The chocolate field of dreams
“Angus, it’s about time we invited you to our factory in the fields by the canal in Knighton.” Factory in a field?
A must see, surely? And it wasn’t long before the date was set for me to head off for deepest Staffordshire to
see the company Knighton Foods. By Angus Kennedy
Admittedly, I confess, I hadn’t heard of Knighton Foods, and that, I was informed by my hosts, was exactly why I needed to see their plant, as I could be in for some very interesting surprises.
Immediately I started prepping, while imagining I would be driving my Landrover Defender through muddy country lanes, whisking past hilltop churches and fine English country pubs fully equipped with conveniently tired dogs drying themselves in front of roaring log fires.
And curiously I was right. Knighton Foods (a wholly owned subsidiary of Premier Foods) can be found in a refreshingly unlikely spot. A very nice spot too.
The factory is situated in an idyllic country location, yes a field too, accessed by driving through country lanes, (though unfortunately I didn’t have time to test the pubs).
And a significant plant it is too, with a capacity of over 40,000 tonnes of powder a year, working 24/7, armed with 285 wonderful employees, and equipped with 22 packing lines to be exact.
Knighton Foods is situated on the Shropshire Union canal where, if you decide to jump on a rather inviting green narrow boat that is actually moored at their wharf, it would take you directly to Cadbury’s, Bourneville.
The whole place came popping out of the valley like a special effect in a US block-busting feature film.
David Street, Marketing Manager and Paul Cannings, Business Unit Director, were my hosts for the day. David welcomed me to a very nice new Customer Innovation Centre where Knighton
customers can come and discuss their product innovations. “Can I offer you a hot drink?” asked David.
“Sure a cup of tea please David, is fine.” To which I soon realised, I had made my first potentially cardinal mistake.
‘Angus you idiot’, I thought to myself, ‘you have come to the one factory that possibly knows more about making drinking chocolate than any other place on the planet. And you blindly ask for a cup of tea!’
And while I recovered from my missed drinking opportunity, I immediately realised that the place I was standing in – once made the crumb to supply the demand for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
They produce Marvel, Birds Custard and had more or less invented the drinking chocolate (the just add water version). “Well this is quite a surprise, just being here,” I said. Admiring the display of powdered luxury chocolate drinks produced on site.
“Yes” added, David, “you wouldn’t believe it would you? There is a lot more to this place than meets the eye,” he said, handing me a pot of Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate - one of the many products historically produced on site.
“Knighton and Cadbury go back a long way,” he said. “Up until 1965 we used to produce chocolate crumb for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. That’s how and why this site started in 1911 when workers from Bourneville came here to start making chocolate crumb.
Demand for Dairy Milk shot up in the roaring 1920’s and again after the war, so the excellent milk from this farming area in Staffordshire was combined with cocoa mass that was bought in via canal from Liverpool Docks and made into chocolate crumb right here.
“The crumb was then sent up to Bourneville by barge. There is still the original dock here. It’s fascinating. So our whole site is steeped in history and a long tradition of chocolate technology, as you will find out Angus.”
He then showed me a tin of Marvel on their product display shelf. “That was the next leap, in the 1950’s after the continuous crumb production technology was invented, it was clear that the crumb making days here at Knighton were numbered.
“And it was then that Cadbury Foods developed products outside of chocolate and with this, bought the licence and technology to produce skimmed milk on this site, hence the birth of Marvel.
“Yes, a massive success Angus and that was how we became one of world leaders in different drying technology ever since.
We have come a long way since then. Soon Paul will show you how we can literally spray crystallise pure chocolate, which we are very excited about, offering a huge wealth of applications and opportunities in the chocolate and confectionery sectors. We think this is quite revolutionary.”
And now I really was regretting not asking for a hot chocolate! “Yes we see ourselves as a leader in the spray crystallisation technology and our doors are open to work with new customers from all over the world to offer a wide range of production processes along with packing facilities for powdered beverage and confectionery products.
This, combined with our other drying technologies means we can produce and pack a vast range of powdered products to order.
For example: soups, instant coffees, milk powders, coffee whiteners, fruit powders, oat powders, chocolate drinks, instant
teas, and of course chocolate.
As you will see, we have an extensive line up of sachet carton and pouch lines set up here.”
In 1986, a management buyout of Cadbury Food Brands took place and from this Premier Brands was founded, with Knighton being the sole manufacturing facility for the beverage and whiteners division.
Three years later, it was sold to Hillsdown Holdings later becoming Premier Foods with the end of 2004 seeing the acquisition from Kraft of Birds Custard, Angel Delight and Trifle, which are all produced at Knighton.
Then finally in 2008, Premier Foods bought RHM, adding another 4000 tonnes of production to the site and introduced additional packaging facilities.
