By Caitlin Raux
 

It’s not easy to remove the intimidation factor from wine. Save for sommeliers and connoisseurs, most people get a little squirmy when it comes to talking about wine — a fact that makes wine buying a challenge. Dustin Wilson, master sommelier and co-founder of Verve Wine, wants to make wine more accessible to everyone. With both an online and brick and mortar presence, Verve Wine aims to educate customers and help them buy, order and enjoy wine with confidence. ICE is excited to welcome Dustin as one of the featured participants in the next First Fridays at ICE on April 7. In anticipation, we chatted with Dustin about his path to Verve and picked his brain for some seasonal wine recs.

Dustin Wilson MS

When did wine shift from a hobby to a career path for you?

I would say it first became a hobby when I was living in Maryland. I was working at a steak house and I got really interested in wine from being around it on a regular basis. So I started reading and studying it and tasting more often. But it wasn’t until I moved to Boulder, Colorado in 2005 and started working with Bobby Stuckey at Frasca’s Food and Wine that I realized that there was potential to work as a sommelier and have wine as a career path. Bobby is a master sommelier and he was my first mentor.

You’re a master sommelier also, right?

Correct. I passed the exam in 2011.

I’ve heard it’s a pretty intense test, to say the least.

It is indeed.

Tell me about preparing for that. What was the training like?

The majority of it is self-taught, so you don’t go to class for it. In order to get good, you need to have a great support system of wine people around you who are also pursuing it. It would be incredibly difficult to prepare for it on your own, without guidance. It took me basically from the time I started pursuing it until I actually passed, so a five year process.

Five years!?

Yes. It’s a lot of studying. You know, leading up to the time when I passed, I was putting in a solid 3-4 hours of study time on days that I was working. Then on days off it would be another 8-12 hours of study time. Tasting all the time, studying all the time with my group. It was definitely all-encompassing. I didn’t have a lot of free time.

After working as a sommelier for some time, you started Verve Wine. Can you share a little more about Verve?

Verve is a place to learn about, discover and buy wine online. We also have a physical store in Tribeca. We focus on small, artisanal producers from all over the globe, but we’re very particular about the producers that we carry. We like family owned estates that very much respect their land and make wines that are true to their sense of place. So it’s a process of curation — finding great wines from all over the world at different prices, everything from ten-dollar picks to those that cost thousands of dollars. We really wanted to create a place that makes finding and learning about wine accessible for a lot of people. That’s our main focus — making wine accessible and making it fun without dumbing it down. Also we make sure we provide top quality wines.

I was checking out your website and, like you said, it does seem very accessible. I work in food so I found the tool where you can search wines by food pairings very useful.

Exactly. We realized that people like to shop for wine in various ways. Some people go in and know exactly what they’re looking for. Some people are looking for a particular grape or region. Other people look for wine to go with a certain type of food. There’s also an “occasions” feature, so if you’re looking for wine for brunch versus Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving, we put together curated lists of wines that fit each occasion.

And that’s just the website! Do you also do in-house wine education?

Yes. We host tastings pretty often and they cover a wide range of topics. Sometimes we do a casual tasting — like on Thursdays, we open up a couple of bottles from a region and people can come, taste and we talk with them about the wines. Other times, we’ll invite winemakers or sommeliers and host on a seminar where we taste through their wines or a specific region and talk more in-depth about it. This Friday we have Richard Betts, another master sommelier coming in to do a tasting of a wine he makes plus some other wines that are similar to his. We want people to come to the store to learn and taste, not just buy.

It seems like all the master sommeliers know each other. Do you guys and girls all hang out and open magnums together? 

Sometimes. It’s definitely a small community of people. At this point I think there’s only around 230 worldwide. We tend to all know each other. I am buddies with some of them and we get together on a regular basis. We’re always supportive of each other in our respective endeavors. A lot of us got to know each other through the process of studying for the exam. Some of my best friends are guys I took the master sommelier exam with.

That makes sense. Circling back to the First Fridays event you’re taking part in at ICE — The Craft of Food, Wine & Chocolate — do you have any pairing suggestions for wine and chocolate?

