Behind the Blue Bandana: Making Chocolate “Bean to Bar”
Q & A with Eric Lampman of Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker
Blue Bandana is an award-winning line of single-origin craft chocolate bars launched in 2012 by Eric Lampman, head of R&D at Lake Champlain Chocolates and son of founder Jim Lampman. Born from a desire to go deeper into the chocolate-making process, the microbatch chocolate bars are produced in Vermont using cocoa beans sourced directly from origin.
In January 2014 — the same week it moved to its new home at the South End Kitchen — Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker was announced winner of the 2014 Good Food Awards for its 70% Madagascar Dark Chocolate Bar and 70% Madagascar Wild Pepper Dark Chocolate Bar.
Eric took a moment to talk about when his interest in bean-to-bar began, what inspired the name, and how chocolate is actually made.
Congratulations on your two Good Food Awards.
Eric Lampman: Thank you — it’s a real honor for Blue Bandana to be recognized by the GFA.
How did you get started in bean-to-bar chocolate?
E.L.: I more or less grew up at Lake Champlain Chocolates, so there was a natural level of interest and familiarity with chocolate. Then after joining the R&D team, I learned a ton about the art of confection making and the science behind great chocolate. But one day I realized that after 25 years, I’d never visited origin to see first-hand how cocoa is produced. From the cultivation of cacao trees, through to harvest, fermentation, and drying of cocoa beans.
So you took a trip?
E.L.: Yes, to the Dominican Republic. It was fantastic! An eye-opening experience in so many ways. It gave me a deeper appreciation for just how much effort goes into making chocolate. And in particular, how geographically remote a crop it can be. Farmers work hard just to bring their beans to market. Compare it with coffee, for instance. By nature of where and how it’s grown, cocoa is much more of a small-farmer crop, and done completely by hand...
When I saw what cocoa production at the farm was all about, I was hooked. From there it was a natural progression to those crucial next steps, between growing cocoa at origin and turning it into finished chocolate. Basically, what it takes to go from bean to bar — roasting, grinding, refining, and so on.
Where did you land on the question of fair trade?
E.L.: Well, it’s interesting. At the same time I was exploring the world of bean-to-bar, Lake Champlain Chocolates as a company — and in particular led by my sister, Ellen Reed — was embarking on an ambitious process of third-party certification. Beyond labeling individual products as “fair trade” — an ongoing process in itself — the entire company is now certified Fair for Life. That means LCC undergoes regular audits to ensure every step of its supply chain is socially legit. Not just the cocoa, but every link we have as a business, including our own employees’ working conditions here in Vermont. It’s a big undertaking, and I think I can say we’re justifiably proud of it.
Does that mean Blue Bandana is fair trade?
E.L.: With the Blue Bandana line, we’re following a “direct trade” model. And as the name implies, it’s even more transparent — there’s no middleman, so the supply chain is that much shorter. What’s cool is we get to build one-on-one relationships with farmers like Bertil Akesson in Madagascar, and sponsor local initiatives with partners like Funda Lachua, in Guatemala. There’s a direct feedback loop with growers and co-ops, and that makes a huge difference in the end product.
For LCC as a whole, fair trade still offers the best solution. Going 100% direct trade company-wide would be a real challenge, for a few reasons — sheer quantity, for starters. Bottom line, fair trade and direct trade are both valid ways to do the right thing, make sure farmers get a fair shake, and get to know your supply chain.
What’s the name “Blue Bandana” all about?
E.L.: When I got home to Vermont from the DR, I started experimenting on custom-built equipment with some beans I brought back. It was an education, to say the least! Doing small test roasts, learning how to winnow, grind, refine, conche. “Winnowing” is what follows the roasting and cracking of the beans — it’s how you separate the shell from the inner cocoa “nib,” which is what then gets ground into chocolate.
Anyhow, while I was winnowing that first batch of beans, the air became really dusty from all the cracked shells that were flying around. I reached for a bandana and tied it around my face. After that, I got in the habit of wearing it every time I made chocolate, and the name just stuck.
That’s kind of a random way to name a product line, isn’t it?
E.L.: Well, not as random as it sounds… “Blue Bandana” really works on many levels. To me, the bandana is iconic. On the one hand, it’s this piece of utilitarian clothing that conveys humility and hard work and a sense of history. But it also connects with a feeling of adventure, craft, authenticity. It’s about as American a symbol as you can find, so it’s a perfect way to signify the rebirth chocolate is experiencing here in the U.S.
And I also think it’s fun to think about cacao being one of the original crops from the Americas. In that sense, the bandana could signify a return to “origin,” in more ways than one. A kind of refocussing on America, after the long reign of European chocolate.
LCC’s been making chocolates for 30 years. Why go “bean-to-bar” now?
E.L.: Because it reflects a desire to go deeper into chocolate making, to become as expert as we possibly can be. And this dovetails perfectly with today’s passion for connecting more intimately with food, for understanding exactly where and how it’s made.
In many ways, LCC’s been ahead of that curve — we were doing localvore as early as 1983, adding really high-quality Vermont maple syrup, cream, honey, and butter to our confections. But as a company, we had yet to explore making chocolate from scratch. Really, it was the next logical frontier for us. I may have been the catalyst, but the groundwork was already there.
So is bean-to-bar superior to chocolate “confections”?
E.L.: The short answer is, “No.” The more complete answer is they’re two different art forms, and each deserves its place of honor. I like to take the art analogy even further:
A great confection is like a master painting. It begins with a superior canvas, to which an artist adds paints, colors, textures, points of interest. And hopefully they all come together to produce a stunning and perhaps even unexpected result. With confections, the “canvas” is the very high-quality chocolate used as a base, and the creative art lies in how the chocolatier showcases various ingredients, adding different flavors and textures along the way to make something unique and delicious. A few great examples at LCC are the Chocolates of Vermont, Five Star Bars, and Revel Chocolates.
Bean-to-bar chocolate, on the other hand, is more like sculpture. The artist chisels away at a slab of fine marble to reveal the beauty that’s already there in the stone. In the case of single-origin chocolate, that’s a great way to think about the terroir or “taste of place” the chocolate maker is trying to reveal or highlight in the chocolate. Every origin is unique, and every step of the process affects how that origin ultimately gets represented.
I’ll be the first to admit it’s an oversimplification, but I think it gets to the heart of what’s different between the world of the confectioner-chocolatier and the world of the bean-to-bar chocolate maker. What’s amazing at LCC is that we now have the best of both worlds. It's really exciting…
What are the steps in making your chocolate bars?
E.L.: It’s a multistep process, beginning with what happens at origin — maintaining and pruning trees, harvesting the cocoa pods, removing the beans from the pods, and fermenting and drying them.
Then you get to our part, which begins with sourcing beans from origin. Once the beans get back to Vermont, the fun begins: roasting, cracking, and winnowing to extract the cocoa nib. Then grinding, refining, and conching to perfect the chocolate’s consistency and mouthfeel while adding in organic cocoa butter and sugar. And last, tempering the chocolate, moulding, cooling, and wrapping the bars. At that point, you’ve successfully made the journey all the way from bean to bar!
Where can you buy Blue Bandana chocolate bars?
E.L.: They can be purchased online and shipped nationwide. And if you’re in Vermont, you can stop by and pick up a few bars at one of our three retail stores, or at Blue Bandana’s new home at the South End Kitchen — where you can actually watch us make our chocolate, every step of the way. Drop by and check it out!
Shop Blue Bandana Chocolate Bars >