Interview with William Marx, Founder of Wm. Chocolate

Owner Will Marx winnowing cacao beans. Photo credit: Wm Chocolate.

You know that saying, “tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are” by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin? In the chocolate-making world, I find that knowing a chocolate-maker’s tastes and personality provides valuable insight on the maker’s product. That’s especially the case with small batch makers who run their company solo: what I like about these makers is that they also tend to manage their own social media and a quick look at a maker’s Instagram is enough to give a glimpse of the maker’s personality. Take Map Chocolate, for instance: when I first stumbled on maker Mackenzie Rivers’ company’s Instagram, I knew I would fall hard for her chocolate. Her captions read like small poems and each of her bars are, not surprisingly, small works of art.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I actually get to meet a maker in person and if I’m really lucky, she or he will come across humble and hardworking, two qualities that make for delicious chocolate. William (Will) Marx of Wm. Chocolate is one of them. Although I had never heard of his company until last month, his calm demeanor and quiet conviction about the use of unrefined sugar made me want to try his chocolate on the spot. Through a twist of events, my choco-friend Adrienne gave me a Wm. Chocolate bar at the Fine Chocolate Industry’s Association New York City conference that day. I finished the chocolate in just two days. When Choco Rush’s co-founder Pashmina told me his bar would be in the July box, we knew we had to feature Will on the blog. We hope you’ll enjoy meeting the maker behind the bar.

Please tell us about Wm. Chocolate. What prompted you to start your own chocolate company?

Above all, I have tried to follow my passions, and that has made for diverse experiences on the way to chocolate. There were plans to study biochemistry (abandoned), undergraduate degrees in history and classics (Greek and Latin language), archaeological digs in Turkey, a graduate degree in social studies education, a failed music startup, a day job as a dental assistant, and a day job at a large tech company, to name a few.

As those chapters were unfolding, I became passionate about finding and making quality food of all kinds. Given its implications for our bodies and our earth, food just seemed like the most important thing to get right, and my interest in food grew to the point that it swallowed up my other ambitions. The public result is Wm. Chocolate. Here’s more of that story:

In 2014, when I moved back to my hometown of Madison, WI to be closer to family and friends after a couple years in New York, I started exploring ways to make chocolate without refined white sugar. Eventually I decided that the only way to use the sugar I wanted and get good flavor was to start from scratch — from the bean — and so I invested in bare-bones home chocolate making equipment. I used single-origin cacao simply because it was all I could find in small quantities online, through Chocolate Alchemy. At the time, I was largely unaware of the craft chocolate movement or even of the notion that different cacao origins would taste differently. Once I began to experience those differences in my own chocolate, though, I was hooked.

I continued making chocolate at home for about a year, figuring out my ideal type of sugar and trying as many cacao origins as I could get my hands on. In December 2015, a friend held a private party where I shared an ambitious variety of chocolate–nine origins, far more than I offer now. The party led to meeting Jonny Hunter, an important member of the Madison food community. He believed in my chocolate and helped me set up in a small commercial space such that I could start selling publicly. This was the kind of amazing opportunity that I knew did not come around often, and that I’ve been grateful for ever since. It coincided with wanting a job change and, thanks to the support of my parents who were willing to house me, I decided to follow my passion and have chocolate making become my job. I officially formed Wm. Chocolate in April 2016. I’m just over a year in and still do most everything myself on small equipment, with occasional packaging help from family and friends (mostly my tireless dad).

You don’t use any refined sugar in your bars. What motivated that decision?

In the beginning, the decision was nutritionally motivated. I had dropped all heavily processed foods from my diet in favor of more gently processed and traditional alternatives. For sweeteners, that meant my kitchen was stocked with honey, maple syrup, and unrefined (a.k.a. whole) cane sugar. These are all flavorful whole-food sweeteners with nutritional value beyond calories. I could not find any chocolate made with these sweeteners in my area, so I started making it (with unrefined cane sugar) in order to have chocolate again. Of course, nutrition is a hotly debated topic and I don’t intend to play doctor or dietitian, but I am excited to make chocolate with a more natural sugar available for those who value it.

Unrefined cane sugar from India. Photo credit: Wm. Chocolate.