It depends on the type of chocolate. If you’re having a bitter, dark chocolate on its own, I like something called Banyuls. It’s actually the name of a place in southern France that makes a really delicious fortified wine — kind of similar to port but a slightly different flavor and texture to it that I think works really well with bitter chocolate. Let’s say you’re having a chocolate truffle or something with caramel or fruit inside — I’d recommend this interesting wine from Austria that’s a sweet wine, late harvest made from a grape called Zweigelt. You definitely want something that will match up with the sweetness of the chocolate. The pairing would change depending on the other flavors with the chocolate, if any. If you’re having a chocolate with peanuts or almonds, you might want a vin santo from Italy.

That seems counterintuitive to me. I would think you’d want a contrast in flavors — like if you have a creamy chocolate, you’d want an acidic wine. 

All of these wines actually have a lot of acidity. Because they’re sweet, they need to have a lot of acidity; otherwise the wines would feel cloying and overly rich. But if you were to pair a dry red wine with chocolate, it would be a clash because the chocolate, which is so sweet, would make the wine taste even drier. You don’t want a wine that’s sweeter, you just want to match the sweetness.

Since it’s Spring, can you give us a pairing for a seasonal meal, such as roasted chicken with spring vegetables?

Chardonnay from Burgundy handles itself really well. It tends to be lighter, brighter and fresher than a California Chardonnay, for instance. That would be great with roasted chicken. For spring dishes, especially at this time of year when the sun is starting to come out and things are warming up, I’d recommend crisp, bright, more mineral-driven whites. Things like Gruner Veltliner, Albariño, etc. Sancerre can definitely be a great spring wine, especially with something like roasted asparagus. That goes really well Sauvignon Blanc.

Thank you, Dustin. We’re looking forward to seeing you at ICE soon!

Learn more about First Fridays at ICE.

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By Ethan Fixell

Ethan Fixell is a beer, wine and spirits writer and educator from New York City. He contributes to over a dozen different publications, though he most frequently writes for Food & Wine, Men’s Journal and Quartz.

I drink a lot. As a beverage writer and educator, I like to think of myself as fairly knowledgeable when it comes to cocktails. And yet, after recently sitting in on ICE’s “Cocktail Recipe Development” class, I’m almost embarrassed to admit just how much I actually learned.

The class was the final session of ICE’s new six-week Professional Mixology program, which, led by the school’s Director of Beverage Studies Anthony Caporale, explores topics ranging from mixology history and technique, to cocktail construction, to practical bar management. In this ultimate session, students — who range from curious foodies to prospective bar owners — were given the chance to flex their newfound cocktail knowledge by assembling a custom bar menu and preparing the prospective drinks for their colleagues.
ICE_Mixology_Ethan_Fixell_0

I, for one, was thrilled to participate as a mock bar-goer: Over the course of two hours, each student stood up to describe his or her bar concept to the class, read a menu of up to five cocktails (priced according to a standardized formula) and concocted beverages for thirsty classmates. Below are my notes on some of the most intriguing presentations I witnessed (and drank!) in this incredibly unique class:

LORI

First up was Lori, who pitched a bar focusing on female clientele, with “drinks that cater to a woman’s palate, but aren’t girly.” Her cocktails — such as the Calm Collins: gin blended with a relaxing mix of lavender, lemon and rosemary – sounded delicious, but incredibly expensive considering the suggested 22% pour cost. At $25 per drink, she’ll likely only cater to millionaire patrons. Anthony let Lori know that he loved the theme of the bar and the drink names, but pressed her on her pricing.

Her cocktail recipes, however, were right on the money. The Ginger Chamomile Flip (rum, ginger, chamomile and spice made creamy with an egg white foam) was a particular hit with the entire class.

ICE_Mixology_Ethan_Fixell

ERIC

Eric’s goal was to open a bar in Crown Heights with Emily, a friend and fellow student in the class. He managed to keep prices around $12, with takes on three different classics: an Old Fashioned, a Rob Roy and a Negroni. Modeled after an Old Fashioned, his Short Stack — made with rye, maple syrup, Blackstrap molasses, aged bitters and garnished with an orange peel — tasted like a syrupy stack of pancakes.

I ordered a Short Stack and Eric asked if I preferred the bitters on top or mixed in. Emily, in a hushed whisper, suggested that I take them on top for increased aromatics.

