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Factory visit: Duffy's Chocolate

22 April 2016

Duffy’s Chocolate is one of the most popular gourmet brands of chocolate in the UK, with retail sales in Fortnum & Masons. However, as Food Processing finds, it still remains true to its low-tech, cottage industry roots.

For the first few years of his business, Duffy Sheardown spent hours every week standing with a sieve filtering out cocoa shells by hand. 

The former Formula 1 engineer-turned-artisan chocolatier had yet to invest in even the most elementary winnowing machine in his manufacturing process. “It was quite therapeutic,” he said. “Sometimes I would stand on one leg and call it yoga.”

Duffy’s Chocolate could never be called an average food factory. It occupies two rooms in a grey industrial estate in the struggling northern seaside town of Cleethorpes. It produces just 600 bars a week, at a maximum. But those 80g bars are sold for up to £7.10 at premium stores like Fortnum & Mason. 

The company won awards in its first year of operation and has continued to win awards every year since. Mr Sheardown believes in good chocolate. He buys only beans that occupy the top five percent of those grown worldwide. He buys directly from farmers, and likes to know details like whether the beans are dried nearby a road or not. The shells, (sold on as tea) can sometimes absorb carbon monoxide from the environment. 

Mr Sheardown started making chocolate in 2007, when he heard on the radio that Cadbury’s was the only manufacturing in the UK making chocolate from bean to bar. For the next 18 months he bought some basic equipment and started to teach himself how to make chocolate. Seven years later and the majority of processes in the factory now are the same as when he started, just upscaled. 

The process
Mr Sheardown starts with buying a bag of cocoa beans directly from farmers in Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Ecudador (he buys it through a broker from Venezuala, and Domincan Republic). He buys it in 'tiny quantities' – bags of 500kg. The cost is around $10 a kilo for the beans, plus $3 a kilo to fly them to the UK. They are stored in a warehouse opposite the factory.

In 2012, a chemical spill in a neighbouring factory meant Mr Sheardown had to throw out 700kg of chocolate – devastating for a small company.  The beans are roasted in a single layer on a perforated metal tray. The oven – bought second hand from ebay for £200 – only has one temperature setting. 

Mr Sheardown carries out a roast test with the first batch of beans, taking them out of the oven at 22 minutes, 23 minutes, 24 minutes, etc. for tasting, until the best time for that particular batch is established. Once roasted, the beans are sorted through by hand to remove any stones, desiccated shells, or other inedible elements.

Because the process is so small-scale, and closely monitored, there are strong hygiene controls. Although each batch is numbered and recorded by hand, the company has never had any recalls. “I know there are no foreign objects in the chocolate, because I’ve checked every bean by hand,” Mr Sheardown said. From there, the roasted beans are put into a breaker and winnower. The two machines, both from Commodity Processing Ltd., are hand fed.

The breaker turns the roasted cocoa beans into nibs – small fragments of bean. The winnower separates out the shell fragments from the nibs. The shells are normally discarded. However shells that come from Honduras and Panama are less bitter, so the shells are sold as tea, or sold to the brewing industry for making stout.

The next stage is to feed the nibs into two old-fashioned granite grinder-style conching machines. Sugar is added gradually, in order to keep an even temperature. Cocoa butter is added at the final stage.

The conching takes around three days and nights. The goal is for the temperature to rise very slowly from about 55-58 degrees, to 62-63 degrees over the course of the final 48 hours. Mr Sheardown has a hand thermometer which he uses to check the temperature every hour. The temperature is controlled by moving two overhead heat lamps closer or further away from the conching machine. The two machines are able to make around 30kg of chocolate each per week. 

“Before they invented these machines five or six years ago, if you’d wanted to start a chocolate factory you’d have needed quarter of a million pounds,” said Mr Sheardown. “The minimum of chocolate you’d have been able to make in a week would have been 250kg.” 

