Each time I visit Victoria, B.C. I always make it a point to visit The Chocolate Project to pick up some craft chocolate treats. On one of those trips, I happily met Stephanie Sketchley, one half of Uncouth Chocolate.
Stephanie also runs The Chocolate Project’s Instagram account, and one day while visiting The Chocolate Project, I noticed several Uncouth Chocolate bars for sale. Upon discovering Stephanie’s involvement, I bought one of course!
While both Heidi Lalonde (the other half of Uncouth Chocolate) and Stephanie both originally spent time on The Chocolate Project, Heidi now works full time with Uncouth Chocolate, and today they both chime in for this one-on-one, or should I say one-on-two, interview!
Discover how they started their journey into craft chocolate, including making their own bean-to-bar varieties, tasting tips, how to find quality beans to make your own chocolate, and more in this interview…
Victoria Cooksey (VC): How did your time working at The Chocolate Project affect your approach to chocolate making? Are you both still at The Chocolate Project?
Heidi Lalonde: Working at The Chocolate Project has given us good insights into what customers are looking for in a craft chocolate bar. We can see what kind of packaging people are attracted to, and what kind of information they are looking for.
Also, just being exposed to that many different origins and makers has helped us define what kind of chocolate we want to make, and to see just what kind of possibilities are out there. It also definitely helped that we already knew what well made chocolate tasted like when we started making our own. It certainly set the bar very high for us!
Stephanie Sketchley: Both of us have worked at The Chocolate Project. Heidi is now dedicated to making chocolate full time, while I split my time between running our business and working at The Chocolate Project.
I get the opportunity to taste so many different chocolate makers and cacao origins at The Chocolate Project, and I am continuously learning so that I can provide consumers with guidance when it comes to choosing their chocolate and to be able to answer any questions. I get to attend events such as Northwest Chocolate Festival, and host workshops and tastings.
Last year, I took the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute’s Cacao Grader Intensive which was incredible. I learned so much about analyzing cacao beans! All of this knowledge helps in running our business, and everything I learn about making chocolate helps me to answer questions from customers at The Chocolate Project.
Heidi Lalonde and Stephanie Sketchley (left to right) happily making Uncouth Chocolate [photo by Sushi Rice Studios]
VC: When did you start making chocolate and what inspired you to begin?
Heidi Lalonde (HL): Ten years ago we attended a craft chocolate tasting at a local shop, hosted by David Mincey and The Chocolate Project. We were familiar with David from farmers’ markets and Camille’s, the restaurant he owned and operated with his wife, Paige.
There were 20 bars at the tasting and we spent about two hours tasting everything and spent about $200 on what would turn out to be our first stack of bars. That was pretty much it – we were hooked.
The next five years were spent learning and tasting, facilitated mostly by The Chocolate Project.
At that time, while doing a little chocolate research online, I came across a website that explained how to make chocolate from the bean with a coffee grinder. I had a small bag of Dandelion Chocolate’s Roasted Madagascar beans that I had been ignoring for a while, and a small bladed coffee grinder that an old roommate had left behind. Together, with some sugar, they made some very basic, rough chocolate.
I got three little batches out of that coffee grinder before it died, but it was enough to start me on a quest to learn how to make chocolate.
We spent about a year making chocolate from dozens of different origins, learning how to roast in our oven, breaking beans by hand, and eventually figuring out how to temper on marble. At every stage of learning we made everybody we knew, including David, taste what we created. Tiny, 6oz batches of sort-of-rough, sort-of-tempered chocolate, molded in smiley face molds from the local Bulk Barn.
As a hobby, chocolate making was getting expensive though. Small amounts of beans (1-2lbs), shipped from the U.S. to Canada, were quite pricey once shipping and the Canadian exchange rate were applied. In order to finance this hobby into the future, we knew it would need to start paying for itself.
By this time David was consistently impressed with the chocolate we were making and so we decided to try selling our tiny chocolate disks at a local farmers market. That market itself did not last long, but we did well enough to convince ourselves to find another market and keep on selling.
We are now in our fifth year selling our chocolate and my third year without a day job. Our equipment has improved a bit, but we are committed to keeping things at the nano scale and selling directly to our customers right now.
Uncouth Chocolate Collage [photo by Sushi Rice Studios]
VC: What has been the most difficult part of making bean-to-bar chocolate? What has been the most rewarding?