I took Emily’s recommendation and good thing I did: the nose on the beverage was amazing. Perhaps it was a touch too sweet on the palate but that can easily be adjusted. Considering this was Eric’s first time preparing the cocktail in public, I was quite impressed.

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NESHANN

Who needs food when you’ve got drinks? Neshann really shook things up and did away with a traditional restaurant menu for a “5-course cocktail meal.” The journey began with an appetizer in the form of a Scotch-based Cranberry Blood and Sand, and concluded with dessert: Meant To Be, a play on the Grasshopper that incorporates Branca Menta, crème de cacao, Cognac, orange juice and a whole egg.

“This is a great example of building off of an original template,” Anthony declared, who seemed to be quite happy with the students’ jobs of taking the classics and reconstructing them with their own updated spins. Apparently, Anthony explained, this is the approach taken by many great cocktail bars.

Neshann’s best cocktail was an ode to the Sidecar called Broken Axle, made with Cognac, Cointreau, maple and just the right balance of ginger. He explained how he had to be careful with the ginger: A touch too much would “blow it out,” he said, underlining the importance of proper ingredient ratios.

Anthony was delighted by the sweet, sour and spicy cocktails from the students. “When I judge competitions,” he said, “around 60% of drinks are out of balance. I haven’t had an out-of-balance drink all night!”

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DENNIS

The Ethan Fixell Creativity Award goes to Dennis, a doctor who created an incredibly ambitious “Asian-themed menu” spanning cultures from three different countries.

His Korean-themed cocktail was a soju-based kimchi martini. Dennis found that adding fresh fermented cabbage to the glass didn’t impart enough to the beverage, so he infused it into the liquor in advance instead, locking in that pickled flavor.

Dennis’ Thai homage was a Lemongrass Martini made with the option of lemongrass-infused vodka or gin (“I come prepared,” he wryly affirmed) and a kiss of dry vermouth. As a traditionalist (as much as one can be, ordering a lemongrass-infused martini), I opted for the gin version and was far from disappointed.

ICE Pro Mixology

Dennis’s pièce de résistance, however, was his Chinese-inspired drink: a Peking Duck Old Fashioned inspired by some bacon-infused bourbon tasted in a previous class. In fact, the concoction — made with duck-juice-infused bourbon topped with angostura bitters — might have been the winner of the entire night. “That’s what happens when doctors make drinks,” Anthony proclaimed.

But perhaps it’s also what happens when students learn from an excellent teacher at a top-notch culinary school.

Ready to craft your own cocktail and learn pro mixology? Click here to check out ICE’s mixology and beverage courses.

Need to brush up on your wine, beer and spirits knowledge? Register today for Ethan’s upcoming class, Drinking 101. 

All photos by Ethan Fixell © 2017.

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By Caitlin Raux

What’s the number one rule of drinking wine? There are no rules. That’s the ethos of ICE’s Director of Wine and Beverage Studies, Richard Vayda. The experienced sommelier and former chef (who was also an opera singer once upon a time) appreciates wine in all of its varieties and for all occasions. Just as there’s a time and place for a grand cru from Bordeaux, there’s also a moment to enjoy a crisp white zinfandel (preferably with potato chips, on the beach). As he teaches students at ICE, the important thing is to keep an open mind and worry less — after all, wine is about enjoyment.

Wine_Essential_Richard_Vayda

We caught up with Richard before one of his popular Introduction to Wine courses to chat with us for an ICE blog interview.

How did you become interested in wine?

I’m from the Midwest – Chicago, originally – and my grandparents owned a beer and wine warehouse. Alcohol was always around us. When I turned 15, I got really interested in food and wine, so I started making wine in my bedroom. There was no internet then so I had to do everything by books and magazines. I would buy grape concentrate from California – chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon — and I made wine in vats in my bedroom. I didn’t tell my parents right away, but they of course figured out from the smell. Eventually I got to the point where I made sparkling wine.

In your bedroom!?

In my bedroom and the basement — you have to use this process where you almost freeze the wine. I would do a second fermentation in the bottle. Today, I probably would not think that sparkling wine was very good, but at that particular time I thought Wow, it’s cool that you can do this.

