This year marks the 10th birthday of Hummingbird Chocolate! Started by two local entrepreneurs, the craft chocolatier has grown from a tiny artisan producer into a world-recognized, award-winning company. Now, Hummingbird resides in a brand-new facility in Almonte housing an experiential chocolate factory where visitors can see how the yumminess is made, a café with signature hot chocolate, and a shop offering popular caramels and candies.
“My husband and I met in Afghanistan,” says co-founder and co-owner Erica Gilmour on a Zoom call. “We both worked in international development and came into chocolate from a background of working with farmers—others in the chocolate craft world had a similar experience, which is interesting!”
Working closely with farmers taught Erica and her husband Drew a lot, constituting a large part of their business to this day: “We worked with more than 1,000 farmers to have more sustainable access to markets by building a vegetable dehydration factory,” says Erica about one of their projects. Working on her master’s thesis at Carleton at the same time, she also worked specifically with women in Kabul, many of whom were not able to leave their homes. Through selling homemade sundried tomatoes, the women were able to access much-needed funds.
Through the couple’s work in Zimbabwe and Iraq, it became clear that it was a challenge for local farmers to access different markets—helping to increase yield is a big focus, but you still need a place to sell the product. When the earthquake happened in Haiti in 2010, Drew was on the ground setting up temporary schools. On that trip, he met cacao farmers and learned a little bit about the trade.
“The gears started to turn,” says Erica. “Chocolate was a simple pleasure in a difficult situation. We started ordering chocolate and learning about it. My first bite of craft chocolate blew my mind! I didn’t know it could taste fruity and nutty, not just a chocolate flavour but a world of flavour!”
“My first bite of craft chocolate blew my mind! I didn’t know it could taste fruity and nutty, not just a chocolate flavour but a world of flavour!”
The couple started doing research and set up a makeshift factory in their basement, with a coffee grinder doing 1kg of beans at a time. Erica would crack the cacao beans with a rolling pin and remove the shells with a blow drier. Loving the hands-on process that was a good break from writing reports all day, the couple became enamoured with chocolate-making. And so Hummingbird Chocolate was born.
Of course, I ask about the origin of the name. “We wanted a visual image, and hummingbirds migrate between Canada and Latin America, where our beans were coming from, so we loved that connection,” explains Erica.
Going back to how chocolate is made in Mexico and Central America, the company uses the 18th-century traditional style of chocolate-making, using stone wheels and grinders to crush and liquefy the cacao beans. “This craft requires someone to know what they are doing, tweak things in the process and taste as you’re going,” says Erica. “As we are growing, we are using modern equipment in conjunction with traditional methods, so we can control the temperatures for the chocolate more. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to use both!”
Erica and Drew started out making chocolate bars for friends (and themselves, of course) and within just 10 years, Hummingbird won the highest accolade possible in the world of chocolate—the Golden Bean award, the first Canadian company to ever do so. Erica and Drew’s 70% Hispaniola bean-to-bar chocolate competed against 14 other world gold champions and won.
“We have been working with this bean the longest,” says Erica. “Hispaniola is the name of the island where the beans come from, and this was one of the first beans we ever got our hands on in 2010! I love all the flavour in it.”
Today, Hummingbird sells chocolate through 200 stores in Canada and the United States—you might know some usual suspects like FarmBoy, as well as bulk chocolate purchasers like Château Laurier, Andaz, and even Fogo Island Inn on the East Coast! With so much unprecedented growth, the chocolate makers quickly grew out of their previous facility and needed to expand. Conveniently located right near a hardware store in Almonte, Erica and Drew worked tirelessly through the pandemic to open a new, larger, improved space to house visitors and let people in on the mysterious process of making chocolate.
“I hope people will come to visit the new facility and try our hot chocolate made with Hummingbird’s own chocolate!” says Erica. “We are also making gelato with our chocolate, which is pretty delicious. You are always welcome to visit.”