Editor Caitlin Gittins was invited to a site tour of UK chocolate brand Willies Cacao, where she spoke with Owner Willie Harcourt-Cooze about flavour profile, the price of premium chocolate and his own journey as a bean to bar maker
On the outside, Willie’s Cacao has an unassuming facade, occupying a small business park in Uffculme, Devon. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a thriving chocolate producer present in over 25 countries and all spearheaded by chocolate connoisseur, Willie Harcourt-Cooze.
International Confectionery Magazine had the pleasure of being invited to undertake a site visit at the company’s base of operations in Devon and were provided with an overview of what forms the heart of the business: thoughtful, artisanal chocolate.
Willie’s Cacao, eponymously named after its Founder, began its journey around 25 years ago, when Willie visited Venezuela with his former wife. They were invited to visit a farm, Hacienda El Tesoro, near Choroni, by a friend, where he was struck by the beauty of it all.
“We went up there on a journey of discovery, and it was like fairyland,” he says. “With the multi-coloured cacao pods, the mango and nutmeg trees…”
The farm is located in Henri Pittier National Park and is still owned by Willie today. It’s the oldest national park in Venezuela, which currently houses an extraordinary 6% of the world’s bird species, a thriving utopia of flora and fauna. He bought the farm from Fernando Perez and had his eye opening moment when he ground cocoa beans using a coffee grinder to make a simple hot chocolate with water and a touch of cane sugar. In his words, “It gave me an extraordinary physical feeling of energy…I felt like Superman.”
“The people I work with are passionate about cacao,” Willie explains. “It’s the only reason it’s [the business] worked so well.”
Willie’s own passion in working in chocolate is evident, as starting a chocolate factory from scratch is no mean feat. This wasn’t necessarily the smoothest process – things got off to a bumpy start, as issues centered around what small chocolate producers often face: the cost of things.
“I didn’t have enough cash to buy a full container of beans,” he reflects, showing me around the first of his two cocoa bean storage rooms. Upon entering the cocoa bean storage room, I’m struck by the earthy, rich smell. It’s something I was warned about at reception, the smell of the cocoa beans – but I find myself enjoying it, and Willie does, too.
It’s evident that the size and scale of Willies Cacao has since expanded, now with two cocoa bean storage rooms where they started with one. He shows me around the vast variety of beans that go into making their chocolate – spanning geographical areas such as Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, where it all began.
A number of his beans still come from San Jose, in Venezuela. His relationship with that family has lasted 20 years, as he visits them regularly, as well as the other cocoa farmers he works with…
Read the full feature in our magazine.