From Bean-to-Bar & Beyond: 3. How to Become a Chocolate Maker

Have you always dreamt of a career change? Want to know how to become a chocolate maker, but don’t know where to start? And how do you make great chocolate, and become commercially successful? In this third blog in my ‘From Bean-to-Bar & Beyond’ series, here’s what Conner Haines told me about how he started his Mayhawk company.

Any why not read this alongside my other blogs in the series? The first one’s about ingredients in chocolate, and the second’s about how chocolate’s made. You’re going to need to know all that to become a chocolate maker!

Jump to:
– My visit to a small batch craft chocolate maker: Mayhawk Chocolate
– How do you start out in chocolate-making?
– How do you become commercially successful and make great chocolate?


My visit to a small batch craft chocolate maker: Mayhawk Chocolate

Chocolate bar wrappers designed by Conner at Mayhawk Chocolate Maker, Lydney, Gloucestershire, England, UK
Fabulous chocolate wrappers designed by Conner at Mayhawk Chocolate. Photo credit: Mayhawk Chocolate

It was last year when I first came across the craft chocolate-making company, Mayhawk Chocolate, last year. I found their chocolate and whole ethos really inspiring, so I wrote about them in my article about Abergavenny Food Festival.

I was then delighted to be invited to Mayhawk’s small factory in Lydney, Gloucestershire, England, UK. Company owner Conner was massively generous with his time in telling me about, and showing me, all things chocolate.

From the start, it was clear that Mayhawk are a proper craft bean-to-bar chocolate maker. I was impressed that they use the best-quality ingredients and do everything themselves in-house.

I’ve already recounted what Conner told me about how chocolate is made and its ingredients. But he also shared loads with me about how he’d got into chocolate-making, and had made it a success. And that’s what this article’s about.


How to become a chocolate maker

 Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Bar. Chocolate Maker

Defining craft chocolate-making

Craft chocolate should have been made with the best natural ingredients, skill, care, craftsmanship, and minimal processing. All this should result in chocolate that tastes absolutely amazing. It will be infinitely superior to, and healthier than, mass-produced chocolate made with inferior ingredients.

True chocolate makers carry out the whole complicated chocolate-making process, starting with the cocoa beans. So how do you set about becoming one?

Researching, experimenting, and taking it slowly

I asked Conner how he’d first got into chocolate-making. He explained that, initially, he’d taught himself the arts of craft chocolate through reading, experimenting and researching.

He’s grateful for what he learned from the first bean-to-bar pioneers who started up in the early 2000s. These initial ‘home-brew’ experimenters were generous in sharing their successes and failures online. Therefore, much of the source material Conner drew on in the early days was online, and in YouTube videos.

But over time, Conner has taken all he gleaned in those early days to a whole new level. Over five years he built and adapted machinery, experimented loads, and learned from his own frequent process innovations.

Conner laughs now when remembering those early days. And for the budding small-batch chocolate maker, he cautions leaping in full-time straight away. “You might not be very good at it, and mistakes cost money!” Instead, he suggests going slow, taking the time to learn as much from what you do wrong, as what you do right. “Take time to find out if what you are doing is going to be right for you long-term”.

So when he started his company in 2007, initially Conner made chocolate part-time in his home kitchen. At that time, he used his father’s engineering workshop to build or adapt some of the machinery he needed. The chocolate he made then was mostly for fun and experimentation, plus a little for gifts and selling. And as that second income grew, it helped cover his continuing start-up costs and experimentation.

Chocolate maker at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica
Conner started experimenting with chocolate-making in his own home kitchen. I witnessed something similar(!) going on when I visited the Chocolate Museum in Limón Province, Costa Rica, in 2011. Here, rudimentary chocolate is being made with basic utensils.

‘Cheque book artisans’ vs ‘no money’ start ups

While he did start out with reading and experimentation, Conner says that only gets you so far in bean-to-bar chocolate-making.

One way to start up your own company is by being a ‘cheque-book artisan’ and buying all the machinery etc. you might need. To set up in chocolate manufacture quickly, you need to have the money to buy expensive equipment and hire staff.

So in principle, if you have the money or investment capital, you can start up a chocolate company in a few weeks. But most chocolate companies who start this way are not bean-to-bar. They tend instead to buy-in industrially-processed cocoa liquor. That makes it much easier to start a chocolate company, but may well mean you don’t end up making great chocolate.

But alternatively, Conner says, you can start with no money as he did. Doing it his way will find you being a willing craftsman, engineer and designer. Instead of throwing money at it, you will build, beg and adapt what you need to start up. Conner had no money, so there was no other option. That’s especially as he wanted to do all of the chocolate processing himself, starting with the cocoa beans.

Starting-up this way, you always have to ‘find’ a way. You cannot just ‘buy’ your way out of trouble. Most of it comes down to gaining experience, as you’re learning, to solve the different problems which crop up all the time.

Cocoa beans being ground the old-fashioned grinder at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica. Chocolate Maker
Cocoa beans being ground the old-fashioned way at the Chocolate Museum, Limón Province, Costa Rica, which I visited in 2011. Starting up as a commercial bean-to-bar chocolate maker, you will eventually need a professional stone-grinder

Innovation and adaptation for success

To perform all the processes to make chocolate at a basic level, you do need certain machinery. This includes an oven, a cracker, a winnower, a stone-grinder, a refiner/conche, and perhaps a tempering machine. My article about how chocolate is made tells you more about precisely what each machine is used for.

These machines are often expensive. And for small-batch chocolate makers, they are often ridiculously under-powered and breakdown – or fantastically over-priced and industrially-sized. To overcome this, for most small-batch chocolate producers it’s all about innovating and adapting for what you need.

