How did Shark Mountain start?
Part of it was just out of personal necessity. I was fired from another coffee shop and every other coffee shop I had worked at was owned by an asshole. I was looking for something to do and the opportunity arose to put this little cafe inside of a business incubator and i just hopped on it. One of the main things I wanted Shark Mountain Coffee to be, different from other cafes, was that everything would be made in-house instead of buying shitty commercial syrups, chai mix and coffee from some big mass producer like most places do. We would make all of our own stuff. That included roasting our own coffee. It also included roasting our own cocoa and originally turning it into a sauce for mochas and hot chocolates. Actually turning it into chocolate bars came a little bit later.
So you roast your own coffee and your own cocoa. You use your chocolate for your mochas. What else do you make in-house?
We make our own vanilla syrup, chai, and milk alternatives. Typically an almond milk, but we have also have done pistachio milk, cashew milk and walnut milk. That gives us the creative freedom to make it how we want to make it—creative control—and it also allows for a completely unique experience.
So when a customer comes in—you [Meme] usually get a mocha—you’re not only getting a unique coffee experience, because it is our roasted coffee the way we make it, but it’s also our roasted cacao the way we make it.
How did you start making chocolate bars? Is it because you were already making this chocolate sauce for drinks?
Yeah that was the motivation. We were already roasting coffee, so it was fairly easy to start roasting cocoa and then turn it into a sauce. Then six months to a year later, I started to experiment with turning it into bars, which turns out to be tricky indeed. It was a learning process and still is. That is another reason that we really don’t believe that anything is set in stone and that everything is essentially a long experiment. Just trying out new things, having fun and being whimsical is part of the model.
Why is the concept of single origin coffee/chocolate (“bean-to-bar”) important? Why does is make a difference?
I would say in two main ways:
One way is that is necessitates a higher quality of product. So if you’re getting it from a standard coffee brand they will traditionally buy a higher quality bean and a lower quality, shittier bean and blend them. You can generally get the higher quality bean to overpower the lower quality bean and produce a decent cup of coffee or chocolate bar, and it will be cheaper for the producers.
If you know something is single origin, you necessarily have to buy the highest quality because there is no hiding from it. Whatever the quality of that bean is will come out in the coffee or bar. So in some ways, it’s just a transparency in production.
Another thing that is really important to begin the process of understanding that both coffee, chocolate and other things like spices—all these things, especially for us in the western world—is that they are necessarily dependent on other people in other places. So if you buy some type of blend that is broadly termed, then you miss the whole point of the fact that this comes from an actual country; this actually comes from a region; this actually comes from a farm or cooperative where there are people whose whole livelihood is dependent on that bag of beans or that cup of coffee or that chocolate bar. That is something we would like to eventually expose a little bit more. I think that the general trend of humanity is in that direction, but still not quite there, and it almost kind of contradictorily rubs people in the wrong way if you throw that in their face too much. You have to figure out a way to introduce it and then introduce it more and more.
One way we have taken a further step is with one of our current coffees being a directory coffee. That means we are interacting and purchasing directly from farmers we have personal relationships with. We went to a farm in Nicaragua, met the people who grow and process the coffee, and saw all that was happening. We then decided to purchase directly from them.
What that ends up meaning is we are paying more for that coffee because we aren’t working with that middle person who buys huge quantities in those shitty capitalistic rules of economy. We pay more which goes directly to the farm. You know that the money is getting distributed directly to the people growing it, which is nice.
Is that why you chose Charlottesville to set up shop, because it is farming country, you can get local products, grow local, etc.? The model exists here.
There’s an interesting balance between the idea of “buy local, get local.” Ten years ago in Charlottesville, that was what all anyone did. The issue with that is when all the people in the local environment are actually doing shitty stuff. If that is the culture, then there is a tendency toward mediocrity. I liked the idea of the community supporting other members within it, but we actually tend to not over-advertise the fact that we are a local roaster, a local producer, just because we would rather people buy our stuff because it is good.
Is everything that you produce organic?
Yes, it is technically organic or organically grown. My philosophy is that should just be the assumption. Instead of having to label “organic” they should label “not organic”. The issue is again with the capitalistic economy. It costs so much to get things certified [organic]. Not just for us, but for the importers and for the farms. It has to be done at every step. This creates this huge industry which is essentially a Ponzi scheme because it’s set up in a way where the government requires certain things, but then there are third party certifiers that can choose how they charge, etc.
I didn’t realize you are all-organic as you don’t label anything. You are so low-key about it. It’s not on your bars or coffee beans.
Again, we are fighting against certain trends and certain perceptions. Also, I would rather someone buy our coffee or chocolate because it’s good, rather than because it’s organic.
