This chocolate adventure has been an eye-opening experience in so many ways! Over the past year, it’s been my privilege to taste an eclectic variety of chocolates, expand my knowledge of ingredients/processes/places and “meet” people connected to the chocolate industry/community. One of the things that I most enjoy is seeing how brands change and evolve over time. Such is the case with Ethereal.
Ethereal Confections opened in 2011 by co-owners, Mary Ervin (formerly a graphic designer) and Sara Miller (formerly an interior designer) who met through Mary’s brother, Michael Ervin. When I tried one of their bars last year, the packaging left me wondering if they were still using other people’s chocolate. However, after recently receiving some sample bars from Michael Ervin (who is married to Sara), it’s now very clear that the focus of these two very creative and talented women is producing craft chocolate from the bean. By the way, they have been bean-to-bar since 2013 when they moved from a tiny shop to their current location in the Historic Woodstock Square area of Illinois, ~60 miles north of Chicago.
**While I received the following three bars free of charge, I did not receive any compensation for reviewing their products. The opinions are my own.**
Instead of a cardboard outer sleeve, the bars are now wrapped with thick, textured paper adorned with artwork that remind me of watercolor prints. On the front is a white rectangular informational sticker which peels away easily, such that I will probably re-purpose the colorful wrappers once the chocolate is gone. The folds are kept closed with a thin strip of double sided tape which makes it easy to open and re-close the packaging (another improvement from last year!) The single origin bar weighs in at 2.25 ounces, while the “chubbier” inclusion bars are 2.5 ounces each.
Single Origin – Haiti (70%)
Removing this three-ingredient bar from the light blue foil inner wrapper, I was surprised to see yet another change from last year: an intricate mold with the company logo prominently featured in the center, despite some chocolate dust and air bubbles marring the overall finish.
There was a roasted aroma and a sharp snap, which revealed more air bubbles at the “breaking point.” Rather than a completely smooth texture, the mouthfeel reminded me of melting grainy brown sugar.
Initially, I experienced a sweet, dried fruit flavor (like raisins) which then transitioned to an earthy and lightly astringent finish with a long-lasting, back-of-the-throat, tart taste.
66% Dark Chocolate with Caramelized Almonds, Cocoa Nibs & Sea Salt
The light blue inner foil wrapper could hardly contain this bar’s generous amount of inclusions! Nearly every surface of the back of the bar was covered with crunchy roasted nibs, caramelized almond chunks and enhanced with a sprinkling of sea salt.
Gently turning the bar over to segment into tasting morsels, a few of the inclusions came loose, but the majority remained intact. Again, there were some air bubbles marring the “top” surface, though there were far fewer air bubbles in the chocolate itself.
While it was difficult to isolate the creamy chocolate from the rest of the ingredients, the overall flavor was citrusy, leading me to wonder if Dominican Republic cacao (or a blend) was used.
66% Dark Chocolate with Caramelized Pecans, Smoked Sea Salt & Scorpion Pepper
In 2012, New Mexico State University identified “Scorpion Chili” as the hottest pepper in the world with a heat of 1.2 million Scoville heat units (it’s now considered the second hottest behind the “Carolina Reaper” which, according to some sources, has 2.2 million SHUs!) For comparison purposes: ghost chili is rated at 1 million SHUs, habaneros has between 100,000-350,000 SHUs & jalapeños have a mere 2,500-10,000 SHUs!
I’ve been both curious and apprehensive about trying this bar since I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy foods. Well, let me tell you, this bar is NOT for the faint of heart since the scorpion bourbon spice blend packs a punch! Popping a few errant “crumbs” of chocolate from the dark green foil into my mouth and (wow!) my lips + tongue were already starting to get numb from the building heat! Being daring, I followed that by “chomping” on a small chunk – now the back of my throat and even ears were feeling the burn. I decided to melt a piece on my tongue to try to isolate the chocolate by itself, I was unsuccessful; but at least the sweet, sugar-coated pecans seemed to tone down the intensity just a tiny a bit.
Next time I’m fighting a cold, this will be my remedy! Thankfully the immediate burst of heat slowly faded to a warm (yet long lasting) tingle at the tip of my tongue and back of my throat. A little goes a long way & I can see adding bits of this bar to a plain vanilla ice cream or a sipping hot chocolate for a kick. I’ve been known to test out chocolate on unsuspecting friends; this time I’ll be sure to give an upfront warning :-0
While researching Ethereal a little more today, I was intrigued to discover that 5-10% of their business over the past few years has come from a growing popular niche market: craft breweries. Here is a link to a 2016 article with more details.
Additionally, it seems that their cafe has something to appeal to everyone. Want tea or coffee beverages? – They’ve got that. How about drinking chocolate? – Yep, that’s covered too! There is even an extensive list of craft cocktails!?! What really had me salivating while reading their menu was the extensive list of chocolate pairings and tasting “flights” that they can provide. Imagine the seemingly endless possibilities sampling from among their more than 20 truffles + wine, beer, cider, whiskey or other spirits. If I lived even remotely close, they might as well forward my mail there, because it would be my 2nd home (or I’d beg them to adopt me as part of the family!) 😉
To check out Ethereal’s extensive product line for yourself, go to: http://www.etherealconfections.com/
Remember to follow the Time to Eat Chocolate blog to hear about the next stop in the “50 States” project!
Other chocolate makers in Illinois:
NOTE: If you know of any other bean-to-bar makers in Illinois that aren’t mentioned above, please leave a comment or send an email so that we can keep this list as up-to-date as possible!