Interview with the Chocaholic: SRSLY Chocolate

When I was a new being to Austin I searched for chocolate like an addicted bean addict. I found more variety at Central Market for fermented cocoa beans than I had ever seen in Gatesville or Lubbock, my other two homes. I felt like a true American with access to infinite chocolate ranging from bars with wormwood absinthe profiles, potato chip bars, sparkling candy gems nestled in brown and even sophisticated white chocolate that reminded me of cookies and cream.  Eventually, I started going to farmer’s markets and met SRSLY chocolate. This chocolate is not for the light of heart as it uses cocoa beans directly from farms they know and instead of burying those pure flavors in sugar they let them stand out with chocolate bars ranging from 60 to 100 percent. Since meeting the owner,  Bob Williamson, I have learned so much about chocolate and even gotten to hold and taste the beans he uses. He is a fantastic conversationalist as well and like the others, at the market, you will find a sense of love in the connection of knowing who creates your food and who you are supporting.

Egg Baby

We all did. I had worked at a dairy making cheese prior to that so like, for me, the process was my big focus. Taking a really beautiful ingredient and elevating it through process, fermentation, and technique and making it something greater.

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Sy: Ok, so let’s start off with your story.

SRSLY Chocolate: Ok, so I’m Bob Williamson. My wife and I own SRSLY Chocolate. We started SRSLY Chocolate in 2012 in Florida of all places.

Sy: That was during the apocalypse. You really rebirthed.

SRSLY Chocolate: Yes, we had a Mayan chocolate apocalypse rebirth. That was a big thing in 2012 but we made it through that. We all did. I had worked at a dairy making cheese prior to that so like, for me, the process was my big focus. Taking a really beautiful ingredient and elevating it through process, fermentation, and technique and making it something greater.

Sy: Because those are both fermentation, that’s crazy.

SRSLY Chocolate: Yeah, all the good things are.

Sy: Do you ever do cheese and chocolate pairings and stuff?

SRSLY Chocolate: We’ve done a pairing class before and we’re kind of working on a cheese and chocolate thing.

Sy: Goat cheese and chocolate actually would really love each other.

SRSLY Chocolate: I completely agree. So the dairy that I used to work at, they sent us a wheel of bleu cheese this year. So, we dehydrated it and so we’re replacing the milk powder that you would find in a white chocolate bar with the bleu cheese so it’s going to be like a weird bleu cheese white chocolate thingey.

Sy: I’m slightly disgusted… And excited!

SRSLY Chocolate: It’s weird, right? I love that weird funky bleu barnyard note so I think it’ll work well with the caramel sweetness in there.

The bean

When the cacao pod, the fruit of the tree is at its peak ripeness, it’s selected, it’s cut in half and the seeds and fruit in there are amassed together and spontaneously fermented

SRSLY Chocolate: So that was kind of my background. Food. I’ve always been interested in food and working with food in some way. And then in 2012, we kind of just found chocolate. There weren’t a ton of bar makers at the time.

Sy: In Texas or overall?

SRSLY Chocolate: Just in the United States in general. So we were kind of working a little in the dark. So, a lot of Google and a lot of trial and error. So first, we made “not so great” chocolate in very small machines and then over time and then a lot of test batches we made better chocolate.

Sy: What do you think made it better? What would you say is the biggest contributing factor?

SRSLY Chocolate: I think with anything, it’s experience and an openness to changing your recipe if it doesn’t work.

Sy: did you ever get chalky chocolate at first? Because you see that a lot.

SRSLY Chocolate: Absolutely, getting chalky chocolate and over-roasting it.

Sy: You roast it yourself, too?

SRSLY Chocolate: Yeah.

SRSLY

Aun: Does the fermentation process evolve, too?

SRSLY Chocolate: So that’s something that the farmer ends up doing. Fermentation happens at the country of origin. So, go back out and look at a bird’s eye view. Cacao is grown, usually in the tropics, right? Like, there’s a cacao belt that bands the equator, 15 degrees north or south of the equator you’ll find most of your chocolate. And so, when the cacao pod, the fruit of the tree is at its peak ripeness, it’s selected, it’s cut in half and the seeds and fruit in there are amassed together and spontaneously fermented. So, the seeds themselves don’t have a ton of fermentables in there but the fruit that suspends the whole thing is laid in with sugar and that’s what fuels it. So, all those fermented juices, interact with the seed, chemically change it-

Sy: It ferments itself?

