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Cuban coffee, cigars and chocolate? Little Havana opens a new chocolate factory

Make a list of things that come to mind when you think about Little Havana, and at the top of the list are Cuban coffee and hand-rolled cigars.

Near the bottom: Chocolate.

Carolina Quijano wants to change the order.

On the other side of the Little Havana welcome mural at the mouth of neighborhood, on Southwest Eighth Street and 27th Avenue, Quijano is making her chocolate dreams come true. She has built one of only two artisanal chocolate factories in all South Florida, which opens for the first time Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. And she's hoping to whet Miami’s appetite for chocolate made only in the 305.

In this 1,200 square-foot building, Quijano makes bean-to-bar chocolate. That is, she’s importing beans from select cacao farms she has visited, making them into chocolate and turning it into treats that live up to her company’s name: Exquisito Fine Chocolates.

“I want when people think of chocolate in Miami that they think of us,” she said.

First she’s going to have to turn them into believers the way she was converted: by tasting chocolate like they’ve never had before.

A Paris-born love for chocolate

Exquisito Chocolates is opening Miami's first chocolate factory in Little Havana. Owner Carolina Quijano stirs chocolate in the melanger, a machine that conches and refines the chocolate. Emily Michot

Quijano, 33, was already a chocoholic by the time she traveled to Paris in 2013 for a six-figure management consulting job that had her flying 150,000 miles a year.

A graduate of the University of Miami, she had taken basic chocolate-making classes at nearby Miami Dade College in her downtime. She knew how hard it is to melt, temper and work with chocolate.

But after tasting a velvety smooth hot chocolate in the city of Montmarte, she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“On the plane ride back I was absolutely obsessed,” she said.

She spent the next year and a half making chocolate in her 450 square-foot studio apartment on the Upper East Side with supplies from Michael’s, while still working at her demanding job.

“I’d stay up until 3 in the morning, just experiment,” she said. “That was my boot camp.”

Exquisito Chocolates is opening Miami's first chocolate factory in Little Havana. Chocolate swirls inside the melanger that conches and refines it. Emily Michot

She learned some hacks of the trade on YouTube, where other artisan chocolate makers — “an online group of chocolate nerds,” she said — would share ideas. She learned how to rig a juicer to crack cacao beans and to use a shop vac to separate the cocoa nibs from the husk.

Her friends would get samples in brown paper bags with questionnaires, asking them to rate different characteristics of her chocolate. It’s the kind of survey she was making for her consulting job.

“The merging of my two nerdy worlds came together,” she said.

Then she took a leap.

'The second I tasted it, I melted'

Exquisito Chocolates is opening Miami's first chocolate factory in Little Havana. Bags of cocoa beans from Guatemala, Haiti and Peru decorate the entrance of the factory. Emily Michot

She decided to crack into her savings and try her hand at becoming a full-time chocolatier.

“401ks are cool, but this is cooler,” she said.

She would give it two years. She moved to Miami, where her mother and brother live, one of the cities that always felt like home, even though she was born here but raised in Barranquilla, Colombia. She moved her Michael’s melters and YouTube improvised supplies into a warehouse in west Kendall and started making chocolate.

Using her hundreds of thousands of banked airline miles from her days in corporate America, she visited family-owned cacao farms to source her beans. She was looking for quality but also farms that paid workers fairly and used sustainable methods to grow the fruit trees. Cao Chocolate, based in Pinecrest since 2012, with experimental cacao groves in the Redland, is the only other chocolatier producing bean-to-bar chocolate in South Florida.

She returned to Miami to make distinct chocolate from each of seven farms in six different countries: Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti and Peru.

Exquisito Chocolates is opening Miami's first chocolate factory in Little Havana. Handmade and handwrapped chocolate bars line the shelves in the lobby of the factory underneath photos of the farms where some of the cocoa beans are purchased. Emily Michot

Quijano put her chocolates in front of some of Miami’s best-loved sweet shops, such as Azúcar Ice Cream and the Salty Donut — and they loved it.

“The second I tasted it, I melted,” said Azúcar owner Suzy Batlle. “I’m thrilled with it. The public is thrilled with it. You can taste the difference.”

Her dark chocolate uses only chocolate and sugar. She doesn’t use soy lechtin to make the chocolate creamier, a step some of the world’s top chocolatiers are just starting to adopt. Her milk chocolate adds only cocoa butter and milk powder. She tastes it over the course of 96 hours as she refines the texture and flavor.

“Every morning starts with a chocolate tasting. Feel bad for me?” she joked.

You might have already tasted it

Exquisito Chocolates is opening Miami's first chocolate factory in Little Havana. Owner Carolina Quijano displays two different truffles, the Miami Vice (L) and the Guatemalan Rum. Emily Michot

Azúcar immediately switched to using only Exquisito’s chocolate. Salty Donut did, too. Soon she had orders coming in from the Four Seasons to individual stores such as West Elm, Threefolds Cafe and Books & Books.

Exquisito sells 13 different kinds of chocolate bars, including bars from each of the six countries where it sources its cacao beans. They also make 12 varieties of truffles, including some infused with alcohol such as Guatemalan rum, Grand Marnier, Champagne and Hennessy.

Lincoln’s Beard Brewing in Miami has twice made beer with her chocolate, including a special collaboration with Syracuse’s WT Brews called Sweet Release, a Belgian stout with cherries and Exquisito chocolate.

“She has an incredible passion for what she does, and it helps that her chocolate is great,” Lincoln's Beard head brewer John Falco said. “It really helps us dial in our beer.”

She even has gotten the blessing of other successful, longtime chocolate confectioners, such as Romanicos Chocolate on Coral Way, which uses imported Venezuelan chocolate to make its truffles.

“She makes a chocolate that is world-class,” said Romanicos founder Alejandra Bigai, who has used special batches of Exquisito’s sugar-free chocolate for diabetic clients. “She’s not just doing it well. She’s doing it super well. She’s managed a balance between flavor and texture that I love.”

A neon sign inside Exquisito Chocolates, Miami's first chocolate factory that will be opening soon in Little Havana. Emily Michot

Exquisito’s Chocolate has won four bronze medals from the Britain’s Academy of Chocolate, including three awarded last Friday. And that’s one way to show Little Havana there’s room for the scent coming from her chocolate factory amid the coffee shops.

“I just love the excitement of the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s taking a lot of risks.”

Carlos Frías is the Miami Herald food editor. Follow him on twitter: @carlos_frias and Miami Herald Food @MiamiHeraldFood

Exquisito Fine Chocolates

Address:2606 SW Eighth St., Miami

Hours: Opens May 19 and subsequent Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Starting next week, Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Private tours and tastings are available any day of the week.

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