FincaChocolate brings the Caribbean to Columbus

Anthony Dominic, Crave

Dan and Nancy Hankle purchased Fernwood Finca the day they first saw it. The 10-acre farm was perfect, cradled in the mountains of south-central Puerto Rico, some 2,000 feet above sea level, with a grand view of the Caribbean Sea and the sprawling city of Ponce. "I didn't want to spend winters building waste-water treatment plants in Ohio," laughs Dan, a former commercial construction superintendent. And after his neighbor in Puerto Rico introduced him to the mountain's Theobroma cacao (or cacao trees), he wouldn't have to.

Dan will never forget the first time he cracked open an amber-ripe cacao pod and tasted the creamy pulp inside-the catalyst for FincaChocolate, his now-Logan-based, bean-to-bar business. "It's a very floral flavor, similar to a mild strawberry or even a kiwi," he says of the pulp. "It's a tough [flavor] to describe, but it tastes nothing like chocolate."

His neighbor had been harvesting beans for years and was eager to share the nuances of the hobby. This included open-air fermentation; the process in which beans, still contained within the pulp, are "sweated" in wooden boxes for five to 10 days.

Farm-grown beans are then shipped back to Logan, where Dan has repurposed their garage into a mini-chocolate factory. He spends six to 10 hours a day sorting, roasting and finely stone-grinding beans, which are churned into liquid chocolate (known as liquor) and molded into candy-sized bars they sell at the 400 West Rich market and Boline Apothecary in Clintonville.

Last spring, Barley's Brewing Co. started using Finca's raw cacao nibs to make several dessert beers, like Gabriel's Chupacabra, Sexual Chocolate and Bourbon Meyer. Small batches of Sexual Chocolate and Bourbon Meyer will be available again this November, brewer Gabe Sturgess says.

"The quality is better than a lot of [other] things available to folks in the area," says Lily Kunning, owner of Boline Apothecary. "We sell out every week of the goat's milk [bar]. You don't find that very often right by checkout."

Bite into any one of Finca's bars, and you'll taste a mild tartness, like dried cherries or apricot, and a soft, earthy cocoa flavor. Dan has learned to think of cacao in the way winemakers think of grapes; the terroir largely determines the end result. Just as important as the quality of the beans, he says, is the pulp and how carefully both are fermented, as well as each bar's cocoa-to-cane-sugar ratio.

"The most common question I get is, 'What did you put in this?' " Dan says of the chocolate. "The answer is: Nothing. That's real cacao, which people never really experience. It's more than just a flat-line cocoa flavor."

To supplement his farm-grown beans, Dan imports organic fermented beans from the Dominican Republic. Eventually, as his farm grows, he hopes to exclusively self-supply. This not only means more chocolate to go around, but it would also mean spending even more time in Puerto Rico each year-which is fine by the Hankles.

"There are old, lost cacao trees in the jungles of Puerto Rico, all the way back from the Spanish colonization," Dan says. "At times, I feel like my work is really just getting started."

Three FincaChocolate bars to try

70% Cacao ($5) This was Finca's first bar, made with 70 percent cacao and 30 percent cane sugar. "You'll get nice raspberry and cherry notes," Dan says.

75% Negro Noche ($3) This one's for the dark-chocolate lovers. "I use a lot of extra cocoa butter in the bar," Dan says. "The dark roast gives it a more luxurious taste."

100% Goat's Milk ($3) Dark-roasted beans are mixed with Capra goat milk and organic vanilla to produce Finca's creamiest offering.