by Sabine Rhyne
What does “local producer” mean to you? To some, the tiny little backroom business or farm in a small hamlet fits their image of local. Others value businesses owned by locals who have grown enough to provide good jobs for lots of folks. Small, large, and in between, Vermont is home to many entrepreneurs who live, make, and sell products that we enjoy. One of our long-time successful local producers is Lake Champlain Chocolates, based in Burlington, VT. As they say, Vermont “is where we live, who we are, and how we do business,” since 1983.
For many of us. Lake Champlain Chocolates need no introduction. Whether it’s the Vermont Chocolates Sampler, the truffles, or the five-star bars, the quality and care in their manufacture is apparent with each bite, and we savor those treats when we plan an indulgence. As you might imagine, the holiday season we are in the midst of and the Easter season are the high points for chocolate sales, followed closely by Valentine’s Day. Lake Champlain Chocolates employs roughly 175 people, running two shifts at peak season. Of those 175, 80 are in chocolate production, while the South End Kitchen across the street from the factory employs another 50, and the remainder work in the three retail shops. Paul Spitler and Allyson Myers, our hosts at Lake Champlain, described the longevity of many of the employees there. “We believe in the quality of our product, the local nature of our business, the 'foodies' who we talk to every day. People have a voice here, we all work comfortably alongside the owners.”
Lake Champlain Chocolates has nearly 400 finished products, and in addition, the components that package those products in delightful seasonal ways number in the thousands. Chocolate is fascinating, though, and founder Jim Lampman and his family have begun focusing on making the deeper knowledge of chocolate available to all who wish to learn. Demonstrations and classes are often standing room only (a rapt group of 25 people watched a video about chocolate-making while sitting by a glass partition looking into the chocolate factory: nonpareils and chocolate turkeys were on tap that day). Some of the details we noted in the factory rooms were copper kettles, which we know are responsible for even heat distribution for all the truffle centers, and long “cooling tunnels,” which have replaced more expensive refrigeration.
The average size of a cocoa farm in the Dominican Republic is about 2.5 hectares. Grupo Conacado, the cooperative association of these cocoa farmers, works with buyers of chocolate like Lake Champlain, continuing to improve standards of living and sustainable practices. That producers' co-op now sells about a quarter of the cocoa exported from the D.R.
Slow, managed growth has been the rule at Lake Champlain. Begun in 1983 behind a lawn mower repair shop, the company moved to its present location on Pine Street in Burlington in 1998. Just this year, the South End Kitchen opened across the street, with a café, a cooking classroom, and the factory for the new “bean-to-bar” chocolate project. The products are “not too wild” either, mostly classic flavor combinations, though exquisitely done.
Eric Lampman, the founder’s son and the director of research and development, culminated his lifelong education in the chocolate business with an exploration of the world of single origin chocolate, and specifically, is making chocolate from “bean to bar,” such as the Blue Bandana line. His education in the steps required to make chocolate has been slow and steady. “Once the beans get back to Vermont, the fun begins: roasting, cracking, and winnowing to extract the cocoa nib. Then grinding, refining, and conching to perfect the chocolate’s consistency and mouthfeel while adding in organic cocoa butter and sugar. And last, tempering the chocolate, moulding, cooling, and wrapping the bars. At that point, you’ve successfully made the journey all the way from bean to bar!”
Meanwhile, Ellen Reed, the founder’s daughter, has successfully obtained “Fair for Life” fair trade certification for Lake Champlain Chocolates. Product certification has been awarded specifically on the organic chocolate bars–and several of the Christmas Chocolates–which you will find in the Brattleboro Food Co-op in the Local section. Gradually, more products will sport the “Fair for Life” certification.
“We’re in the happiness business,” smiles Allyson. “How hard is that?”
Meet the folks from Lake Champlain Chocolates at the Co-op on Thursday, December 18, from 11am-1:30pm.