If MacGyver loved dark chocolate, Potomac Chocolate might be his chocolate of choice. Its founder, Ben Rasmussen, creates award-winning chocolate out of his Woodbridge, Va., basement using equipment he hacked together himself.
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“I very much am a do-it-myselfer,” Rasmussen said. “I love building the machines. I have a friend at my day job who says all the time that he thinks that the chocolate is secondary to the building of the machines. I correct him every time that I do very much enjoy building the machines, but it's all in the pursuit of better chocolate.”
Rasmussen began making dark chocolate more than five years ago, after going his whole life, believe it or not, with never even tasting the good stuff.
“Seven years ago, I hadn't even tried chocolate, like good chocolate,” Rasmussen said. “When I was thinking of dark chocolate, it was Hershey's Special Dark and that’s what I was used to.”
It wasn’t until his brother came back from a chocolate tasting course in Salt Lake City, UT, with some samples for his sibling to taste, that Rasmussen’s world was rocked.
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“I'm like, ‘I'll try it, but I have a terrible palate, and I don't like dark chocolate, but I'll try it.’ Obviously I was horribly mistaken,” Rasmussen said. “I just fell in love with it, started doing tastings for friends. One of them was like, ‘Hey, we should try making this stuff’ to which I essentially thought, ‘That's the craziest thing I've ever heard.’ We started messing around and then, in very short order, launched Potomac Chocolate.”
Rasmussen soon began making chocolate in his kitchen, using common utensils, and he soon realized he had knack for the process.
“The first bar we tried we didn't know what we were doing,” Rasmussen said. “We tried it and we were like, ‘This isn't bad. For our first batch, holy crap.’ In fact, that first bar was a finalist in that year's Good Food Awards, which is based out of San Francisco. Then [we] actually won a silver in the Academy of Chocolate Award[s] that spring, which was this insane moment because I'm like, 'All right. A year ago, I'd not even really tasted chocolate and now, I won this award.'"
Winning those awards then led to an unexpected demand for his chocolate. He soon made the move from his kitchen down to his basement and then started building his chocolate-making equipment to expand his output.
“In the first batch we made, probably two or three pounds worth of chocolate,” Rasmussen said. “My current roaster can roast 12 pounds, maybe 15 pounds if I push it, at a time. I'm building a new roaster that will easily be able to do the 50 pounds or whatever that I need for one batch.”
Before finding his knack for chocolate making, Rasmussen wore many hats.
“I've gone through a lot of jobs. I sold cars for a little while, which did not go well. I used to wash carpets. I used to roof,” Rasmussen said. “Then I stumbled into a computer job and just fell in love with it, became very passionate about computers. Actually that's still what I do as my day job. Now I'm a lot better at it. I do Linux systems administration as my day job.”
Juggling family, a full-time job and making chocolate has become somewhat challenging for Rasmussen, but he’s figuring it out as he goes along.
“Finding the balance with the day job and the chocolate is pretty tough,” Rasmussen said. “I've got a wife and four kids and a mortgage and financial responsibilities. There's a lot of times that I'll have to say, ‘Well I was going to do this chocolate but my daughter has a viola concert. I'm going to do that.’"
As for the basement, he doesn’t see himself giving up his little subterranean chocolate factory anytime soon.
“At this point, other than storage, there's not a huge rush to move out,” Rasmussen said. “Once I move out of the basement, then there's a lot more overhead and that kind of thing. I don't know that I'd say I'm going to hold on to the basement as long as I can, but I'm going to hold onto it for a little while.”