SRSLY Chocolate: Yeah, it’s kind of like a ferment by proxy. The fruit of the cacao plant is the thing that is fermenting and the seeds are in there just getting transformed in that fermented juice.

SRSLY Chocolate: So there’s a lot of genetic diversity in cacao, so, you’ll see different shapes, different sizes, also different colors. There are some that are harlequin, or splatter paint, some are green or orange or red.

Sy: What?

SRSLY Chocolate: They’re really gorgeous fruits, they’re really one of a kind.

Sy: That’s weird to imagine. So, we’re eating the seeds, technically?

SRSLY Chocolate: Chocolate, I guess, is a seed butter. The most simple. way to look at it is that it’s a seed butter. So, all the fats are saturated, right? At room temperature all the fats are solid. That’s just how chocolate melts when it’s hot, just like butter and then it solidifies again.

Sy: Is coffee similar?

SRSLY Chocolate: There are a lot of parallels between the coffee industry and chocolate. In a lot of places, they’ll be grown in the same places. Cacao in the lowlands and coffee in a higher elevation but definitely in the same areas. They’re both fermented. So, on a coffee cherry, there’s that little fruit on the exterior of the bean, the cascara.

Sy: It makes a great tea.

SRSLY Chocolate: It does. So that sugar is what is fermenting the coffee. And they’re both roasted. It’s after they’re roasted where everything diverges. The chocolate making process goes into full gear when we’re grinding it at that point.

So, there were years where we weren’t making a lot of money and we were taking part-time jobs to make it work, a lot of belief in what it is.

Sy: Ok, so back to your story.

Aun: What part of Florida were you guys located?

SRSLY Chocolate: We were in Tallahassee. I was making cheese in Georgia and I was traveling across state lines to make cheese. It’s a fun place, I really enjoy that area. We’re there and it was 2012 and it seemed like, folks in Florida were just on- One, the region is not huge. Tallahassee is a regional city; it’s a little isolated from other large cities. Like, we have a city that’s double the size of us an hour away, like San Antonio. So, there was not a critical mass of people allowing our business to thrive. Also, we’d been in Tallahassee for ten years, we loved it but we kind of wanted to do something new. My wife lived here in Austin and Austin had an amazing food scene so we decided to move our business and ourselves here.

Sy: Was that hard, financially? To go from like, “this business isn’t working” and move your entire lives here?

SRSLY Chocolate: One aspect of this business is that we’ve had a Kickstarter to raise like 5000 dollars and that’s been our investment. Everything else- We don’t have any investors and there’s no angel thing going on and pretty much everything we’ve earned we put back into the business. To answer your question, yeah, we’ve had to make some tough decisions and there was a fair amount of sacrifice-

Sy: Especially when you’re new to it, you don’t know if it’s going to work.

SRSLY Chocolate: You don’t know if it’s going to work so you have to take that on faith. So, there were years where we weren’t making a lot of money and we were taking part-time jobs to make it work, a lot of belief in what it is. It’s only been in the past 3 years in the business’s 7-year history where we generated enough income to pay me and pay Robin and pay for our new kid and hire employees and that kind of stuff.

The other issue for us with chocolate is that our base ingredient comes a thousand miles away so how do you make it local? So, we find local ingredients to throw into those chocolate bars.

Sy: Yeah, because now it’s like you’re almost famous but nobody sees the beginning story.

SRSLY Chocolate: I appreciate you saying famous but I don’t know if that’s true.

Sy: I’ve seen you all over Austin.

Tiny Pies

SRSLY Chocolate: I’m just hustling, hustling every day.

Sy: I also wanted to bring up the collaborations you guys have done. What was your first one and how did you get so into it?

SRSLY Chocolate: The genesis of our collaborations is- well, local businesses are generally very collaborative, also very supportive of each other. Everyone is super nice and helpful. It’s kind of like a network that helps everyone out in different ways. The other issue for us with chocolate is that our base ingredient comes a thousand miles away so how do you make it local? So, we find local ingredients to throw into those chocolate bars.

Sy: Oh! That seems so obvious.