I was really interested in wine and food and then I got into the music industry – I was an opera singer for a while. Still, I was always interested in food so eventually I went back to it. I finished my master’s at NYU — I studied food management and did a lot of nutrition work as part of my program. Then I decided to open a restaurant in the Catskills — Mountain Brook Dining and Spirits. It was a beautiful setting, with soaring mountains and the Schoharie Creek next door. When I moved back to New York City, I ran a small Provençal restaurant. I was very involved with the wine program. Eventually I opened a coffee and chocolate lounge, Caffeine, in South Norwalk, Connecticut. My partners and I owned that for about six years.

To be a wine expert, is it necessary to have special tasting abilities?

I think most people can develop their sense of smell and sense of taste quite a bit. It’s mostly about the sense of smell. Most people can identify a thousand-plus smells. The problem is trying to verbalize what they’re smelling. With practice, you can become more precise. There are people who are naturally better tasters or smellers — the “super tasters” — but I think anyone can develop those skills.

Tonight I’m teaching the second session of an intro class, and I already saw on the first day how happy some of them were when they picked up things they didn’t know they could. Students start picking up on the nuances in wine pretty quickly.

Is that one of the fun parts of teaching — when you get to give people the tools to taste wine? 

Absolutely. It’s a two-way process, too. Sometimes they give me the words. All of us have physiological differences in the way we taste things or smell things. You might be more sensitive to something that I don’t pick up on strongly, so the student’s words help me, too. I often find that the students come up with the word before I do — it may be the wackiest word, but it may be perfect.

Wine Essentials with Richard Vayda

You also studied in Paris – were you studying food or wine?

 I spent one year at the Sorbonne, studying linguistics.

And living in Paris!

Yes, and living in Paris, eating and drinking great food and wine. I couldn’t afford expensive wines then. I remember going with my classmates to the supermarché, and we’d bring our own bottle and fill it up with wine for one euro. We had some lovely meals though.

Did you get a sense of French wine culture, and is it different from wine culture in the United States?

I think the French approach, when I was living there, was similar to the American approach today. Ten years ago in the U.S., people approached wine in a pretentious way and I’m all about getting rid of that. Wine should be fun. French people were already like that — because it’s an everyday drink for the French. Now it’s becoming an everyday drink here, something that people don’t have to get too stressed out about. But still, in my classes, I often get people who say I want to be able to order wine at a restaurant and feel confident, not so self-conscious. I tell them, don’t worry about it!

I think some Americans still feel silly if they are taking wine seriously. For example, if they have to swill a glass after ordering a bottle of wine.

Or they think, is this what I’m supposed to do? I say, do whatever you like. Just enjoy.

How has wine culture in the United States changed in the past decade?

People are becoming less pretentious about wine and are embracing wine as an everyday beverage. It’s changed a bit by removing stereotypes around wine, but some stereotypes still linger. I still get people who won’t drink rosé — a lot of them associate it with white zinfandel. In the Introduction to Wine course, I purposely put a French Provençal rosé next to an American white zinfandel, just to see what people will say about it and almost every class thinks that the white zinfandel matches better with a brie cheese than the French rosé.

Does white zinfandel deserve its bad reputation? Are there good ones?

Yes, there are. I selected one for my class that’s on the drier side and also very rich in flavor. There are still some thin, sweet, thin white zinfandels that are the wine equivalent of soda. But even those wines with some potato chips on the beach are not the worst thing (laughs). It’s low in alcohol and that sweet offsets the saltiness.

If you wanted to impress someone with a gift of a bottle of wine, what would you recommend?

It should be a gift from you that says something about you, but you also want them to appreciate it. I have a British friend and he thinks all American wines are awful – he calls them “too sweet.” When I buy him a gift, I sometimes buy an American wine, but I purposefully look for something that he likes — full body, but with finesse, not overly ripe fruit. Probably not a California wine, but maybe something interesting from Washington – like a Bordeaux blend. Otherwise, sparkling wines, especially “surprise” sparkling wines are always good. I’ve been gifting people sparkling wines from New Mexico and it is kind of fun. People say New Mexico? This is pretty good! I also have friends who like big, fruity wines, so I’ll give them something big and fruity, but not clumsy — like a nice shiraz from Australia. I recommend matching the wine with the person, but including an element of surprise. That’s what I like to do with my classes at ICE. I present the typical example of a wine, then I present something atypical. When I do the American wines in our Wine Essentials course, I’ll show them the American wines that are well made and representative and then I’ll throw in a fruit bomb.