For instance, Mayhawk, and other pioneer chocolate companies, initially used a Champion Juicer for cracking beans, instead of an expensive specialist cracking machine. Mayhawk have moved on from this now. But Conner recommends it to anyone starting out in chocolate-making.

As Mayhawk moved on from their first early years, they started to study the workings of medium-sized professional chocolate-making equipment. They deconstructed and simplified their complexity, distilling down to their essence what the machines did to process chocolate.

Over the years, Conner’s regular visits to his father’s engineering workshop helped him to design, refine and improve his own chocolate-making machinery. That, in turn, enabled him to increase Mayhawk’s chocolate production and productivity to full-time, small-batch commercial levels.

Each time he would build a newer and better version of a machine, or adapt some equipment to increase production and productivity. All that would be based on using what he’d learned from previous machines or methods of working. He says: ”This sounds easy, but it took years – not days”.

And Conner suggests that it’s not just Mayhawk who have built themselves up like this. According to him, many of the best bean-to-bar small-batch chocolate manufacturers have similar stories of starting out.

Winnowing as an example of innovation

What Mayhawk did to innovate around the winnowing process is an example of all this. Conner suggests a winnower is the first machine you should home-build. That is, if you’re serious about starting out to make chocolate from cocoa beans on a budget,

Winnowing machines costing around £18,000 (US$25,000) can winnow 30-50kg of cocoa beans an hour. But Conner is rightly proud of the winnowing machine he instead built himself, and has refined over time. Costing only a fraction of the price, it can winnow over 40kg an hour.

And in another example of keeping chocolate-making costs down as a small business, Mayhawk uses over 80% renewable energy. The means to achieve this – solar panels on his factory roof, and a nearby wind-turbine – were one of the first things Conner proudly showed me when I visited.

Cocoa bean husks at the Chocolate Museum in Costa Rica. Chocolate Maker
Winnowing separates the wispy cocoa bean husks from the cocoa nibs. Conner has innovated and adapted by building and refining his own winnowing machine. It competes with a commercial one on performance, but was a fraction of the cost

 

How do you become a commercially successful chocolate maker and make great chocolate?

Owning the whole bean-to-bar process

Mayhawk completely own the whole bean-to-bar chocolate-making process. That’s because they believe that outside companies will never have the same vested interest in the outcome as they do. For them, it’s the only way to ensure you can make great chocolate.

“I never wanted to outsource any part of the company’s production line. That’s why we work from cocoa beans and not processed cocoa liquor. It’s why we even print and design our own environmentally-sensitive packaging.”

Mayhawk Chocolate being wrapped. Chocolate Maker
Foil wrappers are the only thing that Mayhawk Chocolate buy in. Everything else is made in-house. Photo credit: Mayhawk Chocolate

Mayhawk, like all the best bean-to-bar companies, make chocolate starting with ethically-sourced and highly-prized cocoa beans. Choosing instead to use cocoa liquor, you would be starting your processes over 50% down the line from the start of how chocolate is made. You’d be unable to control any of the vital cocoa bean sourcing, roasting and grinding stages. Yet in skilled hands, it’s precisely these stages that create the subtle flavour profiles of the best chocolate.

Conner says, “If we were making chocolate brownies, for example, then using cocoa liquor or couverture would be fine. But it isn’t fine for chocolate bars. And that’s especially when the customer is led to believe the company has ‘made’ the chocolate. You then get into the arguments about what does the word ‘made’ mean? And to what extent is the chocolate maker actually a chocolatier? I think the biggest difference is that all the top chocolatiers I know buy only the best chocolate. And they publicly promote the company which made the chocolate that they use. Meanwhile, many others in the industry try to fudge the issue, to take full ownership of the industrially-sourced chocolate that they sell.”

Iteration

Mayhawk pay the utmost attention to perfecting the tiniest details of the whole chocolate-making process. That’s just like many of the best bean-to-bar chocolate-makers.

Conner says “At Mayhawk we believe that each small batch of chocolate has to be better than the last. Iteration, and the subsequent and incremental improvement of what you do, is the key to mastering making great chocolate.”

And certainly, I noticed on Mayhawk’s factory walls many inspirational slogans and illustrations. All were about innovation, and striving to make a product the best it can be. They were from industry leaders, designers and thinkers including, among others, Christopher Bailey, Jonny Ive, Dieter Rams, and Confucius.

Conner believes that Mayhawk’s success in making great tasting chocolate has come from a strict, continued focus on making subtle, incremental changes to their working methods. And this is paying off, as Mayhawk’s reputation is growing. Despite only starting up in 2007, they now sell internationally. The flagship Hankyu department store in Osaka, Japan, has invited Mayhawk’s chocolate to their prestigious week-long British fair in October 2018. And personal chefs in California are now using Mayhawk’s chocolate in cooking for ‘A-list’ celebrities.

15 individual chocolates. Chocolate Maker
Photo credit: Mayhawk Chocolate

Initial impressions count

Conner knows that initial impressions count. So initial impressions of Mayhawk’s chocolate need to count. He wants to evoke an emotional response from the person consuming his chocolate.

He sells premium products, so he knows that only about 50% that people buy will be for themselves. The other 50% will often be for gifts, and Conner wants a happiness and joy ‘follow-through’ to the ultimate recipient.

As he says, “It really is how we think, ‘how is the person going to feel when receiving our chocolate?’ Emotion – coming from the taste and look of our chocolate – is very important to what we do, and is why we do what we do.”

What an absolutely wonderful ethos, so often lacking in the food industry these days! Embrace that, and all the other tips here, and perhaps you too can become a successful maker of great chocolate!

Raw unroasted chocolate with black fig by the Mayhawk Company chocolate maker
Photo credit: Mayhawk Chocolate

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