Connor Tierney, his job in the automotive industry shuttered for three months by the COVID pandemic, finds himself watching lots of documentaries — including one on the miseries of child labor inherent in the commercial chocolate industry.
“I thought: I don’t want to eat chocolate now,” Tierney recalls.
Unsettled by what he learned — an estimated 1.8 million children with machetes harvest cacao beans for the chocolate industry — Tierney decided to take matters into his own hands and learn how to make chocolate for himself, using only beans that came from ethical sources.
Thus born was Chocolate Thunder, Kalamazoo’s lone small-batch bean-to-chocolate, company.
“I got into it for the mission and for an outlet,” Tierney says.
Now making chocolate is his side hustle and he makes bars for sale from his Winchell neighborhood kitchen.
They will be available this year at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, which opens on May 7
Ethics and quality
As he looked into what it would take to make his own chocolate, Tierney learned that the problem of child labor was only part of the concern. Quality, too, takes a backseat to economy when chocolate is commercially produced, Tierney says.
Connor Tierney, 30, makes ethical vegan chocolate in his Winchell neighborhood kitchen.
He learned that commercial companies typically cut costs by skipping the critical fermentation stage, then roast excessively to destroy impurities, and add vanilla and other ingredients to make up for flavors lost by such harsh treatment.
Small batch chocolate production, though — without cutting corners — is a daunting, labor-intensive process that requires exacting controls at each step of production — fermentation, roasting, and tempering to produce a final richly flavored product.
“It is very persnickety,” he says.
But instead of putting him off, the demands of that kind of chocolate production appealed to Tierney’s engineering background.
First, he found sources of cacao beans.
The fair-wage farmers from whom he buys harvest the pods, cut them open and let them ferment to develop the cocoa flavor.
Because it is a time-consuming step, and therefore expensive, “big chocolate” tends to skip this step, he says.
When he receives the fermented beans, he next roasts them himself — the first persnickety step, Tierney found.
“Two minutes too long and it tastes burnt, two minutes too early and the fruity notes taste funky,” he says. “It's a balance.”
Small batch chocolate requires exacting controls at each step of production — fermentation, roasting, and tempering to produce a final richly flavored product.
Tierney roasts his cacao beans in a coffee roaster, two pounds at a time.
When the beans cool, he winnows them to separate the shell from the bean.
Next comes refining, using heat and pressure and special machinery to release the cacao butter from the cacao nibs.
The final step, tempering, is the most difficult, Tierney says. It involves melting, cooling, and reheating the chocolate at exacting temperatures and times until it turns into a shiny chocolate bar that snaps when you break it.
Excellence doesn’t come cheap
Most bars of craft chocolate weigh 1.7 to 2.3 ounces and sell for $12 to $15.
Chocolate Thunder bars are 2.7 ounces and sell for $9 and $11.
“The labor is the most expensive part,” Tierney says.
When people push back on price, he says, “It’s like: ‘Well, you’re expecting grape juice. This is wine. There’s a lot more involved than just squishing the grape.’”
Tierney sold 15 to 25 bars a weekend last year at the farmers market in Ypsilanti, where he lived at the time.
He’s become more efficient as he has practiced the craft, though, and can now temper 18 bars at a time. At this year’s Kalamazoo Farmers Market, he plans to start with 100 bars and see how it goes from there.
If the demand is sufficient, he may try to move from his home kitchen, where sales are regulated by restrictive cottage food law demands, to the commercial nonprofit Can-Do Kitchen
, which would allow online sales.
For now, though, Tierney is content to continue experimenting with new flavors and techniques and mastering the demanding craft of chocolate making.
Any mistakes he makes along the way are still tasty enough to eat himself, he says.
And every bar sold, he said, is one less bar that was produced unethically.
About the name
Connor Tierney’s Chocolate Thunder company derives its name from the nickname that Stevie Wonder bestowed upon National Basketball Association’s Darryl Dawkins, who was known for his powerful dunks.
It’s also the nickname Tierney’s seventh-grade basketball coach called him because of his initials, CT.
About the science
To learn more about the science of small-batch chocolate, visit the Chocolate Thunder website