SRSLY Chocolate: I think the first one was Third Coast Coffee. We put coffee roasted by them into the bar.

SRSLY Chocolate: So, right now we’re collaborating with Niche Bread, Barton Springs Mill, Third Coast Coffee, Hi-Fi Mycology, and let’s see… Yegua Creek, they have pecans right here in Elgin. So, you know, wherever we can try to get local Texas botanicals and infuse them in some kind of way.

Aun: Where do you see yourself 5 years from now? Where is the foreseeable future goal?

SRSLY Chocolate: So, for us, we just need to keep on drilling. We’re just at a point where we are supporting ourselves but we’d really like to see us be a little bit bigger just because it’s safer that way. I’m not rich on a chocolate maker’s salary and I probably never will be and that’s fine but I think we need to grow because like “There’s a family” and “You got a kid” and that kind of thing, but also a big part of this is that Texas is a very large state so I’d kind of like to see us being the forerunners of Texas being about chocolate.

Sy: Fredericksburg would be amazing and you could collaborate with a lot of breweries everywhere just like with Uncle Billy’s. There are so many places.

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SRSLY Chocolate: There are so many breweries that we love and work with. So, I guess us… Quadrupling in growth in 5 years?

Sy: Because you just opened up a storefront recently so you have a lot of room to grow there so it’s like a beginning stage again.

SRSLY Chocolate: Yeah, that’s the idea. The idea is to have a big production facility and then have a kiosk downtown somewhere.

Sy: So, say you would do a farm to fork dinner and do like a chocolate coated meat. Have you done anything savory and sweet?

SRSLY Chocolate: Yeah, well the sky’s the limit in terms of that.

Sy: Well, with so much collaboration everyone’s getting to know each other but if you get really big you can help someone really small by pairing them with you guys.

SRSLY Chocolate: We’ve experienced the same thing, we’ve been very fortunate by having some larger businesses by having the owners act in for us and I would be very grateful to provide that for someone in the future.

Aun: Besides the bars and the dum-dums what kind of product line do you have coming out in the future?

SRSLY Chocolate: So, more wholesale stuff to restaurants like bulk chocolates. We’re looking at maybe some beverages, can’t share too much on that one. More powders and mixes; Baking mixes are an option as well. For us, it’s more collaborative things, more products being launched.

Sy: You have a great testing market here at the market.

SRSLY Chocolate: It’s great to get people’s responses here, for sure.

Sy: It feels at the farmer’s market you can really test it because yeah, you get people’s direct responses and you don’t have to make a lot of it, you can just try a few things. Because you can have a lot of ideas but you don’t know which of those will be successful.

SRSLY Chocolate: I still don’t. (Laughs) But yeah, absolutely.

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Aun: Where did get the name “Seriously Chocolate?”

SRSLY Chocolate: We fought over that- We don’t have a good origin story

(Laughs)

SRSLY Chocolate: What I can tell you now is that we make seriously good chocolate, we want chocolate to be a great and fine flavored experienced but chocolate can get a little snobby so wanted to make it accessible and playful so we took out the vowels, so that’s kind of the idea; Fun, playful and really good chocolate.

Sy: Have you made a lot of strong friendships?

 

SRSLY Chocolate: Yeah, here at the farmers market there are so many interesting, really genuine and wonderful people that being able to forge connections with them for a project is a lot of fun. So, absolutely, some very lasting friendships.

Sy: For people who want to break into the market, what’s your advice on how to start?

SRSLY Chocolate: So, two things: One, make sure you believe in the thing that you’re doing but also have an exit strategy if it doesn’t work- be realistic, have a thing where you’re like “I’ve been doing this for X amount and it’s not working.” And the second thing is; unless you’re getting investment money or something like that, if you’re doing organically and your doing it on your own just ask yourself if it’s part of your life trajectory, like, if you want to get a house and raise a family maybe it’s not the line you want to do it because it could be years of you could be getting income but you’re not getting that income so realize that there are tradeoffs with decisions like that and to be realistic about it.

Sy and Aun: Thank you so much!

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You can find SRYSLY Chocolate at Salt & Time, the farmer’s markets around Austin, Whole Foods, Wheatsville or purchase online!

Visit their storefront and factory! Thur-Sat 12-6pm 117 E 3rd St. Taylor, TX

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