Mr Sheardown has a larger modern rotary conching machine which is much faster, and is able to make around 100kg of chocolate in a week. So far, he’s only switched it on four times. It is tucked into a corner at the back of the factory. “Green and Black’s are very proud they can make chocolate from beans in five hours,” said Mr Sheardown. “I’m very proud that it takes me 60 hours. I think you can tell in the quality of the chocolate.”

After the conching process is finished, the chocolate is poured out and left for three weeks. One Venezuelan chocolate is left for three months in order for the flavours to fully mature. The discovery was largely by accident.

“When it came out of the conch it was too peppery,” said Mr Sheardown. “I thought, ‘what have I done, I’ve bought 300kg of these beans and they’re terrible’. So I left it for a month, and it tasted better. Then I left it for three months and now it tastes like honey. That pepper note is still there, but it has dropped right to the background.”

Mr Sheardown sells chocolate slabs in bulk to several famous chocolatiers, like London’s Paul A Young, for them to use in their own creations. However, the majority is sold under the Duffy’s Chocolate brand. After conching, the chocolate needs to be tempered. Tempering is the process that gives chocolate its proper crystalline structure, the shine and distinctive snap. Without tempering it will appear cloudy, like a chocolate bar that has been left on a sunny windowsill for a long time. 

Mr Sheardown uses an inexpensive machine by chocolate processing manufacturer Selmi to do the tempering. It melts a block of chocolate and dispenses it into a mould at the specific temperature of 31.5 degrees. The mould is put on a vibrating plate in order to remove bubbles. Afterwards, it is left to cool in the mould. 

The company produces around 600 bars a week, and each one is hand-wrapped in foil. Mr Sheardown said he would rather pay someone to do the job two days a week rather than buy a machine. “You can buy machines that wrap in foil, they are about £20,000,” he said. “That’s not a ridiculous amount of money. It would wrap a thousand bars in an hour, but for me that’s two weeks of production.

“There’s quite high unemployment in Cleethorpes and there’s a lot of people that are grateful to have a day’s work paying the living wage. I’d rather pay them then have a machine sitting there that I’d only turn on once a week.” Mr Sheardown said he wouldn’t necessarily welcome being awarded a retail contract with a supermarket like Tesco or Sainsbury’s. “I don’t think I would want to do it, and I don’t think I could do it if I can only make, flat out, 600 bars a week,” he added. “I need to grow a bit, but it needs to be slow and gradual so I don’t need to change the processes too much.”

Cottage industry
The company’s factory is made up of units reclaimed from a science lab at a local school that was closing down. Ingredients are stored in second hand fridges. But for all its cottage-industry charm, the company is thriving.

In 2013 its Venezuela Ocumare 55% milk chocolate bar was awarded a “resounding” Gold Award by the Academy of Chocolate. In 2011, the Honduras Indio Rojo 72% bar was awarded the “Golden Bean” award by the Academy of Chocolate. The company won gold and bronze awards for the two bars again at the International Chocolate Awards in October last year. 

Mr Sheardown keeps the certificates in folders behind his desk. The coveted Golden Bean trophy sits on a dusty out of the way shelf along with a trophy won by a car he built for a Formula 1 race at Silverstone. A signed picture of Ayrton Senna is on the wall nearby. For Mr Sheardown, its clear that chocolate is king. He is dismissive of mass produced brands. “I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk,” he said.

“I can’t eat rubbish chocolate now. It’s put me right off Green and Blacks, Montezuma’s and all that garbage.” He has the palate of a wine sommelier and is interested in differences between regions of cacao growers and how it affects the flavour. “It’s like vintages of fine wines,” said Mr Sheardown. “I have 72 per cent bars from different countries, Honduras, Ecuador, Panama and Nicaragua. They all taste completely different even though the recipe for all them is exactly the same.

“I’ve got a Guatemalan bar and a Honduran bar, the DNA on the beans is identical, produced by the same grower, grafted onto the same root stock, but planted 150 miles apart. They taste completely different. 

He added: “You can get really nerdy about it but basically it’s just chocolate. You don’t have to get too up yourself. It’s just about finding one that you can enjoy.” 

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