By Caroline Blackmon and Maggie Seybold
Strong smells of warm chocolate waft out of the Cocoa Mill Chocolatier on Nelson Street. The chocolatier, apron in hand, has been cooking up chocolate concoctions since 7 a.m.
“I never dread coming to work. It’s fun and you can be creative, and there are still a lot of mechanical aspects to the job,” said Mike Mayo, the chocolatier for the Cocoa Mill.
Today, he’s making milk chocolate almond bark.
“This is just about the easiest thing we do down here,” he explained, wiping his hands on his apron. “It doesn’t get much easier than this.”
The process begins with tempering, or cooling down, the chocolate. The chocolate must cool from 105 to 88 degrees before he can mix in the ingredients.
“If it’s not properly tempered, it will be gray and mushy,” he said. “It won’t have a snap to it. It won’t be shiny and basically, we won’t be able to sell it.”
It takes about 20 minutes for the chocolate to cool.
“We’re at the mercy of the chocolate,” Mayo chuckled. “You have to get your temperatures right. You have to be right on the money.”
While making chocolate may seem like a waiting game, Mayo typically works on several different products at one time. Later today, he’ll be making 240 pounds of ganache to fill his truffles.
“It can be a little bit intense. You have to completely focus. You can’t even be getting lost in your head,” he said. “You can’t be even a degree off.”
As the chocolate cools, Mayo then adds what’s called a “seed chocolate.”
“I added a properly tempered piece of milk chocolate to help expedite the process,” he said. “As this melts, it will release the proper type of crystals.”
Chocolate can form in five different sets of crystals, and only one of these, the beta-5 crystal, makes the perfect chocolate.
“If it forms wrong, you get bloom: an improper bonding of crystals that causes the chocolate to lose its shine and snap,” he said. “You have to throw it all out.”
Though Mayo has been a chocolatier for 12 years, he rarely throws out a batch.
Mayo, who grew up in Lexington, now raises his children to be chocolate critiques. Glass display cases filled with his artisan chocolate creations line the walls in the family-owned store.
“Lexington is our home. You know, we have everyday customers, loyal customers. They have products that they’re always looking for,” he said. “We all know each other, all the downtown business folks. It’s a real community.”
When the cooling chocolate hits 88 degrees, the chocolatier pours four cups into a bowl and stirs in the chopped almonds.
“It’s half art, half chemistry.”
He then pours the chocolate onto a silver pan and spreads it around into a layer about an eighth of an inch thin. The chocolate-almond spread is then put in the fridge to cool.
Next to the fridge, candy trays are stacked to the ceiling. With Valentine’s Day around the bend, the chocolatier has already started constructing their best-seller – the heart-shaped chocolate box of chocolate. Later, he’ll start making anatomically correct chocolate hearts, another popular holiday gift.
Mayo studied how to make chocolate with Retail Confectioners International, based in Springfield, Missouri. His mother-in-law bought Cocoa Mill in 2005, and the rest is history.
“For quality control purposes, I eat the chocolate once a day,” he laughed.
Mayo says that he could pick chocolate apart and tell what it’s made from. Not only is artisan chocolate like this hard to find, it’s also difficult to make.
“The hardest thing for us is we are somewhat constrained by the facilities,” he said. “We don’t have enough control of the climate, which is essential when you’re making candy.”
In the summer temperatures in Lexington average 86 degrees, according to U.S. Climate Data. Ideally the temperature in the chocolate store should hover between 65 and 70 degrees. On days it gets too hot, Mayo has to close the store because he’s unable to make any chocolate or candy.
After about 10 minutes in the freezer, the milk chocolate almond bark is ready. It pops right off the tray, just as Mayo promised.
“I like experimenting with new things,” he said. “Being able to move them into the storefront and seeing how the customers react to them is great.”
One of his newest creations is the bacon bark, a classic bark sprinkled with bacon flakes for those customers who are craving something savory.
Creations like this are what make Cocoa Mill a standout, even for those who don’t live in Lexington.
“I think their chocolate is superb,” said MarySue Forrest, owner of The Bookery. “Every year I send about $100 worth of chocolate to my daughter’s family in California.”
Cocoa Mill is the only place in downtown Lexington where you can find locally crafted artisan chocolate.
“We feel like our product is an affordable luxury,” he said. “So even in times when the economy is not great and people aren’t doing well, they can take $5, stop in here and get a world-class piece of chocolate.”