Your first memory of chocolate depends on where you are from. It might be the milk chocolate of a Hershey bar melting on a s’more at Girl Scouts camp. It could be standing on your tiptoes to carefully pour Toll House chocolate chips into a bowl for a batch of grandma’s homemade cookies. Or it could be in the traditional manner that chocolate has been consumed for thousands of years: as a strong, rich, unsweetened (or lightly sweetened) cup of drinking chocolate.
Karla McNeil-Rueda’s exposure to chocolate was the latter. And it’s that sublime experience, very different from most Americans, that is fueling the success of her company, Cru Chocolate.
Unsweetened drinking cups were how chocolate was consumed where she was raised in the village of San Marcos de Colón in Honduras, along the southern border with Nicaragua. On visits to her grandfather’s coffee farm, she would help with milking the cows and be rewarded with a chocolate drink made with milk still warm from the cow’s teat.
Reached at her home/chocolate factory in Roseville, Cru Chocolate co-owner McNeil-Rueda talked about sacred-yet-everyday relationship Mesoamericans have with chocolate, an ingredient they created.
“There are thousands of drinks. Every town has many … when it’s cold you drink it a certain way, and then when it’s hot. You have a specific drink for each season.”
She was surprised to find when she immigrated to California in 2005 that chocolate was viewed as an ultra-sweet indulgence, rather than a nutritious substance that parents urged on to children to help them “get strong.”
A single mother of two, and a trained industrial engineer who broke barriers in Honduras as the first women to score top marks at her university, McNeil-Rueda struggled to find a job in her field in her new country.
She ruefully recounts applying for over 250 engineering jobs, and getting some favorable responses, only to have enthusiasm fade when potential employers heard her melodious accent over the phone. She took on factory work to support her family, but she found herself longing for the flexible schedule of the farming life she knew and missing time with her children.
By 2014 she had met her partner Eddie Houston in a yoga class she was teaching. He’s a computer engineer originally from Chico. They began looking for a business to start. She knew coffee well, but decided the Sacramento coffee market was oversaturated. She made chocolate for friends from cacao her mother brought from Honduras and got a good reaction. And the friends were surprised to learn chocolate comes from a seed within a large pod. She decided chocolate, and chocolate education, would be her new path.
“I wish it was like this beautiful plan, but it was out of the pain of grinding [at a factory job] and I wanted to spend more time with my kids and have a better quality of life,” McNeil-Rueda said.
Houston, who clearly adores McNeil-Rueda, attributes it to her creativity and good ideas. They form a good team: she supplies the inspiration, he researches the steps.
In 2015 they began to source used coffee roasting equipment from Craigslist that could be repurposed to make chocolate. AB1616, known as the “Homemade Food Act,” became law in 2013 and allowed small companies such as Cru to manufacture nonperishable products (such as candy and jam) in a private home.
McNeil used her background in farming to foster relationships with small cacao farmers from Nicaragua to Haiti. She studied chocolate making, and the science behind it, at a Latin American chocolate school in Havana, reasoning that mastering the mixing and tempering of chocolate in the hot, humid weather (and with sometimes spotty electricity) would over-prepare her for the challenging weather conditions in our area.
In 2017, the couple traveled to Guatemala at the invitation of a UC Davis graduate student, Madeline Weeks, who studies the cacao commodity chain and related topics.
As a fruit of that visit, Cru Chocolate formed a partnership with a group of female farmers in the El Peten region. This is considered the heart of the Mayan nation, and many speak the Q’eqchi’ language, rather than Spanish, which made communication more challenging. Despite the fact these women live in a very remote area, McNeil-Rueda was touched and inspired by their ambition.
“They recognized that to maintain their culture they must participate in the global market,” McNeil-Rueda said. “They said ‘We want to have a big factory, and we want to be recognized as the chocolate makers in Guatemala’, I was like, ‘Woah!’”
Cru has worked with these farmers to get more farming equipment, and solar panels, but a planned return trip to Guatemala was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite these and other challenges introduced by COVID-19, Cru Chocolate has continued to grow and prosper. They now offer close to 20 types of drinking chocolates and bars, all the while racking up awards such as gold and silver medals from the London-based Academy of Chocolate.
Their drinking “wheels” are in a disc shape, to preserve the flavors and prevent oxidation. They come in flavors that range from the thick, deep chocolate essence of the 100% cacao, to the “spiced chai,” which has black tea leaves, cardamom and aniseed, in addition to cacao. Each product comes wrapped in elegant and colorful designs; the packaging has also garnered awards.
They are still making all the chocolate at home, where the noise of the roasting and grinding make it hard to sleep.
McNeil-Rueda laughs that her kids complain about having to dodge the equipment and that the fermented cacao stinks “like a rotten sock”. They are ready to take their next step: a showcase shop in Auburn. They envision a beautiful production facility, as well as a place for people to shop and learn about chocolate.
For now, they are selling mostly online, to stores in the Bay Area, and wholesale to beer brewers and coffee shops.
One such coffee shop is Milka Coffee Roasters in downtown Sacramento, which makes its mocha with Cru Chocolate nibs.
“They align with our mission, vision and values the most,” owner Samir Benouar said. “They are the model for us since they have personal relationships with the farmers. Plus they are the best chocolate in Sacramento, hands down. … They are on the world stage, in my opinion.”