Natural State Medicinals’ cannabis-infused chocolates win rave reviews from Arkansas medical marijuana cardholders in our orbit, so we called up Trevor Swedenburg, head chef for the White Hall (Jefferson County) cultivator, to find out his secrets. Swedenburg was previously chef at Flyway Brewing and at 21C.
How do you think the edibles made in Arkansas compare with those in Colorado or California or other states that have been doing this longer?
That’s a tricky question and a really good one as well. In each state you go to there’s going to be regional flavors, regional tricks of the trade, but here in Arkansas we really try to focus on deriving from local for local purposes as natural as possible; hence the name Natural State. But when it comes to others, we rival them in prices and really rival them in flavor compositions as well.
What do you think sets yours apart from others?
Our actual chocolate. We have a sustainable chocolate source. The company that we use has been doing their chocolate for about 200 years, and they got into Vietnam after the war and taught the Vietnamese people how to grow the cocoa bean. And it helps the Vietnamese people rebuild their economy, rebuild their city structures and give us what Vietnam is today.
Where is that chocolate from?
It’s grown in Vietnam and processed in Belgium. I have a hard job here. I had to eat like 40 to 50 kinds of chocolate trying to figure out which one I wanted to use, and I came across this one. It’s a dark chocolate that hits you like a milk chocolate.
We also try to find companies that will help us locally and support them as they’re supporting us by letting us use their products. So we’ve partnered with Onyx Coffee in Fayetteville, and we’ve also partnered with the Ozark Nut Roasters.
Could you talk about the process a little bit? What were some of the things you learned that surprised you?
Probably the most shocking and frustrating thing about working with chocolate in this case is how fickle or temperamental, for lack of a better and punnier word, it is to temper the chocolate. The French used to say that if you were running a little bit hot that day, like in your own body temperature, that you shouldn’t mess with chocolate that day because you will never get it to be in temper. So going through and learning all the ins and outs of the confection world, and that’s even through our hard candies and gummies as well, you have to have extreme attention to detail.
Could you talk about some of the products you make there?
We have a very limited range here until the market and the state allow us to open up a little bit more. But we have hard candies called Petit Roches, which means “little rock.” We have our gummies; we have two different kinds of chocolate, a white chocolate line and a dark chocolate line; and we have our honey line.
I wonder how much the regulations limit what you can do and how much creativity is possible within that. How do you stand out?
That is really going to the quality of chocolate and the quality of the products because we can’t dress up the bars like you would see on the back of most chocolate bars you’d buy or something of that nature. So it’s an artform of kind of making it unattractive to children but still attractive enough to sell. That’s a tricky fine line to walk.
Gummies can’t be colorful, right?
To my knowledge, from the get-go I’ve had to put black food coloring in my gummies because kids don’t like black-colored gummies. I’ve had to reformat my chocolate bar a couple times because the state wouldn’t allow me to have anything but triangles because children are terrified of triangles. So I gave them a rectangle that contains squares that have triangles in it and that’s how I was able to put out my bar. The child safety on all of our packages statewide is very important and we follow that to the T.
What’s a typical work week like?
Literally, that’s changed out through the many changes of our process. It started out with me with one table, a machine and a couple of racks. And now we have about 15 staff members underneath me and literally, those guys, I trust them on my bread and butter. We walk in and they are basically doing the processing as I’m being able to construct a new kitchen but develop new recipes. It’s run very much like a service kitchen, but it’s totally a production kitchen.
What do you think of the gummy and hard candy production here and how much room does it have to grow?
I think it has a lot of room to grow. We’re the only ones currently with hard candies out on the market. Gummies, a lot of the gummies that are on the market right now are all pectin-based. That’s something called a jelly, which is actually a traditional British candy. I think I’m maybe one of two that has an actual gelatin gummy out on the market. It just goes back to what people want and it’s the variety that we give them. The only one that doesn’t really have a variety is the Petit Roche or the hard candy side. That one is diabetic friendly, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free. It’s kind of meant for more of the elderly or people [with allergies].