Almost everyone loves good chocolate, but if you want to experience how it’s made from the bean to the bar and sample some of the best chocolate made anywhere, turn to Pinellas Chocolate Company in Largo. It started back in 2016 when brothers Adam and Cody Vessa worked in their family business making machines for the confectionary industry. To test the machines they had to actually make chocolate, and soon realized their chocolate was better than anything they could buy.
They decided to start a side business to produce premium-quality, small-batch chocolate bars, and the rest is delicious history. “From the start, our goals was to produce the best quality chocolate bar. We never cut corners and never worried about cost. Quality always comes first,” said Cody.
The process of turning beans into the highest quality bars takes eight steps, beginning with sorting and cleaning the crop. The beans are enhanced via a convection-style roaster while being sampled along the way to ensure the right flavor. Following a run through a winnowing machine which cracks and separates the fibrous husks from the cocoa nibs, with the nibs as the only part of the plant used to make what we call "chocolate" flavoring baked goods and beverages.
Cocoa nibs become cocoa liquor in a grinding machine at Pinellas Chocolate.
The next step is grinding, and that’s where the nibs are transformed into a thick syrup called cocoa liquor. It may look like melted chocolate at this stage, but it tastes more like cocoa powder. The cocoa liquid gets refined in another machine containing ball bearings to decrease the particle size, and here is where the sugar and cocoa butter is blended into the delicious mix.
Sugar and flavorings are added the refining process at Pinellas Chocolate.
From there the refined chocolate is sifted through a fine mesh to remove any unrefined particles, creating a product that is smooth like liquid silk. It's then cooled or “tempered” in a slow, controlled process until there's a shiny appearance producing an even melt. The still-liquid chocolate is poured into bar molds, rapidly shaken to bring any air bubbles to the surface, and set to solidify at room temperature. And then it's ready to delight!
Pinellas Chocolate Company currently makes four different bars. The Salted Lime and Orange both contain 62% cacao with beans are sourced from Africa, using natural cold-pressed citrus oil from Florida Worldwide Citrus in Bradenton. Both are rich and satisfying, with the citrus notes elevated and the salt in the lime bar really wakes up the flavor. There's also a Coffee Crunch using locally-roasted coffee beans from Buddy Brew Coffee in Tampa.
But my hands-down favorite, the one I ate while shaking my head because-it-was-just-that-good, is the single-origin 80% Cacao bar. The beans come exclusively from Honduras, and the flavor is dark and rich with a little hint of cherry that slowly blooms across your tongue. Mass-produced bars made by other chocolate companies containing 72% cacao or higher are usually grainy and bitter, but not here. At 80% cacao it was still velvety-smooth from start to finish.
There's also have seasonal flavors like peppermint and cinnamon so you'll need to keep an eye peeled during the right time of year, but that's easy because Pinellas Chocolate Company sells to many retailers in the Tampa Bay area. Locale Market, Mazzaro Coffee & Italian Mrkt, and Rollin' Oats Market & Cafe in St. Petersburg, Nature's Food Patch in Clearwater and at Datz in Tampa are just a few of their vendors. And if you'd like to combine some chocolate with some frozen, popsicle shops The Hyppo St. Petersburg and The Hyppo Tampa locations are both purveyors. A complete list of retailers is available on their website, but in Tampa Bay you can also get this chocolate by the glass: they also supply their premium cacao nibs to many local breweries like Hidden Springs Ale Works, Mastry's Brewing Co, and the Barley Mow Brewing. You can taste even taste Pinellas Chocolate in the Coppertail Brewing Co. Night Swim porter, and food pairing events are scheduled monthly at their factory location.
Pinellas Chocolate Company is the only commercial bean to bar chocolate bar factory in town, and they know the entire process intimately. From the machines to the beans to the bars, Cody and Adam are masters at making the smoothest, most flavorful chocolate you will find anywhere.
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All photos courtesy of the author.