An Expat’s Sweet Success Starting Tilín Cacao In Colombia

How This Digital Nomad Has Made A Business Of Colombian Chocolate

In Colombia, the chime tilín-tilín, tilín-tilín of the bell on the horse-drawn carriage still announces the arrival of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other products in small towns… as it has for centuries.

Just as the horse-drawn carriage connects Colombia’s hidden villages to other areas of the country, today Tilín Cacao is connecting the world to Colombian cacao and chocolate.

Tilín Cacao is the labor of love of American Danny Michlewicz, a Dartmouth grad originally from New York and a digital nomad whose first online undertaking was a ticket and events company that he founded in his dorm room.

Danny’s virtual ticket biz allowed him to travel the world for a year and a half. Then, in 2012, when his extended travels were coming to an end, he had another idea…

Danny wanted his next venture to have a social as well as an economic mission. He had always been curious about cacao, and he realized that chocolate production could be just the business idea he sought.

Danny’s timing was good. In recent years, the artisanal cacao industry has been growing along with the global market for high-quality chocolate.

Danny wanted to create a custom product that was also organic certified. He focused on Colombia, where he knew he could work directly with farmers to ensure the quality of the final creation.

After a year of testing different cacaos, Danny found an organization on the Caribbean coast that supports organic farmers. Working with this group allows Tilín to pay the farmers it buys from more than the standard market rate. This incentivizes farmers to perfect their fermentation process.

“It took about 18 months of development before I was ready to start making chocolate,” Danny remembers, “and another six more months before I was making good chocolate.”

Today, Tilín is producing high-quality artisanal chocolate that is also healthy. Tilín chocolate is unique in that it uses very few and very pure ingredients.

The 60% cacao bar, for example, consists of organic cacao and organic panela (unprocessed cane sugar grown in Colombia), and that’s it. No added sweeteners or emulsifiers.

Any additional ingredients—herbal tea, artisanal coffee, or sea salt, for example—are incorporated to accentuate the flavor profile and roast of the cacao. Just as the modern cocktail movement works to bring out the flavors of small-batch liquor without overpowering it with sweeteners, Tilín brings out the best in its cacao, a process so meticulous that trials take months.

Tilín chocolate is 100% handmade. Danny and his team are hands-on throughout every step, first working directly with the farmers to ferment only the best Colombian cacao beans. Then these beans are roasted and crushed. The nibs are separated from the shells before the beans are ground to create chocolate.

Next, flavors are added and the chocolate is tempered (settled), packaged, sealed, and shipped.

The mission of Tilín Cacao is simple: Connect people to the origins of cacao while showcasing the bounty of the superfoods that grow in abundance in this historically misunderstood country.

Essentially, Tilín Cacao is working to connect people to Colombia, creating a product that Colombians can be proud of and that the world can enjoy while also educating people on health, superfoods, and the beautiful land that is Colombia.

Tilín Cacao has come a long way in the five years since its inception. What began in Danny’s Poblado apartment—which friends and guests referred to as the “chocolate laboratory”—expanded next to a friend’s garage.

“When we began selling to Pergamino Coffee Shop, Namasté Mercado de Té, and other local organic stores,” Danny explains, “we needed larger machinery to be able to meet the demand.”

Today, Tilín Cacao occupies its own space in Providencia, in El Poblado. The space doubles as the chocolate factory and an educational store where people can learn about the origins of cacao and the chocolate-making process… while purchasing and tasting delicious Tilín chocolate.

Starting a business isn’t easy, and starting a business in another country comes with extra layers of challenge.

“Honestly, running a business in Colombia hasn’t always been easy… and I’m still learning as I go.

“You need to become familiar with the relevant laws, and you also need to be respectful of the cultural differences. Things are done a certain way in Colombia… just as things are done a certain way anywhere in the world. You just need to learn those ways.”

“Now, five years into this,” Danny admits, laughing, “I ask myself what was I ever thinking to get into this crazy business! It helps to keep a sense of humor.”

Most recently, Tilín has partnered with some of its first supporters, Namasté Mercado de Té and Pergamino Coffee, to create bars inspired by their products.

And Tilín Cacao has been spotted on the shelves of shops in Brooklyn, New York, and has made appearances in Germany at the ISM Sweets Expo and the BioFach Organic Food Conference.

Colombian cacao is increasingly sought-after worldwide, and Tilín is in a prime position to capitalize on the expanding marketplace. Danny is negotiating new partnerships in Europe.

Next time you’re in Medellín, you can pick up your Tilín Cacao products at Pergamino Coffee shop and Ceres Market in Providencia or at Namasté Mercado de Té in Tesoro Mall and Zona Dos Mall in El Poblado.

Soon you’ll be able to shop for Tilín chocolate at the Tilín interactive store and tasting laboratory to be opened on Vía Jardín.

Meantime, you can place orders online here.

Lauren Brown
Full-Time Colombia Expat

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