For The Love of Chocolate

Por Amor Al Chocolate

by Nanfei Liu


SUMMARY: Matthew Sibley (’11) is a self-taught chocolatier who found his penchant for creation from his love of the Spanish language. After learning about the cultural significance of the cacao fruit, Sibley launched Apalache Chocolate. Customers can expect unique flavor pairings such as ‘toasted rice with matcha’ or ‘earl grey tea and blueberry,’ all made from the finest ingredients.

Sibley experienced an atypical journey to becoming a business owner. He began making chocolate in 2015 as a hobby. Interestingly enough, he was a modern foreign language major with a concentration in Spanish. His love for the language fueled his curiosity surrounding the cacao fruit since chocolate is significant within Latin culture. A turning point for Sibley was when he met Federico Cuatlacuatl during graduate school at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. It all started when Sibley helped Cuatlacuatl organize an artist residency in Mexico. They traveled to Cuatlacuatl’s hometown, where they drank cacao as a part of their traditions. Sibley was fascinated by this ritual, and at that moment, his journey with chocolate began.

Sibley_2.pngAfter graduating, Sibley started his career as a Spanish teacher but slowly found more purpose and enjoyment from making chocolate. Friends who loved his chocolate would encourage him and say, “wow, you need to sell this!” At first, the paperwork for owning a business was overwhelming, but Sibley managed to open his business, Apalache Chocolate, in 2019. The Spanish word ‘apalache’ stands for Appalachia, a nod to Sibley’s connection to the region. 

The craft chocolate industry is new, and the explosion of it is still happening. Sibley “meandered into this industry” from his pure love for the culture and his trips to Cuatlacuatl’s hometown in Puebla, Mexico. Besides reading Making Chocolate by the owners of Dandelion Chocolate, Sibley learned how to make chocolate through trial and error with a hefty dose of determination. 

Sibley_5.pngApalache Chocolate is an artistic endeavor for Sibley. He wanted to make craft chocolate that meant something and to bring a product to the bilingual community. As he pivoted to the world of entrepreneurship, he aimed to celebrate Latin culture. As a result, all of his communications and marketing have both English and Spanish translations.

Chocolate is a decadent treat celebrated worldwide. However, there is a significant disparity in the chocolate making between cacao farmers and chocolatiers. From growing, to fermentation, to drying, it is a laborious process for underpaid farmers. One of Sibley’s goals is to make sure there is a way to honor their hard work.

As his business grows, Sibley aims to strive for direct trade and form a personal relationship with farmers in Central and South America. Currently, Sibley buys from a wholesale company called Terrasoul Wholesale which sources their beans through cooperatives made up of many small family farms in Tocache, Perú. Not only is the quality of beans exceptional, but the company also honors the cultural traditions of harvesting this fruit with responsible trade and sustainability in mind.Sibley_4.png

What makes Apalache Chocolate so delicious is Sibley’s commitment to high-quality ingredients. While most chocolatiers try to cut costs by using a soy lecithin replacement, Sibley achieves maximum flavor and texture by using cacao butter instead. To make one batch of chocolate takes Sibley up to 32 hours of work. Currently, Sibley only sells locally at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market. His price points are competitive for the amount of craft chocolate per bar, as Sibley believes that everyone should have access to delicious chocolate.

The flavors of his products vary from season to season, but some customer favorites are Maple Pecan/Nuez y Miel de Maple and the Lemon Cardamom/Limón con Cardamomo. “I enjoy developing fun flavor profiles such as Ghost Pepper/Chile Fantasma and Toasted Rice and Matcha/Arroz Tostado y Matcha.” Sibley_3.png

Sibley’s Madison Experience played a pivotal role in shaping his worldview, “what I loved most about JMU was that I felt comfortable to explore and take a lot of different classes.” Most importantly, Sibley thrived in the local Spanish community. “I was getting all this experience through class, but the fact that Harrisonburg had all this language and culture, I was able to apply what I learned in class in a real way.” Sibley’s account of his chocolate journey cannot be complete without mentioning JMU language professors Alma Miranda Aguilar, who taught Latin American literature, Gian Frongia, who taught Italian, and Lilian Feitosa, who taught Portuguese. They have remained in contact and have become close family friends. Sibley is grateful for the support from his past professors who visit him at the farmers’ market to this day.

Sibley left his teaching job to pursue a fulfilling artistic endeavor while supporting his family with a home business. Sibley offers three points of advice for those who want to start their own business:

  • Be realistic about what you want: It is crucial to figure out what fulfills you and scale your business. 
  • Look for small business development centers: The local center helped me define scope goals and asked me critical questions. 
  • Don’t take others’ criticism too much to heart: There will be people who do not understand what you are trying to do and make you doubt yourself.

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Published: Friday, September 10, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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