Each piece of machinery at Amano has its own story. One of our most treasured machines is our winnowing machine. It is beautiful and nearly 100 years old, and each and every person who visits our factory is amazed at its beauty. But before I tell the story of our winnowing machine and how we got it, it is probably best to explain why we need one.
Cocoa beans are surrounded by a fibrous husk. Because of the expense of cocoa beans, at the turn of the century it was not uncommon for many chocolate companies to include the husk when they made their chocolate or to include as much husk as possible. If a company is large enough and processes enough cocoa, even a 1% savings ends up being an enormous sum. Including the husk is an easy way to save several percentage points. To combat this, the FDA created a limit of 1.75% as to how much cocoa husk may be included in the ground up cocoa beans used to make the chocolate without the chocolate being considered “contaminated.” Since the husk of each cocoa bean is approximately 10% percent of the cocoa bean, this limit is actually quite high. We are aware of one well recognized manufacturer who still leaves the shells on their cocoa in defiance of the standards.
Perhaps you can get away with a fair amount of cocoa husk in mass-market chocolate, but to make the very best chocolate, you need to remove as much of the husk as absolutely possible. It is easy to assume that the little bits of roasted cocoa bean are “clean enough,” only to find out later that that isn’t really the case. In fact, when we launched Amano we made this very mistake, and since the finished chocolate was terrible, we had to throw it out. It was a costly mistake—$60,000 of chocolate—one we never have made since. We had the option of selling the chocolate to another chocolate company at a steep discount. After giving it some thought we decided that if it came from Amano, it would never go out unless we could fully stand behind it. So instead of reclaiming our investment we opted to throw it away as a lesson to ourselves to never make that mistake again. The beauty of mistakes is that they teach you what not to do, and that costly mistake was one we have never made again. (On the other hand, we have made other costly mistakes, and we have never repeated those either.)
When we launched Amano, we built our own winnowing machine using our own design. It stood about ten feet tall, on top of which was a three-foot hopper that would hold 130 pounds of cocoa (one burlap sack full). Either Clark or I would load it by climbing up a ladder and standing on top. We had a bucket on a rope, and one of us would fill the bucket and the other would haul the bucket up by rope. Once the bucket was on top, it would be dumped into the hopper. It was hard, backbreaking work hauling the cocoa up 20 lb at a time.
It was also loud—very, very loud! Once the cocoa was all loaded, we would turn the machine on and run for the door—literally. The sound of the winnowing machine penetrated every fiber of your being. We tried picking up a pair of the very best hearing protectors at the sporting goods store—the ones that would protect a sportsman’s hearing from the loudest of rifle blasts. It didn’t even begin to cut out the noise.
Also, the process was slow. It would take several hours to winnow a bag of cacao and remove the shells. The noise further complicated the problem. It meant that for hours and hours at a time we couldn’t even be in the factory. When the batch was done we’d come back in, load up the next bag, and again run for the door. The process would start all over again.
After making chocolate for over a year using our insanely noisy contraption, enough was enough. I called a friend of mine who is able to find machinery for me that nobody else has been capable of finding. I told him I needed a winnowing machine and gave him a week to see what he could do.
The week flew by as we made our next load of chocolate. Then just as I was thinking it was going to take longer than expected, I received an e-mail letting me know that my good friend had found me a winnowing machine. He said it was exactly what I needed.
I was told, “If you see the pictures, you won’t buy it.”
Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. I asked for the pictures anyway.
The pictures arrived several days later, and needless to say, the apparatus did indeed look like a mess. In fact, I couldn’t tell what it was or how it worked. I asked how much, and it was expensive. On the other hand, winnowing machines are always expensive, and while expensive, this winnowing machine cost less than one would expect.
Could I trust my friend? That is what it all came down to. The winnowing machine looked like a huge hunk of something that would be more at home at the city dump.
When I asked where it was, he said it was in Madrid, Spain. I took the plunge: “I’ll take it.” After all, no matter how bad it was, it was surely better than what I had.
It wasn’t long before I was having to deal with all the import-export issues that plague bringing things into and taking things out of the United States. The amount of paperwork is voluminous, and the penalties for making a mistake are immense. Yet it wasn’t long before the machine was “on the water,” and I waited anxiously for it to make it to the designated United States port in New Jersey. Once it was in the United States, we dealt with U.S. Customs and the import paperwork as well as trucking. You are given a very specific window, often only an hour or two, to pick up your goods when you bring stuff into the U.S. If the trucker misses the window, then things get expensive really fast. After lots of paperwork back and forth and immense amounts of stress, I finally received the phone call which said that the winnowing machine was on the truck, and I could breathe a big sigh of relief.
Shipping from New Jersey takes five business days, so it would be effectively a week before the goods would arrive. And it was a long week. I didn’t know what to think. From the photos I had received, the winnowing machine looked mysterious. I couldn’t help wondering, would it be beautiful or would it be a disaster?
