Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador — Cacao beans from the world over have come to Starchild Chocolate in Willits. With a focus on organic ingredients and artisan techniques, co-owners Ash and Brittany Maki strive to make chocolate of the highest standards.
The chocolate-makers began roasting and experimenting three months ago in their 101 North Main Street location. They’ve already won an international award and are preparing for factory-level production. While the shop is now open, a grand opening is planned July 31 from noon to 9 p.m. with more details to come.
On any given morning, the shop is a buzz of activity. Chocolate is heated and moved through various machines, developing textures and flavors. Some is tempered, waiting to be formed into a bar or mixed with ingredients. A chocolatier makes Coconut Caramel Turtle Truffles, checking the temperature along the way, while chocolate-maker Ash Maki checks the latest test batches of roasted beans.
Starchild Chocolate is unique as one of only a few “bean-to-bar” chocolate makers, meaning they process cacao beans into a product instead of just using chocolate from another company. They also source beans directly from farmers, allowing the chocalatiers to discuss specific details about the cacao beans such as how long to ferment and other factors.
Picking up a bean from the Dominican Republic and crushing it between his fingers, Maki said cacao varies greatly depending on its origin. With flavors as complex as wine or coffee, the chocolate-makers have been working on fine-tuning their signature tastes.
“You could go from citrus to milky caramels, to fruity caramels, then just fruit — there are incredibly different flavors,” Maki explained, when the chocolate undergoes processes that unmasks flavors that may lie beneath. Their Nicaraguan full-origin raw chocolate is a specialty.
One of the first steps is to clean the beans, when any inconsistencies are removed. No water can touch the beans, which come in 175-185 pound sacks that must be trucked in. After the roasting process, beans are cracked and winnowed, husks removed, and cacao nibs are ground. A refining process follows, which includes adding Coconut blossom sugar, a unique organic sweetener. Eventually the chocolate is poured into a mold and a bar is made.
When the staff of Starchild first arrived in their new location, Maki and a group tested 40 different bars from craft chocolate-makers. While all were unique, they noticed many had a burnt taste from beans roasted too long. Maki said they now tend to stay on the lighter roasts, for wilder, brighter flavors.
Ash and Brittany became interested in craft chocolate several years ago, starting in their kitchen and eventually obtaining a license to make it at home. Maki took two professional online chocolate-making classes, but said the best education has been experimenting with their beans and techniques.
Maki credited the Willits Chamber of Commerce and Executive Director Lynn Kennelly for helping them find the location to take their enterprise to the next level. The two needed a roll-up door and had other requirements they gave to Kennelly, and it wasn’t long until property owner Victor Hansen came along with an offer.
“Within one hour, Victor walked in the door and had exactly what we were looking for,” he said.