Lavendar truffles and cacao tea will be the order of the day at Hazel Mountain Chocolate in Clare as it celebrates three years in business on Valentine’s Day.
Since starting out as the first company to produce bean-to-bar milk chocolate using Irish dairy milk, it has been the first in the country to blend cacao petals to produce cacao tea and has also more recently opened Ireland’s first cacao brew bar in Galway.
Aiming to produce something different with chocolate, founders John and Kasha Connolly set up a small operation in the Burren in 2014, roasting and grinding four varieties of cacao beans to create a range of 17 different chocolate bars.
They have now developed sales to specialty shops in Ireland, exports to both the UK and Scandinavia and are also producing a new range of cacao power products, which they plan to sell to health food shops.
Now running a business with a staff of 12, the couple left jobs in Dublin in 2013 and moved to Mr Connolly’s family farm at Oughtmama near Bellharbour in Co Clare where they turned an outbuilding into a boutique chocolate-making facility.
“You can get chocolate made from Belgian couvertures everywhere — we spoke to specialty chocolate shops in Europe — they were only interested in bean-to-bar chocolate,” said Mr Connolly, explaining that the bean-to-bar trend had started in the US a decade earlier.
He and his wife Kasha, a chocolatier and baker, took some courses in chocolate making and began experimenting with bean to bar production.
“We brought in beans from Madagascar, Cuba, Venezuela, and Costa Rica — which all have very different tastes — and used trial and error to get it right,” he said, adding that their best selling bar now is a 42% Cuban bean Irish milk chocolate bar which retails at €5.50.
On Valentine’s Day 2014, the couple opened a café and chocolate shop and began selling to locals. During the summer they sold to tourists and by the end of the year also had sales to airport shops and some specialty outlets in Galway and Dublin.
The following year, Mr Connolly took samples to the UK and Scandinavia and signed 11 specialty chocolate shops as customers.
Estimating that 30% of company of sales are now exports, he has arranged a meeting with Selfridges next month and hopes to grow sales in the UK.
As sales grew the company expanded the workforce from three to 12.
“It is a very labour-intensive process and it takes a month to turn a bag of cocoa beans into chocolate bars,” said Mr Connolly, saying that in addition to chocolate bars, the company also makes 12 varieties of truffles.
As the market for this type of specialty chocolate isn’t huge in Ireland, Hazel Mountain decided last year to expand sales by developing cocoa products, which having been identified as having health benefits, could be sold to health food shops and pharmacies.
Mr Connolly said the cocoa products produced by Hazel Mountain are of much higher quality than the generic imported ones, which are now being sold here.
He said: “We produce cacao powder and cocoa nibs and we also used cocoa peel blended with cardamom and rose petals to create cocoa tea.
“At the World of Coffee, a major coffee event which was held in Dublin last year — this won best new product which was a major boost for us.”
The latest development for Hazel Mountain Chocolate was the opening in November of a chocolate shop and cacao brew bar in Galway, which in addition to hot chocolate, offers a variety of different cocoa-based drinks.
“Our long-term aim aim is establish the company at the forefront of changing chocolate trends in Europe.
“We are one of just 40 bean-to-bar producing companies in Europe and just two in the UK and see significant scope to develop exports of both our chocolate and out cocoa products,” he said.