In a converted wood cabin at the bottom of a Sussex garden, a miniature but perfectly formed little chocolate factory produces the most exquisite chocolate, from bean to bar. Welcome to J. Cocoa!
Sussex Bloggers recently caught up with Sussex chocolate maker, James Hull, from Hassocks, West Sussex to find out more.
“From simple curiosity to hobby to full-time business, my bean to bar making journey has been a whirlwind,” James told us.
“I have always loved food, its origins and the care that goes into producing the finest delicious delights. Chocolate is no exception, though I knew very little about where it comes from and had never really thought about how it is created until I was sitting in the audience of a ‘how to flavour chocolate’ demonstration. Someone asked the chef at the end of the demo, ‘but how do you make your chocolate’, to which she had to confess she just buys it all in ready-made and then simply melts it down. This got me thinking, how many companies actually do make their own chocolate, and if not, then why not? I was surprised to find in the UK that we only had a couple of actual chocolate makers, and one of those was Cadburys.
So with curiosity and a very loose amount of information from old books and google, I stupidly thought, well how hard could it be.”
James sourced a couple of kilograms of Nicaraguan cacao beans at the annual London chocolate show and set about making his own chocolate. He roasted the beans in the oven before cooling them with a desk fan. He then cracked them with a rolling pin and de-shelled them individually by hand, before winnowing them with a hairdryer. Lastly, he popped them in a blender with the hope that the result would be chocolate. However, it didn’t all go to plan, and after blowing up two blenders, he only managed to produce a little very gritty paste. It became clear producing chocolate from scratch was no easy feat.
Undeterred James continued on his quest. “I had read that old factories used to use large stone grinders called melangeurs to refine their beans into smooth liquid chocolate.Although they were way out of my price range I did manage to find a small Indian spice grinder on amazon that looked basically the same. It worked perfectly. I had finally created chocolate!”
What began as a hobby, grew and grew, as James’ passion for making chocolate intensified. His family and friends eagerly became his chief tasters. As word got around, people asked if they could buy his chocolate. In August 2015 James launched J.Cocoa from a wooden cabin in his back garden.
We can vouch for just how good James’ chocolate is. Each bar is packed with flavours that slowly develop in the mouth becoming more complex and intense. Beyond the great taste, we found the story behind the chocolate just as wonderful!
Making real chocolate from bean to bar
Right from the start, James set out to create great tasting real chocolate, making it from scratch from bean to bar. This is relatively rare here in the UK and James has since won numerous awards.
Every chocolate has its own unique flavour profile, naturally occurring through the use of different cocoa bean varieties. Where they are grown, the different soils and climatic conditions, all make an impact, just as they do with the grapes used to make wine or the beans for coffee.
James explained, “Each cacao variety is carefully crafted from scratch by myself, taking 10 to 15 days to roast, crack, grade, winnow, stone-grind, and conch before being tempered, creating delicious chocolates with their own distinctive and exceptional flavours.
It is a very complex time-consuming process, and by changing one small aspect within it you get a completely different end product, which at times has been a nightmare. But I do it because I love it, and I want others to enjoy what I make.
Only organic ingredients where possible are added to my chocolate, with only two or three ingredients in my dark chocolate bars. I never use emulsifiers, strongly believing that for great chocolate, less Is more.”
Ethical chocolate, sustainably produced
Whilst producing delicious chocolate is James’ main objective, he’s also determined to use the chocolate as an avenue to implement real change particularly in cocoa-growing countries which also happen to be some of the poorest regions on earth and historically taken advantage of.
He started by working directly with the growers or co-operatives to source the highest quality cocoa beans, paying a premium of over five-times the Fairtrade rate. Finally, the farmers are getting greater recognition, and a true price for the demanding work and time that goes into growing and cultivating the cocoa, enabling farmers to actually make a living from their cocoa instead of just surviving. They can keep their children in schools and reinvest to grow their businesses instead of being forced into selling their cocoa to large confectionary companies at ridiculously low prices.
“For me, that is just the beginning.” James explained, “I realise that I need to be environmentally conscious in conjunction with trying to affect lasting economic change, otherwise due to our increasing waste and pollution there isn’t going to be a planet left to enjoy.
At J.Cocoa, I made a pledge to protect our planet, after all, this is the only planet with chocolate on it!”
James has reduced waste to an absolute minimum. He hasn’t yet needed to use his landfill bin once this year. All the ingredients sourced are organic and dry non-perishable goods. He specifically orders in large bulks to keep fuel usage on deliveries to as little as possible. Any packaging from deliveries either gets reused, repurposed or recycled.
Nothing gets wasted throughout production either. The only waste product is the cocoa shells but these make great compost for farms and allotments. And they are ideal as a natural ground cover and soil conditioner. They can also be infused in water for teas, and alcohol for a cocoa flavour, or simply used for just smelling nice around the house.
Zero waste chocolate packaging
James’ attitude to packaging is equally inspiring. “Packaging is the biggest issue when it comes to waste, particularly plastics,” he told us. “The packaging I use has been born out of what is needed, and equally what is not, for the protection of our environment and future of the planet. There really is no need for single-use plastics in packaging, and a surprising amount of styles and finishing’s on packaging such as foiling cannot be recycled or leach toxins into the soils and waterways.
It might take a bit more research, need a bit more creativity in design and cost that bit more in materials and production, but is it not worth it for the price of our planet?
So I set about designing my own zero waste chocolate packaging that was still functional, hygienic and protected the chocolate. It took me the best part of a year, but it eventually all came together.
My single-origin bars are packaged in a fully compostable starch-based wrap, inside a totally glueless recyclable acid-free card box, all of which is produced here in the UK minimising fuel usage. My hot chocolate stand-up pouches are re-sealable and also fully compostable. My shipping boxes are custom fit to the bars minimising movement and the need for excessive protective packaging. When more packaging is needed I either use paper, compostable pellets or simply re-use protective packaging from deliveries I have received. The boxes are then secured with fully recyclable tape.
I have designed most of my machines and equipment too, which have then been built here in the UK from recycled stainless steel, and everything is either powered manually or by electricity.
Looking to the future I want to invest in fully renewable energy sources such as solar panels, rainwater storage with purifier and wind generators etc to eventually become totally sustainable. In the is the way I can continue to form a business and product that creates a big taste impression whilst leaving no imprint on the planet.”
Visit J.Cocoa’s website to buy your next chocolate fix.
Travel Blogger ‘Travel With Kat’ and Co-founder of Sussex Bloggers