Article and photos by Ree Slocum
There’s chocolate and then there’s Mendocino County’s own handcrafted and award-winning Starchild Chocolate. Impossible to be confused with an ordinary bar of chocolate, Starchild bars are made from carefully chosen organic cacao beans and processed in small batches using traditional methods of stone grinding. Chocolatiers, Ash and Bree Maki, then “add nothing more than organic unrefined coconut sugar and cacao butter.” Sounds simple but the process is as complex and detailed as producing a fine bottle of wine, a craft beer, or high-end cup of coffee.
It all started in 2012 when Bree brought home a bar of chocolate sweetened with coconut sugar for Ash to taste. Both enjoyed chocolate but wanted some that was healthier for them. They launched an exploration into the world of this elixir of the gods. Ash not only liked the taste of that original bar, he found that some pain he’d been experiencing disappeared after eating the chocolate. They were hooked and opened Starchild Chocolate in 2014 and in 2015, opened their doors at their building on Main Street in Willits.
The finished Starchild Chocolate bar begins in the humid, jungle-like climates within 10 degrees north and south of the Equator in countries like Tanzania, Ecuador, and Dominican Republic. Within that band of optimal growing climate, entire villages—with children playing under cacao trees, chickens scratching in yards, and old people napping in hammocks—are known for the quality of their bean. Everyone is involved in making a living harvesting and fermenting the cacao growing in their yards and forests. The cacao tree is also cultivated in plantations by landowners hiring local farmers to grow and process the beans. Once fermented to perfection and dried, the beans are bagged and shipped around the world. The next step is to taste the hard, brown bean varieties coming from certain regions and farmers. Ash and Bree, who want to support small farmers, have tasted hundreds of finished cacao beans. They look for different complex flavors before they commit to buying bags.
Once the cacao beans are selected, the fun begins. Ash, who keeps copious notes about the processing he’s doing with the beans, said, “There’s a massive amount of complexity when it comes to chocolate making. We keep all our chocolate at 70 percent to stabilize one of the variables.” The roasting time of the beans can vary the flavors greatly. They’re operating small equipment, sometimes handmade, and believe that using a quality bean is essential. Next comes the grinding of the beans, all timed and noted. Ash also keeps track of when the coconut sugar is added and how much, and the time “conching” the small batches (a way of mixing the sugar and ground beans together, rounding off the edges and making the chocolate smooth and creamy). That process takes many hours, sometimes days, of blending in the small batch mixers they use, until the flavor and consistency are what they’re looking for. Once that’s achieved, the chocolate is poured into forms for bars, packaged, and shipped all over the world to fulfill wholesale orders.
Of course naming a business can be an arduous affair but the name “Starchild” was no doubt handed down to the couple on cosmic beams of inspiration. After Ash and Bree made their first batches of the artisan chocolate, they were discussing names with Ash’s dad, who was visiting at the time. He had a dream one night where he was cruising around in the stars, exploding with chocolate. In the morning, Ash’s dad told them, “You’ve got to name your chocolate something planetary--about the stars.” It all came together when Ash remembered nicknaming his sister “Starchild.” And it sealed the cosmic contract when they realized Mayan folklore says that the cacao bean was gifted to the Mayans on the beam of a morning star falling to Earth.
When they first opened their doors at 101 North Main Street in Willits, they served the public a cornucopia of chocolate delicacies while making the chocolate and filling wholesale orders. It was overwhelming doing both. So they temporarily closed the retail part of the business. Bree and Ash have discontinued the café part and plan to be open to the public soon, offering chocolaty gifts, the full array of artisan chocolate bars they’re famous for, and a wonderful variety of truffles, and will again serve samples to delight our palates. Make sure to try the “Tanzania KoKoaKamili” bar which won the silver medal this year in the “Unrefined Sugar” category at the International World Finals held in London.