To borrow an excellent phrase from the Scots, it was a dreich day that Shana Wilkie opened her factory door to The Makers. Her modest business is located in a small industrial estate a short distance from the bustling town of Midleton.
Wilkie exudes a child like energy and enthusiasm for what she does – it’s infectious. Her small frame weaves in and out of machinery pausing every so often to explain how a machine she just got delivered from Amsterdam works to why there are different chocolate tastes depending on the region it originates from. Her complexion hints at an exotic mix, she was born in Barbados. On her father’s side, her grandmother is South American, her grandfather is from the Caribbean and on her mother’s side they are English, German and Irish.
Her big smile betrays her gregarious nature that no doubt has helped her grow her business from a home based experiment to her present factory in just three years. People just seem to want to help her and perhaps that is down to her honesty, ‘I probably should not say this but I’m not a business person. I would not work just for the money. If I was trying to do this as a job I would not last a day.’
‘I wasn’t a huge chocolate fan,’ she surprisingly reveals. Wilkie studied communication and design in Athlone Institute of Technology and after that she spent ten years as the production manager for the Tribune Newspaper.
Her love of learning led her to take short courses as a type of hobby. From health and safety courses to sculpture to a chocolate making course in Dublin. It was that course that really piqued her natural curiosity. She started to research all things chocolate, ‘I could not believe what I was reading! From the different variety of beans to how their regions affect the taste. And then I started tasting them and it was amazing,’ she smiles as she reflects on that revelation. ‘I had no idea how many people make chocolate! I had never seen a cocoa bean or pod. I just became fascinated with it’s history, and everything about it.’
Chocolate is a compelling subject, it used to be a currency and some argue that it was instrumental in the invention of the microwave not to mention it’s relationship to the slave trade.
She started experimenting through tempering with different regional varieties of beans in her kitchen. There are there types of cocoa beans the criollo, trinitario and forastero. The forastero bean is usually used for mass production, over 90% of the world’s cocoa is made using bulk production.
When she was made redundant she had hardly any money and like most people during the recession owed money. However her obsession with chocolate helped guide her to her current vocation.
‘The criollo has regional flavours,’ she snaps some chocolate bars to explain the difference in smoothness even though they are the same bean, one smashes the palette with berries whilst the other hums subtly along with mild fruitiness. It’s incredible the difference and already you can sense Wilkies’ evangelicalism working.
Only 5-7% of the world’s chocolate is made from this bean. It mainly grows wild in the forest and is mostly organic and fair trade. The cocoa pod comes in all different colours from orange, to dark blue to brilliant red. They grow on the trunk of the tree and about ten to fifteen pods grow in a year versus the forastero which has about forty to eighty pods per year. The criollo bean has thousands of unique flavours so one can see the appeal to Wilkie.
Wilkie’s chocolate has two different criollo bean amounts, 75% and 89%. It is dairy free, gluten free, soy free and nut free.
Bean To Bar
Bean to bar is when you make everything in house as Wilkie does. She sources the beans from a farmer in Peru that she has a good relationship with, that means that he is not being ripped off but is being paid a fair price for his crop and in return he continues to grow a quality product for Wilkie.
Wilkie is a one woman show. She roasts the beans, then runs them through a funnel which cracks them at the base, you may be wondering how that happens? Well Wilkie winds a hand crank which crushes the beans. Then she is left with the cocoa nibs which she sorts through by hand first, picking out stones and flat beans. Then she winnows them through another small machine. Beans go out one end and shells go out another, the process takes hours as she runs them through several times. Once finished she adds them to the grinder.
Huge impala granite stones grind them for forty-eight to sixty hours. Then it becomes the base chocolate, she then adds cocoa butter and cane sugar. Then she tempers them into the chocolate she sells.
It is a week long arduous process and it’s mind boggling to think that Wilkie does it all herself, ‘I don’t think about it too much or else I would have a heart-attack!’
The farmer in Peru that Wilkie gets her beans from recommended that she ship them with another chocolate business based in Amsterdam to save herself money. That tip led her to form an ongoing mentorship with Chocolate Makers Enver and Rodney, their business is the most sustainable company in Amsterdam, they even deliver their beans to their factory by bicycles.
They are four years further along in the chocolate business and that fact continues to benefit Wilkie. It was them that put her in touch with a factory that made her bespoke chocolate grinder, ‘my friends in Amsterdam got this prototype made for me,’ she touches the machine proudly, as it just arrived that week.
For Wilkie it was instrumental to her life’s direction to learn that, ‘small groups of cocoa farmers realised that if they grow a sustainable, organic and quality crop then they don’t have to sell it for next to nothing to the bigger chocolate producing guys. They can sell it to small producers like me, who actually care about how they are growing it and in turn they can then make a future for their family and sustain the land.’
‘I want this business to be about the connection with the farmers that grow the beans and my local community’. She is still exploring how that translates into working with her area.
For example she needs a more efficient winnower so the mechanical engineering lecturer from the University College Cork is going to see if his students can solve this problem as part of their studies. She also is talking to schools about programmes around sustainability and the environment. It would involve helping them to think of how a business should give back if it benefits from the community. One can’t help but think of the parallel with Victorian and Quaker values that we unfortunately forgot in favour of uncontrolled modern capitalism.
From a product point of view she is experimenting with using the cocoa nibs as mulch as well as creating log fuel briquettes from the cocoa shells and waste paper. It is honourable that she is not driven by profit but by conscience however she does not suffer from Pollyanna syndrome. ‘I do question if it is possible to have a business like this nowadays.’ But as she said before she is not motivated by money, if she could have anything she would like more time to do another short course in oil painting.
‘The approach that I take to business is not very conventional, but money would not keep my interest. Everybody has a point at which they think that’s enough money. For some people that’s a lot but I think that if you can make just enough you can then pursue your interests which I think is way more exciting then having loads of money and working forever!’
If you would like to try Shana’s chocolate you can order it online here or contact her directly to find a local stockist.