By Gregory Daurer | Mar 13, 2017
"Cholaca is pure liquid cacao," says Ira Leibtag. "We have developed a process to emulsify cacao with water and liquefy it, and that is something that hasn't been available in the marketplace until this [product]."
That's not the only thing unique about his company, though. "We're in the business of saving rainforests, that's our niche," he says.
Just how does a Boulder-based businessman do that?
By convincing farmers to grow cacao for his company. In Ecuador and Peru, he offers more money to farmers to grow it for him than other interests do. If their land has already been stripped and used for cattle grazing, he urges them to grow the vegetation back under the care of the permaculturalists with whom he's teamed up. Leibtag and crew don't promote "sustainability" as much as "regeneration." For ravaged lands, terraces are created using fast-growing plants that retain nutrient-rich soil and irrigation techniques are employed.
"The best cacao grows in the shade under the canopy next to the likes of papayas and mangoes and ginger and cardamon and bananas," says Leibtag. "What we call a jungle, people in the equatorial regions call a farm."
After the cacao pods are harvested, the white beans inside are collected together to naturally ferment. This causes a change in enzymes and the color darkens to brown. After the beans are dried, they're exported to the United States, where they're winnowed, exposing the cacao nibs inside. The nibs are milled and heated and processed into wafers. Leibtag has been developing a market for those wafers with bakers and chocolatiers and offers single-origin varieties from Peru and Ecuador, each of which has its own unique flavor profile. He describes the Ecuadorian as tasting like a cross between "a mango and a cherry Jolly Rancher."
Leibtag also contracts with a Denver processor to emulsify the cacao wafers into a thick liquid using water; there's an unsweetened version of Cholaca for sale, as well as two varieties with coconut sugar added. Cholaca is sold in refrigerated 12-ounce bottles in stores like Whole Foods. The drink smells like a liquid candy bar, coating the tongue and roof of the mouth with its rich cocoa butter content.
Baristas often use the company's 32-ounce plastic jugs, sometimes simply steaming a serving of Cholaca and offering it up to customers that way.
But who's buying Cholaca in 50-gallon drums? Largely brewers, who add Cholaca to beer after fermentation. (After all, "Chocolate Beer" is a judged category at the Great American Beer Festival.) Leibtag says that around 50 breweries have created beers incorporating his product.
Ben Nehrling of Portland, Oregon's Fire on the Mountain Brewing Co. used Cholaca in a "well-received" mocha stout that he created. Jeremy Gobien of Copper Kettle Brewing Company incorporates Cholaca into his Mexican Chocolate Stout, and finds the liquid cacao "easier to handle and process" than other methods of making chocolate beer.
As CompanyWeek arrived at Leibtag's office to interview him, gypsy brewer Pat Sullivan of Nowhere In Particular was just on his way out. Sullivan was adding Cholaca, that same day, to a batch of mint cocoa porter, and says, "I know his product is one of the purest things you can get. Everybody I've asked, they've always recommended this, too. There's a lot of pull going for it."
On Cholaca's website, Tim Matthews of Oskar Blues says that by adding Cholaca post-fermentation, it was easy to "layer the chocolate flavors with the beer flavors." Todd Thibault, of Breckenridge Brewery, says that, compared with chunked chocolate, "there wasn't as much residue left behind for cleaning" and that it's easier to use Cholaca as a unit of measurement. Jason Yerger, of Seattle's Ghostfish Brewing, seconds the cleanliness aspect: "Cacao nibs are bulky and expensive, and if added directly to a tank, must be enclosed in a sanitized mesh bag, which is not optimum for infusion into the finished beer. If not enclosed as such, they may clog hoses, ports, pumps, valves, etc."
Leibtag appreciates how brewers have taken to his product -- and his company's mission. For Cholaca, saving rainforest land is "important to us. It's important to our weather: 50 percent of our weather pattern comes from a very small strip way south of here that's getting systematically stripped away."
In other words, Leibtag wants consumers to know that by purchasing, say, Oskar Blues' Death by Coconut (which incorporates Cholaca), they're helping to preserve the life and health of South American rainforests and, perhaps, the entire planet.
Challenges: "We're creating a category here: a category of liquid chocolate," says Leibtag. "There is an education portion that is involved, especially when you're getting to the end consumer: 'Why should I drink this? Boy, this isn't sweet, this isn't a 'liquid candy bar' like I'm used to.' There's an education that takes place to the consumer that is certainly the major challenge that you have when you're going out there."
But the public is catching on: "We did three times [the amount of sales] in '16 over '15, and we're slating to do four to five times in year '17 -- steady massive growth," says Leibtag, 53, who's originally from Hamilton, Ontario, and previously worked in the music and tech industries.
Opportunities: "There is a hell of an opportunity here for us that we're capitalizing on," says Leibtag. "The opportunity in the single-origin cacao market is something that we are incredibly focused on."
He feels that cacao gets a bad rap due to its association with candy bars. "Cacao is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. It has the highest level of antioxidants, flavonoids, and a higher level of iron and magnesium than any other food in the world."
"We have such amazing things going on here. To get the whole story out to the consumer is definitely the challenge, but it's also the opportunity. How many people get an opportunity to create a category and build a category? That's what we aim to do."
Needs: "We need to get more customers," says Leibtag. "My biggest thing is I've got to move large, large volumes. So when we're talking with chocolatiers, and he's going out and buying 500 pounds here and he's buying 100 pounds [there, I tell him,] 'You've got to understand: Here's why it's important to buy through this network. Because you're not really changing [the farmers'] lifestyles down there by buying 500 pounds. But if I go and order 50 tons and we're all participating in that, now we're making a difference.' So that's the biggest need: I need more chocolatiers, I need brewers, I need more people in the marketplace going into Whole Foods. That's what we need. The more we sell, the more we save."