From teaching biology classes to creating Chocolate University, alumna Bryn (Viel) Kirk '87 has one sweet life. She graduated from Carroll with a major in biology and minors in secondary education and Spanish before going on to teach in southeast Wisconsin. Using experiences she gained through the Tri Beta Biology Club at Carroll and the impact of professors, such as Dr. John Batha and Dr. Bruce Maclntrye '63, she was able to begin her career as a biology lab teacher.
After teaching biology for a few years, Kirk began working as a lab tech in quality control for Ambrosia Chocolate Company in Milwaukee which began her career in the chocolate industry.
She will share her chocolate knowledge and experiences with a Carroll and friends audience when she hosts an online chocolate tasting for Carroll on November 10 titled, "Pioneering from Home: Choc It Up to Good Taste." Please visit the page to register.
In working at Ambrosia, Kirk said she was well prepared because of her Carroll experience and her teaching experience she was able to apply to her work. Since going into the chocolate industry she has been able to travel to different regions, create new recipes, and tie in chocolate experiments to her biology labs.
Kirk shared, “Because I had a background in teaching, I believed it opened opportunities for me that other laboratory techs didn’t have—or weren’t comfortable with—and this gave me a well-rounded experience.”
Since working at Ambrosia, Kirk has opened up her own Chocolate University Online where she is able to teach classes to those who want to learn more about chocolate, or even help troubleshoot with vendors for their products. They are instructed by Kirk herself, and are emailed out to participants to complete on their own time. The lessons provide a broader understanding of chocolate, chocolate recipes and, of course, the opportunity to taste test!
In this Q & A, Kirk shares her experience working in the chocolate industry, how she created Chocolate University, and her excitement for the chocolate class and tasting virtual event with the Carroll community.
Q: What led you down the career path of working in chocolate?
A: Trying to get a job as a biology teacher was very challenging in the late 80s. There were very few openings, especially in southeast Wisconsin where I wanted to stay. After about a year working as a substitute teacher, I applied for a temporary job using a job placement agency. They connected me with Ambrosia Chocolate Company in downtown Milwaukee (also known as Grace Cocoa, owned by W.R. Grace) working as a lab tech in Quality Control. A short time later I was hired permanently as a Research and Development Product Specialist.
Q: Tell me about your experience of working for Ambrosia Chocolate and how that helped build your knowledge of the industry.
A: When I first started at Ambrosia, I was well prepared from Carroll to work in a laboratory. Understanding “food science” and specifically, chocolate science, was something I learned on the job. Working for a large company like Grace Cocoa gave me opportunities to travel internationally, become knowledgeable in the many industries that use chocolate and cocoa (dairy, bakery, packaged foods, sports nutrition) and attend trade shows. Because I had a background in teaching, I believed it opened opportunities for me that other laboratory techs didn’t have—or weren’t comfortable with—and this gave me a well-rounded experience.
Q: What was the most appealing aspect of working in chocolate for you?
A: Almost everything! I loved teaching technical seminars to customers and vendors and troubleshooting production issues. Of course, creating new chocolate formulas (recipes) and running sensory evaluations (taste testing panels) was pretty fun as well!
Q. As your experience widened in the chocolate industry, how has your interest in chocolate grown?
A: Though I no longer work for a chocolate manufacturer, my interest in chocolate has never dimmed. That’s why I created Chocolate University Online and keep up on the latest confectionery news.
Q: What is your favorite kind of chocolate and why?
A: I have many favorites! Although I prefer extremely dark chocolate—85% to 90%—from artisan, small batch chocolate makers, I appreciate all kinds of chocolate but usually stick to dark chocolates with percentages of 70+ cacao and milk chocolates with percentages of 45+ cacao.
Q: Have you traveled to different regions or other parts of the world to broaden your knowledge of chocolate?
A: Yes. As an employee in the chocolate industry, I visited chocolate manufacturers in the US and Europe and studied cocoa production in Amsterdam. Last year, I took a trip to El Salvador to learn from cacao farmers and NGOs how to increase and improve cacao production and exports. I was able to have the complete experience from bean to bar right from the country of origin. It was amazing!
Q. How have you been able to tie in your experience working with chocolate and teaching biology labs? Have you done any chocolate experiments?
A: Creating cocoa butter crystallization through a process called “tempering” is a fun laboratory experiment. Tempering is key to making chocolate solid and shelf stable. And you get to eat your results.
Q. What is your favorite part about teaching classes for Chocolate University?
A: I don’t teach classes at Chocolate University Online in the traditional sense—the lessons are emailed to students. However, I do offer personal coaching to the entrepreneurial students who are interested in getting their products out of the kitchen and into the marketplace. Sometimes there are problems with scaling up batches or behaving properly in packaging. That’s where I can help. Coaching is my favorite part, but I also enjoy presenting chocolate tastings and educational events to groups—from book clubs and bridal showers to corporate events.
Q. What do you hope people will learn from the online event you are hosting for Carroll on November 10?
A: This will be an experiment! I haven’t done this virtually before; it’s always been in-person events. When I lead an in-person event, I bring all the chocolate but, in this case, the attendees have to get the chocolate ahead of time. But the tasting experience should be the same. We compare chocolates, finding the nuanced flavors that have developed differently in each chocolate and discuss how that came to be.