Finally the big day came, and my business partner Clark and I arrived at the factory early in the morning. There in the morning light was the semi that we had contracted to bring it. We rolled open the back of the trailer, and my fears were realized: we had purchased a disaster. I was crushed. I had spent an insane amount of money buying the winnowing machine and paid for expensive overseas shipping to bring it to Utah, and it was an incredibly depressing moment to see what all that time, money and effort had acquired.
The front of the winnowing machine has glass windows so that people can watch the shells of the cocoa bean fly up while the heavier bits of cocoa bean drop. Several of the windows had apparently been smashed during shipping. The rest of the winnowing machine was covered with dust—literally an eighth of an inch of dust. It was clear that it had been in storage for decades. In quite a few places, it was almost black from dirt and grime.
I wanted to cry.
At the same time, I realized that no matter how bad it was, I could fix any problems that might exist. After all, I had completely disassembled, fixed, and then rebuilt all the other machines we had. How hard could it be? (Yeah, famous last words …) No matter what, I should be able to fix it until it was better than our original winnowing machine, and perhaps I wouldn’t have to run for the door because of the noise; and who knew, perhaps it would clean the beans of shell better than the original winnowing machine? Either way, I decided that it would serve until I had enough money to buy a real winnowing machine, such as a German Bauermeister, which, if I was lucky, I could pick up used for the unbelievably low price of $80,000.
After a few big sighs and trying to regain my composure, I got our ShopVac and started to vacuum off the layers and layers of dust. Te filth was black and gross. It was quite sight to watch the dust fly into the vacuum. After vacuuming, I began to feel a bit more hopeful that I could get the machine to work. Perhaps it wasn’t a complete waste after all. Even so, there were still layers of dirt and blackness that needed to be removed one way or another, even if it meant refinishing the machine.
A trip to the hardware store was the next—to buy some Murphy’s Oil Soap, which I hoped could remove the filth without damaging the wood underneath. Besides soap, I picked up some natural sponges and a bag of cloth rags. Returning to the factory, I filled a bucket full of clean water, added some of the Murphy’s Oil Soap, and filled a sponge with rich soapy water. I scrubbed, scrubbed, and scrubbed. It didn’t take long for the water to become inky black. It took quite a few buckets of water to to clean the winnowing machine—the first cleaning.
It took a solid day of scrubbing, and five thorough cleanings before the water didn’t turn inky black. Upon each cleaning, my hopes climbed and climbed. My first thoughts of wondering what sort of junk I had purchased and hauled from one-third the way around the world by boat and truck turned to light hope—maybe I had something that would match the deep expectation that what I had was something truly special.
Many mechanical problems remained to sort out. The screens that sorted the bits of cocoa beans (cocoa nibs) by size were torn and had gashes through them. I ordered new screens from my favorite industrial supply, and amazingly they arrived the next day.
I removed the old screens, cleaned the frames, and installed the new screens. Then came the real work. My business partner Clark and I took the entire winnowing machine apart, piece by piece.
We brought on a temporary worker to assist us—Tom, who happened to be from England. We lucked out. He was a phenomenal worker.
Meanwhile, there was a little problem that I had been trying to work through in my mind (even though the solution was obvious, I just didn’t want to accept it). The problem was how to get the cocoa beans out of the winnowing machine. What do I mean by that? Well, the output of the winnowing machine was a mere four inches off the floor. Somehow, I was going to have to catch the beans in that four inches and get them to somewhere else where I could do something with them.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, chocolate factories were built in a multi-story configuration. The cocoa beans would be hauled via elevator to the top of the factory, then stored and roasted on the top floor. The cocoa beans and chocolate would complete the first step in the process, then drop to the floor below, to be further processed in the next step. Eventually, at the bottom floor, the chocolate would be molded, packaged, and shipped.
My winnowing machine was built in that bygone era, when quality was king, before industrialization reduced chocolate from something truly special to a commodity based on the least expensive beans possible, then diluted with powdered milk and sugar. It was built when most of the great chocolate makers consider to be the golden era of chocolate making. All this all adds up to explain why the winnowing machine’s output was just 4” off the ground, designed to drop the bits of roasted cocoa bean (cocoa nibs) to the floor below. The solution of course was simple: we were going to have to do something we hadn’t planned; we were going to have to build a platform to hold the winnowing machine.
Building a platform would be more difficult than it initially sounded. The winnowing machine would vibrate terribly, and any platform we would build would have to be able to withstand not only the weight of the winnowing machine, cocoa beans, and anybody operating the winnowing machine, but also withstand the barrage of constant vibration. This means that the platform would have to be built like a tank.
Clark and I ran off to the hardware store and loaded up our trucks with 2×6 lumber to build the frame, 3/4 inch plywood, and lots and lots of nails, screws, and Gorilla Glue. We began to concoct a plan for what the platform was would look like.