As I’ve continued to make chocolate with unrefined cane sugar, another reason to use it has surfaced. It turns out that, much like cacao, cane sugar from different regions has different flavors. Since sugarcane is an agricultural product, this fact shouldn’t be a surprise, but I don’t think it is very widely known or appreciated. I was delighted to experience the range of flavors naturally present in cane sugar in exactly the same way I was delighted to experience the range of flavors in cacao. Which begs the question: why embrace and highlight cacao’s diversity, only to reject and process away sugarcane’s diversity? Ultimately, if part of craft chocolate’s mission is to preserve flavorful heirloom crops, we ought to consider including sugarcane. It does take a little more work — pairing the right cacao with the right cane sugar — but I think it’s only fair to celebrate and preserve high-quality sugar too.

When we met in New York City, you mentioned selling chocolate at local farmers markets: how do customers react upon eating your chocolate?

Many, if not most, of my farmers’ market customers are newcomers to craft chocolate, so I see a range of reactions. Some customers are immediately thrilled — they’re blown away by how much better what they’re tasting is than the mass-market products available in most area stores. Others are less immediately impressed but find that once they’ve taken some home and lived with it, going back to the chocolate they ate before is difficult. Of course, there are also people who don’t appreciate the chocolate, because it’s too expensive, or too intense, or too unusual in its flavor profile, or some combination of the above.

Photo credit: Wm Chocolate.

What origin bars do you currently carry and why? Is there an origin you’re particularly fond of?

My current approach is to offer a “core lineup” of origins that represent some of the major flavor profiles in good cacao, plus limited releases. Right now, my core origins are:

  • Belize, Moho Valley (Maya Mountain Cacao) at 68% dark for a fruity profile.
  • Ghana, certified RFA or fair-trade at 75% dark for a deep cocoa profile.
  • Honduras, Wampusirpi (Biosphere) at 70% with salt for a nutty profile.
  • Dominican Republic, Monte Plata (Rizek Cacao) at 85% for an earthy profile.

I could never pick a permanent favorite, but I have been working with the Maya Mountain Belize extensively lately — learning how and when certain flavors develop — and that has heightened my appreciation of its beauty.

In many ways, the origin I’m most fond of is the next one I get to work with! Madison is fortunate to be home to a nonprofit called Singing Rooster, which connects Haitian artists and agricultural producers to the US market. My next project is to develop a new bar using cacao from the Haitian cooperative they partner with.

What inspires you? Are there makers, bars, or travels that influenced your chocolate-making process? 

I see myself, and craft chocolate in general, as a contributor to the growing movement for food with integrity, in terms of flavor, ethics, and nutrition. This movement became a driving force in my life about five years ago, when I was living on my own for the first time and therefore responsible for all of the cooking. I started asking and exploring a deceptively simple question: “what should I eat?” Back then, I didn’t know much about food or anyone in the food business, so it was library books that I first turned to for ideas. After much reading and thinking and cooking, works by Sally Fallon (Nourishing Traditions) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) made the biggest marks on my food philosophy. They inspired me to value traditional foods–foods made with whole-food ingredients and time-honored techniques, close to home whenever possible. Think of naturally leavened breads, a huge suite of other fermented foods (including cacao!), produce bred for flavor, and so on. Obviously my approach to chocolate, especially in terms of sourcing with care, using less processed sweeteners, and working from scratch, owes much to their ideas.

Today, my inspiration comes less from the words behind this movement and more from the deeds–from those who are making food with integrity publicly available. Seeing their hard work and success heartens me, whether it is a large chain like Chipotle making food with greater integrity more accessible to the masses, or a local producer putting in long hours to bring a real food product to a market where it was previously unavailable. I see my chocolate as a way to promote the values behind their work and the real-food movement at large. Chocolate is hardly the most important food, but it’s one of our most beautiful and beloved foods. That makes chocolate a good way to start conversations about real food. If people can be moved by the sublime heights of flavor chocolate can reach when it’s produced with integrity, perhaps they will be inspired to seek out more foods produced with integrity — foods of all types. The more that shift in values can happen, the more the bar for food quality rises. I will be satisfied to have played a small part in helping that bar rise, because I believe we will be a happier and healthier population for it.

Thank you, Will, for taking the time to answer these questions. We wish Wm. Chocolate a lot of success!

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