By Sarah McKibben
Photography by David Johnson
In his more enthusiastic moments, local chocolate maker Brent Davis evokes Gene Wilder’s charismatic Willy Wonka.
When Davis went looking for a new venture prior to launching Davis Chocolate, he was inspired in equal parts by tales of serendipitous invention, internet how-to videos, his own mechanical know-how, determination to manufacture in the United States and childhood memories of riding around downtown Mishawaka, Indiana on his bike with the first chocolate bar he bought for himself, only to find it tragically melted when he unwrapped it.
After six months traveling and researching, Davis decided to become Indiana’s only bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer. That was two and a half years ago, and he’s having a fantastic time.
No sign indicates the delectable products that are made inside a sealed building on a quiet industrial lane in Mishawaka. Using beans imported from Ecuador, Venezuela, Ghana, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Bolivia and elsewhere, family-owned Davis Chocolate makes certified organic and nonorganic dark, milk and white chocolate bars; raw and powdered Cocoa Nibs (“a superfood!”) for baking and blending; cocoa; cocoa butter; and chocolate bonbons and bars packaged for others (creating custom orders ranging from as little as 20 pounds to hundreds of times that amount).
Davis also makes nut products, such as nuts enrobed with chocolate, as well as his liquid peanut and hazelnut butters, Peanutta and Hazelnutta.
Step by Step
Manufacturing chocolate from bean to bar enables Davis to exert an unusual degree of control over his product. After the beans are harvested, fermented and dried in their country of origin, they are shipped to Davis, where they are sorted, cleaned, roasted, winnowed, crushed, pressed, conched, tempered, mixed with other ingredients (“inclusions”), molded, wrapped and packaged.
To create his luscious, distinctively smooth and mellow Davis bars, Davis has experimented with beans from nine countries, tinkered with each aspect of the manufacturing process (from slow, lowtemperature roasting to extended conching—the “kneading” that helps determine the chocolate’s texture and flavor), and sought out ever-better equipment to process chocolate efficiently while maximizing taste and antioxidant benefits.
Davis’s milky but assertive 58% cacao dark bar contains only cacao nibs, sugar and cocoa butter, no artificial colors, flavors or waxes—and he offers one of the very few white chocolate bars without artificial flavorings. Natural ingredients like sugar, cocoa butter, powdered milk, salt and pure vanilla bean give the bar its gorgeous caf.-au-lait color.
In talking to Davis, it is clear that the most exciting part of this venture for him has been the experimentation. Purely for the fun of it, Davis made a Venezuelan chocolate bar he calls the “Porcelano” that cost $18 per pound in raw ingredients (and which was, I can testify, terrific). Other R&D projects include a deliberately alkaline, sugar-free bar for those who must avoid acidic food, and single-origin bonbons designed to pair with wine.
Other playful exploration has produced a proprietary fruit flavoring, a tasty selection of recipes on the website and a range of inclusions including pomegranate, currant and cherry.
As a small, nimble company with a modest credo (“we’re a manufacturer, not a designer”), Davis can do precisely customized runs, altering the size, origin, type, ingredients, nature and packaging, as well as satisfying each customer’s requirements for organic and fair-trade certification.
Brent Davis has also finally found the solution to the melting problem he experienced as a kid. In so doing, has envisioned a way to help other kids with far more serious problems. Davis has created a liquid candy bar called ChocoLava, in which cocoa butter, which is solid at room temperature, is replaced by soy or almond oil to produce a squeezable, portable treat. A new version of the product, ChocoAmaranth,adds high-protein amaranth (another “superfood”) to the recipe to make an effective, pre-packaged, shelf-stable antidote to malnutrition. Davis is working with partners to discern the feasibility of using the product in famine zones as well as in snack packs for residents of local homeless shelters.
Fall 2013 found Davis tripling its employees, adding a second shift and scooping up new machinery to handle sharply increased orders. A project that began as a parttime experiment has become much more: a vibrant new business, a delicious addition to the Michiana food scene and a local engine for ethical commerce and consumption. Now that’s sweet!
where to buy
Davis Chocolate products can be found in Indiana in Goshen at Maple City Market; in Mishawaka at Maple City Market, the Garden Patch and B&B Organics; in South Bend at La Candy Shoppe and Indulgence; and in Granger at Down to Earth. They can also be purchased online at DavisChocolate.com.
When she is not experimenting in the kitchen and hosting potlucks, Sarah McKibben teaches Irish language and literature to the Fighting Irish.