A Visit to Twenty-Four Blackbirds: Artisan Chocolates from Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has great wine and Mexican food, but have you heard there’s a bean-to-bar chocolate maker producing some insanely good chocolate? Mike Orlando of Twenty-Four Blackbirds is DIY to the
In 2010 Mike, his girlfriend Elaine, and his sister Gina started Twenty-Four Blackbirds. At first they all continued to work their full time jobs despite making chocolate well into the wee hours of the morning, but now Mike leads the charge while his collaborators have stepped back into a ‘volunteer’ work mode and work one day per week for the chocolate company. Mike’s background is in marine biology and chemistry (he even spent a few years as an aquarist). His skills in running a well-designed experiment have served him well throughout the chocolate making process. As it turns out, creating a subtly sweet, innocent-looking 1/2 ounce chocolate bar is far from simple.
Twenty-Four Blackbirds chocolate — wrapped simply in kraft paper — comes in at an approachable price point ($2.50 per bar). This is a chocolate bar meant for everyone. (No fancy gold wrappers, pretense and pomp!) Each bar has intense, explosive flavor. Mike is making some of the best chocolate around and he’s doing it on his own terms, often building his own equipment, with a lot of experimentation, tinkering and of course, tasting.
The Test KitchenTwenty-Four Blackbirds chocolate moved from the home kitchen to several commercial spaces before landing at its current home: a 1,500 square-foot factory smack in the middle of downtown Santa Barbara, California. The space is partitioned into four quadrants where different steps occur. Eventually, Mike would like to create a retail/tasting space at the front of the house, but for now, it’s enough to keep up with the chocolate making and wholesale orders. Many of the pieces Mike uses in his kitchen he’s designed and built himself.
The Secret SauceMike’s inventiveness and ingenuity set him apart from other chocolate makers. (Although, to be fair, to be in the bean-to-bar chocolate industry, you’ve got to have a streak of these qualities!) When one step of the husk/nib separation process proves inefficient, he modifies
The Business Plan
Twenty-Four Blackbirds has grown in an organic, we’re-busting-at-the-seams fashion. Every success (and challenge!) necessitates a new approach, different timing, a move-in kitchen or a combination of these factors. The first few batches were sold at local coffee shop The French Press and the small bars flew off the counter. The 1/2 ounce size of the bar is ideal for snacking on with a coffee and a friend, an aspect that sets the product apart.
Mike claims to have had great luck in marketing, but at the core, people love his chocolate because it tastes great, it’s affordable and the hand-drawn illustrations of local Santa Barbara blackbirds (all done by Elaine and Mike) make it an irresistible purchase.
Next up? Inviting local artists to help him with the packaging for his next few bars.
6 Quick Questions for Mike
2. The one thing you can’t live without? A project to work on. I get bored easily and when there’s nothing to do I go a little stir crazy. Making chocolate is a perfect remedy for this because there is always some step of the process to tweak, or some piece of equipment that needs building or fixing.
Always remember to try tasting the same chocolate a few times throughout the day, because whatever you’ve eaten prior, as well as the temperature of your mouth, will effect what aspects of the chocolate’s flavor profile stand out to you.
(Images: Leela Cyd)