Like lots of American kids, Rebecca Ankenbrand grew up eating and making her fair share of chocolate chip cookies.
There was just something so warm and comforting about the melted chocolate chips, and Rebecca figured out early on that she was a young chocolate-addict.
These days, Rebecca’s love of chocolate has only intensified. But this time when she reaches for a bag of chocolate, it’s not the store-bought variety – it’s her own concoction.
Over the past few years Rebecca has trained herself in the art of bean-to-bar chocolate making. She buys her own cacao beans, roasts them, grinds the cacao and mixes up her own form of chocolate magic.
As the chocolate maker at Sweet Minou, located inside of Cultiva Labs on 25th and Randolph streets, Rebecca’s days are filled with the noise of grinding beans, spinning bowls of tempered chocolate and the rich aroma of chocolate.
But Rebecca doesn’t just love the taste of chocolate, she’s fascinated by the wide variety of cacao beans from around the world.
During high school, Rebecca said she transitioned from her beloved milk chocolate to dark chocolate. She started reading articles about the health benefits of dark chocolate, researching how it’s grown and processed and how beans from different countries vary in flavor.
Some cacao beans have an almost fruity taste, and others are more fermented and earthy. While it didn’t take much, if any, training for Rebecca to love chocolate, she has since trained her palette to know where the cacao beans are grown when she tastes chocolate.
Her research opened up a whole new world of chocolate. Soon, she was buying the most unique chocolate wherever she could – online, on family trips or at speciality stores. When her mom asked her what she wanted for Christmas one year, Rebecca sent her to an online chocolate retailer.
Over time chocolate became Rebecca’s hobby instead of just her favorite treat.
In college, Rebecca studied English and French before studying abroad in France. She was shocked to see that every small town she visited in France had its own chocolate shop and chocolate culture. Rebecca took specific side trips to various regions where she could learn more about chocolate making and taste confections from around the world.
When she got back from her trip she worked toward her Master’s degree in French, but also started experimenting with chocolate on the side. She’d bring in treats to her classmates and family members and they all said the same thing – “Learning French is great, but maybe you should make a career out of chocolate…”
She tucked that thought away while she finished her Master’s degree and tried to figure out what she wanted to do next. Rebecca knew she wasn’t interested in teaching and she wasn’t ready to get a PhD, so she decided some kitchen experience might help her with chocolate making.
She started working at Cultiva, chopping and prepping food for its high volume of customers and she really enjoyed the experience. Eventually the owners of Cultiva found out that Rebecca was making chocolate in her spare time and asked her if there was some way they could incorporate her chocolate into the shop. So, in December 2015, Rebecca and the Cultiva owners officially launched Sweet Minou.
It’s been a great collaboration, Rebecca said, because Cultiva is obsessed with great coffee in the same way that she’s obsessed with chocolate. She said it feels pretty great to call herself a full-time chocolate maker, and her hope is that this is just the beginning.
Rebecca laughed a little when she thought about her high school self being obsessed with buying and tasting chocolate. It seems a little silly, she said, and yet also completely normal.
Rebecca makes chocolate because in some way she feels like that’s what she’s supposed to be doing. It’s her way of supporting ethically sourced materials, creating a unique product and establishing her own chocolate culture in Lincoln, Nebraska.
When she tells people she’s a bean-to-bar chocolate maker they often give her a funny look because it’s not a ‘typical’ job, but that’s yet another thing Rebecca loves about her work.
Her story is about moving toward her passion, learning and taking risks. She has carved out a place for herself in the world of chocolate and she’s determined stay in her sweet spot.