A cafe selling 22 different types of hot chocolate has opened in Manchester. Moving into the former Chop’d site on Cross Street, we visited Knoops on the morning of opening (21 April) to try some hot chocolate and chat to the cafe’s founder.
Knoops is named after founder Jens Knoop. His name is of Dutch origin – though Jens is originally from northern Germany – and it translates as “button”. A cute coincidence as he essentially sells chocolate buttons. In case you’re wondering, you do pronounce the k and the n, though he says he’s enjoyed many different variations on pronunciation from customers.
The brand started in the pretty village of Rye, East Sussex on 18 April 2013 making it just over 10 years old. The Manchester store is its tenth branch, and the first in the North, though it took about nine years for the mother Knoops to start producing baby Knoops. He says it feels “surreal” to be opening in Manchester.
“I’m the chocolate person,” says Jens, “There’s no money in my brain. Chocolate coins, that’s it, and sometimes they melt.” So he has hired a team of people that do have business minds to help him roll out his brand while he focuses on his love of chocolate, its history, and its complexity.
For someone who isn’t businesslike, he’s very ambitious. He makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t want to stop at 10 Knoops. He wants there to be one on every high street. There has been previous mention of Knoops becoming “the Starbucks of hot chocolate” but that undersells the quality and passion behind the product. The word gourmet has been so overused it’s lost a bit of its value, but this is a true gourmet experience.
There are a cool 22 different types of chocolate on offer, from sweet and creamy white chocolate with less than 30% cocoa, right up to the intense 100% cocoa option. Two thirds of the menu is vegan friendly, and there is a choice of alternative milks – at no extra cost – including hazelnut milk. There are vegan marshmallows too. It’s important to be inclusive, he says.
When he opened in Rye, he said there was very much a “not another coffee shop” response – until locals came in and tried it – they were won over and it was a huge success. “We’re adding something to the culinary scene, “ he says, “It’s not about elbowing your way in. Yes, we do great coffee, but we are so much more than that.”
“I always knew what chocolate gives people. Physically, comfort, going back to your childhood, the escape to Venezuela, Colombia, the gourmet experience, the customisable aspect of it. I think people wanted that. People just got a bit fed up with coffee. There were so many coffee brands out there and in the end there wasn’t much diversity. You can have [hot chocolate] as an adult, you can bring your kids, they can have the same drink. We treat the kids like adults, educate them, compliment them on their choices. It’s a shop for everybody.”
Knoops also does both iced chocolate – think iced coffee, a light, refreshing cold chocolate drink – and milkshakes made with “real ice cream” and a choice of six types of chocolate. Pastries come via Manchester’s own Pollen. Jens tells us he wants to support local businesses as much as possible. He’s keen to go and meet the team at Dormouse. There’s coffee too of course, 100% Arabica from Brazil, exclusive to Knoops, which can be added to chocolate for a god tier mocha or taken as an alternative.
Sustainable sourcing and building relations with growers is very important to Jens. He’s just come back from Ghana where many of the blends come from. He also buys from Venezuela’s chocolate veterans the Franceschi family – who approached him after seeing an article on Knoops in the New York Times.
“We work with very specific selected chocolate makers – small and big,” he says, “I’ve just been in in Ghana, which was sensational. I mean, the nicest people. I’ve seen the improvement in farming there. It’s work to be done. We are working with third world countries. We cannot just project our standards on them. It just doesn’t work that way. But I’ve seen so much improvement there regarding child labour, education, soil erosion, deforestation, and so on. They’re doing so much work and there’s so much progress. I’m flying out to Colombia in May to visit one of the bigger chocolate makers and then in June to Venezuela.”
We try a 49% dark milk chocolate from Venezuela and it’s one of the favourites of the four we try. I confess, I’m not a big chocolate lover but I still find something to love – and will be back in for the 100% cocoa (made with beans from the Solomon Islands) at some point. Jens says, that’s why they have 22 different options, there really is something for everyone. He tells us one store manager in Chelsea orders a 100% with a double shot of espresso in it. Truly hardcore.
You can add all kinds of things to you hot chocolate. From chilli to rosemary to fresh orange zest – and even salt. One of the best sellers is a classic 34% milk chocolate with added sea salt which Jens says works as the chocolate has a caramelly note, so this is liquid salted caramel chocolate.
And if all this sounds ridiculously indulgent, just remember that cacao is actually good for you. “Cacao has an ingredient called theobromine which is a heart accelerator,” says Jens, “It opens your arteries.” After our early morning flight of hot chocolates, our team zooms back to the office as if we’re wearing jet packs.
Knoops has only just arrived on Cross Street but Jens already has his eye on more sites in our region – and probably world domination too. “I think this could work in the Sahara, or in the deepest forest,” he says, “When I looked at the demographic when I started in Rye, it was everybody. I didn’t expect that. I thought it would be much narrower. Everybody came in. Every cultural background, dietary requirement, gender, age.”
There’s an art to making the perfect hot chocolate, says Jens. It’s not just a case of whacking your favourite chocolate bar into some hot milk. He’s had some disasters with chocolate that tasted great to eat but was “a car crash” when he made hot chocolate from it. This guy takes his craft really seriously and after 10 years of refining the product, you can be sure you’re in safe hands at Knoops.
Knoops Manchester, 68 Cross Street, Manchester, M2 4JQ