How Failure Molded Berlin's Best Chocolatier
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
If you don’t, your mouth will.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Holger in’t Veld is smiling. About 6 feet tall, unshaven and with a black leather jacket, he’s every inch the Berliner. But then he departs from the regional script, just a bit, and reaches into his inner jacket pocket and says, “I want you to have this.”
The this? About the size of an iPhone and wrapped into what feels like agitprop Xmas paper, a jumble of words and images, which when unfolded yield a secret that should cease being a secret. “Berlin’s best chocolate,” says a friend of his standing there, waiting expectantly for what most assuredly should come next. That is, if the proof of the pudding — or, in this instance, the chocolate — is in the tasting? I need to taste it.
But the setting? Mid-pavement on the Revaler Strasse near Cassiopeia, a funky kind of multilayered complex with a Berlin Wall-era vibe that recalls nothing if not Christiania in Denmark. Which is not to say much other than you’d probably be well-advised to not just be popping any ol’ thing in your mouth offered by just anybody on the streets of either place.
But Veld is not just anybody. He is, despite a professional history involving all kinds of professional media stuff — as he puts it, “a left-sentimental indie-activist switching from music to chocolate … somewhat boring” — a steadfast chocolatier. A chocolatier whose obsession has seen him start chocolate businesses that have not worked out as businesses but still sees him returning. To? Chocolate.
Which still stands in my hand between us. And then in my mouth while Veld and his friend look on. Target marketing of the most intense kind.
“How is it?” The flavor? Not cheesed-out commercial-grade chocolate nor bitter like some dark chocolates can be. It tastes like it was some kind of a fruit and dissolves slowly around my chewing.
This one is unlike many chocolates I’ve ever tasted, and its taste is heady. And great.
“Genius.” It’s Ziegenmilch, made out of goat’s milk. And he goes into a chocolate fugue state, reciting all of what they’ve got in their lines of chocolates, like salt, pepper, cinnamon, coffee, liquorice, cassis and blood orange. His cacao beans are curated by him, personally, and roasted. Moreover, making chocolate to him is a collective effort, so if you have ideas, he’s willing to listen. And it’s not just Berlin — he ships his stuff anywhere.
He passes me another packet, this one called Jungle Please, with planets about to collide on the wrapping paper again, and I’m struck. Made from beans culled from the Tabasco region of Mexico, this one is unlike many chocolates I’ve ever tasted, and its taste is heady. And great.
But how could something so surprisingly good have met with such inconsistent prior business ends? According to Manuel Liebeskind, a Berlin music producer and Swiss ex-pat with a penchant for chocolaty delights, it’s not the chocolate that’s the problem. The chocolate’s been Veld’s solution. “It’s the business,” Liebeskind says. “Business is hard to do well, but the only thing harder to do well is chocolate.”
Well, if Winston Churchill can be believed and success consists of “going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” then Veld is probably finally poised for a bit of some. His new company, which he now calls an “initiative,” is named after botanist Carl von Linné’s name for cacao, Theobroma, or food of the gods, and his cost-reducing sensibility has him rocking the DIY label, which a company that produces “garage chocolate” fully suggests. His official open date? August 1.
“Look, the San Francisco Bay Area has the highest density of craft chocolate makers in the world, I think,” Veld says. “Like coffee roasters in Berlin now.” But after 16 years of trying, Veld thinks his otherness in Berlin makes him exotic, and this plus working with cocoa farmers is helping him produce better chocolate.
Which, if you’re a chocolate fanatic, you might get ready to line up for, sooner rather than later. Because, well, business, you know.
“Startups are fickle,” laughs Liebeskind. “But maybe the fourth time is the charm.”