Next Level Chocolate

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Bold chocolate explorations at Cocanú

STORY BY LOLA MIL HOLLAND
IMAGES BY NOLAN CALISCH

When Sebastian Cisneros was growing up in the highland Andes of Ecuador, his family took frequent road trips around the country, often traveling through Ecuador’s cloud forest, a misty, mountainous environment that sits on the border between the high peaks of the Andes and the lush lowland tropics. There, cacao thrives.

“Farmers who don’t have the capacity to ferment and dry cacao in the best way would take their wet beans to the side of the road to dry on the black asphalt,” Sebastian recalls. The stench of rotting fruit would waft into their car. “I was like, ‘what is that?’ My friends would giggle. ‘That is going to become chocolate,’ they told me. They didn’t know how it transformed, just that it did.”

That putrid smell was Sebastian’s first encounter with cacao. Today, in a garage workshop tucked behind Coava Coffee on Southeast Grand, he experiments with cacao daily, transforming raw beans to finished bars. Under the brand Cocanú, Sebastian sells two chocolate bar lines that he describes as the two halves of his brain.

The first is the Cloud Forest series, a line of single-origin chocolate bars that each feature only two ingredients: cacao beans and cane sugar. “The Cloud Forest bars are the very technical, purist side of me,” he says. “Being able to make a chocolate that has less additional ingredients strips you down as a craftsman. I feel more vulnerable with these bars.” His process is devoted to bringing out the innate qualities of a single variety, and he includes a dried cacao leaf in each package to create a connection with chocolate as an agricultural good.

The second, unnamed Cocanú line is a wild exploration of Sebastian’s imagination, an opportunity for him to play with creative flavor combinations and ingredients, to emphasize unusual sensory experiences, or to collaborate with other creative people. “I arrive to these by a lot of playfulness. I often use an object, a place, a memory, or a funny idiosyncrasy in life to guide me into the flavor.”

A recent experimental bar, Goma Goma Goma, seeks to encapsulate a sense memory shared by a friend from Fisk, an art and design studio. “He described tasting black sesame ice cream for the first time on recent trip to Japan with his girlfriend.” That sense memory was Sebastian’s launching pad. He exchanged cacao beans for toasted black sesame seeds and cacao butter, in effect creating a sister to white chocolate, but with a surprisingly appealing charcoal grey color. On top, sesame seeds coated in matcha green tea powder provide a flavor and textural contrast, setting tiny, astringent seeds against a milky, nutty sesame bar to wake up your mouth.

Sebastian’s devotion to experimentation necessitates making small batches. “I really want to separate myself from industrial manufacturing,” he says. “When chocolate becomes industrial it tends to limit your offerings and imagination. The personal issue I have with the industrial model is that I see a large trap to monotony. Chocolate is too dynamic to trade my life trying to showcase the same flavor over and over again”

Instead, Sebastian is seeking a deeper involvement in the creative process. “A lot of people relate to chocolate as a comfort food, a romantic food, even a childish food. It does have all those components. And it has more than that: it has a social component—it impacts people in different places around the world.” It has an environmental component, he adds. And for Sebastian, it brings out a very personal exploration of craftsmanship and the psyche.

“Both of my paths [the Cloud Forest bars and experimental bars] have undefined horizons. That’s what motivates me—there are thing undiscovered on both pathways that I want to investigate and share.”

Discover the current bars on offer at cocanu.com. Find Cocanú chocolates at Cacao, Providore Fine Food, The Meadow, Coava Coffee, and more.


Lola Milholland is a noodle entrepreneur. Her company, Umi Organic, sells fresh organic ramen noodles in Portland area groceries.

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