— Appalachian Chocolate Company LLC represents Jefferson County as West Virginia’s only chocolate manufacturer.
Shepherdstown’s Jack Meyer is a man of cycles. Ten-year cycles to be exact. Over the course of his working life, he seemed to find a productive rhythm through endeavors that typically spanned a decade. Once finished, he’d move on to the next adventure. With approximately four adventures behind him, Meyer now finds himself in unfamiliar territory: retirement.
(Not that anyone who knows him actually believed he’d retire.) He didn’t believe it himself. In fact, the anticipated rhythm of one’s coveted ‘post-career’ adventure never really took root with Meyer. It was actually just enough time for him to pivot and start planning the next decade.
“I’ve been involved in real estate, worked overseas, returned home and bought a houseboat, became an investment broker, worked in Arlington for ten years—where I met my wife—and eventually moved out here [Shepherdstown] about thirty years ago when we had our first daughter,” he explained.
At some point towards the back-end of his pre-retirement journey, Meyer’s father-in-law, who owned a large-scale septic hauling business, convinced him to purchase a similar business in Fairfax. “And so we bought it,” said Meyer, “and kept it for about ten years, then opened up a company out here called Potomac Portable Restrooms and Septic Service.”
That adventure lasted a bit longer than a decade, at 13 years, but after selling the company, and then working for it for another year and a half, Meyer found himself at a crossroads.
“I’m 65 now, and that was a couple years ago—it’s not easy to find a new job at this age,” he joked. But as circumstance would have it, an adventure of a different sort—this one to Costa Rica with his wife about two years ago—would set in motion a new passion, and thus, a new path for Meyer.
“We were down there at a coffee plantation, and I bought some chocolate-covered coffee beans and thought to myself—these are really good,” he affirmed. “I decided that when we got home, I was going to try and make some. So when we returned, I started researching online.”
While searching for the various pieces of equipment he would need to make his chocolate-covered coffee beans, Meyer also needed to figure out where he’d source his (organic) chocolate.
“Good European chocolate is available, but some of it has additives,” he said. “We eat mainly organic in the house, and I wanted to continue that practice with my chocolate.”
A business mind being what it is, Meyer also figured that if he was going to go to all the trouble to order equipment and search high and low for organic chocolate, he might as well make his own chocolate.
As he’s fond of saying, “one thing led to another,” and before long he was making himself plenty of delicious, hand-made, organic chocolate bars. The irony? In the nearly two years since, he’s made exactly zero chocolate-covered coffee beans.
Not one to miss an opportunity, however, he decided he was okay with that, and turned his private operation into a promising business instead. “The irony is true; I started with chocolate bars, and never really got around to coating any coffee beans. I sort of just went off on the bean-to-bar process.”
That process quickly grew. “I figured as long as I was making it, and at a reasonable quantity, I might as well see if anyone else liked it,” Meyer noted.
He approached Jennifer Maghan and Brian Bircher at Black Dog Coffee in Shenandoah Junction and asked them if they’d be interested in his product if he brought the labeling and other particulars into compliance. They tried it and loved it, and said absolutely.
Nearly two years later, Appalachian Chocolate Co. LLC can be found in several shops in Shepherdstown, the Vintage Lady in Harpers Ferry, Black Dog Coffee in both Shenandoah Junction and Berkeley Springs, and the Shepherdstown Farmers Market (which wraps up this month). Not to worry, Meyer expects hungry customers to have full access to his craft treats via the website (above link) by the end of January.
“Everyone I deal with is great,” he assured. “They all understand I make it by hand. It’s a slow process, and it might take a day or two until I get them what they need, but I always deliver.”
And what he delivers is at the heart of his company’s growing popularity. Appalachian Chocolate Company produces three main bars: a 60% milk chocolate, an 80% dark chocolate, and a delicious chocolate/coffee bar—70% cacao mini bars infused with locally sourced coffee (a worthy nod to the original inspiration).
Even more distinctive is that Meyer is the only chocolate manufacturer in West Virginia. Yep—Appalachian Chocolate Company LLC is the only company in West Virginia that makes chocolate. Using an online resource that tracks each state—who’s doing what in regards to businesses and products—Meyer was surprised to discover that he was in rare company, indeed.
“They didn’t know I was doing it until I let them know, so now I’m on the list,” he pointed out. “There’s no other company like mine that I can find in the state that makes the actual chocolate from the beans—no other chocolate manufacturer in West Virginia. There are plenty of chocolate companies, but none of them actually make the chocolate.”
So how exactly does one make organic bean-to-bar chocolate?