Tom and I meanwhile took the entire winnowing machine apart so that we could not only have the winnowing machine clean on the outside but on the inside as well. Though the winnowing machine was close to 100 years old and would get a new lease on life, it was important that it remain true to its history and be restored as close as possible to its original operating condition.
There were old cocoa nibs in the machine, and I could not help but wonder what kind of cocoa beans they were and their history. Who had harvested the cocoa? Where were they from? What were they doing with their lives, and were they still alive. or had they grown old and passed away? If they had passed away, what were their children doing? Were they still working their cocoa plantations, or had they moved into working in other fields? These are the questions I always ask myself when I find, buy, refurbish, and use the old machines we use to make our chocolate.
When you create and send a product out the door, it’s easy to forget that the it has yet an entire life once it exits that factory door. The same is true with our chocolate. It will be a participant in people’s most beautiful moments, such as when people have become engaged or married, and it may even be present at a funeral. Our chocolate has traveled to the far ends of the earth without our knowledge of where, or of who will enjoy it. (One day I received a telephone call from an excited individual who just wanted to let me know that our chocolate had now been to the top of Machu Pichu. How cool is that?)
The same is true with the things we buy. Who actually makes the things we have? What were their cares? Who did they go home to in the evenings? What has happened in their lives since they created what we now own? In the case of our equipment—most of which is close to a century old—it is highly doubtful that the people who built it are still alive. You can’t help but wonder if their descendants would be proud that something their grandfather or great-grandfather had built was still being used and lovingly cared for.
It took us a full two weeks to carefully disassemble, clean, repair, sterilize, and reassemble each of the parts of the winnowing machine. It’s easy to become myopic when working on a machine like this one. You become obsessed with the repair and cleaning of each individual part and repair. It wasn’t until we had the entire winnowing machine put back together and were able to take a step back and look at it that we realized that what we had once considered to be an enormous mistake had in fact become one of the most beautiful machines I had ever seen—a true work of art. It had gone from being “ugly duckling” to a beautiful swan of a machine.
About the time we had almost put the winnowing machine back together, our friend, local wood worker, and artist Dave stopped by, and he was amazed by what he saw. Dave runs a local woodworking shop, making furniture for high-end restaurants and residences. Dave loved the craftsmanship that had gone in to the building of our machine, especially beautiful woods. The beautiful dark frame is made of mahogany, the bulk of the winnowing machine is created out of maple, and the wooden “springs” on which the sorting tray rides are made of ash—the same wood from which British long bows used to be constructed. Each type of wood had been carefully chosen to best fit its purpose. The careful craftsmanship ensured that the machine wasn’t just functional, it was beautiful as well.
We carefully scooted it to one side of the factory and then started building our platform. We made sure that each of the critical joints was not only nailed but screwed together, with glue to reinforce the joints. A few days later, we had a beautiful platform, and Tom came up with a really easy way for us to construct the stairs, so that they matched the platform perfectly.
The big moment finally arrived. We went to get Bryon, or neighbor, so that he could forklift the winnowing machine onto the platform. Watching the winnowing machine slowly lift onto the platform was an amazing sight, as nerve- wracking as it was. One false move and all our efforts would be for naught. The winnowing machine would be destroyed. Needless to say, we managed to get it onto the platform safely, despite our frayed nerves.
Once the machine was on the platform, we bolted it down, providing just a bit of “looseness” so that the vibration would not transfer completely to the platform. Additionally, we had to build a stand that we could use to hold the venturi separator that would separate out the cocoa bean shells (chaff) from the air that vacuumed them up. A few days later, everything was ready, and our super awesome electrician Dave came over and hooked up the electrical.
I roasted a bag of cocoa in our ball roaster, and then the moment of truth finally arrived. We turned our winnowing machine on. There was a bit of adjustment to get the airflow just right to lift the cocoa shells and let the cocoa nibs drop through to the bin waiting below. But a half a bag through, we were able to get it perfectly tuned.
As time has gone on, we have measured the performance of our cocoa machine and compared it to that of more “modern” cocoa machines. As far as we can tell, we are within a few percentage points from the efficiency of the newer machines, which cost a few hundred thousand dollars each. What’s more, our winnowing machine is truly a work of art that we can be proud of. When the time comes that we need a new winnowing machine, we will pattern it after our beautiful winnowing machine. What could be more beautiful than that?
It’s amazing to think so much of the careful work of the best cocoa farmers in the world now flows through this beautiful winnowing machine on its way to becoming some of the world’s finest chocolate. Though now nearly 100 years old, our machine is no longer part of the story of some mysterious chocolate factory in Spain, it is now part of Amano’s story, and in a small part the story of each and every person who has the pleasure of eating our chocolate.