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Crafting chocolate

Wm. Chocolate makes single-origin, bean-to-bar chocolate.

Will Marx, founder/owner, Wm. Chocolate.

Will Marx, founder/owner, Wm. Chocolate.

Photograph by M.O.D. Media Productions

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Wafting through the air at Main Street Industries in Madison is the distinct and delectable aroma of chocolate leading directly to suite 19. Inside, Will Marx creates small-batch dark chocolate bars from scratch.

Marx, 30, whose company, Wm. Chocolate [], bears his initials, is a single-origin, “bean-to-bar” chocolate maker producing about 70 pounds of one- and two-ounce flat chocolate bars each week.

While many may be familiar with craft beer or craft bourbons and spirits, the idea of craft chocolate is likely not as well-known. In fact, Wm. Chocolate is one of only four bean-to-bar chocolate producers in the state and one of only about 160 nationwide, according to Sjölinds Chocolate House in Mount Horeb is another.

Bean-to-bar means that for the most part, everything is done in house, including roasting and cracking, winnowing, grinding, and molding into flat bars. Marx also designs the labels and packages each bar.

For the most part there are only two ingredients in a Wm. Chocolate bar — cacao (the raw ingredient) and whole-cane unrefined sugar, although some bars may also require a touch of cocoa butter.

His dark chocolates range from a fruitier 65 percent bar made from seeds grown on the Anamalai farm in Tamil Nadu, a single estate in India, to a pure, 100-percent cocoa bar grown in Wampusirpi, a remote northeastern district of Honduras.

Marx is especially proud to be one of only a few American craft chocolate makers working with Kafupbo, a farmer-owned cooperative in Haiti, and appreciates any shipment he receives due to the country’s history of natural disasters and political strife.

He also works with Singing Rooster, a local nonprofit whose mission is to help Haiti through economic activity — selling Haitian coffee, art, and raw cacao —  rather than through charity.

In addition, Marx currently purchases cacao seeds from Belize, Ghana, Honduras, India, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Against the grain

Roasted cacao seeds.

Once cooled and cracked to separate the outer husks from the “nib,” Marx pours them through a winnower.

Cracked seeds are on the left, with nibs on the right.

A stone grinder pulverizes the nibs and whole cane sugar in the flavoring process. It may take as long as four days to reach the desired consistency.

After heating and cooling the mixture in a controlled tempering process to give it the preferred shine and snap consumers expect, the liquid chocolate is poured into molds, cooled, and packaged.

Ironically, Marx never studied food or chocolate, and he certainly never thought he’d become a chocolate maker.

In fact, with a BA from UW–Madison and a master’s degree in teaching from Columbia University, he considered a variety of career options prior to finding his way to chocolate: biochemistry, archaeology, social studies educator — even computer technology. At one point, he worked for his cousin in upstate New York as a dental assistant. In his spare time, he began reading books on foods and nutrition. “I just didn’t have that much on my plate at the time, or anyone telling me what to do. For me, food became a big deal,” he says.

Marx calls it his “kitchen awakening” that led him down a nutritional path to reject processed foods, including processed sugars.

It required a significant effort and lifestyle change, but he’s never regretted his decision to go against the grain.

“I didn’t want to eat what was in grocery stores and couldn’t buy what I wanted to eat, so I had to process it myself,” Marx explains. He drove to dairy farms to purchase raw milk and milled his own grain for breadmaking with a small grain mill he purchased for his kitchen.

Swearing off refined white sugar, he opted for natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and unrefined sugar, which he says is difficult to find here and “not on the American sugar spectrum at all.”

He eventually moved back to Madison about six years ago and worked at Epic Systems for a while (rumored to have one of the best employee cafeterias around). True to form, Marx brought his own lunch every day. “I really don’t trust anyone else when it comes to ingredients,” he grins.

At age 24, making chocolate was still not on his career radar. In fact, he gave it up entirely for nearly two years because he couldn’t find a version made with unrefined sugar, and his own efforts to produce chocolate with honey or maple syrup were falling short.

Undeterred, Marx began ordering small batches of cacao seeds online. “At first I was skeptical,” he admits. “How different could they really be from one origin to the next?” Very different, he quickly learned.

He then purchased his own stone-grinding machine as a Valentine’s Day gift to himself and began combining cacao beans with whole sugar cane juice.

The more he shared with others, the more positive feedback he received.

Marx says his business “break” came when he met Jonny Hunter, founder of Underground Food Collective, through a mutual friend. Hunter offered to help Marx sell his dark chocolate to the public.

Until relocating to Main Street Industries last May, Wm. Chocolate bars were being manufactured in UFC’s basement. “I owe a ton to Underground and Jonny. That was the beginning, really.”

Will’s chocolate factory

Cacao farmers grow and harvest pods from trees, and each pod produces 40 seeds (or beans). Typically they’ll be sold or combined with others at a central location or cooperative where they ferment and dry. “Someone is constantly watching over the process, which is key to getting premium seeds,” Marx explains.

He samples all seeds prior to ordering, looking for a quality of taste and an element of character and potential that is distinctly different from grocery store chocolate. “A lot of things can be different and weird and not necessarily good,” Marx opines. “I’m looking for something that’s different and also good.”

It’s not unusual for him to try 20 different small batches of seeds before settling on one unique enough to order in large quantities of up to 500 pounds. When the seeds arrive, the real work begins in suite 19.

“I’m super conservative when it comes to affording equipment,” Marx admits. “I may have to work harder, and it may require more finesse, but it’s saved me thousands and thousands of dollars in costs.”

The winnower, for example, was a prototype he purchased in Mount Horeb for a fraction of the cost of a new machine.

Chocolate dreams

Marx recently reduced the price on his artisan bars, which are sold in one- and two-ounce sizes at locations around Madison and beyond to both U.S. coasts. He sells about 15,000 bars a year, currently, and says the business is profitable, but there’s so much more to do.

“Pricing is an ongoing struggle,” he relates. “Most people see chocolate as a factory food, but the truth is, quality chocolate should never have been priced as cheaply as it was, and to get it back and make it fair is difficult.”

His immediate goals include increasing sales and developing a stable and regular customer base that will order year round rather than just around the holidays.

The market here is good, he says, but it’s not large enough. “I can grow here, but I also have to look elsewhere.”

Frankly, he’d like to make a larger impact.

“Many of the countries I purchase from are not particularly wealthy, so if I have an opportunity to pay a little more to buy good, quality cacao seeds from a country that needs support, I will. After all, I’m a small producer just like they are.”

Because specialty cacao trees thrive in rainforest ecosystems, Marx is also contemplating shifting his sourcing to producers committed to preserving that ecosystem and supporting their efforts and actions through his products.

“When you’re really small, you can’t make a difference by buying a ton of seeds, but maybe you can make a difference more symbolically by buying products that have a story and reminding people to be more thoughtful about what they’re consuming.”

Meanwhile, the craft-chocolate industry wrestles with the “single-origin” concept because it hasn’t really resonated with the public, he says. “In the industry, we’re really excited about it but honestly, we’re still waiting to see when and if it will take off.

“The conventional thinking, and a sure-fire way to make money, is that you shouldn’t focus on an origin, you should add flavorings. If I did that, I’d probably do better financially, but I’m not willing to go back on my principles. Adding things to chocolate is really not my thing.”

His thing is a continued commitment to whole, or unprocessed foods.

“I live this,” he states emphatically. “Plus, I have terrible health insurance, so I need to take care of myself in other ways.”

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