There are few things I enjoy more than looking around a chocolate factory, so when my friends at Naive Chocolate invited me to Lithuania to look around their factory – and judge a dessert & wine pairing championship – I jumped at the chance.
Bean-to-bar chocolate makers are where my real passion lies, so the chance to visit one of Europe’s most remote chocolate maker was something not to be missed. Not only are Naive the only artisan chocolate makers in Lithuania, but they’re one of only a handful in the whole of Eastern Europe.
Like most chocolate factories, there’s not much to see from the outside. The simple, modern factory building on a small industrial estate just outside Vilnius belies the magic that happens inside.
My tour started in the cocoa bean storage area. A temperature controlled room with bags of fine cocoa from around the world. I’ve been experimenting with making my own bean-to-bar chocolate at home over the last few weeks, but I’m still fascinated by the humble cocoa bean. It’s a continual source wonder how much flavour can be extracted from something so small by expert chocolate makers like Naive.
In a room next door are other ingredients. Sugars, milk powders and an array of fantastic fresh and freeze dried delights. Everything is natural and wonderful in its own right, from the tubs of local forest honey to the incredible freeze dried blueberries that look as fresh as the day they were picked.
Next up was the roaster. Naive originally built their own roasting machine; essentially an oven with a rotating drum inside to ensure an even roast. But the company has grown quickly since they started making chocolate just three years ago, and that simple oven has since been replaced by an even more impressive piece of kit.
From there, the beans pass through another high tech looking piece of machinery, the winnower. This breaks the roasted cocoa beans and separates the lighter, papery cocoa shells from the important bit – the cocoa nib. This is often the most difficult part of the process for a small chocolate maker, as there aren’t that many small scale machines on the market. A modern piece of kit like this makes the whole chocolate making process a lot more efficient.
When it comes to grinding and conching, Naive have a whole range of machines. As they’ve grown, smaller grinders have been repurposed to pre-grind sugars and other. There are now roll grinders and melangers of all sizes (including a couple of small tabletop size Cocoa Town machines for small scale development) and a rather shiny looking conch that was empty during my visit, giving me the chance to look inside.
The conch simply agitates the chocolate over a period of many hours. It’s an essential part of the chocolate making process that helps reduce some of the volatiles in the chocolate, developing the flavour. Figuring out the ideal conch time for any given chocolate is part of the skill of the chocolate maker. Too short and the chocolate can have unpleasant, acid notes, and too long and you’ll end up with a bland tasting chocolate with less of the natural flavour notes of the fine cocoa.
That attention to detail can be seen in some of the other machines in the Naive factory. Unlike most small chocolate makers, Naive have their own cocoa butter press, meaning they can create origin cocoa butter from the same beans as their chocolate.
Cocoa butter is added to most chocolate, so being able to use it from the same source as the cocoa beans in a particular chocolate not only helps to produce the best possible flavour, but also makes the finished chocolate true to the origin on the label.
The rest of the factory is dedicated to tempering, moulding and packing. During my weekend visit, a small group from a local business were happily creating their own custom chocolate here under the supervision of chocolate maker Domantas Uzpalis.
Making the best possible use of the factory at all times is just one of the ways Naive are developing their business to ensure future success. As well as producing their own chocolate and organising team building events like the one that was taking place during my visit, you can actually hire the entire factory to produce your own custom chocolate.
Another way the company are diversifying is with new in-house brands. A new range called Mulaté is designed to capture some of the more mainstream chocolate market and has proved extremely popular in supermarkets. It’s this kind of diversification that is helping Naive to be continue to grow their business at a time when many chocolate makers are feeling the pinch.
With more new bars, another new range and all sorts of exciting new developments on the horizon, Naive are continuing to innovate while remaining true to their roots. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next!