Nestled in the basement of a little white church near the Sax-Zim Bog, Clyo Howard sifts through cocoa bean nibs and shells while Beryl Wells Hamilton roasts a batch of Bolivian cocoa nibs.
With a population of less than 200, the community of Meadowlands seems an unlikely place to find an artisan, bean-to-bar chocolate-making operation. But the Meadowlands Chocolate Company is not just surviving, it’s thriving, in an off-the-beaten-path corner of the Northland.
Meadowlands Chocolate’s philosophy? Keep it simple.
“There’s only two ingredients - cocoa beans and cane sugar,” said Wells Hamilton, co-owner with Howard of the chocolate company they founded in 2013.
“... We could add cocoa butter. We could add other stuff and hide that flavor instead of getting that flavor out of the beans. But we want people to be amazed by the flavors that come from the land.”
The lands those flavors come from include Peru, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Bolivia. Beans from each nation carry their own, unique qualities and flavor notes. They are used to make single-origin bars, each neatly wrapped in brightly-colored packaging.
Now, with business booming both in sales to chocolate fans and also to businesses that use Meadowlands Chocolate as an ingredient, Wells Hamilton and Howard are preparing to move out of the tiny 200-square-foot church kitchen. They’ll be moving nine miles down the road to facilities at Alesches’ Accommodations, a former church group camp which now mainly provides lodging to birders who visit the Sax-Zim Bog, come June 1.
Inspired by TV show
When they moved to Meadowlands five years ago, Wells Hamilton and Howard - who have known each other since college, and describe themselves on Meadowlands Chocolate’s website as “best friends, partners and lovers of art, chocolate, and each other” - were artists by trade.
Wells Hamilton created copper garden art, while Howard was a potter. But the cost of materials kept increasing, and moving around from art show to art show became exhausting. They started looking for a change.
They watched an episode of a PBS cooking show, “Caprial and John’s Kitchen,” that featured an organic bean-to-bar chocolate company - providing inspiration for a career change. Howard admits he had his doubts at first.
“Beryl said we can do this. And I was skeptical,” said Howard, a self-proclaimed foodie whose love of food comes from the places he has lived, including the Twin Cities, New York City, Chicago and the Puget Sound region of Washington. “But we thought, ‘Well, we are going to try it.’ So we bought our first little stone grinder and here we are.”
At first they started buying one-pound bags of cocoa beans, then two pounds at a time until they launched a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, which allowed the duo to purchase their first 150-pound sack of beans and four more stone grinders, and expand to become a full-fledged business.
An experience selling leaf-shaped chocolates at a northern Minnesota art show provided reason for optimism.
“We were in Longville, Minn., and we had made a little bit of each kind in leaves and we sold out it two hours,” Wells Hamilton said. “That was in August of 2013. We were like, ‘Oh, this is going to work.’ ”
Wells Hamilton said it took countless hours of research, watching YouTube videos and talking with other chocolatiers on how to work with cocoa beans and create their product. One of the more obscure tips she learned was to use a large plastic syringe, like the kind used for administering medicine to horses, to get the melted chocolate into the molds.
“The learning curve was really hard, because we want it to be great,” she said.
They get their beans in bulk, sacks weighing between 110 and 154 pounds, from the various countries of origin. They then shell and winnow the beans to get the raw nibs. The nibs then go in a roaster before Howard shears them in a juicer, which transforms the nibs from dry, little cocoa pieces into a coarse, oily substance.
The coarsely-ground nibs then go into a stone grinder for between 54 and 67 hours, depending on the variety of bean, where they are broken down into a very fine texture - a particle size of 17 microns, to be exact.
Then the sugar is weighed out and added to the stone grinder. Meadowlands’ chocolate is 70 percent cocoa and 30 percent raw cane sugar.
After more than two days in the stone grinder, the chocolate goes into a tempering machine that heats it up to 112 degrees, to ensure it has the right appearance and texture, amongh other things. Finally, the chocolate is sucked into a syringe and evenly leveled into the molds using a dental vibrator and placed in a freezer to set.
Each batch results in about 10 pounds of chocolate. Howard said they have the capacity to produce 100 pounds of chocolate a week.
“It’s really rewarding to have perfectly tempered chocolate, where it snaps and it’s beautiful and shiny and tasty and everything,” Wells Hamilton said as she hand-wrapped and sealed, with a glue stick, a bar of Venezuelan chocolate. “And that’s what we’ve been perfecting.”
Used in ice cream
After Howard and Wells Hamilton took the time to learn their craft and slowly introduce their chocolate to the public by way of farmer’s markets and festivals, it wasn’t long before Meadowlands Chocolate drew the attention of Northland businesses.
Nicole Wilde, owner of Love Creamery - a Twin Ports ice cream cart focused on locally sourced ingredients - said she first saw bars of Meadowlands Chocolate for sale near the register at Duluth Coffee Company.
“I just thought, ‘That is an interesting name.’ I didn’t know that the name referred to an actual town,” Wilde said of her reaction upon seeing the brightly wrapped bars of chocolate for the first time.
Wilde says she uses different varieties of Meadowlands Chocolate to create different flavors of ice cream. She said some profiles go better with coffee, while others go better with mint flavors.
“But mostly I do a lot with freckling with their chocolate,” she said.
For the “freckling” technique, Wilde melts the chocolate down until it gets “soupy.” She then pours it into the cream as it is churning, which creates little chocolate specks throughout the batch of ice cream.
“So every bite has chocolate in it. It’s a thin, less-chunked-up piece of chocolate that just kind of melts in your mouth,” Wilde said. “I like that with my product. You want people to taste their chocolate and that is a good way to do it.”
Duluth’s Best Bread, Whole Foods Co-op and Duluth Coffee Company are just a few of the other area businesses that sell or use Meadowlands Chocolate in their products. Duluth’s Best Bread uses the Venezuelan chocolate for its chocolate croissants, while Rustica Bakery in Minneapolis uses Peruvian chocolate from Meadowlands in its croissants.
When it moves to Alesches’ Accommodations, Meadowlands Chocolate will operate out of the former fellowship hall kitchen. There won’t be a retail shop at that location.
“We are looking to see that the buildings that are here are useful in some way and we figured that having them here is a good use of the space,” said Cindy Alesch, who along with her husband, Mark, owns Alesches’. “It helps us and it helps them.”
How did a world-traveling foodie and his fellow artist and college friend end up in Meadowlands? Howard and his brother built a cabin just north of nearby Cotton in 2001, he said, and he loved the area so much that he and Wells Hamilton decided to make it their permanent home.
“So here we are. We have bear, timber wolf, 14 trillion deer and the quiet. Compared to all the cities we grew up in and lived in, quiet actually has a sound. And I’m still just awed by that,” Howard said with a chuckle. “I love it.”
“We are really glad we discovered this,” said Wells Hamilton. “Because it’s artistic, it’s colorful, it’s fun, it smells good, it’s challenging. It has everything we need for that. We are grateful every day for that.”