Stephanie Sketchley: The most difficult aspect of making bean-to-bar chocolate has been believing that we could become a business.
The most rewarding aspect of making chocolate is sharing it with people! Walking people through a tasting of different cacao origins and sharing their surprise at just how different a “75% dark chocolate” can be!
Heidi Lalonde: Most Difficult… making chocolate isn’t very hard, it’s just time and work, and maybe having access to a good palate. What is very difficult is putting ourselves out there as chocolate makers. This is a small industry – newbies get noticed. We both are people who are uncomfortable with being noticed, so this part, promoting ourselves, claiming a place amongst other makers, is extremely nerve wracking.
Especially after quietly fangirling so many makers over the years! I am lucky that Stephanie is at least comfortable connecting to other chocolate makers and industry people, as well as taking care of our social media stuff. I would happily make chocolate in a cave forever.
Most rewarding: Working for myself! And sharing our passion with people.
VC: What are your tips for other makers just starting out on how to go about sourcing fine flavour cacao?
Heidi Lalonde: Source through well established distributors or other chocolate makers you trust. Don’t mess around. If you are truly just starting out, then give yourself a head start by starting with quality beans. When we decided that we were going to commit to this endeavor we looked at origins that we already really liked.
For instance, we have enjoyed every bar we have tasted that was made with beans from Kokoa Kamili in Tanzania, and we liked their values and the work they are doing in that community, so we contacted them directly. They put us in touch with Meridian Cacao, their North American distributor, and from there we found other origins we wanted to try.
There will be plenty of time and opportunity to source new or unique beans as you get comfortable with the process, learn what you like, connect with other makers, and learn how to judge bean quality.
A delicous chocolate duo! [photo by Sushi Rice Studios]
VC: How has the bean-to-bar craft chocolate movement in Victoria B.C. changed since you began making chocolate?
Heidi Lalonde & Stephanie Sketchley: The craft chocolate movement in Victoria hasn’t changed too much since we started making [chocolate]. I mean, our presence did double the number of chocolate makers in Victoria.
But David at The Chocolate Project really has done such an outstanding job of promoting bean to bar craft chocolate, especially over the last ten years, that we have been fooled into thinking that this is normal, that every city has its own craft chocolate headquarters and access to hundreds of amazing bars, or that every town has its own resident craft chocolate maker.
It’s easy to forget that Victoria is a unique place where people are serious about food/drink and artisan makers. It’s home to Canada’s first brewpub and is called the cradle of the craft beer revolution. We’re really surprised that more makers haven’t popped up yet.
VC: What are your top three recommendations when it comes to tasting chocolate?
Stephanie Sketchley: Savor your chocolate. Use all of your senses. Take a small piece. Listen to how it snaps. Smell the aromas. Let it melt in your mouth.
Note how it melts (fast, slow). Note how the aromas and flavours change as it melts. And occasionally just eat a bar for the pure pleasure of noshing on a decadent treat.
Be open-minded, and don’t rely on written descriptions. Everybody has a unique palate and different experiences with food, so don’t feel pressured to taste what’s recorded by other people.
Enjoy yourself. Chocolate is about pleasure. Don’t feel like you need to analyze every piece of chocolate you taste. Simply bask in the hedonistic experience of a delicious chocolate.
“Experimenting with white chocolate and natural colours (colours from powdered organic fruits and vegetables).” Click the pic to view Uncouth’s Instagram feed and let them know what you think of the experiment!
VC: What impact do you want your chocolate to have on the world?
Stephanie Sketchley: We want people to learn about cacao and how much dedication and labour goes into producing it by the people who grow it.
We want people to think about their chocolate, and treat it as a special food, to view it as an indulgence to be appreciated rather than a “cheap confection” found in every checkout line.
This is why we enjoy selling our product in person and educating our customers — even if they don’t purchase our chocolate, they will have learned something about how chocolate is produced and will hopefully think about this the next time they go out to purchase chocolate.
VC: What are the best ways to locate/purchase your chocolate? Are you able to ship to the USA?
Heidi Lalonde: We are rather exclusive due to our small scale of operations. Currently, the only way to purchase our chocolate is to visit us in Victoria at one of our markets. In the winter months The Chocolate Project will carry a few of our bars.