Black Dinah Chocolatiers
I’ll admit to having a Willy Wonka-type fantasy before visiting Black Dinah Chocolatiers. Would there be a river of chocolate? A glass elevator? No, neither is at Black Dinah (although a faucet that drips chocolate was pretty close), but I was not at all disappointed.
Chocolate has always been my favorite food, pretty much since birth. But for Kate Shaffer, Black Dinah’s Chocolatiers founder, her love of chocolate came later. She was a cook first, a California girl who found her way to Isle au Haut, to work on the tiny island’s only inn. She and her husband, Steve, made a home for themselves on the isolated island. They opened a cafe that specialized in sipping chocolate. One day, a craving for a small bite of something sweet led Shaffer to create her first truffle. This year, she’s celebrating the tenth anniversary of Black Dinah Chocolatiers, named for a small mountain on the island. “Isle au Haut was a great place to start a business,” she tells me, “sort of like an incubator. But as the business grew, we were spending too much time on logistics.” Fast forward to where we stand today, in Shaffer’s pristine chocolate manufactory in an old mill in Westbrook, where the scent of chocolate fills the air.
Making the move to a bigger space with a more central location has brought new opportunities. “Our wholesale business has gone up about 200 percent,” says Shaffer. “That wasn’t even part of our original model, but we were approached by stores that wanted to sell our product.” Black Dinah bark, in flavors like coffee peanut and honeyed hazelnut, can now be found at L.L.Bean and Rosemont Market. “Those bars the gateway. Once people get a taste of them, they go to the website,” she says. Chocolate lovers in the know, from all over the world, order from Black Dinah Chocolatiers. There’s also a small retail space by the production facility front door (and one in Blue Hill as well), filled with Black Dinah Chocolatiers products—sipping chocolate and brittle in tin canisters, tiny chocolate “peepers,” chocolate-covered pretzels, boxes of truffles, bark bars, and more. “We make chocolates, but we’re a gift-giving company,” Shaffer says. The thoughtful packaging has a Maine coast-inspired color palette, silky hand-tied ribbons, and a tiny, antique map of Isle au Haut with each box. I watch as Shaffer fills boxes for Valentine’s Day, neatly tying ribbons. Behind her in the small packing room, Jen Libby-Barnes stands in front of large boxes filled with assorted chocolates, packing gift boxes. Every Tuesday, visitors are welcome to watch the chocolate-making process in Westbrook.
Each piece is made with fresh ingredients—local when possible—in very small batches. “We don’t use extracts,” says Shaffer. “Ingredients come from whole foods. Moving here put us closer to so many more farms, and sourcing is easier.” The Farm Market Collection of seasonal flavors was inspired by the farmers’ market in Stonington, where Shaffer first started selling her creations. The collection includes blueberry-black pepper truffles, tree-to-sea maple caramels, and Cassis de Resistance, a truffle featuring island-grown black currant berries and bittersweet chocolate. Chocolate, of course, doesn’t grow in Maine. Most of what Black Dinah Chocolatiers uses is from a single origin in Venezuela. Shaffer shows us the production room, where chocolatier Cait Powell is making ganache. She infused cream with lavender buds and vanilla beans, and is ready to pour the mixture over bittersweet chocolate and butter in a Vitamix blender. It will then be spread into a metal frame and cut into small squares after it sets. Later, in the enrobing room, each piece will be covered in milk chocolate and decorated with a purple floral scroll. In another corner, chocolate maker Jordan Kellerman is working on Belgian-style filled chocolate bonbons. He lines heart-shaped molds with chocolate, shaking out the excess. Each heart is then carefully filled with more chocolate, infused with red wine from Cellardoor Winery. Later, he’ll embellish each piece with a thin, dark chocolate stripe. The shiny hearts are part of the You’re All Heart gift box of six pieces, created especially for Valentine’s Day. I ask Shaffer about the creative process and how new ideas become reality. “Every morning, we have a meeting, and anyone can bring an idea. We’re inspired by all kinds of content, from everywhere. Sometimes it’s from an ingredient, like the pears that were brought in by a vendor. They were so beautiful that we now make a pear-champagne truffle, in the shape of the fruit.”
As someone who harbors dreams of making chocolate myself, I’m curious about how much chocolate Shaffer consumes herself. “When I started the business,” she says, “I loved the idea of making chocolate, but I wasn’t that into eating it. Now I love it and eat a little bit every day.”
Black Dinah Chocolatiers | 869 Maine St. | Westbrook | 207.887.9763
5 Main St. | Blue Hill | 207.374.2228 | blackdinahchocolatiers.com
Kate Shaffer will be one of fourteen speakers at Maine Live on March 30 at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall.