“There’s great reward in doing complex things.” @CacaoPrieto
– Daniel Prieto Preston, Founder, Cacao Prieto
There’s a joke in the cacao industry that in the process of creating chocolate, every step is the most important step. This includes the final task of tasting, which, for ex-aerospace engineer Daniel Prieto Preston, is the only simple step in the process.
Preston, who entered college at the age of 12, has always followed his passions with the precise rigor of an engineer. After breaking his neck while skydiving, Preston responded by diving into parachute design. He didn’t just create a better one-off parachute, but went on to create a parachute engineering company valued at $22 million: Atair Aerospace. He sold the company in 2009 and, after being faced with a non-compete clause from the federal government, pursued an industry that his family had been working in for generations: chocolate. In 2010, distillery, apothecary, research facility and chocolate factory Cacao Prieto was born.
To Preston, producing chocolate is like a science experiment. Flavors are discovered – not made – based on manipulating variables, heating and cooling in massive machines, and understanding the complex compounds of cacao. “I can’t think of a better industry for an engineer,” says Preston. “You’ve got such incredible ability to steer the outcome of the chocolate for better or for worse at every single step. It’s been very challenging, you know, to a rocket scientist.”
Preston’s father is Dominican and he grew up visiting the country where his grandparents lived. He’d always loved the lollipop shape of cacao trees on his family’s farm and had opened up many pods full of the white custard-covered seeds before, but when he saw them as an adult, he was struck with an insatiable curiosity about the fruit. He instinctively knew that the complicated pod could offer far more than most confectioners dreamed. “Cacao is arguably the most complex food known,” saysPreston. “It can hold my attention for years to come.”
Preston was not only inspired by the cacao plant; he was mystified by it. Often called a bean, cacao is actually a seed. Theobromine cacao literally translates to “food of the gods,” and according to Preston, that description is not far off. “It’s so complex. There are more than 4,000 identified alkaloids – those are all drugs – and at least twice as many yet to be identified. The science behind it – behind the chemistry, bio fermentation — it’s fascinating,” says Preston.
“Knowledge makes connoisseurs. That’s what we’re after: creating connoisseurs.” @CacaoPrieto
Preston bought his family’s farm with the idea to make not only a chocolate shop, but to research the cacao plant and discover what it could do for mankind. Preston runs the farming, processing, and packaging of his chocolate so that he doesn’t miss a single step in the making of his chocolate. He found that when he was able to control all the variables in creating his product and was able to get rid of all the pathogens he found, he had a lot of control over the flavor profile of the outcome. He explains: “If you do everything then you’re the beneficiary of happy accidents.”
Preston’s research could not be done without this vertically-integrated kind of farming technique that values thoughtful experimentation and the exploration of every byproduct. “We had to radically change how the industry is done, but we profit from every single waste stream. What other companies throw away, we make profitable drugs from.” Preston’s first medical healing drug made from cacao is in clinical trials this year.
“Magic is science waiting to be understood. Once it’s understood, it might not be so magical anymore.” @CacaoPrieto
His innovative methods of production have not gone unnoticed. Preston will be meeting with the Dominican Republic president soon to discuss adapting his methods for the entire cacao farming industry in the country.
Back in Cacao Prieto’s storefront in Red Hook, Brooklyn, beautifully illustrated chocolate wrappers in display cases line the walls. The aromas of cacao fill the air, wafting into the bar next door where Preston sells the chocolate rum and whiskey he’s created – perhaps by another “happy accident.” Passersby are attracted to the giant steel doors and sweet-smelling air of the factory, and, on cold days, the warmth of Dominican hot chocolate.
It’s unlikely that most visitors to Cacao Prieto realize that the bar of chocolate they are enjoying is the result of a radically changed farming system in the Dominican Republic. It’s even less likely that they realize the possibilities of medicinal secrets – and the painstaking research – that the bar of chocolate represents. “We’re typically content to just let people see the chocolate and think it’s a little food company,” says Preston. “But we have slightly bigger mission statements in mind.”