Next time you sink your teeth into a chocolate bar, think about what goes into making it. Actually, most chocolate makers start with partially processed chocolate. But a committed and passionate group of artisan chocolate makers are embracing the bean to bar chocolate process.
One of the more unusual things to do in British Columbia is to take a peek behind the scenes and meet the folks who are leading the way in artisan chocolate making.
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Artisan Chocolate Makers in British Columbia
The bean to bar chocolate making process involves buying raw cacao beans by the bag and following all the steps – winnowing, conching, tempering – to develop these beans into delicious bars and confections.
Why do they want all this extra work?
Some are a bit obsessive and enjoy the challenge of maximising the flavour of each type of bean.
All the bean to bar chocolate makers I’ve met are concerned about where the beans come from and the lives of the farmers who produce them.
In Canada, 12-year-old Soma Chocolatemaker in Toronto is the granddaddy of this ethical artisan chocolate revolution but the bean to bar chocolate movement has moved west.
On a recent trip to British Columbia, I explored the bean to bar chocolate world by talking to chocolate makers, learning about their process, and eating chocolate.
Here are the stories of a few pioneers in British Columbia bean to bar chocolate making.
1- Sirene Chocolate – Victoria
Taylor Kennedy from Sirene Chocolate was long a chocolate hobbyist before he went pro.
He gave up a career as a travel journalist and photographer after he and his wife had twin daughters.
That happy event coincided with the rise in popularity of bean to bar chocolate.
Kennedy developed a business plan and got his first bars in stores in 2014.
One of the things I did on Vancouver Island was to visit Kennedy in his chocolate factory, an outbuilding behind his house in a residential neighbourhood of Victoria.
His machines are set up around the room, 65kg burlap bags of Madagascar beans piled in a corner.
In a separate room, heavy discs of chocolate age on a shelf.
What does he like about chocolate making, I asked? “Everything,” he said.
“I started in journalism because I wanted to make a difference,” he said.
“One of the huge appeals of chocolate is that all through the chain of industry I can make it better for someone. In lots of industries, it’s hard to find a concrete thing you’re helping people with at any stage of the process.”
He especially enjoys helping the farmers, who live in remote places in developing countries and are at the bottom of the supply chain.
Kennedy loves being part of the bean to bar chocolate world.
Artisan chocolate makers help each other by sourcing beans and sharing farmer referrals and even go in on big shipments together.
“That’s absolutely not something big chocolate makers do, who are so protective of their beans,” he said.
Sirene’s basic bars contain only cacao and sugar.
Kennedy also makes a bar with salt and another with cayenne. But he doesn’t add soy lecithin or other common additives used by many chocolate makers.
Kennedy’s twin daughters are his best critics. When he took them trick or treating last Halloween, they rejected most of the chocolates.
“They’d open the chocolate candies, smell them, and say, ‘Daddy, this is bad chocolate,’” Kennedy reported.
For now, chocolate lovers can buy his bars online or in select shops in Canada, the USA and the UK.
2- Take A Fancy Bean To Bar Chocolate – Robert’s Creek
Take a Fancy Bean To Bar Chocolate also developed out of a hobby.
For many years, Becks D’Angelo made chocolate confections for friends and family around the holidays.
About 10 years ago, she started researching the process of making bean-to-bar chocolate.
She and a chocolate-loving friend scoured the internet for info and managed to buy the necessary equipment.
“Even the initial results produced without any prior experience were phenomenal,” she said. “What a difference from commercial chocolate!”
D’Angelo started selling her chocolates direct to customers through farmers markets and in a few local stores before she made the move into a commercial kitchen.
“I expect to expand into more shops in the coming months, but my intention is to always remain a small company, based in the local farmer’s markets.
In this way, I feel I can keep enjoying what I do and maintain control over the ingredients that I use.”
Take a Fancy’s ingredients are simple, pure, local and organic whenever possible.
She makes her caramel from scratch and in the case of her vegan coconut-based caramels, she even makes her own coconut milk.
D’Angelo’s best seller is the gooey pecan, soft caramel with vanilla bean, roasted pecans and fleur de sel inside milk or dark chocolate.
Creative bar flavours include the tropical sea, a dark milk chocolate with lime, sea salt and roasted cocoa nibs, and the marathon, a 72% dark with fennel, sweet orange and sea salt.
Caramel flavours include spiced rum and habanero. Take A Fancy is currently using beans from Peru, Tanzania and Costa Rica.
