Sydney Oland didn’t even like chocolate growing up. In fact, says Oland, the owner of Yukon Chocolate Company, she still doesn’t.
“I mean,” she pauses to clarify. “I like my chocolate.”
Oland sits at a table in her tiny chocolate factory on Fourth Avenue. Her husband, Ben Keddy, paces the floor, taking phone calls. Her production manager, Amanda, is in the kitchen, covered in cocoa.
A seasonal apprentice moves constantly between the kitchen and the turquoise-painted retail area, which is warm with the heat of the many machines it takes to melt and make chocolate. Through a window in the wall at the front door, you can see a few of them, like mini-cement mixers, tumbling cocoa nibs with butter and sugar to break down the nibs and liquify them.
This is not the kind of chocolate that would have been around Oland growing up. That would have been your stock-standard overprocessed stuff. With her business, Oland wants to highlight the distinct flavours of the three Venezuelan cocoa beans she currently uses.
“Cocoa terroir is a lot like wine, or kind of like any other agricultural product in that the beans really taste different,” says Oland. It’s a dynamic product that takes on the flavour of its region, the way wine or cheese would. She doesn’t want to drown it in vanilla.
“It can kind of sing on its own.”
She says that if you over process cocoa, it smooths out all the rough edges created by fermentation and roasting of the beans. Hammering the chocolate with sugar and vanilla removes a lot of its natural acidity, and “conching” (the process of evenly distributing cocoa butter through the chocolate) polishes all the flavours so they’re evenly balanced, with a velvety, Belgian finish.
“Which is not what I’m looking for in a product,” Oland says, cracking roasted cocoa beans and eating the nibs as she drinks black coffee. She wants the acidity. She wants the personality.
“Maybe, like, brown spice kind of flavours that are there if you don’t hammer the hell out of them,” she says.
Oland came to the Yukon three years ago with a staggering degree of candy cred behind her. She spent 10 years in product development for Boston’s Taza Chocolate, before working as a consultant in confections and chocolate (yes, that’s a thing).
In addition to an undergrad degree in studio art and English, she has a degree from Boston University in gastronomy and food studies, a chef’s diploma from Cambridge Culinary, and is currently completing a PhD in cultural heritage through the UK’s University of Birmingham. Her focus there is on foodways as a representation of culture in the Yukon. But her main interest (“where my heart is,” she says) is cocoa.
She says she felt confident that Whitehorse residents would be interested enough in a bean-to-bar chocolate that it would be worth it to pursue as a business, but she didn’t expect people to be as excited as they have been.
She and Keddy started out in March 2018, in the former Farmer Robert’s building. There, they rented 70 square feet in an old walk-in freezer. There was barely space for both of them to work at the same time.
As soon as they turned the first machine on, Keddy says they knew they were going to need a bigger space. The heat in the little chocolate closet was so intense, the chocolate wouldn’t temper properly. They lost some product and had to bow out of a few markets over the summer.
“Before we started, who would have thought that excessive heat was going to be the problem making chocolate in the Yukon? In a walk-in cooler?” says Keddy. “I kind of thought we had that one in the bag at the very least.”
The other “problem” was the enthusiastic response of Whitehorse. The two-year business plan had estimated they’d spend two months in the cooler before needing to expand.
“We realized very quickly that the town wasn’t going to let that be a thing,” says Keddy.
Retailers were eager to carry the chocolate, which is available at Midnight Sun Emporium, Cultured Fine Cheeses, Wykes Your Independent Grocer, Riverside Grocery, and, weirdly, Integra Tire (“They actually reached out to me,” says Oland. “They were one of the first businesses to be like ‘we want your chocolate’”).
They’ve worked with Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters on a special blend, and are going to do the same with Firebean Roasters.
The new space, which Oland moved into in October, is allowing her to keep up with the orders. Beginning Dec. 7, it will also allow them to run a small retail space.
Shelves hold bars of dark, milk and white chocolate, even though, Oland says, white chocolate isn’t truly chocolate.
“It’s candy,” she says. But she likes it and, since she’s the boss, it’s on the menu.
“It’s really freeing being your own business owner,” she says laughing, though she points out there’s been a learning curve in terms of amassing the equipment required to grow the operation, and in figuring out her own role.
“They don’t tell you this when you start your own business but all the stuff you love to do, you get to pay someone else to do while you go to the bank and pull permits instead.”
Now that the permit-pulling is all in order, the Yukon Chocolate Company is open for business. Oland says it’ll be open Friday to Sunday until the new year, and then drop down to one day a week after that.
A grand opening is taking place at 4196 4th Ave., on Dec. 7 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org