Ready to discover the world of wine with Richard? Click here to check out the upcoming wine courses at ICE.

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By Richard Vayda — Director of Wine & Beverage Studies

To ensure that you make the best “pour” decisions this holiday season, I’ve put together a list of picks that will fit any festive feast. Below are my recommendations, choices that are built on conventional wine wisdom but vary depending on your personal preference.

The recommended wine for Thanksgiving turkey seems to always be Beaujolais, a wine region in eastern France. Like liquid cranberry sauce, wines from Beaujolais exhibit tart strawberry and other fruity notes — plus the acidity balances with rich sauces that often accompany our sacred bird. Instead of buying a simple Beaujolais, why not try a Cru Beaujolais (“Cru” meaning a vineyard or group of vineyards of recognized quality) from one of the northern villages of the region, such as Broilly or Juliénas.

Recommended:

  • Michel Tête Domaine du Clos du Fief Cuvée Tradition, Juliénas, France

Recommended Wines

Prefer something a bit richer or more savory? Try a Pinot Noir, which happens to be a perfect match for heartier stuffings. To keep it American, head to Oregon for lighter, earthier versions. If you prefer more ripe fruit flavors, a northern California Pinot would be a better choice.

Recommended:

  • Montinore Estate Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR

While rich and buttery foods pair well with Chardonnay, salty foods also love a touch of sweetness. Why not try a local Riesling from the Finger Lakes? Personally, my holiday meal plans features goose, so for a little more richness and spice, I might jump to a Finger Lakes Gewurztraminer.

Recommended:

  • Grgich Hills Chardonnay, Napa, CA
  • Frank Konstantin Semi-Dry Riesling, Finger Lakes, NY
  • Eminence Road Farm Winery Elizabeth’s Vineyard Dry Gewurztraminer, Finger Lakes, NY

Lest we forget: celebrations call for bubbles. Sparklers — especially rosés, are flexible wines that pair with a variety of foods. Champagne, of course, is a reliable choice, but U.S. winemakers are producing fine sparkling wines all around the country.

Recommended:

  • Gruet Brut Rosé, Albuquerque, NM
  • Domaine Carneros Cuvée de la Pompadour Brut Rosé, Napa, CA

Don’t let dessert stand alone — a semi-sweet or sweet bubbly wine always works, but for something richer, a ripe Muscat would be a nice choice. The stone fruits, orange and floral notes of a California Muscat might just be the perfect cap to your meal.

Recommended:

  • Quady Essensia Orange Muscat, San Joaquin Valley, Madera, CA

The reality is that the Thanksgiving spread contains dishes with a multitude of tastes and flavors, so a selection of wines might be required. Let your guests have fun making their own match — after all, what could be more fun than sipping your perfect pairing surrounded by the ones you love?

Want to order wine like a pro? Click here to check out ICE’s wine and beverage courses.

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By Michael Laiskonis—ICE Creative Director

The final steps in processing our bean-to-bar chocolate make up the longest phase of the manufacturing process—a waiting game where the true essence of the bean, its complex flavor and its silky texture are unlocked. At this point, we focus on physically breaking the bean’s coarse texture, revealing subtleties beneath its bitter astringency and liberating its cocoa butter. Though we add ingredients at this stage, there is also an aspect of elimination—the refining stage is followed by conching, which peels away unwanted volatile flavors.

Sifting the Finished Chocolate

My last post dealt with handling the roasted bean—crushing it into nibs, separating its shell, grinding it into fluid cocoa liquor and extracting pure cocoa butter. During this final stage, the chocolate maker faces the challenge of tasting a bean’s full potential and identifying the subtle nuances within. While the goal of the “craft” chocolate maker working primarily in single origin batches is often to enable the expression of that bean’s inner essence, an industrial manufacturer’s typical aim is to create consistency from batch to batch, from year to year. Neither approach is qualitatively better or more difficult—just two possible approaches employed in the final stage of chocolate making.

