What an exhilarating time it must have been to be alive in the 1890s, when the commercial chocolate businesses were developing. They were popping up everywhere, like the breweries we have today, or gluten-free options.
For millennia, cacao was cultivated and chocolate drinks enjoyed in Central America, where the cacao tree is native. The sweet pulp surrounding the cacao beans was fermented and used as an alcoholic beverage as early as 1400 BC. (Move over, chocolate martini.) And though chocolate became the rage in Europe during the century following Columbus’ return with this treasure of the “New World,” it took 300 years for the technology — that is scientific process and machinery — to be developed to manufacture chocolate in the United States.
The 1890s saw boundless chocolate growth, and Pennsylvania was in the forefront with Milton Hershey creating the Hershey Chocolate Company as a subsidiary to his successful Lancaster Caramel Company in 1894. But two years prior to that, Asher’s Chocolates opened in downtown Philadelphia. Today, Asher’s has a flagship candy manufacturing facility in Souderton as well as specialty smaller line for artisan chocolates at a plant in Lewistown that formerly housed Goss Candies. Three years after Hershey opened, in 1897, Gardner’s Candies was founded in Tyrone by 16-year-old James “Pike” Gardner, and the company has since grown to 10 retail stores, all in Pennsylvania, the newest one on North Atherton Street.
Chocolate shoppers that want to keep it local this week still have these Pennsylvania options, but the smallest and the most charming of all is in Boalsburg on Main Street, across from Duffy’s Tavern and next to the Springfield House. The Boalsburg Chocolate Company is a tiny shop but rich in treasures, and after taking just a few deep breaths of its supersaturated chocolate air, it feels like your endorphins are working, smoothing out all that ruckus in your brain.
Proprietor Bill Speakman, who operates the Springfield House Bed and Breakfast next door with his wife, Cheryl, knows the chocolate business. He opened his shop at the current location 10 years ago, but he started out in it more than 40 years ago at Horne’s department store in Pittsburgh, learning alongside chocolatier Betsy Ann Helsel, who was stepping down after 30 years as an artisan chocolate maker. Over the years, Speakman fine-tuned his palate in Europe on Belgian and Swiss varieties of chocolate, and he can explain the differences. He is happy to discuss the nuances and complexities of dark vs. milk chocolate, what the percentages mean, what the current trends are and why that trend is reversed in Pennsylvania. And he will also tell you, regrettably, all about globalization within the industry.
Boalsburg Chocolate Company outsources most of their chocolates from Asher’s specialty line in Lewistown, which makes them to his specifications, though they do make some simple items in their commercial kitchen next door. The shop has a wine-tasting area in the back, where you can pair chocolates with Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery spirits. You can also do that at the winery on Feb. 14, during the wine-and-chocolate pairing event. But Speakman will be too busy to talk to you then. It’s best to see him at the shop.