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The story behind a Philomath chocolatier
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Chololate maker Maureen Nikaido demonstrates the chocolate making process at Moku Chocolade.
Moku Chocolate is available at several local retail locations.
Moku Chocolate sources beans from around the world.
Beans cool after roasting at Moku Chocolate in Philomath.
There are chocolate lovers. And then there's Maureen Nikaido. With hard work, research and endless trial and error, the Philomath chocolate maker built her own bean-to-bar, single-origin chocolate company from scratch. Moku Chocolate now has eight bars sold in local co-ops, farms, wineries and every Market of Choice.While each bar consists of the same three ingredients — cocoa beans, organic cocoa butter and organic sugar — the vegan, non GMO and gluten free chocolate bars have their own unique flavors based on where the beans are sourced.“Just like with grapes and coffee, there's going to be different notes, depending on where it's grown and the soil and the climate,” Nikaido said. “Other things that really affect the flavor are how they're fermented at origin and how you roast them.”The beans from Madagascar and Peru have a bright fruitiness to them, so Nikaido roasts them lightly to bring out the sweet cherry and citrus flavors. But take a bite of the bar sourced from Ecuador and ruminate in the deep notes of coffee, wine and plum.The beans from the Dominican Republic are grown in a bird sanctuary and make for a smooth, dark chocolatey experience.The goat milk bar, which is sourced from the Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern Colombia, elicits a velvety, creamy texture with hints of tangy caramel. It’s the bar that won Nikaido both gold and silver medals in the International Chocolate Awards competition for the Americas.
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The name Moku comes from Maureen’s childhood nickname, “Mo.” She wanted to stick with something short and easy to pronounce, and moku is derived from the Hawaiian word for island, “mokupuni.”How the seed was plantedNikaido and her husband, Michio, took a trip to Nicaragua in 2013 where they learned about cocoa trees and met the hardworking farmers who grow the precious crop. Nikaido was disheartened to learn how little the farmers make in exchange for their cocoa, and the thought stewed in her brain for years as she and her husband moved and changed jobs.“I learned that they get such a little sliver of the pie, and these people are living in poverty,” she said. “And just the incongruence of chocolate, which is so treasured. When I left, I wondered if there was some way I could bring awareness of this to the states.”One day Nikaido found herself researching chocolate online and discovered that there was a craft chocolate movement of people who cared about honoring the land where cocoa beans are grown and promoting fair labor practices.She decided to try making her own single-origin chocolate for farmers markets and holiday fairs. She read books and took a food entrepreneurship class at Portland Community College right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, and her hobby grew from there.In class, Nikaido gave a final presentation to New Season Market, where she received feedback on her brand and how to improve it. The class also connected her with a business adviser, who encouraged Nikaido to reach out to Market of Choice, although admittedly that wasn’t the direction Nikaido planned to go. She reached out anyway, and now Moku Chocolate bars are in all 11 stores around Oregon.“Once I started doing it, it did feel like it happened fast,” she said. “But the idea of wanting to do something with chocolate to actually doing it was years.”Nikaido’s beans are sourced directly from the countries that grow them, and this direct trade ensures fair compensation to hardworking farmers. Nikaido shares stories about these farming communities on the chocolate bars themselves to highlight the chocolate’s origin and the work that goes into creating it.The chocolate making processEvery batch starts with a bag of raw cocoa beans. Nikaido roasts a kilo at a time, then pours the beans into a champion juicer to crack them open. She puts the cracked beans into a winnowing machine to separate them from the husk, leaving only the raw nibs.Nikaido next puts the nibs in a stone grinder that crushes and releases the fat for two to three days, churning the mixture to liquid, otherwise known as chocolate liquor. She adds sugar along the way until the unique Moku Chocolate flavor is achieved.The final step is pouring the liquid into molds. The whole process makes the room smell like freshly baked brownies.“In the beginning, I wanted an instruction manual, like baking a cake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes,” she said. “But there is some freedom in that you can kind of put your own little stamp on it.”Nikaido’s husband helped build some of the machinery which aids in the chocolate making process. While Nikaido primarily runs Moku Chocolate herself, a few others are involved in consulting, branding and finding the cocoa beans from environmentally-sound sources.The chocolate maker says she does not have an end goal with the company; she’s just enjoying what it is right now and seeing where things go. Eventually she wants to make a bar from Nicaragua, where her chocolate journey started all those years ago.“I am just staying open and seeing where the path leads,” Nikaido said. “Maybe I have some helpers, but I just want to keep it artisan and I really want it to be local.”Details on where to find Moku Chocolate bars are available on mokuchocolate.com. You can order the bars from the website as well.Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_.
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