Refining

Different kinds of machines can carry out the task of refining (stone melangeurs, roller refiners, scraped-surface refiners, etc.). In the lab, our coarse chocolate liquor enters a 10-kilogram capacity ball mill—a temperature-controlled tank that contains roughly 60 pounds of hardened steel-grinding media (ball bearings, essentially, in two sizes). With agitation, the steel balls begin breaking down the fairly large particles in the liquor, refining them down to a target of around 20 microns—in terms of scale, one micron (µm) is one-millionth of a meter (or one-thousandth of a millimeter). More accurately, true particle size in chocolate will lie along a curve, or a distribution, some smaller and some larger than our target. Looking closely at the structure of chocolate, it is simply very small solid particles (cocoa solids, sugar and sometimes milk solids) dispersed in fat—cocoa butter. Because the threshold of perception of a particle on our palate is in the neighborhood of about 35µm, a smooth, creamy mouthfeel depends upon breaking down the solids below that mark. Particles that are too small (below 15µm), however, will create too much surface area for the available cocoa butter, thus adversely affecting the flow properties of the chocolate with increased viscosity.

Most often, we add our ground liquor to the ball mill to refine for some time before adding any other ingredients. As the liquor continues to break down, more of its cocoa butter is released, providing sufficient fluidity to begin processing additional dry ingredients, namely sugar and, in the case of milk chocolate, whole milk powder. Virtually all of our chocolate receives an additional boost of cocoa butter as well. Vanilla, a common but not compulsory addition, can enter into the mix in various forms. I typically chop up whole vanilla beans and add them early in the refining process. Though the majority of the dozens of batches created in the lab have been of single origin, I have begun working on blending beans, and even introducing additional flavors—whole coffee beans, spices and nuts—to thoroughly integrate into the finished product. For our first attempt at a vegan milk chocolate, I replaced conventional milk powder with freeze-dried coconut milk. Refining time can vary, depending upon the batch size, particle size of the liquor and by agitation speed.

Measuring Particle Size on a Grind Gauge

measuring particle size on a grind gauge

Conching

Ball Mill

the ball mill

In addition to speed control, our ball mill also offers temperature control and heated airflow. Lacking a stand-alone conching machine, this heat and airflow help us replicate some of the effects of traditional conching. In basic terms, the conching phase is best described as heated agitation. Three key aspects of conching are moisture reduction, texture and flow enhancement and development of flavor. Residual moisture in chocolate can affect its flow properties, even though a great deal of the raw bean’s water was removed during the roast, trace amounts remain through the grinding and refining process. Prolonged mixing also helps ensure that all of the tiny solid particles are evenly dispersed in and coated by the cocoa butter, which improves mouthfeel and workability. And finally, the heat and forced air aid in driving off some of the remaining volatile acids – unwanted flavors that are a byproduct of fermentation back at the bean’s origin. Conching is an important part of the process, but each chocolate will require varying amounts. Long a marketing myth in the chocolate industry, a longer conching time does not necessarily equal higher quality. Some argue that excess conching may even destroy desirable flavors.

Once the chocolate is deemed ‘finished,’ it is extracted from the ball mill (we also employ two small stone grinders for smaller experimental test batches) and passed through a vibrating sifter—imagine a super-fine mesh strainer—which catches any particles not sufficiently refined. The radicle, the hard and bitter germ stem in every cocoa bean, may stubbornly evade grinding, along with the occasional bit of vanilla bean that sticks to the agitator. After sifting, it’s time for tempering and molding, right? Well, not so fast. Aging chocolate for a period of time, though unpredictable and not fully understood, is common practice. Some chocolate makers prefer to temper, mold and package chocolate immediately, others will age chocolate from two weeks to one month. Though there may be little one can do to change the finished product at that point, most believe that the true character of the chocolate will not reveal itself until it has had a minimum three-week mellowing period. One of the ongoing projects here in the lab is to hold back portions of each batch to sample at regular intervals to track some of these still-inexplicable changes over time.

As with other stages of the chocolate making process, success during refining relies on equal parts science, experience, taste, patience and arguably, some degree of intuition. The key is understanding that each part of the process presents a new set of variables. The next dispatch in this series will address formulation— the recipe development phase for each batch of chocolate.

Aging Chocolate

aging chocolate

Want to dive into the chocolate lab with Chef Michael? Click here for a list of his upcoming workshops at ICE.

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