Aggie Chocolate Factory

Estee Wilson and Steve Shelton pose for a photo at the Aggie Chocolate Factory on the Utah State University campus.

Since opening less than a year ago, the world is beginning to notice USU’s Research Lab and Chocolate Factory, the first of its kind associated with a university—as far as Steve Shelton, the Plant Production Manager for the Aggie Chocolate Factory and Business Manager for Aggie Ice Cream, knows.

People are coming to tour it from as far as Japan, and some of the world’s largest chocolate makers are lending knowledge and support. Shelton added that this is only the beginning for the Chocolate Factory.

“We’ve had Guittard here, Ghiradelli, Callebaut and Blommer chocolates,” Shelton said. “Hershey and others have donated lab equipment. … Callebaut is probably the biggest chocolate manufacturing company in the world.”

The companies have helped the lab greatly, and Shelton said it seems like they’re invested in giving students — and future applicants — hands-on experience.

A few years ago, Silvana Martini started teaching classes on chocolate at USU, but until the Chocolate Factory was built, students had no way to get hands-on learning.

“It’s hard to get a sense of what’s happening in a classroom like they can here in this chocolate lab,” Shelton said. “We finally found the right approach to combine the academia with the labs.”

Shelton foresees cooperating with other colleges on campus to research such areas as new ways to use cocoa beans as a medium for fermentation, or recycling the large amount of chocolate waste products. He said that the Food Science students are currently developing chocolaty granola bars using chocolate byproducts. Agricultural students are using the husks and winnows from the shells of cocoa beans as a mulch to see if they help with yields of vegetables and fruits.

“There’s a lot of husk and byproduct from these beans that we can find better uses for it,” Shelton said.

Shelton said that the first two semesters of classes associated with the hands-on labs were so popular that they are now having to limit students.

He hopes to add an enrobing machine to the lab soon which will teach students how to cover confections in chocolate. Moving the Factory towards teaching and creating confections as well as chocolate is one of Shelton’s greatest dreams for the Factory.

“It’s fun to make chocolate,” Shelton said, “but it’s even more fun to make salt water taffy, brittles, caramels, marshmallows, ribbon candies, root beer barrels, lemon heads and candy canes.”

Before managing Aggie Ice Cream, Shelton owned and operated Magical Moon Toys, where he started selling his homemade confections and chocolate. Soon, the candy was outselling everything else, so he completely changed careers and opened Pee Wee’s Sweets in Logan.

But getting the chance to develop the Chocolate Factory, to pass on an art that often dies when its masters do, has become his dream and focus.

“Most chocolate places aren’t going to teach you,” Shelton said. “Everybody thinks that they have the family or trade secret and are just not willing to give it up. That’s what we’ve come to do here. … I feel like the magician who’s giving away all his secrets.”

And Shelton is not just giving away those secrets to USU students. Groups of up to 15 people are welcome to make appointments to come tour and ask questions. They also offer their class instruction and labs to companies and individuals in an intensive workshop setting. He also hopes to offer small classes to community members as well.

Shelton said that there is a difference between “chocolatiers,” who use another’s chocolate to create their product, and “chocolate makers,” who actually make the chocolate they use. Even at his own candy store, he used Callebaut chocolate to make his candy. Shelton sees the potential of USU’s chocolate program in teaching the art of both as a rare opportunity for students.

In late November, the Factory opened its cafe as a way to make the Chocolate Factory self-sustaining and to sell products being made through the classes. It features Shelton’s pastry recipes and the 1st official Aggie Factory dark chocolate bars appropriately named after the Aggie Fight Song: Thistle and Rose. Though Shelton says the Aggie Chocolate Factory is not out to compete with other chocolate makers, they are also beginning to be approached by businesses like The Island Market to carry their bars within their stores.

The Thistle and Rose bars consist of only cocoa and sugar, are 100% organic and are fair-trade certified. Shelton said the Factory’s cocoa beans currently come from Belize and Ecuador, but they are working on getting beans from the Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Madagascar, Columbia, Peru and Ghana.

“Every one of those different beans is going to give us a very distinct flavor,” Shelton said. “There’s a whole lifetime of research done on how to get the best roast out of every place of origin.”

In March, Shelton hired Estee Wilson as pastry chef for the Factory Cafe.

“I love chocolate and I love baking, so naturally when I saw that they were opening this factory, I paid close attention,” Wilson said.

Shelton says Wilson has not only perfected his recipes of staples like brownies, cookies and eclairs—she’s also brought in her own specialties and ideas, like chocolate raspberry mousse cake and Nanaimo Bars. Wilson sees the cafe adding new items based on research done in the lab such as bread made with a fermented cocoa bean starter.

For more information about the USU Chocolate Factory or to sign up for tours, Shelton said to find them on Facebook, come into the cafe, or email at aggie.chocolate.factory.cafe@gmail.com.