Meet the Artisan: James Hull, of J.Cocoa

Meet the Artisan: James Hull, of J.Cocoa

Meet James Hull, founder Founder and Head Chocolatier at J.Cocoa. James makes bean to bar chocolate from his Sussex based chocolate factory. 
Meet the Artisan: Wood crafter and maker of furniture and homeware, Dan Howey Reading Meet the Artisan: James Hull, of J.Cocoa 9 minutes

As the Founder and Head Chocolatier at J.Cocoa, James Hull has an incredible story to tell of his journey into bean to bar artisan chocolate making. Having recently returned from an international chocolate conference in Amsterdam, the enthusiasm for his craft is palpable and infectious. The chocolate factory is nestled in the heart of Sussex, where James has nurtured J.Cocoa from a spark of curiosity to a distinguished and award winning bean to bar maker in the British chocolate scene.

The Beginnings of J.Cocoa

J.Cocoa was born into existence in 2015, the result of James Hull's unexpected curiosity about the world of chocolate. His journey began at Westminster College in London, where he honed his skills in confectionery. James spent time crafting chocolate and sugar sculptures for hotels and had an unexpected stint as a fishmonger, his career trajectory was anything but ordinary. Yet, it was this unique blend of experiences that primed him for a chance encounter that would redefine his professional life.

A visit to a chocolate festival in London sparked James's interest in the art of bean to bar chocolate making. Surprised by the revelation that many celebrated chocolatiers did not actually create their chocolate from scratch, James was inspired to dig deeper into the craft. His thirst for knowledge led him to an exhibition where he met Nicaraguan cocoa bean producers, a meeting that would alter the course of his career. Gifted with some premium cocoa beans, James embarked on a journey of discovery, experimentation, and, admittedly, a few kitchen disasters.

From Hobby to Artisanal Chocolate Enterprise

What started as a hobby, fueled by curiosity and a handful of cocoa beans, gradually transformed into a vocation. James's homemade chocolate quickly caught the attention of locals, including a café in Brighton which sought his unique, locally made chocolate for their hot drinks. This partnership marked the beginning of J.Cocoa's transition from a passionate hobby to a business, challenging James to scale his operations without compromising the artisanal quality and integrity of his chocolate.

Self-taught and propelled by a relentless pursuit of excellence, James Hull's journey is certainly one of passion, perseverance, and creativity. J.Cocoa is a rarity in the UK's chocolate-making scene, with only a handful of bean to bar chocolate makers in existence. James’s journey from the beginnings of using basic household tools like a rolling pin and hairdryer to now having an established chocolate factory serving multiple businesses and hundreds of customers is certainly an admirable transformation. 

The Ethical Heart of Chocolate at J.Cocoa

At the core of J.Cocoa's philosophy, as articulated by James, is a deep-seated commitment to sustainability and ethical practices that challenge the traditional norms of the chocolate industry. 

Ethical Sourcing: A Moral Imperative

From the outset, James made it a cornerstone of J.Cocoa to engage in practices that are both sustainable and ethical. This resolve was significantly strengthened after a meeting with cocoa producers from Nicaragua. It unveiled the harsh realities of the chocolate industry, characterised by exploitative labour practices, including the use of child and slave labour. J.Cocoa's sourcing strategy is meticulously designed to counteract these practices, focusing on direct relationships with growers and farmers or through cooperatives. These cooperatives play a crucial role in aggregating small-scale producers, enabling them to participate in the global market while ensuring fair compensation for their labour and produce.

The Journey of a Cocoa Bean

Understanding the origins of cocoa emphasises the significance of ethical sourcing. Cocoa cultivation is a labour-intensive process that spans years before yielding fruit. This reinforces the responsibility James feels towards his suppliers, striving to honour their hard work by extracting the best flavours from each bean, creating chocolate that truly respects its origins. J.Cocoa's commitment to ethical sourcing goes beyond fair compensation; it's about fostering a sustainable ecosystem that allows growers to thrive rather than merely survive.

Sustainability: A Commitment to the Planet

Equally important to J.Cocoa's philosophy is the commitment to environmental sustainability. James emphasises the importance of not only supporting cocoa growers to live and not just survive by paying premiums for their crops but also ensuring that the end product does not harm the planet. This dual focus has led to innovative packaging solutions designed to minimise environmental impact. J.Cocoa's packaging, from the compostable bags made from corn and potato starch to the acid-free dyed board for its boxes, demonstrates a strong commitment to zero-waste principles. Avoiding common but environmentally harmful finishes like foil and spot gloss ensures that J.Cocoa's packaging is truly conscientious and sustainable. 

The journey to sustainable and ethical chocolate making comes with its challenges, especially in packaging innovations like Easter eggs, which demand creative solutions to align with zero-waste goals. But James has managed to solve these challenges with innovative solutions to ensure the sustainable business goals are met and customers are satisfied with their products. 