If you’re visiting Vancouver, check Take A Fancy’s website for a current list of farmers markets, holiday markets and artisan fairs.
D’Angelo loves to meet her customers.
3- East Van Roasters – Vancouver
East Van Roasters began as a social enterprise project under PHS Community Services Society.
PHS was trying to devise employment opportunities for women struggling with addiction living in one of their properties, the Rainier Hotel in East Vancouver.
They contacted Shelley Bolton, a local filmmaker and social services worker, and suggested she start a bean to bar chocolate factory and coffee roaster.
“Film taught me how to balance a budget and be organised,” Bolton told me when I visited her in East Van Roasters, a charming café tucked into this socioeconomically challenged neighbourhood.
“You’re asked by the director to do the impossible. It’s very good training for any other work. You have to be super creative in a really tight timeline.”
Bolton came through on all counts. She did a brief internship with Madre Chocolate in Hawaii, then returned to Vancouver and started making small batches at home.
She signed on an experienced chocolatier and had a chocolate business up and running by spring of 2013.
East Van Roasters employs three full-time staff, and eight to twelve women in PHS’s employment program, most of them living in the Rainier.
The women start with one four-hour shift a week, and, if they prove responsible, work their way up to 20 hours or more.
Bolton has seen many positive changes in the women. Some have gotten off government assistance, or have reunited with a child taken by the state. But Bolton doesn’t rush them.
She appreciates working with PHS, which she describes as “forward-thinking, all about dignity, humanity, caring for people, allowing them to be who they are.”
Social enterprise is great, but of course, I was curious: How is the chocolate? Delicious.
Their café offers treats baked with their chocolates, as well as bars, confections and coffee they roast on site.
This is a lovely place to read the paper, drink coffee and eat a brownie while visiting Vancouver.
Top sellers include Aloha crunch (toffee and black Hawaiian sea salt in 70 per cent dark chocolate), seasonal truffles, Mayan spice drinking chocolate and caramels with cacao nibs.
East Van has expanded production into a building across the street and is about to add a bakery.
Vancouver locals and visitors can look forward to more baked goods soon, including chocolate Irish soda bread.
“Our biggest problem has been not being able to produce enough,” Bolton said. “We had to turn orders down last year.”
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4- Wild Sweets – Richmond
Chief chocolate officers Dominique and Cindy Duby operate their artisan chocolate operation out of Richmond, British Columbia, which is on the coast south of Vancouver but also in the metro area.
The Dubys take their chocolate further than many other bean to bar chocolate makers, who often stop at the bar.
Wild Sweets gets very creative, turning their chocolate into holiday-themed sculptures (think sleighs and trees), exquisitely decorated and packaged caramels, and cakes.
You can tell these two are having as much fun with design as with chocolate making.
The Dubys are award-winning authors for their books on chocolate, including Wild Sweets: Exotic Dessert and Wine Pairings, Wild Sweets Chocolate and a series called Definitive Kitchen Classics.
They are both trained and acclaimed chefs as well as chocolate makers.
Wild Sweets will ship you their chocolates.
But you’ll have to come to pick up some of their work in person, at the Atelier Micro-Store in Richmond.
This deluxe chocolate boutique is open only on Saturdays.
If you want to try their apricot milk chocolate crème brulée gateau or a chocolate tarte macaron – delicacies too perishable to ship – this is where to go.
Visitors have the added fun of watching the chocolate being crafted, as the micro-store is located inside the Wild Sweets laboratory.
If you visit in the summer, you may also catch the Wild Sweet crew selling at an artisan or farmers market.
5- Beanpod – Fernie
Venture out of the Vancouver metro area and you can get your bean-to-bar artisan chocolate in the little Rocky Mountain town of Fernie.
Owners James and Mary Heavey were inspired to learn the chocolate-making process after a 1996 visit to a St. Lucia coffee plantation.
They wanted to make their own artisan product, and chocolate seemed like a good match.
After extensive research, they started production, using 100-year-old equipment. Yep, they were determined to make chocolate the old-fashioned way.
This labour-intensive method takes six days to make a batch of chocolate.
Years of practice have led to extensive variety in their chocolate making.
They make four different types of chocolate – 70%, 85%, 100% and milk – and craft it into truffles, candies, hot chocolate and 60 flavours of bars.
Fernie is in the far southeast of British Columbia, near the Alberta border.
So far, there is only a handful of bean to bar chocolate makers in British Columbia.
While artisan chocolate making might never catch up to coffee, the movement is growing.
After all, what sane person doesn’t love chocolate?