October 31, 2017
The nights are drawing in. You know you need hot chocolate!
Over the past couple of years the name Knoops has been mentioned to me multiple times, commanding attention thanks to the hushed and reverential tones in which it was spoken. Down in Kent, where I live, and neighbouring East Sussex, where Knoops is located, this hot chocolate bar has been causing a happy kind of stir. When conversations turn to chocolate, which I find they often do, ‘Knoops’ is uttered like a prize secret. But the thing about secrets of the chocolate kind; I have a compulsion to SHOUT THEM OUT LOUD!
When I finally made it to Rye, the lovely seaside home of so many people’s ‘secret favourite place’ I was taken aback. I found much much more than I expected! Not that I didn’t trust all those friends who had been charmed. But I wouldn’t have blamed them for being charmed by pretty mugs, and assorted pink toppings and all the other fripperies that could turn this most comforting of drinks into the star of its own show. What I found was at least as charming, but much more interesting. And you know well that with chocolate I can get very interested indeed.
Knoops is the brainchild and passion of one man, Jens Knoops, German born, erstwhile global traveller, who has blessed this little corner of our green and pleasant land with his delicious and thoughtful creation. I have wanted to hang out with the extremely charming Jens ever since my first visit. Crafting every order of hot chocolate by hand hasn’t left him with an awful lot of time to do such frivolous things as interviews. So I simply had no choice but to keep visiting. But on a bright autumn October day I finally ran him to ground.
Over breakfast at The Whitehouse on the high street – I can vouch for the excellent porridge – Jens told me a little of his background. I was not surprised to find that his start was both creative and visual. A photographer, whom commercial, fine art, and video kept busy for the early part of his career. Studying fine art photography at Bournemouth was his full introduction to the UK. But the advent of digital, for Jens lacking the craft of the analogue photography he had trained in, prompted a move into video. He worked for a number of years travelling the world, shooting video for an American company working on opinion research. When pushed to decide whether he would move to the US, he chose to take all he had learned and create his own business. He had feel for people’s need for small luxuries, and felt that while chocolate was widespread, there was a gap to be filled when it came to hot chocolate.
The site of Knoops, a perfect little corner nestled close to the famous arched Landgate of the old town and overlooking cobbles on one side and pretty marshland the other, was a gift of a find. The building used to be stables for the forge next door. It is pocket-sized, and listed, so couldn’t accommodate a full kitchen or many types of business. But there is space downstairs for all the storage needed, and upstairs Jens has fashioned it into a small but perfectly formed hot chocolate haven. It works along the lines of an Italian or Portuguese coffee bar, but with a very stylish, rather more Scandinavian, look to it. The back wall behind the service counter is almost entirely covered by a board displaying the many different percentages of chocolate to choose from, which origins they are, some indication of their flavour profiles, and a tempting list of spices and extras you can add to your order.
Having visited now many times I am always impressed by the care and attention Jens takes in helping people choose what they will most like. Some come informed, some don’t, and Jens chats about what things are, discusses existing chocolate likes, anything to try and ensure they love what he makes them. With seventeen or eighteen chocolates to choose from this isn’t easy. For example many are attracted, sometimes out of sheer machismo, to the 100%, without really knowing what they are getting. Jens reads their faces, aiming to interpret for them if needed. Crediting every customer with discernment, allowing each the time to consider at length, and guiding with interest and care, is quite some skill. Jens has that. And then he makes each drink to order; pouring off a small sample to taste and ensure it meets his exacting standards. There are special homemade marshmallows to have on the side if wanted!
So what is the hot chocolate like! His attention to detail, and the customer, has very much informed the style of hot chocolate now served. He began in 2013 with just six chocolates featured, and creating thicker hot chocolate that he now serves. He has lived in Puerto Rico, and the Central and Latin American style informed his choice, along with the vogue in Paris for hot chocolate so thickyou can stand a spoon up in it. But after learning that many of those drinks are thickened with corn starch, and finding that his customers in Rye wanted bigger drinks, he tweaked the recipe. He froths the whole milk he uses to make the whole lighter, or one of the many non-dairy milks he stocks if requested (soy, almond, coconut, oat – he did have rice but it creates no froth so he took it off). The resulting drink is still a rich, smooth, but more pourable creation, which he serves generously portioned in white bowls. You can order a half size, which has often allowed me to share with a friend and sample more than one type. If you want a very thick hot chocolate you can request it specially, in which case Jens will alter his current recipe accordingly.
Jens and I, with our combined love of chocolate and all the delights on offer, had trouble choosing which to sample that day for me to write about. We picked two, to give you an idea of how things roll, but the options are endless. Firstly, against my natural inclination but for the purposes of research, we went for a 28% white with thyme and pink peppercorns. Out came the pestle and mortar. The herbs are infused fresh. The spices are all ground from whole and supplied by The Rye Spice Company. The result was glorious, with thyme in the aroma and a surprisingly light quality. It was delicate, aromatic, and comforting beyond belief. I was totally converted. Bestselling infusions include sea salt, bird’s eye chilli, fresh mint, orange zest, star anise, lavender and cinnamon. One customer brought him a favourite truffle, made of 80% dark chocolate with black pepper and sea salt. Jens recreated it for her in a hot chocolate, and that is now their regular order. I also love the sound of nutmeg and white chocolate – thoughts of rice pudding! – I think that is top of my list for next time.
For our second choice of the day we went purist and opted for the 65% dark. This is a Casa Luker chocolate, with aromas of spice and caramel, fruity with a liquorice finish. It was fun to taste it and then taste what happened to it after Jens had worked his magic. The heat and milk had opened out the flavours. The aroma and a strongest flavour note was malt, with lots of fruity back notes. It tasted like all the best things about winter baking, but clean, pure, intense. I loved it.
There are seasonal flavour combinations suggested, even seasonal marshmallow flavours. A select few locally made bakes are there to accompany your drink if you wish. Opening hours are understandably different depending on the season. But they are always displayed in the window, on the website, on Facebook, so check before you go.
Jens knows his chocolate, but also knows his market and that his job is to choose chocolates that work for his business, that respond well to the dual alchemy of milk and heat he offers them. And that can come in at the price point the Rye customer will pay. He selects from chocolates that include Barry Callebaut, but also Casa Luker, as mentioned, and some wonderful things from Chocolate Madagascar. And boy does he know what to do with each one of them. This is not London, where a six or seven pound price point might work. No, in Rye you get bespoke hot chocolate for four or five pounds. It is worth every penny.
In the words of the man himself:
‘I love what chocolate does to people, physically, mentally. It is a small luxury but it allows you to escape, to Peru, to Madagascar. It is familiar but exotic. I love it when a kid comes in and says I want milk chocolate with sea salt and cinnamon, or pink pepper!’
Incidentally, if you need any other excuses to visit Rye, to ensure you manage a trip to Knoops, you don’t have to look very far. Rye is bursting with antique shops, chic interiors boutiques, bookshops and galleries. There are fish and chips to be had. And it is picture postcard gorgeous.
As I made my home, from the seaside flats surrounding Rye’s pretty hilltop to the rolling Weald, I was on a high. A high that wasn’t wholly down to the heady cocktail of theobromine, caffeine and sugar I had just imbibed. It had much to do with the sheer pleasure of finding something made with care, passion and sincerity, that was utterly delicious!
Thanks for a lovely day Jens.