Iceland is known for many things, but chocolate wasn’t one of them — until recently. These days, in almost every grocery shop in town you’ll see rows of colourful chocolate bars,unlike any you’ve ever come across before. They’re from Omnom, where we find ourselves together with the Co-Founder and the Head Chocolate Maker Kjartan Gíslason to learn how the magic is made.
Kjartan and entrepreneur Óskar Þórðarson started Omnom in 2013 out of their curiosity about the chocolate-making process. Almost a decade later, Omnom has about 30 employees and buys from 15 to 18 tonnes of cacao beans yearly, with a capacity to produce one million chocolate bars — a record they first broke last year. All of Omnom’s chocolate is hand-packaged and shipped worldwide.
Whether you’re a chocolate lover or you hate the stuff, you most definitely know the taste. But what’s the secret behind a morsel of chocolate that melts in your mouth? It took us two visits to the Omnom factory to find out.
It starts with a bean
The very first step to making chocolate is cultivating and harvesting cacao beans. “You need very specific climate for the cacao pod to thrive,” Kjartan shares. “Cacao grows in areas that are just around the Equator.” He shows us a dried cacao fruit, saying: “It takes the tree five years from being a little seedling to developing the fruits. For the fruits, it takes eight months to grow on the stump of the tree.”
Omnom uses only organic certified beans from farms in Madagascar, Nicaragua and Tanzania. “I would say 98% of all cacao in the world is technically organic. It’s pretty hard, almost impossible to fast-produce cacao,” Kjartan explains, adding that cacao trees are rather demanding — they don’t like direct sunlight and often require farmers to plant other trees around them for shade.
From bitter to better
“The cacao pod has little seeds inside it — what we call the beans. This is what chocolate is made from,” Kjartan says. The white pulp found in the fresh cacao fruits is very high in fructose, it helps to develop the flavour of the cacao during the fermentation process.
Fermentation is one of the most crucial steps in chocolate-making. “If you don’t ferment your cacao beans, you wouldn’t get that nice chocolate flavour that we like,” says Kjartan.
He explains that the bean fermentation process is similar to winemaking, where humidity, time and temperature affect the final product. “We tried the same cacao bean that we’re using now in five different styles of fermentation, and it was crazy to see how they all vary.”
“We wanted to be so much more fun than the rest of the competition.”
The beans take about a week to ferment, another week to dry, and then they are transferred to warehouses for about three months to reduce their moisture content before shipping.
The heart of the bean
Once the groundwork has been laid and the beans arrive in Iceland, the Omnom team takes over. “When it comes into house, the biggest impact we can have with the flavour is the roasting part,” says Kjartan.
There are different methods of roasting cacao beans, depending on the desired end flavour. “We usually go for something that we call a mid-low roast. It’s a very light roast.”
Omnom roasts their cacao beans in-house before cooling them down overnight. The next step is winnowing the beans, which means removing their outer shell. “The machine breaks the entire bean down and separates the husk. Inside you’ll find the nibs — the heart of the cacao bean,” Kjartan continues.
“From there on, we take our nibs and start grinding them into a paste,” he says. “The nibs are almost 50% fat, and the fat is really what makes chocolate have that delicious mouthfeel.”
“Chocolate, for me, is about having fun, first and foremost.”
The longer you grind the nibs, the more flavours will develop, and the finer and silkier the cacao mass will become. “The next step would be deciding what you’re going to do with your cacao mass: milk chocolate or dark chocolate?,” Kjartan says. “If you’re making a regular 70% dark chocolate, you would just add sugar to it. With milk chocolate, you add dried milk because you can’t add any liquid to the cacao mass. It’s so fatty it won’t mix.”
Next in line
Before the chocolate is ready to be packaged, it is tempered. “Tempering is about cooling down the chocolate to a certain degree and then reheating it back to another degree,” Kjartan says, adding: “Untempered chocolate is definitely edible, it just doesn’t have that nice shiny appearance.”
“For instance, you would cool down 70% chocolate to around 26° Celsius and then reheat it up to 32° Celsius,” he explains. “When you dispense it at that degree, you cool it down really fast, and get that nice shine and snappiness to the bar. It just melts perfectly. This is when the chocolate is ready to be packed.”
Playing with flavours
“My background is as a chef, so my approach to making chocolate is first of all experimentation,” Kjartan shares. With flavours ranging from burnt barley to liquorice and raspberry, Omnom’s approach to flavour is anything but conventional. “We’ve done many crazy experiments here since we started, we even tried using soy sauce once.”
“I think the white chocolate category is where I have the most fun. With dark chocolate, I feel like I’m perfecting my skills,” Kjartan confesses. “Chocolate is 50% fat, and what you use for white chocolate is just the fat — you extract it from the cacao mass. You can use it as a blank canvas for any kind of other flavouring. It’s like an alternative multiverse of chocolate,” he says. “One of our popular bars is a liquorice chocolate bar, which is technically a white chocolate made with extraction of the liquorice root. It has pure liquorice flavour to it.”
“When we started talking about Omnom with my partner Óskar, we knew we wanted to make good chocolate. But we also knew we wanted to be a little different,” shares Kjartan. “Chocolate, for me, is about having fun, first and foremost.”
The element of fun runs through Omnom’s core, from the company’s name (which Kjartan jokingly refers to as “silly”) to its playful packaging featuring unicorns, pandas and sheep. “Most of the chocolate bars that we’re testing out, had very conservative packaging that didn’t feel fun,” Kjartan admits.
“Our first chocolate bars were made with moulds that we bought online, just these classic tablets. We wanted to be so much more fun than the rest of the competition,” he says. “We immediately started designing our own kind of pattern,” Kjartan opens a chocolate bar, and snaps a little piece. “There’s a little secret there. You need to find it yourself.”
Grab some delicious Omnom chocolate bars at Grapevine Store and keep an eye on our YouTube channel to join us on our trip to the chocolate factory.
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