Life Outside BIT: Keith Byer

Many of us have our favorite chocolate treats that we can’t seem to turn down.  This time of year we can find those little Reese’s Peanut Butter eggs that are on all the stores’ shelves for Easter.  Last month it was the heart-shaped boxes of scrumptious bite-size treats.  Of course, you may have your go-to candy bar from the vending machine, and the list goes on.  If you can relate, you might be a chocolate lover.  To all the chocolate lovers out there, today let’s skip the store-bought candy and focus on a homemade specialty straight from the heart of Keith Byer.

While attending a winemaking conference in Denver in 2007, Keith was introduced to pairing chocolate with wine.  He was amazed how one could consume two dissimilar goodies and experience something completely different.  The idea of making chocolate on a micro-scale began to intrigue him; unfortunately Keith found there was very little information available on the subject of making chocolate.  Even the logistics of ingredient acquisition proved to be difficult because cacao beans are typically sold by the railcar.  It took the next five years before he gained adequate knowledge, ingredient sources, and enough longevity check money stuffed away to assemble the equipment necessary to produce his first chocolate.  It was March of 2013 that Byer’s Bean-to-Bar micro chocolate factory was born.  From the start he stood apart from many others by purchasing fair trade/organic ingredients when possible in an attempt to create a socially responsible product.  To Keith’s surprise, his first batch of white chocolate created was actually edible… and the rest is history!
Byer’s Bean-to-Bar Goals:
• Produce a world-class chocolate right here in the Dakotas.
• Advocate for organic chocolate made from raw materials produced by slave-free labor practices (a.k.a. Fair Trade).
• Provide chocolate for fundraising efforts to those suffering with terminal/chronic illness or significant loss.  
The below will help you understand the chocolate-making process that Keith uses to create his specialties!

The above picture depicts the unit that roasts the sorted raw beans in a rotating cage.  The almond-sized beans are sanitized with high heat which allows for easy separation of husk from the nib. Check out the video of bean roasting in action!

Commercial food processor coupled with a vacuum assisted winnowing apparatus that separates the lighter outer husk material from the inner nib of the bean. The husk-free nibs are then cracked/crushed into coffee ground sized bits which are readily transformed into flowing chocolate. Watch the video here!
The below picture is a granite stone grinder/mixer where cacao nibs, sugar, vanilla beans and cocoa butter are crushed and continually refined to practical size of 30 microns or less over a 24-72 hour window.  Particles over 30 microns make the chocolate taste gritty.  The particle size needs to be less than 30 microns for the chocolate to feel smooth on the tongue.  Whole milk is an optional ingredient, and when added the result is milk chocolate.  Find the video of this process here! It looks delicious! 
The next step is completed with a tempering machine.  The tempering machine melts aged blocks of chocolate and passes it through a controlled set of temperature changes.  This process conveys the snap and shine that we have come to expect from a finished bar of chocolate.  The liquid mass is almost ready to be poured into molds in this video!
Keith then takes the tempered chocolate and deposits the desired amount into each mold.  The chocolate bars are allowed to cool and harden.  After cooling, the finished bars are now ready to be enjoyed! (Video)
Part of the fun of this chocolate adventure is involving BIT coworkers in Keith’s craft.  Over time he has identified several BIT employees who have composed his low-tech tasting team.  They have sensitive palates and appreciate of all types of chocolate from white to very dark.  They are not afraid to voice their opinions.  
Bonnie Bauder, Andy Ogan, Bobbi Huck, Tony Rae and Brent Dowling are the founders whose taste buds have boldly guided his operation since its inception.  It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it, and they are always looking for new talent!  Fun Fact:  A woman’s ability to smell, and therefore taste, is much stronger than a man’s!

Most folk don’t know that Miguel Penaranda is a commercial graphic artist by training, and he has led Keith through the steps of developing a logo.

Linda Plett has a creative eye for decorating and has given many valuable pointers on how to make chocolate more eye-appealing and presentable.

John Malfero’s son Brant loves milk chocolate, but has many food allergies and sensitivities.  John tasked Keith to create a chocolate Brant can tolerate.   Keith was hoping that his recent soy milk chocolate project would fill the need, but Brant is sensitive to soy, too.  Recently Keith created the sweetest semi-sweet chocolate possible with his micro bean-to-bar system and Brant found it to be enjoyable.

In his day job, Keith Byer has been a BIT employee since 1995.  He has been involved in administering the core email infrastructure through five different versions.  Thanks to successful efforts by Keith and others, BIT is currently running Exchange 2010 serving roughly 8,350 mailboxes.