Written by: Emma Castillo
Warning: Everything you once thought about hot chocolate is going to change . . . You were once satisfied with powdery chocolate water, but a hot chocolate revolution is underway in Santa Cruz, and Mutari Hot Chocolate is at the forefront. Adam Armstrong, owner and chocolate connoisseur, is one of the most unique new entrepreneurs emerging on the artisanal food scene in Santa Cruz. With a fascination in crafting gourmet hot chocolate and a strong will for preserving tradition, he created Mutari Hot Chocolate.
A wood burning illustration found at Mutari Chocolate House & Factory created by Eleanor Scholz
Majoring in International Relations and International Politics from California State University, Chico, Adam never thought he would end up working in the artisanal food industry. Yet when the job market tanked around 2007, the recent graduate set his sites on working in the Peace Corps, where his inspiration for Mutari began.
Adam spent his time in the Peace Corps with the Ngobe community in the mountainous jungles of Panama. He worked with them to create chocolate products to be sold locally at a higher price than simply selling cacao. “Chiro Mutarikobo” is the phrase from which the name Mutari is derived and it represents the special bond that developed between Adam and the Ngobe community, meaning, “worker that comes from the clouds.” During his time working closely with the Ngobe, Adam learned their traditional craft of creating hot sipping chocolate, which is how the community has consumed cacao for thousands of years.
Something strongly encouraged in the Peace Corps mission statement is carrying the community with you wherever you go and sharing their culture. Adam fully embodies this with Mutari.
Adam Armstrong in Mutari’s kitchen and factory at the Food Lounge
The ultimate goal for Mutari is to become established enough to source cacao from the small farmers in the Ngobe community in Panama. As for now, Mutari is receiving organic cacao from small farmers and co-ops from all over the world, which is arranged through a chocolate company based out of San Francisco. All of the cacao beans are “ethically traded” and this phrase has a very distinctive meaning for this chocolate entrepreneur. Having a product marked as “fair trade”, at least in the chocolate industry, unfortunately doesn’t ensure that the farmers that grow and harvest the cacao will receive their fair share of the profit.
Instead, Mutari works off of the notion that as the specialization in the fermentation and production of the cacao bean increases, the price will be driven up. Rather than simply stamping “fair trade” on a product, Mutari is happy to pay a little more to collaborate with a company that works directly with small farmers, producing the best quality beans and ensuring ethical trading practices. This way, the chocolate connoisseurs at Mutari can focus on creating specialized and unique hot chocolate for their customers.
Inside Mutari’s kitchen and factory
Co-founder and Head Chocolate Maker, Matthew Armstrong brings expertise in the handling of cacao from years of experience working in Hawaii’s tropical gardening industry. Each drink uses a bean of single origin, meaning they do not mix which beans they put in each drink. Similar to wine tasting, Mutari wants its customers to be able to taste the difference between the drinks based on which beans are being used and the unique chocolate making process.
Mutari is one of a kind. They have spent a great deal of time perfecting recipes and have truly specialized in creating an exceptional hot chocolate experience. Other chocolate companies put time and effort into making chocolate bars. However, Adam emphasizes that when you eat a chocolate bar, you don’t experience the same flavors as drinking it hot. A great example is Mutari’s Spicy Mexican Hot Chocolate. When served hot, the mixture of the Guatemalan bean, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper all come together, bringing out flavors in the bean that you didn’t even know were there. All of the drinks at Mutari are made with coconut milk, which acts as a great medium that doesn’t detract from the natural flavor of the beans.
Not to be confused with Mutari’s exquisite hot chocolate, Mutari also offers a hot sipping chocolate for those seeking a richer experience. It is prepared much darker and thicker. Without anything mediating the flavor, one can easily experience the distinct, strong flavors.
Pre-bottled products available in store and online
Unlike most hot chocolate companies, Mutari works on a very small scale. Both its storefront and factory are based in the Food Lounge, a new space that acts as a commercial kitchen, event space, and pop-up venue. Since Mutari’s online shop receives a lot of business, not only is the hot chocolate served at the Food Lounge, but it is also manufactured, bottled, and shipped in house.
Adam is presented with many collaborative opportunities with both the Food Lounge and all of the popup vendors that set up within the unique space. For instance, one of the vendors, Fogline Farms, creates their own pasteurized bacon and to every foodie’s delight, there is talk of chocolate covered bacon! The space also allows for special opportunities like private events, tours, and tutorials on how to make a cup of this artisanal hot chocolate.
While major chocolate companies feature hot chocolate exclusively as holiday drinks, it seems that Adam has discovered a unique, untapped industry of year-round specialized hot chocolate production. With the shop having been open for just over two weeks, they’ve already received great feedback and press, showing a bright future for this new entrepreneurial venture. Once established, Mutari hopes to come around full circle and begin sourcing cacao straight from the small farmers that Adam worked with in the Ngobe community in Panama.
Give Mutari Hot Chocolate a chance and experience the amazing tradition that the Ngobe have pioneered for thousands of years.
Visit Mutari Chocolate House & Factory at 1001 Center Street, Santa Cruz, CA or check out their website and online store at https://mutarichocolate.com/.