WOODSTOCK – If Mary Ervin and Sara Miller had listened to the adage about not mixing business and friends, they wouldn’t be owners of a growing chocolate shop in Woodstock.
Ethereal Confections is a bean-to-bar chocolate shop, meaning the business handles every step in the chocolate-making process, from when they receive the beans up until it becomes the chocolate their customers enjoy.
At the farms, the cocoa beans are harvested, fermented and dried before being exported.
Ethereal imports the beans, sorts them by hand and roasts them in a convection oven.
“After they’re roasted and cooled, they’re put in a machine called a winnower that cracks the bean open and separates the bean from the nut meat inside,” Ervin said. “That part in the inside, that’s the cocoa nib, and that’s what we grind up and turn into chocolate.”
While the business primarily uses cocoa nibs for its own chocolate production, the owners have seen about 5 to 10 percent of their business over the past two years go to a growing and popular niche market – craft breweries.
Ethereal’s wholesale customers have included prominent brewers Sierra Nevada and 3 Floyds Brewing Co.
“You can buy beans from other places, but the way each chocolatier roasts them affects the flavor profile,” Miller said. “They would buy from us specifically because they like the flavor profile we produced.”
Michael Dallas, co-founder of Scorched Earth Brewing in Algonquin, is hooked on Ethereal’s confections, which his brewery uses for an oatmeal imperial stout called The Bitter Chocolatier.
When brewing new beers, his company aims for something season-appropriate, Dallas said. So, as Valentine’s Day approached last year, a chocolate beer made sense. Through word of mouth, Dallas learned about Ethereal.
“We went up there and were instantly amazed with the flavors they were making,” Dallas said. “Mary is really pushing the envelope as to what chocolate can do.”
She does so without any formal culinary training. Ervin grew up in Spring Grove and was a graphic designer, while Miller, originally from Racine, Wisconsin, was an interior designer. The two met through Ervin’s brother and soon learned they shared a love for food.
“We focused on chocolate because of Mary’s love of it and, at the time, I wasn’t picky about the medium,” Miller said. “I think we were both getting a little bored with our jobs, and we decided to go ahead and give it a shot.”
Ervin does have chocolate experience, having worked in a chocolate shop as part of an after-school job. While attending Northern Illinois University, she found work again in another chocolate shop, but she also learned more about food and cooking living on her own for the first time.
“By the time I was ready to graduate with a graphic design degree, I had fallen in love with chocolate and wanted to do that as a profession rather than design,” Ervin said.
They started selling their goods at farmers markets in Woodstock and Kenosha, where Miller lived, and the two eventually found more support in Woodstock.
They opened up shop in November 2011 and quickly outgrew a spot on the Woodstock Square. Two and a half years ago, Ethereal moved to its current location at 113 St. Benton St. in the downtown.
Their chocolate is sold in about 200 stores across the United States, mostly gourmet and specialty food stores as opposed to chains, Ervin said. Their wholesale business makes about 60-to-70 percent of sales, while the cafe represents 30-to-40 percent. They sell truffles and meltaways, but also craft cocktails, beer/wine pairings and more.
“We do all of our production in Woodstock,” Ervin said. “When you walk into the space, you see the production area, you walk through some seating, and we have a bar in the back where you can order all the cocktails and desserts.”
It’s an alternative to places such as Starbucks, which has a store just one block away on the Square.
“People seem to come to us because … they want to support a small, local business, and we offer that,” Ervin said.