Brooklyn chocolatier has sweet spot for Dominican Republic.
“There’s an expression in chocolate: Every step is the most important step”
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Daniel Prieto Preston, an aerospace engineer and inventor, started and sold a company that specialized in neon sign electrodes, then developed satellite guided parachutes used by the U.S. military.
When he was done with that, in 2009, he turned his attention to something decidedly different and very challenging: making organic “beans to bar” chocolate.
“There’s an expression in chocolate: Every step is the most important step,” Preston says over the steady roar of machines at Cacao Prieto, his shiny 7,000-square-foot factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Cacao Prieto produces chocolate and liquors using cacao farmed on land that Preston’s family has owned outside Nagua in the northeastern part of the Dominican Republic for more than a century.
“The biggest surprise is just how much I like being a farmer,” says Preston, who is in his early 40s and lives in Red Hook.
“As a mechanical and aerospace engineer who grew up in the concrete jungle, I never imagined just how much science is involved in a self-sustaining farm.”
The farm was settled in 1900 by Preston’s great-grandfather Don Esteban Santos Prieto Casas, but the family’s original land holdings shrank during years of political upheaval.
Preston, born and raised in New York by a Dominican father and an Eastern European mother, had rarely visited there since childhood. But thanks to Cacao Prieto and his monthly trips to the D.R., he says he “has a huge family again.”
He was captivated by the traditional organic cultivation of cacao he discovered there and now oversees a 2,000-hectare expansion and the planting of 2 million cacao trees.
In the process, he took note of the “sweatings,” a pungent alcoholic wash produced by the traditional fermentation of cacao seeds.
“A couple of thousand years of recorded history and science on fermented foods and none of it was being applied to cacao,” he says, sounding like the man of science he is.
Using different yeasts to create new flavor profiles and armed with what he says is the first rum distillery license granted in New York City since prohibition, Cacao Prieto has transformed this wash into a line of smoothly sweet cacao rums and liqueurs named for members of his family.
Their gorgeously remodeled, red-brick, state-of-the-art factory on Conover St. now can produce up to 200,000 bottles a year in addition to hand-crafted chocolates and bark bars.
Master chocolatier Damion Badalamenti transforms the freshly churned batches of their singular dark chocolate into spherical bonbons, in both traditional flavors like almond praline and provocative flavors like spiced rum, absinthe and gold leaf.True to his past, Preston himself invented or redesigned the machines to meet the unique demands of artisanal chocolate manufacturing. The factory is set to open an on-site retail store and begin offering factory tours Friday, just in time for Easter.
The way Preston sees it, with his company the area has come full circle.
“In the mid-1800s, [Red Hook] was the main port of the Dutch West India Corporation, so all the cacao that was being taken from the West Indies would come through here as a stopover on the way to the famous chocolate companies in Europe,” he says.
“There was a story that this was the preferred route for sailors because they just ate chocolate and married mermaids.”