Marketing is somewhat confusing for me, not just from a logistical standpoint, but from a philosophical one. It’s like, well should we put organic on the labels? Does that just feed the system of well “everyone needs to get certified”? It’s all about these buzzwords. Or should we present a product and maybe not grow as quickly, but create conversations with people that then change that perception? We communicate the fact that organic certification is bullshit. Someone then understands that and that eventually grows and turns the tide, instead of just making money off of it.
In terms of your chocolate, do you keep the recipe basic and let the bean tell the story of the flavor and its origin?
It’s the same thing in coffee and chocolate, that if you buy good quality beans and you’re not afraid to experiment and not afraid to do something different than most people do, you can figure out a way to process those high quality beans in a way that allows them this unbelievable complexity and beautiful flavor. I think chocolate is a little bit easier for people to understand, which is why I think it’s a good reason for coffee shops to do chocolate. If you taste a well-grown, well-processed chocolate bar, it will have flavors of cherry or hazelnut. Very powerful, distinct flavors. And people will say “oh, that’s amazing, you put cherries in this” and I’ll say, “no it’s just chocolate and sugar”. Then it impresses upon them just the fact that that’s possible, that chocolate is a lot like wine or a lot like cheese, in that different types will have distinct flavor profiles. And then that will get them hooked and then you’ll say “well, coffee is the exact same”. So it’s a nice gateway.
We keep things super simple. We have experimented adding different things just for the novelty and fun. We’ve added turmeric, various salts, and my favorite: MSG.
What are your newest chocolate and coffee beans?
The latest chocolate is from the Dominican Republic. It’s super fruity, kind of tropical fruity: blueberry lemon. That’s sort of one of those “wow” factor products. We have a new product of cocoa beans from Vietnam. Very novel, very unique. I have never seen in this country a Vietnamese chocolate bar. It’s going to be very cool.
Our most recent coffee is Nicaragua and we are coming out with one from Ethiopia and another from Brazil. We usually have 3-4 origins at a time for coffee and chocolates. When we run out of beans, we introduce another kind. Which is another reason to do single origin. There are so many different kinds and so many different countries that produce both. You can have coffees from the same farm and when it is processed a bit differently, in terms of fermentation, they will taste completely different. The vast variety you can get can keep you busy enough to just keep doing single origins forever. For me it is almost a waste of time to blend.
What is the recipe for the Turmeric Ginger Cappuccino we collaborated on?
One of our philosophies is that life should be about trying new things and exploring. As a result, the coffee portion of our drink will change as we use different single origins in-store and rotate them, so every time you order the drink, the taste will change and interact with the other elements of the drink in interesting ways.
We made a cappuccino which is just espresso and steamed milk. The steamed milk is infused with ginger by adding ginger to cold milk and steaming them together. What that does is extract the volatile compounds of the ginger that are fat soluble as the milk is warming. That will produce a stronger ginger flavor.
The ginger gives it a nice spiciness. Ginger I think goes really well with espresso in general, because espresso has a nice bite or kick to it that sort of coalesces with the ginger quite nicely. On top of the espresso, before we add the milk, we put a pinch of turmeric which has a really delightful sweetness to it. I mean ginger and turmeric are in the same family, but obviously turmeric has the sweetness whereas ginger has the spice. In regards to our espresso, because we do everything light roasted and single origin, there is a really nice sweetness, and so when you put them all together you get this really powerful sweet and spicy mixture. It tastes exotic, it tastes interesting.
What’s the future for Shark Mountain Coffee?
I don’t want to expand retail much. Retail is wonderful because you are around people a lot and you can start to build a community and have events, and I love that. But i don’t need or want this sort of monopolistic or franchise-style thing. My philosophy for business is that it is very important for the ownership to be there and to be intimately connected with what’s happening, and when you start to grow you can’t do that logistically.
I want to continue experimenting. I don’t know of a single other company that produces both coffee and chocolate. In some ways, I think that we are sort of on this cutting edge. There are many frontiers to explore in the same sort of way we got into chocolate. When I started it, I had no experience in chocolate and it was sort of just a curiosity.
And you just Googled it and Youtubed it and taught yourself?
And yeah, just fucked around until something good came out of it.
The thing I have been thinking to try: cola nuts. So soda, like pepsi-cola, coca-cola. They get the name cola because there is this product called a cola nut that was the original flavoring for sodas. They would steep these cola nuts. You recognize it as this soda flavor. Now they don’t use it, they use some synthetic chemicals.
Anyway, I came across some research that suggested that cola nuts chemically are almost identical to cocoa beans. They essentially have the same percentage of theobromine, which is the main chemical in chocolate. Also, the same fat content and similar volatile compound elements. So the idea is that maybe you could take cola nuts and roast and process them in the same or similar way as cocoa. Maybe make it into some sort of bar, a cola bar. And maybe it will taste like soda.
I would like to do things in that realm.
Where can our readers get your chocolate/ coffee?
We are preparing to have an e-commerce store but until then, email us and we can ship it out.