PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
On a cold, rainy morning recently—a perfect day for hot cocoa, if you are not leaving the house—some shoppers at Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville need a little coaxing to try the warm, chocolaty drinks that Jen Keegan and Shannon Ames are handing out, while others gravitate naturally to the two women and their thermoses. “That’s the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had,” exclaims Concord resident Paul Nash, after trying a shot. Which is music to their ears. Keegan is founder of Cocoa Santé Hot Cocoa, and Ames is her business partner.
It all started two years ago when Keegan was looking for a good cup of hot cocoa. While a small but growing number of area cafes have begun to augment their selection of drinking chocolate, the breadth of options still pales in relation to coffee and tea. And there was even less in the instant, make-at-home variety that the Concord mother of four felt reflected chocolate’s “great tastes and varieties.” So, though she had no experience in the food industry, Keegan set out to create a “drink for adults with adult flavors. It took a lot of experimentation,” she admits. But fortunately, friends, family, and neighbors helped out by “drinking a lot of cocoa.” Now that’s devotion.
“There are a lot of variables, starting with the cocoa [powder] you select,” Keegan explains. In her earliest attempts, she used generic cocoa powder from her local supermarket. As anybody who works with food—including home cooks—will tell you, the end product is only as good as its ingredients. Those earliest efforts resulted in cocoa mixes that were, in Keegan’s words, “really timid. I wanted something that was really fresh tasting... with a really rich, cocoa flavor.”
She also wanted to use cocoa that was ethically grown. She expanded her search and ultimately found a source that works closely with and buys directly from the farmers who grow organic cocoa pods in the Dominican Republic and Peru. “The flavor is amazing,” Keegan says. “It reflects all the love put into the cocoa.” She also uses organic cane sugar, nonfat milk powder, and different spices and flavorings for the current varieties.
A former attorney with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Keegan had been a stay-at-home mother for several years before starting Cocoa Santé (she has a three-year-old daughter and three sons, aged seven, 11, and 13). She says her approach to the business is a reflection of “the way I see the world. I love the story of cocoa. It’s reflected in the product. I’m very conscious of the farmers. Somebody very real is growing and picking the cocoa.”
Further, she says, “Chocolate is a global food. That was a great way to frame the different blends.” She says her experience working with the Peace Corps in Thailand when she was in her early 20s has “definitely made me receptive to new flavors.”
Cocoa Santé is currently available in four varieties: Nor’easter, Azteca, Kashmir Spice, and Parisien. The first is a basic hot chocolate, flavored with vanilla and malt. Azteca, with cinnamon and chipotle pepper, has a nice kick to it. Kashmir Spice is flavored with cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, and ginger, and is reminiscent of chai tea. The Parisien blend has both natural and Dutch process cocoa, and chocolate flakes, for a very deep, dark chocolate flavor—it’s a very European-style hot chocolate. The packaging reflects both the vibrant colors of raw cocoa beans and those of the flavors most closely associated with each blend.
Keegan does all product testing in her Concord kitchen, where she says she is always thinking of new flavors. Pointing up at the large white ceiling fan suspended above her island, she notes, “there’s a lot of dust when we’re mixing.” When she started the company in 2012, she worked in Crop Circle Kitchen in Jamaica Plain. “It was nice having that touch point,” she says. Then she used a company in New York to assemble and package the mixes, but traveling five hours each way to monitor production, sometimes all in one day, became an unmanageable drain.
Recently, she moved production to a facility in Braintree, which has made life significantly easier. She also added her partner. The two met when Ames, the mother of a nine-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, worked with Keegan’s husband at a renewable energy company. In addition to sharing responsibilities for the business, the women do frequent demos at area markets, like Dave’s, finding the feedback from customers invaluable.
Though Keegan set out to create a drink for adults, Cocoa Santé’s appeal spans generations. “It’s really a comfort food for my kids,” she notes. “It’s super healthy” and relatively low in calories.” Adds Ames, “I used to limit [my children’s] cocoa, but now I figure it’s good.” Her son is a Nor’easter fan. Her daughter prefers Parisien. Her husband, she says, refuses to choose. He loves them all.
To find Cocoa Santé visit cocoa-sante.com.
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel and always makes sure to have a healthy supply of high quality chocolate on hand. She can be reached at email@example.com.