Ira Leibtag, CEO of Cholaca, located in Boulder. Jonathan Castner for BizWest

Sweet ingredients – Cholaca keeps chocolate pure, rain forests thriving

CholacaBOULDER — Some studies say chocolate can increase cognitive functions, and some say it increases heart health.  Most of us reach for it, however, because it makes us feel good — from its creamy taste to its soothing calm.

Chocolate is reported to be one of the most popular and widely consumed products in the world.  Unfortunately, the process of getting it to us can leave a bitter taste in the mouths of even the most ardent chocoholics.

“The chocolate industry is one of the dirtiest industries there is,” said Ira Leibtag, CEO of Boulder-based Cholaca. From practices that range from child labor and abuse to deforestation, the unethical price paid to feed the world’s love of chocolate is high.

To balance the scales, Leibtag’s company started bringing pure liquid cacao that is organic, fair traded and regeneratively farmed to the market in 2012.

His venture started with an experiment.  “I went into the kitchen and came out the other side with the drink of kings and the food of gods in a mason jar,” he said.

As opposed to mixing cacao with preservatives, emulsifiers and additives, Leibtag developed a process that emulsifies it with water — pure and simple.

His magic potion next ended up steamed in a cup after he asked for input from Justin Hartman, founder of Ozo Coffee Co..  “Three weeks later, we had made $1,000, so I created a business plan,” Leibtag said.

In the process of learning about cacao, Leibtag faced the realities of the industry in terms of the socially unjust ways it is traditionally farmed and traded.

“When I went to places like Ecuador, I learned that cacao is perishable, so it needs to be kept 100 percent dry. But in places with 100 percent humidity, it’s hard.

“There’d be buyers who’d circle the co-ops and knew the day to walk in to buy it because the farmers were fearing mold.  They’d offer 30 cents on the dollar.”

Additionally, when cattle ranchers offer $1,200 to farmers who are making $800 a year to strip their land and keep the wood, it presents a deal that’s hard to resist.

Leibtag’s regenerative business model focuses on paying farmers to keep the rainforests growing and making a fair living at the same time.

To sweeten the deal for those of us on the receiving end, he doesn’t pad his recipes with additives that are found in standard chocolate products because “if you have the good stuff, you don’t need a lot more.”   

Cholaca products are made from top-shelf cacao and the same grade of coconut sugar, which is the only other ingredient besides water.

There’s even a choice about how sweet customers want their chocolate to be.

The original pure liquid Cholaca contains a small amount of coconut sugar; the sweet variety contains a little more; and the unsweetened skips it altogether.

One of the company’s newer markets is a Colorado spotlight industry: craft brewing.

Although brewers had early on called Leibtag about using his product, they weren’t coming back for more. Then he got a call from Tim Mathews, head brewer at Longmont-based Oskar Blues Brewing Co., who wanted to use it to make Death by Coconut, an Irish Porter beer.

What set Mathews’ process apart from the crowd was that he took advantage of Cholaca’s liquid state and added the chocolate to the final process rather than during fermentation.

The benefits included less mess and more chocolate flavor, as well as a match with the value craft brewers place on pure ingredients.

Cholaca’s customers currently fall into three categories: retail, wholesale and ingredient-focused. The products are available in liquid and baking wafer form. Leibtag plans to expand into the ready-to-drink market in 2017.

Cholaca sales have more than doubled in the last year and are on target to double that in 2017.

“We’re now poised for growth, having built the necessary foundation for scaling,” Leibtag said.

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