From Bean to Bar: The Process of making chocolate at J.Cocoa

Crafting chocolate at J.Cocoa is a meticulous process that transforms the humble cocoa bean into award winning bars and seasonal products like Easter eggs and Christmas chocolates. James guides us through this intricate process, revealing the dedication and complexity involved in creating J.Cocoa's bean to bar chocolates.

  1. Sourcing and Sorting: The first step in the chocolate-making process begins with the arrival of dried cocoa beans, harvested, fermented, and dried at their origin. This initial phase is crucial, as the fermentation and drying methods can significantly influence the beans' flavour profile. Upon receipt, James and his team painstakingly sort through the beans by hand, removing any foreign objects like stones or sticks to prevent damage to the equipment.
  2. Roasting: Roasting is an essential step that not only ensures safety by heat-treating the beans but also develops the chocolate's complex flavour profile. Like grapes in winemaking or coffee beans in coffee production, cocoa beans possess diverse flavours based on their genetic variety. J.Cocoa roasts each variety to its own specific profile, balancing time, temperature, and technique to highlight its unique characteristics.
  3. Cracking and Winnowing: After roasting, the beans are rapidly cooled and then cracked to separate the nibs from the husks. The nibs contain the essence of what will become chocolate. The winnowing process involves vacuum suction to remove the lighter husks from the heavier nibs, leaving behind the pure cocoa nibs ready for grinding.
  4. Grinding and Refining: The cocoa nibs are first pre-ground, reducing the pressure on the stone grinders and speeding up the process. The refined nibs are then transferred to stone grinders, where they are transformed into a smooth chocolate liquor over 24 hours. This liquor forms the base of the chocolate, to which sugar, milk, or other ingredients are added and further refined to achieve the desired texture and flavour.
  5. Conching: The next phase, conching, involves heating and aerating the chocolate over several days. This process mellows out acidity and volatiles, refining the chocolate's flavour. The duration of conching varies with the cocoa variety, with some requiring more time to achieve the perfect balance of flavours.
  6. Maturing: Once conched, the chocolate is set into large blocks and left to mature. This ageing process, lasting between three weeks to three months, allows the flavours to develop and meld, resulting in a richer, more rounded chocolate.
  7. Moulding and Finishing: The final step is to melt down the matured chocolate and mould it into bars or other shapes. This stage is relatively straightforward compared to the intricate processes that precede it.

The steps from receiving a sack of cocoa beans to the finished chocolate product are certainly a labour of love and dedication. Spanning approximately ten to fifteen days for the chocolate to reach its liquid stage before an additional maturing period. Each step, from the initial sorting to the final maturing, is carefully calibrated to ensure that the chocolate tastes exceptional and honours the cocoa bean producers. 

In terms of flavourings, James rejects the use of extracts, oils, or essences and incorporates only fresh, real ingredients into his chocolates. From  fiery chilies to fresh limes and the rich depth of genuine coffee, each element is chosen for real and natural flavour. 

James’s advice to chocolate enthusiasts is simple: scrutinise the ingredients, for in the world of chocolate, as in many areas of culinary arts, less is indeed more.

Collaborating with other businesses in Sussex

J.Cocoa have a number of impressive collaborations within the local Sussex community under their belt. From working with Generation Gin on an innovative orange and cocoa liqueur to incorporating coffee from Skylark in Brighton and Horsham Coffee Roastery, J.Cocoa's commitment to local suppliers is evident. 

J.Cocoa has also partnered with Black Mocha café in Brighton, creating a signature black mocha chocolate bar that features their own roasted coffee beans. The local connection deepens with ventures into ice cream through collaboration with Mialls Sorbet Ice Cream, and into the brewing world with Silver Rocket Brewery, crafting a chocolate stout porter that marries cocoa and beer in a unique exchange of flavours—rum-soaked cocoa nibs for brewing, returned as nibs for chocolate making, infusing the final product with a unique rum flavour.

The collaborations don’t stop at beverages and desserts. James has engaged with local restaurants like Interlude at Leonardslee Gardens, creating bespoke chocolates that incorporate foraged ingredients—even the divisive hogweed, transformed into an unexpectedly popular caramel. The collaborative spirit has also extended to family ventures, with a Mexican chilli salt chocolate bar inspired by an excess of home-grown chilies from James’s father, proving to be a surprising hit among customers.

Mexican Chilli Salt Chocolate by J.Cocoa 

Discover the J.Cocoa range of bean to bar artisan chocolate: 

View all Sussex artisan chocolate by J.Cocoa

40% white chocolate by J.Cocoa

55% Milk Chocolate - Chuno Cocoa Bean Variety, by J.Cocoa