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Sweet! Kilwin‘s heads south of the border for chocolate sensations

Glen Young - February 22nd, 2010
Sweet! Kilwin’s heads south of the border for chocolate sensations
By Glen Young
With a little help from some improved technology and an adventurous spirit, Kilwin’s Quality Confections of Petoskey has embarked on a new venture in chocolate making that has taken its owners far ‘south of the border.’
The company, started in Petoskey in 1947, has evolved into one of the most popular chocolate outlets in the country. Recently, Kilwin’s developed a line of “single origin” chocolate bars derived from faraway lands.
Whereas most of the confections the Northern Michigan business produces contain a blended chocolate to start, the new bars all originate from single sources from Ecuador, Mexico, Tanzania, Peru, and elsewhere.

Company owner Don McCarty and his wife Robin traveled to Mexico in 2007 to taste local cocoa. In Oaxaca and Tabasco, the couples visited small plantations. “We went on a chocolate culinary trip,” he says. “We tasted a whole bunch of Mexican chocolate.”
Among the varieties the McCartys tasted was Criollo. “It’s the closest to the original Meso-American chocolate you can get,” McCarty says.
The trip also provided the business (which has more than 70 independently-owned franchises around the country) with an opportunity to import their own chocolate, something they had always relied on other, bigger importers to do. “It was our first shot at getting chocolate,” McCarty says of the Mexican trip.
The idea for the new bars was spurred by improved technology, allowing confectioners to blend, or “conche,” their own chocolate in smaller, more controlled batches. The more compact machinery allows Kilwin’s to roast their beans, which are then ground into a bitter chocolate mass known as “chocolate liquor.” The liquor is turned into “couverture,” or what is more commonly called “chocolate.” This can then be blended in a variety of ways to create newer and more refined chocolates.

Couverture is 33 percent or more cocoa, according to Kilwin’s general manager Joe Audia. “The market for the product is huge and there are so many layers,” Audia says of the new single origin bars. For the right taste and texture, the secret is in the blending.
“What you’re really tasting is an emulsion of a solid,” Audia says of how cocoa is transformed into chocolate. “The whole secret is to get the mixture to less than 20 microns,” he says, explaining what the human tongue can detect.
Importing chocolate from Mexico proved a challenge, as Kilwin’s had to act as its own importer. McCarty says it is easier to work with viable importers who are already bringing cocoa beans in from the origin countries.
Most of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa, and primarily from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Cocoa beans grow in pods on the trunks and branches of cocoa trees. Harvesting the beans means cutting the pods with a machete, then opening to remove the 60 or so beans inside. A three to five day fermentation process is then followed by roasting, winnowing, and grinding, which produces the chocolate liquor. Bean origin, as well as fermentation time, roasting time, temperature and conching ultimately determine flavor.

Last fall Audia and McCarty ventured to the Dominican Republic to visit cocoa plantations there and to seek out new tastes. They visited experimental plantations, as well as those that are part of a larger cooperative. “On average, a cocoa plantation is about 10 acres and privately owned,” Audia says. The work is largely done by hand.
Audia says cocoa trees require the pollination of midges, a gnat-like insect. Cocoa trees do not like direct sunlight, so growers plant banana trees alongside them to the mutual benefit of both. Water pools in the shade of the banana leaves, providing a breeding ground for the midges.
“We’re moving slowly, cautiously,” Audia says of the new products. “We want to make it for people who want it, but don’t want to buy tons of it.” Kilwin’s is making their covertures in 100 lb. batches.
“This is something new that we want to try because we think it’s really cool,” McCarty says. He says the key to making a good single origin bar is the right percentage of cocoa to other ingredients. The bars the company is currently making have a cocoa content of between 50 and 80 percent. “You can pretty much figure it out by tasting the liquor. We taste a lot of chocolate,” he adds with a chuckle.

The consumers Kilwin’s hopes to target with their single origin bars are those who might also appreciate fine wines, or artisinal cheeses. “Our market is someone who is interested in the variations of taste,” Audia says.
McCarty says the taste you get when you buy and roast a batch of beans is impossible to replicate precisely. “When you buy a single origin bar, it’s a one shot deal. There’s no guarantee on getting the same taste again.”
The two agree that it’s been a learning experience.
“We’re learning and it’s causing us to be better chocolatiers,” says McCarty, who has owned the company since 1985.
Kilwin’s currently makes 12 single-origin bars, using beans from seven countries. The bars are available at their franchise locations, as well as online. For more information, visit the Kilwin’s website at .

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