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Willie's Cacao
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In 2008 I set up Britain’s first bean to bar chocolate factory for hundreds of years. I had been a cocoa farmer in Venezuela for over a decade, and I was itching to take the next step and make chocolate. It seemed to me that the world had lost touch with what real chocolate was, and I wanted to put this right. I wanted to make artisan chocolate with pure beautiful flavours that perfectly reflect the flavour notes of the beans.

To do this I had to control every step from the bean to the bar. I ended up choosing machines and designing a process that takes about 3 weeks to make my chocolate, when industrial chocolate is made in just a few hours. That is the lengths I have gone in my quest to make the best chocolate in the world.

To start with everywhere I went, people said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get into manufacturing,’ but the more they said this, the more I realised that I could never make the perfect chocolate unless I did.

I owe debts to a great many chocolate romantics who have helped me accumulate my beautiful old chocolate making machines. Now in fact I have many more machines than I actually use, but they will all have their day.

Every step of the way from bean to bar I concentrate on flavour and that does not change in the factory. The old original machines that I’ve sourced, may be smaller and slower than today’s modern machines – which are made for speed and commercial profitability – but they capture the subtle notes and unique flavours of our cacao in a way modern machines are unable to.

It all takes time but great things are worth waiting for, and I won’t compromise on flavour.



I am a firm believer that the finest ingredients make the finest flavours. So I only use natural ingredients, and I make as many things as possible from scratch.

The only ingredients in my dark chocolate are cacao, raw cane sugar and little natural cacao butter.

Actually one of the best ways of telling if a chocolate is good is by looking at the ingredient list. If you can see vanilla, it is there to cover up the fact that the beans are not good. It creates an overall “house” taste but in my chocolate it would cover up all the precious flavour notes. If you see lecithin it is because it has been made in an industrial continuous production process.

I grew up in a large family leading a virtually self sufficient life on a small island off Southern Ireland. We had goats for milk and cheese, we evaporated sea water for salt, we milled our own grains. So it comes naturally to me to make things from scratch.

Rather than buy in nut paste for our pralines we buy the whole nuts and roast them and grind the ourselves. To make the caramel for our Salted Caramel Pearls we caramelise the sugar, clarify the butter and add Devon double cream.

It is just how you would do it in a restaurant kitchen.


Once the beans have been harvested, fermented and dried, they are packed into hessian sacks and transported directly by sea to my chocolate factory in Uffculme, Devon, in South West England. The moment they arrive they are checked and stored in a climate-controlled room at about 18 degrees.

The checks are very important. Each shipment is tested not just for pesticides but the carriers of pesticides. We don’t work with any farmers that use chemicals, but it is good to check there has not been any contamination.

We also do a cut test to check the quality of the beans and how well and consistently they have been fermented. We are checking moisture content and size variation.


 Roasting enhances the flavour of the beans. After fermentation and drying, this is the next most important stage in developing their unique flavour and aroma.

High quality beans don’t need heavy roasting, so I lightly roast ours in small batches for 20-30 minutes. Our 60 kilo ball roasting machine is almost a hundred years old and was produced by Victor Gruber from Bilbao, and it has recently been joined by a 250kg 1940’s Bath Sirocco one.

A ball roaster is generally preferred by premium chocolate makers to a drum roaster or continuous roaster. The beans are roasted in small batches circulating with the hot air inside the ball. It is thought that the ball shape gives it more even roast and the beans don’t get so broken which is important because small bits burn.

Next we remove the shell leaving the cacao nibs, the edible part of the bean. If too much shell is left in the chocolate it will affect its flavour and fluidity.


Conching was one of the last major 19th century inventions in the making of modern chocolate. It is the essential process of agitating to drive off the unwanted acidic flavours. In a continuous production process used by industrial chocolate makers, a bean becomes a bar in a couple of hours. It is conched at high temperatures with little regard for flavour. To facilitate the process they use lecithin and at the end they add vanilla to create a general background flavour.

My approach is very different. I conche for  three or more weeks – not hours or days – at low temperatures. This allows the acidity to be removed without damaging the precious flavour notes of our fine cacaos. No need for lecithin or vanilla. We conche until two people agree the taste is perfect. When the beans are fresh it will take longer. Taste not time is what matters.

Before the conching can start the nibs have to be ground into a liquid. For the 100% cacao, I do this in a stone mill that crushes and aerates them to release the cocoa butter, then drops the mass  onto our three-roller refiner.

The 100% cacao is then gently conched in our 100-year-old longitudinal conching tanks.  Granite rollers each weighing 150 kilos roll back and forth on their granite base, until their magic is worked. To make the sweet chocolate, I grind, refine and conch in our Lloveras conch refining machines.


While the beginning of this process is all the better for the old methods, when it comes to tempering and depositing, modern machines are invaluable as they give you complete control and consistency. Roasting and conching are more of an art – you need a feel for them – this is more of a science.

The tempering machine warms and cools the cacao mass to precise temperatures so that the butter and the solids set together perfectly, before being placed into the mould. This is what creates the beautiful shine on the chocolate and the SNAP when you break the bar. You can temper on a small scale at home if you want to coat truffles with chocolate or make chocolate cases for desserts.

Tempering also prevents bloom, which is when the butter and solids separate and the chocolate looks white and tastes grainy. This won’t hurt you in any way, but it is not nice to eat.

Then the chocolate goes through a depositor, which deposits exactly the right amount of chocolate into each mould. The same machine does everything, the balls, the bars and the cylinders.

A piece of spare pipe on my farm proved my accidental hero. When I couldn’t decide what to use as a mould for my earliest batches of 100% cacao, I noticed a length of the pipe on the floor of my workshop. I chopped up all I had into moulds and it worked beautifully, I kept the shape when I started making it in Devon. It’s great for grating and keeps better because it has a lot less surface area than a flat bar.

The final stage is cooling. Here are the lights changing in my spiral cooling tunnel. The heat is gradually removed so the chocolate shrinks and comes out of its mould easily. Finally, it is wrapped.


Approximately 50% of each cacao nib is cocoa butter. To make cocoa powder you need to remove some of this butter and I do this on a pair of antique cocoa butter presses. I make the chocolate exactly as I do for the bars then physically press the butter out of the conched 100% cacao. This leaves a cake that has to be milled into a powder and mixed with raw cane sugar to make Hot Chocolate.

Again this is very different to the industrial process that is called Dutching in which the cacao is washed in an alkaline solution to neutralise their acidity.

The cacao takes a long journey from ‘bean to bar’. It is not something that can be hurried. In the Chocolate Factory, my role as Chocolate Maker is simply to help each bean develop and show its unique flavour as completely as possible. You could say it is a celebration of cacao.

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