the first reaction was no. Then, we had several meetings, I explained and they started to have confidence in me. So they finally accepted.
I went to the work shop and was working closely with the operations manager who was Louis Briffaerts. He was about to retire when I arrived but he knew everything about chocolate. At the beginning he was acting strange towards me because he never had someone in the workshop with the same background that I had. In the first two months, he only gave me bad things to do. I remember I was there at 5am or 6am in the morning on Saturdays and the only task was to get things that were in the deep freezer on metallic plates. I had glasses so going inside and outside, I could not see anything and it was a long process. I was doing that for three four hours, my hands were burning. it was a nightmare. Then I was also doing dishwashing. He was trying to see if I would change my mind very quickly.
I was not treated in a different way to the others even though I was older than the other apprentices. After a while, he saw I was still there. Little by little we became closer, and there was mutual respect. He taught me many things he did not teach normal apprentices.
Then there are others, who are not necessarily mentors but people who do the same thing as us. We have become close friends to a couple of people in California, who are behind Dandelion. We met on a farm in Peru and since then we are always in touch. We meet in Japan, they came here before going to a wedding in Italy. When they were in Belgium, we let our customers taste their chocolate at our shop in Liege. We were selling their chocolate on that day. It is important that our clients also get acquainted with products that are similar to others.
Is there a global community collaborating around bean to bar?
If you take all the bean to bar producers we are not producing a lot. We can produce only a very small percentage of what the industry can produce. We do not compete with each other but with the ‘bad things’. Yes there is this spirit of collaboration.
What are the main trends in chocolate today? The rise of the artisans in the whole food industry is here. Is this the future also for chocolate?
Globally in the food sector, people are getting annoyed by all the scandals. In Belgium, there was dioxin in chickens. Each year, there is something different which shows that big industry do not care about health and they are only there to make profit.
Each time there is a problem in the food sector, customers prefer to go to the small artisans who do the real things. There are more and more people going to small butchers, bakeries. Last year, in Belgium, people learnt that industrial bread was made in Poland, Czech Republic and therefore they prefer to go to their local baker.
I think that consumers are starting to ask more questions about their food and how it is made. This is a good thing.
10 years ago, all chocolate makers were pretending they were making their own chocolate. They would say that it comes from Madagascar or Peru but it would be the big brands that were making the chocolate. Now it is getting more difficult because customers want to know, they ask questions, they want to see whether it is real or not.
So in future, I see two trends. I see artisans becoming more important. But I also see big industry producing more and more bad quality. On the plantations, big industry is making more and more bad quality. For example in Bolivia, Chinese investors have bought cacao trees and plantations. Their target is to have raw materials. They will replace mid quality beans with bad quality beans.
Unfortunately, industry is going to continue to produce more. We will not be able to decrease the market-share of big industry. Industry is also using the same vocabulary as the artisans. For example, in the meat sector, you will find hams which are marketed as being made the artisans way but it is not true. They are just using vocabulary even if the production process is far from artisan.
So consumers need to be more aware and ask more questions?
Yes. For example you now see single country chocolate in supermarkets but this is produced by someone else and not the one whose label is on the chocolate. There is no point mixing beans from 200 different plantations and saying it comes from one country. The finished product is cheaper than the price we pay for our beans. It is true, we are not buying many beans but there should be a difference bigger than that.
What’s your favourite chocolate?
In our range there is only chocolate we like. For example, we are asked many times to make white chocolate but we consider it a sweet and don’t make it. But if I have to name one it is a single plantation dark chocolate from a small plantation in North Venezuela. It is a rare bean, the annual production is 7 tonnes which is a very tiny amount because you lose 30 per cent of weight in production. Only three chocolate makers in the world have access to this bean. It has complex aromas, floral notes and lasts very long on the palate. Another favourite is one from Cuba. This one has notes of tobacco and smoke.
It is a passion for us to find new things, visit people and make new recipes. We work 7 days a week but we do not feel we are working. Most of the times we are happy, happy to see the farmers, happy to see customers, our team likes to be here.
This is the best form of marketing.
From the beginning marketing has never been the purpose. The purpose was to change our life, to do something practical, to touch real material and to have fun every day. That was our motto. When we started, we did not know we would achieve good quality that would be recognised. We did it for our personal interest and satisfaction.
You can find Benoît Nihant’s chocolates in 4 shops in Belgium including Brussels and Liege as well as in Asia. He also delivers worldwide from his online shop.