Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Chocolate bars, truffles, and beverage mixes
Owner/operator Damaris Ronkanen educates consumers about the craft and culture of chocolate, while producing award-winning bars and other cacao-centric items.
"Chocolate's just always been one of my favorite things," says Ronkanen. "My mom's from Mexico, and it's a big part of the culture down there."
As a youth, Ronkanen would travel with her mother from Colorado to the Mexican state of Puebla to visit her abuela. "She was an amazing cook," says Ronkanen of her grandmother. "She made a really good mole."
Puebla is renowned, in fact, for its mole poblano, infused with chocolate in addition to a host of other ingredients, and Ronkanen still uses her grandmother's base recipe to concoct her own version. Only Ronkanen makes hers gluten-free and without lard. She sells her mole at farmers markets from May to October, as well as at special events.
And while Ronkanen says a goal of Cultura is to "share the culture behind chocolate in Mexico," she's promoting the world of cacao in multi-faceted ways. In fact, she wants to spread the word that chocolate can have all the complexity and flavor nuances that reviewers typically find within beer or wine or spirits. For instance, while some dark beers are said to have chocolate-like flavors, Ronkanen's chocolate bar made with cacao from Haiti is described on its package as having a "malt" note, in addition to "honey" and "biscuit." (You can add "dried cherry" to that, as well, according to this writer's own tasting.)
Ronkanen makes high-end chocolate bars with cacao sourced from Guatemala, Belize, and the Dominican Republic, in addition to Mexico. Her 70 percent Haiti bar won a Good Food Award in 2017. "That was just a really amazing experience for us," she says, since it opened up doors to further distribution. The U.K.-based Academy of Chocolate recognized Cultura with three Golden Bean Awards in 2018 for its 75 percent gin and its 70 percent whiskey plus nibs dark chocolate bars, as well as for the company's colorful, Mexican-themed packaging, which incorporates a skull on some of the packages.
Then there are her drinking chocolates -- which are far more complex than, say, a packet of Swiss Miss. "So it's a lot more chocolate than you would see in a normal hot chocolate," says Ronkanen. "You really taste the actual chocolate."
Ronkanen has collaborated with breweries and distilleries to infuse her Spirit Collection with adult flavors. Gin from Leopold Bros. adds zip to a Gin + Juniper bar. Rum from Bear Creek Distillery spikes her Rum + Raisin bar -- and the raisin notes are solely a result of the flavors within her roasted Guatemala cacao (think high-end Raisinet). Imported mezcal, Nuestra Soledad, goes into a mezcal and salt bar. The box contains five bars and "a little tasting notepad," Ronkanen says, "so you can do a chocolate tasting with four or five of your friends . . . and have a bit more of an experience than just a chocolate bar that you just devour in a second."
Additionally, Deerhammer Distilling won a 2019 Good Food Award using Ronkanen's Guatemalan cacao nibs within its Cultura Cask Finished American Single Malt Whiskey. And both Rising Sun Distillery and Dos Luces Brewery -- the Denver creator of Aztec-inspired pulque -- have upcoming pairings with her chocolates planned for their establishments (Dos Luces on Valentine's Day, and Rising Sun on February 16).
Ronkanen's even worked with Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch ("Colorado's first and only edible insect farm," as they call themselves on their website) to occasionally produce a Cultura line of truffles, including a mezcal caramel with a worm and sal de gusano (worm salt) on top. Ronkanen says, "In Mexico still -- and obviously in pre-Hispanic times -- bugs were often consumed, and are still considered a delicacy."
Ronkanen started her first chocolate business in 2012 with a friend who eventually became her sister-in-law. They whimsically named the business Dead Dog Chocolate. While some found the Day of the Dead-inspired canine on its packaging amusing, others thought the name and design were, shall we say, in bad taste. Ronkanen says, "I thought it was hysterical, but I spent a lot of time trying to justify the name, or [talking] about the name instead of the product."
Just as her sister-in-law transitioned into a full-time job, Ronkanen decided she wanted to leave hers at an immigration law firm. So Cultura became the name of her new brand: "Everyone just kind of understands it," she says of the Spanish word for "culture."
It's been quite a journey for Ronkanen, who studied physics and psychology at Tufts University, before working as a pastry chef. Ronkanen says, "I've been to all the countries we source from, I've been to all the farms." She wants to assure customers that unlike some commercial concerns within the world of candy-making, her cacao isn't a result of child labor or slavery. Ronkanen uses the company Uncommon Cacao to source a large portion of her cacao.
Working out of the shared-use Maker's Kitchen at the Art Gym Denver, Ronkanen roasts her imported cacao beans in a convection oven. The day CompanyWeek visited, a stone grinder had been churning "roasted organic Dominican Republic cacao nibs, organic cocoa butter, organic whole milk powder, and organic cane sugar" together. The mixture was being churned for 72 hours, before being made into blocks and then aged for around a month. The chocolate then will get melted down in tempering machines, before being poured into molds, making around 650 bars from that batch.
Adding to her love of chocolate, Ronkanen was also prepping for an upcoming pop-up "four-course Valentine's meal with chocolate elements incorporated into" the dishes, which will be prepared by the vegan food truck WongWayVeg.
Speaking to sales of her products, Ronkanen says, "Every year business has doubled, which has been really great. And this last year was our busiest [holiday] season we've ever had . . . the last quarter of the year we do almost half of our revenue for the year."
Cultura's chocolates can be found in around 90 shops spread out over a dozen states, including California, Oregon, Washington, New York, and New Jersey. "Our business is about 50 percent wholesale, 50 percent local events [like farmer's markets]," she says.
Challenges: Growing pains. "Figuring out how to scale properly," says Ronkanen, noting she is looking for funding to "upgrade all my equipment," and asks, "How you scale with limited resources?"
Opportunities: A booming market. When Ronkanen first entered the chocolate business in 2012, there were only 50 craft chocolate-makers throughout the country; since then, there's been a sixfold increase. The large chocolate bars she sells on Cultura's website retail for $8 to $9, and Ronkanen used to hear shoppers ask, "Oh, it's a candy bar. Why is it so expensive?" Now she says, "I still get that question a little bit, but it's not as hard of a sell anymore."
The craft products movement has changed all that. Ronkanen says, "It's created this awareness that chocolate, in general, can be treated in the way you would treat coffee or wine or any other specialty food product. . . . I feel like [there's] an increased desire among consumers to have these higher-quality products, hand-crafted products. And so, it's an opportunity for us to really show people how unique we are -- and have people receptive to that idea."
Needs: A new facility might be on the horizon for Cultura. The Maker's Kitchen "has been amazing, but there's kind of a max capacity I can produce out of the space," she says. "It's not as easy to operate, obviously, in a shared space as if you had your own space."
In addition to a production area, Ronkanen says she hopes to incorporate a cafe and room for classes. Right now, she says she's "working out a lease, build-out costs."