“Well, I source the beans [Nacional beans] from the Arriba zone of Ecuador,” he said. “This area of Ecuador is known for producing a very special, fragrant profile. The beans are fair-trade, Rainforest Alliance certified, and our supplier takes great pride in them, and so do I.”
Because the beans are organic, Meyer hand-sorts each one of them, just like he personally hand-wraps each bar of chocolate (it is a one-man operation, after all). Hand-sorting beans can get pretty serious when you consider that they arrive in 150-pound bags from Ecuador—which aren’t lasting as long as they once did.
“The beans aren’t treated with pesticides, so you have to sort through them very carefully to find any unsuitable ones,” he explained. “The first bag got me about a year. The second one about six months. The third one lasted about four months, and this fourth one I’m on now will be similar.”
Once the beans are sorted, it’s time for production.
Meyer typically drops about 10 pounds of beans in his roaster—a modified rotisserie machine that he purchased from a guy down South. “I don’t know anyone who’s ever used a rotisserie for roasting beans, but I took it apart and had a drum made,” he said. “The man who made the drum had never made a drum for cocoa beans before. I needed mine to open horizontally, lengthwise—coffee drums open up on the end.”
The two men went back and forth for a bit on the specs and it all ended up working out nicely. (Meyer found out later that Bircher at Black Dog had purchased some drums from the same guy when Black Dog was in its infancy.)
Inside the roaster, three 1,000-watt quartz crystal lights take the temperature up to 300 degrees—which do the job in about an hour (for 10 pounds). The roasted beans then travel to the mill/winnower—privately referred to as “crankenstein”—which crushes the beans and sucks off the shells within the workings of a customized contraption that involves a hand-crank, a mini-labyrinth of PVC piping, and a Shop-Vac.
From there, the beans go through the juicer (exactly what it sounds like), and then directly into the melanger (grinder), of which Meyer has three. “Those are the stone-grinding units that actually turn the mix into a smooth, fine, creamy chocolate. You can grind them for a day, three days, or longer, but three days seems to work for me. It brings the mix to the 5-10 micron particle size, which is perfect for high-quality chocolate.”
The grinding stage is also when Meyer will add to the mix. “This is where I’d add in the organic sugar if it’s required, or organic milk powder if it’s to be milk chocolate. I’ll also add organic cocoa butter with the milk chocolate because the milk powder by itself tends to gum things up. The cocoa butter is necessary for keeping it thin enough to work with.”
Lately, Meyer is finding that people really like the classic salty/sweet combination, so he’s been adding JQ Dickinson’s sea salt to certain batches. “Once the chocolate is in the molds, I place them on top of a vibrating table, which allows everything to settle nicely into the molds. I’ll sprinkle the salt in at this point if the batch requires it, and the vibration allows for a nice distribution.”
A story within the story: JQ Dickinson Salt-Works comprises a 200-year-old family trade in Malden, West Virginia—producing a rare, small-batch finishing salt, harvested from the ancient Iapetus Ocean trapped beneath the mountains of Appalachia. A 400-million-year-old seabed buried beneath West Virginia.
(Interested? Read more here.)
Backtracking a bit, before the chocolate makes its way into the molds, it goes through the tempering machine, which eliminates the bad crystals in the cocoa butter, and gives chocolate its snap.
“I like to cook, but this is my first go at something like this,” said Meyer—admitting that making his chocolate is much more about production than any culinary process. “I started it because I was intrigued with the process. I knew I needed to do something—not so much to make money, but to simply have something to do.”
Bringing it Home
As far as the name of the company, Meyers was looking for a way to represent a place he’s proud to call home. “West Virginia gets a bad rap in regards to Appalachia,” he noted. “A lot of people give it negative feedback and I thought I’d try and put a different light on it. You don’t really hear about high-quality chocolate in West Virginia. That’s why I did it.”
Looking ahead, Meyer sees an abundance of potential opportunities. “When I reach the point where I feel comfortable sharing a percentage of the profit, that’s exactly what will happen,” he said. “I can’t say what endeavor it will be a part of. I often look at McDowell County as one of the poorest parts of the state, and think to myself, wouldn’t it be great to have a factory there—create some jobs. But that’s certainly just conceptual at this point.”
Meanwhile, Meyer likes to help where he can—recently raising over $1,000 through a small fundraiser he maintained at the Farmers Market this year. With the money, he recently purchased and delivered 10 dehumidifiers to flood-ravaged Rainelle, West Virginia.
In regards to what the future holds for this promising young company. “I’ll give it another ten years,” he laughed. “It seems to be my cycle. It’s a cottage industry now that could conceivably grow into a larger business, and it’s a nice way to make a contribution to the state, and the people that live here.”Mike Chalmers