LOGAN — For over a century, Utah State University has been known for its ice cream- and cheese-making expertise. More recently, chocolate has been added to its educational repertoire.
The Aggie Chocolate Factory is the only bean-to-bar facility operated by an academic institution in the western United States, according to Silvana Martini, the food sciences professor who directs the program.
“Bean-to-bar” refers to starting with the cocoa beans through the processes of roasting, winnowing, grinding, mixing, tempering and molding into a finished chocolate bar. Most of the factory’s small-batch artisan chocolate is made with only two ingredients, cocoa and sugar, to showcase the flavor of the beans. (The milk chocolate products also contain milk powder and sunflower lecithin.)
The public can see the factory workings behind a glass wall in the Aggie Blue Square complex at 1111 N. 800 E., Logan. They can also buy chocolate bars, cookies, candies, roasted cocoa beans and other chocolate products. At the factory’s café, they can enjoy treats like hot chocolate, frozen hot chocolate and pastries.
Tours take place during café hours (2-8 p.m. Monday to Friday, including Memorial Day, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday).
“People can just drop by and we will give them a tour, or if it is a larger group they can arrange for a tour by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org,” Martini said.
Or they can pick up a “self-guided tour” brochure that explains the chocolate-making process they are seeing.
The idea for a chocolate factory was sparked in 2015 when Martini began teaching a chocolate class to attract more students into the food sciences program. It included the history, social and ethical production issues, as well as the technical science.
“Most people don’t realize all the complexity of finding the right cocoa bean, roasting the bean with the right process to get the flavor profile that you want, processing it, aging, tempering and molding it,” Martini said.
The class was so popular that the next year it was increased to 150 students.
“On the student evaluations, many said they wanted a hands-on experience in actually making chocolate,” Martini said. “I approached the dean and asked if we could have a place where students could participate in a bean-to-bar experience, similar to the way the cheese and ice cream programs are done.”
The factory opened in November 2018 after a manager was hired to learn chocolate making and acquire the needed equipment.
“We worked with the USU Creamery in designing it, because they had the experience and knowledge of food safety,” Martini said.
Besides being a hands-on lab for students, the factory also offers one-day “short courses” to professionals in the confectionary industry. The cost varies from $150 to $300 depending on the number of attendees.
Artisan chocolate-making is similar to the artisan cheese or craft brewing industries. Products are made in small batches, with creative control of flavor profiles.
The USU factory specializes in “single-origin” chocolate, which is made with cocoa beans from a distinct region of the world. Chocolate connoisseurs know that flavor can vary with the soil, climate conditions and fermenting process of a particular region. Discriminating palates can pick up subtle flavor notes, such as wood smoke, leather, coffee or fruit.
The process differs from large manufacturers such as Hershey or Nestle, who blend together a variety of beans from different areas of the world and roast the beans at a high temperature to create a uniform, somewhat generic flavor.
But chocolate enthusiasts prefer to savor the subtle differences in single-origin chocolate. For instance, the Aggie factory’s premium Thistle & Rose brand’s Maya Mountain Belize bar is 70% cacao, giving it a dark, bittersweet flavor with a hint of berry. The beans come from small farming families in the Toledo District of Belize.
The brand name, Thistle & Rose, comes from the lyrics of the USU fight song, “The Scotsman.” (Yes, it’s that arm-hammering, “Show me the Scotsman who doesn’t love the thistle / Show me the Englishman who doesn’t love the rose ...”)
The ACF is operated by student employees, interns, volunteers and full-time factory manager Anabella Giacomozzi.
Its products are being used outside of the university setting. For instance, Talisman Brewing Company in Ogden has been using USU’s roasted cocoa nibs (the crushed cocoa beans) in its Udder Chaos Chocolate Milk Stout since January.
“We’ve always wanted to source the nibs locally,” said Talisman owner Joann Williams. She had been using nibs from a Park City company, but then read about USU’s factory. “We went up and took a tour and tested the nibs from the different origins. We chose one that turned out really amazing, that complemented the creaminess of the beer.”
The factory recently teamed with students in USU’s Outdoor Product Design and Development program to create a chocolate bar for Beaver Mountain Ski Resort, according to a USU press release. The specialty candy bars are shaped in Beaver Mountain’s logo and sold at the resort during ski season.
Chocolate-making starts with cocoa beans, grown in tropical zones around the equator. USU currently sources certified organic, fair trade beans from Ecuador, Belize and Ghana for its single-origin chocolate. The term “fair trade” means that the workers who grew the cocoa beans had safe and fair labor conditions, were paid a fair wage and followed environmental guidelines.
The finished bars are packaged with a batch number, the beans’ harvest year and enjoy-by date. Fine chocolate will cost you — a 1.5-ounce single-origin bar is $5.95; a 1.5-ounce Go Aggie Bar of Swiss-style milk chocolate is $3.45.
You can also buy chocolate-dipped truffles made by Logan’s Bluebird Candy Company, with centers based on USU ice cream flavors such as Aggie Blue Mint and Aggie Bull Tracks. They are $7.50 for a package of six candies.
In the 1920s, when Utah’s ice cream pioneers founded companies like Farr’s, Casper’s and Snelgrove’s, they came to USU for technical training. More recently, USU’s cheese-making courses have attracted small, award-winning companies such as Beehive Cheese in Uintah, as well as large companies such as Gossners. With several artisan chocolate-makers already in Utah, such as Amano in Orem and Millcreek Cacao Roasters in Salt Lake City, the Aggie Chocolate Factory can be a resource for those wanting to get into the business or refine their skills.
“There’s a real potential here for Utah,” said Steve Bernet, an outreach volunteer with the factory. “It’s a clean industry, and relatively recession-proof.”