To test the old saying that good things come in small packages, look no further than a single Tia Coco chocolate.
Try a rose-infused truffle, with a dainty smattering of flower petals atop its gleaming chocolate coating. Or a cashew butter cup, more substantial, subtler and less cloying in flavor than its commercial peanut butter counterpart.
You’ll find the richness you expect from traditional dairy-based confections, but these sweets offer organic, vegan, gluten-free indulgence by the bite. Treats from newly launched Santa Fe sweetmaker Tia Coco are free of refined sugar and dairy, and they’re Paleo Diet friendly, said Christianna Uehlein, who owns the business with her fiancé, Will Brandenburg.
“We won’t produce anything we wouldn’t eat,” said Brandenburg, who along with Uehlein is a CrossFit coach at Undisputed Fitness and embraces a paleo lifestyle, which centers on eating whole foods. “It just so happens that vegan, gluten free, dairy free is easy to do when you have the simplest, purest ingredients. All good in, all good out is the theory there.”
These are sweets so virtuous, you can have them for breakfast, Uehlein said. That includes a lineup of half a dozen truffle flavors ($3.50); cacao nib and cashew butter cookies, the latter of which Brandenburg has even dubbed “breakfast cookies” ($3.50); cashew butter and almond butter cups ($3.50); and almond delights, a healthier take on an Almond Joy ($4.50).
Uehlein, 30, is a self-taught chocolate maker, and her experimentation in the kitchen began when she was just 12, making healthy versions of peanut butter cups and Snickers bars.
“We were raised pretty alternatively, all on organic food, so my mom wouldn’t let me eat the other stuff,” she said. “And I was like, ‘I want to eat that!’ So I made it from all organic, healthy ingredients.”
Uehlein and Brandenburg met three years ago at Undisputed Fitness, but didn’t go on their first date until a year and a half later when they started discovering striking similarities in their upbringings. It was, quite literally, love at first lodging: She grew up in a yurt in Montana; he lived in a teepee with his family in Northern New Mexico until age 6. They both recall living without power or running water, living off the land and being raised with dietary alternatives to more processed, mainstream food habits.
“That’s a big piece of how we bonded in our relationship because there’s so many similarities there,” said Brandenburg, 40.
Uehlein’s mother supported her culinary creativity; her younger sister served as chief taste tester. She moved with her family to Santa Fe 12 years ago and, after years spent as a dancer, eventually joined the CrossFit community.
Tia Coco, which was named by her 3-year-old niece who calls her “Auntie Coco,” had been simmering for a couple of years, and Uehlein gained a reputation as the chocolatier for Body Cafe. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that she and Brandenburg decided to make Tia Coco’s formal debut.
They are now working from Verde’s commercial kitchen space, and Uehlein taught Brandenburg her sweets-making secrets (which he executes while wearing an ever-changing assortment of festive aprons).
“He picked it up really quickly, like he does everything,” she said with a smile.
“She’s a magician,” he countered with affection. “I’m just following directions; she’s got it all in her body.”
He added: “Chocolate is special because of its artistic process, where you source the most premium, simplest ingredients, and you put those ingredients together, and they really make something special because of the actual alchemy that happens when the chocolate forms. It’s the ability to know the textures and the timing — those things are why people are chocolatiers.”
They’re selling their goods at the Railyard Artisan Market and the Eldorado Farmers Market, but if you’re craving an advance order, you can reach out just about any way you can imagine: Call, email, message them on Facebook or Instagram, and work with them to coordinate pickup time and location. They’re also launching a subscription box program, where you can sign up to receive a monthly selection of chocolates, and are supplying weddings, events and social gatherings with vegan sweets as well.
Next up: developing the wholesale end of business so they can sell Tia Coco goodies in retail stores.
“We want to be that healthy indulgence, or that thoughtful gift someone can give, to just be happy and enjoy food,” Brandenburg said. “Because that’s why it’s fun for us.”
But Tia Coco’s indulgence shouldn’t be viewed as some fleeting moment of joy in a day of dietary deprivation. Their chocolate, they say, shows that a “healthy” treat isn’t a tradeoff: That’s a lesson they both learned in childhood and one they hope to pass on both to their customers and their own future kids.
Her mother doled out spirulina balls — the green superfood mixed with tahini, honey and chocolate — to Uehlein and her siblings when they were children. Now, Grandma gives them to Uehlein’s nieces and nephews, who call them “green chocolate.”
“When you grow up with that and you get used to it, you don’t go through all those issues that a lot of people go through where you think, ‘I’m not supposed to have that [sweet],’ because you have all this abundance of yummy things that are made into healthy treats,” Uehlein said.
Added Brandenburg: “It’s important to find those alternatives and change that paradigm so it’s not a guilt thing; it’s just a vibrant, healthy emotionally connected organic lifestyle.”
They find value in helping others open their eyes to the full spectrum of healthier eating they’ve known for their whole lives — especially as more people are focusing on the benefits of whole, nonprocessed foods.
“It’s been really empowering for both of us to have grown up that way and feel subjugated in a way from general culture as we were growing up and teenagers and those formative years, and then coming back around in our adulthood to seeing that the way we were taught is really what a lot of people are trying to get back to,” Brandenburg said. “So that stigma is gone, and it’s nice to be empowered in those belief structures and not be the odd kid who brings the healthy lunch to school.
“It’s not Oreo cookies, it’s spirulina balls — it’s in now, and that’s because it’s good and people are becoming really healthy and living well. It’s nice to be in that vein with everybody else.”