I wanted to find out about the spray crystallisation of pure chocolate and fortunately Paul was on hand and keen to explain the process.
“Until recently and in the main, we have produced what our customers have asked for. Of course we still do, to a very high and exact standard, however we are now our own legal entity since last year (2016), and with the arrival of our new CEO, Richard Ilsley and his vision to move us from a specialist
producer of powders to, a producer of speciality powders we have been given a far wider scope now to offer and produce our own creative added value
solutions for the confectionery and food industries.
“So we haven’t wasted any time! We have a vast amount of technology to share with our customers at Knighton
Foods that we have learned over 100 years. So we now work much closer with customers and come up with new creative ideas and product concepts and things are really taking off.
“This site here in Staffordshire contains large-scale continuous processing. However we have another smaller 2000m2 site in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, with smaller scale batch processing that produces 6000 tons per year. Here we are able to offer more flexible solutions for bespoke applications.
“Consumers increasingly want to include real chocolate in their products. So our revolutionary spray crystallization process gives customers the ability to offer real chocolate in a powdered form.
“This is a fairly new development and very exciting. The process we use to do this produces an ambient stable free flowing powder that converts the crystalline structure of chocolate from form 1-2 to form 5-6.
As such, this produces a highly functional ingredient, that is not only easy to handle but it’s also possible to use less to achieve the same or even improved end results. The potential is huge and already we have had some major interest from the sector,” said Paul.
“This is a fast growing area for us,” he added, “and one of the USP’s of our business. Stable pure chocolate powder that dry mixes easily is helping the confectionery and bakery industries drive innovation that may otherwise be prohibitive due to high investment costs to handle liquid chocolate.
“Knighton Foods currently offer milk, dark and white chocolate but the process can convert any chocolate into a powder so the opportunities are endless. We have an off-the-shelf range, which makes MOQs of 25kg achievable but equally we offer bespoke solutions.
We are also currently working on reduced sugar products and a sugar-free product. Come on Angus, let’s have a look around!”
The Knighton Foods factory first and foremost is just in a very nice place, fresh air, friendly people, interesting landscapes and altogether I felt like I could just rent a small cottage next door and have a weekend break! It’s a wonderful plant. One that is steeped with history, the original dock for the Dairy Milk Crumb is still in existence, all combined beautifully with some of the most advanced technologies in spray crystallisation and packing services in the world.
The combination is quite magnetic; David walked me round the site with a mix of new buildings, and even an old garage where they once had a 1940 Fire Engine. Anyone visiting can’t help but be taken in by the amazing history of Cadbury and Milk crumb production and how it all comes together today.
I was then taken to their New Product Development department and greeted by James Kortvelyessy, NPD Technologist. Little did I know but I was about to have one of the most creative and memorable hot chocolates I have had to date.
James was busy mixing a Turmeric, Latte with Cinnamon and white hot chocolate. Such was the occasion that we immediately started filming him (you can see this on Twitter @knightonfoods).
I took a long full sip while the steamed milk and full real chocolate with all the flavours ‘started finding their way’, which I must say was truly outstanding (thanks James, I’m converted OK!). That’s it! I thought, I’m never going to have a standard ‘hot choc’ in a motorway service station ever again.
This, like many of their products at Knighton Foods, was of excellent quality, innovative, exciting and highly creative.
Soon it was time to head back South. I was thrilled with the opportunity, as, not least was I one of the first journalists that was invited to the site, but Knighton Foods gave me a chance to step back in time and see into the future in one go. To see ahead, where this dynamic business can take us with its unique expertise in drying technology.
I am so pleased the doors are fully open at Knighton Foods now and thank their CEO for making this all happen for our industry.
Go there and discover these curious mix of opportunities and exceptionally friendly people for yourself. Hopefully you can try the country pubs and a walk in the beautiful Staffordshire countryside and make the pleasure absolute and complete!
What’s on the menu
RSPO Segregated / Mass Balance sustainable
Encapsulated Baking Ingredients
Toppings & Inclusions
PreBlends and Packing to specific Weights
Spray Dried Creamers and Whipping Bases
Co-Spray Dried Whiteners with Chocolate
Instantised Dairy Powders
Stabilisers and Emulsifiers systems
Sugar Reduction Support
Spray Crystallised Chocolate Powder
Spray Crystallised Cocoa Butter Powder
Crystalline Powders to seed chocolate to minimise
Spray Crystallised Cocoa Mass
Agglomerated Chocolate Beverages with real
Cryogenically Milled Chocolate
Fairtrade/UTZ Certification re sustainable
Reduced Sugar Chocolate
Ability to Convert any chocolate into a powder
(Milk, Dark, White)
Directly Compressible excipients
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