May 6th, 2021 | by Adam Dick
In the beginning of 2010, Dustin and I had no idea how to make chocolate. I wouldn’t even say we were “chocoholics”. We ate the occasional chocolate dessert that passed our way, but by no means did we LOVE chocolate as some do. So while we didn’t have much culinary experience to bring to the table, what we did have was 12 years of developing, honing in on, and refining our craft as carpenters and woodworkers. We didn’t realize it at the time, but now looking back over the last 10+ years, our prior career really set the foundation for us to build a small chocolate manufacturing business. The commitment to quality and craftsmanship that we developed during our years of making fine furniture and restoring wood boats has continued as a central theme as we develop our own style of “craft chocolate”. I want to dive into some of those guiding principles that have helped direct us along the way. Hopefully you too will discover that chocolate and wood may actually be more connected than you thought. One main concept that translates directly from a woodshop to chocolate factory, is the idea that every step in the process is the most important one. From hours spent picking out wood at the lumber yard, to days spent hand applying layer after thin layer of finish, each step along the way greatly impacts the finished product. The most beautifully constructed and finished chair made out of poor quality wood will seem like a waste, as the time spent does not match the quality of the finished product. Conversely, if you have the best wood and assemble the chair flawlessly, only to then paint it, it seems a disservice to the wood and construction. Every step must build on the previous, constantly improving the raw material during every part of the process. This results in the most beautiful expression of material, form, construction and finish. Only then does the chair feel like the perfect blend of art and function, and would be considered a high-quality item. We have taken this idea very seriously as we develop our production methods in our chocolate factory. When looking at the process through this lens, cocoa bean selection becomes equally as important as the process used to grind liquor. Refining the sugar becomes just as important as subtle nuances of dry conching. Not only is each step equally important, but it must also be executed with the highest degree of precision and consistency possible. We are continuously scrutinizing every step of our process, looking for ways to always improve quality, precision, and consistency.
Another carryover from our woodworking days is a healthy love of machinery. A finely sharpened hand plane, or a well set-up table saw will come alive in the hands of a skilled craftsman. We have spent years collecting old woodworking machines, fixing them up, and putting them back into service. It seemed one could never have enough machines! Each machine we purchased usually did only one task, but it did that task flawlessly. We had a machine for planing, one for joining, one for edge sanding, face sanding, ripping, etc. The idea that you could have only one machine that performed all the tasks required in a woodshop was a foriegn concept. When we first started our little chocolate operation, we used the standard stone grinder to make our first bars. We quickly realized that if we were going to make something of real quality, just like in our woodshop, it wasn’t going to be done with a single piece of equipment. The more we began to research the chocolate manufacturing process, the more we discovered that the flaws in our chocolate could be remedied by using different equipment. It was clear that grinding nibs and sugar are two totally different beasts and should not be processed in the same way using the same machinery. So, piece by piece, we researched, hunted, purchased, and restored machinery that would help us make chocolate that we were proud of. Every year, we add steps and machinery to the process, making it more and more complex, but in doing so, we have gained a tremendous amount of control over every step. Also, having more equipment at our disposal has allowed us options for creativity and latitude in production methods that best suit an ever-growing collection of products we make.
Workflow efficiency is also a critical lesson learned from operating a small scale woodshop. It doesn’t make sense from a consistency or efficiency standpoint to make a bunch of cabinet doors one at a time. Instead, we mill all the wood in one single run. Then we perform every step of the process for all the doors at the same time. In effect, we could build a dozen doors in just a slightly longer time than it would take to just build one door from start to finish. Maximizing on this approach has set us up to run our chocolate factory efficiently, giving us much more consistency from batch to batch of chocolate. Sometimes, making a larger batch of chocolate, or molding more bars in a run can actually lower the man hours per unit, leading to huge savings over the course of a year. This production style also allows us to focus completely on the single step we are accomplishing, often leading to higher quality, as only one variable is addressed at a time. It’s in this manner that efficiency and repetition will usually lead to higher degrees of precision.
While this is not an exhaustive list of the gems we gleaned from our previous career, it certainly offers some insight into the concepts that have guided us from the beginning. The American Craft Chocolate industry is still in its infancy, and many of us are still trying to define our styles, and techniques as we go. I hope that as we each continue to define “craft” in our daily work, we will strive to do the best we can with the resources at our disposal. I believe a rising tide lifts all ships, so keep up the good work!