Not just for Oompa Loompas – a tour of Theo Chocolate

A couple of months ago, Man of La Muncha brought home a chocolate bar along with our normal haul of groceries. I pounced on the bar as it emerged from the shopping bag, to find that the flavor was, (ahem), "Bread and Chocolate". The brand was 3400 Phinney, and the maker was someone we had not heard of before--Theo Chocolate.

Upon reading the label of this strange creation, we discovered two things. 1: Yes, there's really bread in the chocolate--bread from Tall Grass Bakery is crushed into fine crumbs and added to the chocolate. 2: Theo is based right here in Seattle and offers tours of their factory, located (where else?) at 3400 Phinney Ave.

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Not far from The Center of the Universe

We had the chocolate bar as our dessert that night, and found the chocolate to be tasty, though the saltiness of the bread was a bit off-putting. Our interest in Theo, however, was undiminished and we vowed to tour the factory in the near future.

We finally made the trek down to the corner of N. 34th and Phinney Ave. last Saturday, our friend Julie in tow. There are two tours a day, one at 1:00 p.m. and one at 3:00 p.m.; by the time we found parking and made it to the factory, the 1:00 tour had already started. We put our names on the list and, comforted by knowing there would be chocolate in our future, went off to find some lunch.

At around 2:40, bellies comfortably filled, we returned to the factory and made ourselves comfortable on a large cushioned bench that stretches along one wall. Promptly at 3, we were presented with hair nets and, along with ten or so other adventurous chocolate lovers, were ushered into the bowels of the chocolate factory. I felt a bit like Charlie Bucket heading into the chocolate factory though, sadly, there was nary an Oompa-Loompa to be seen.

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People enjoy free samples while waiting for the tour to begin

Our highly energetic tour guide gave us a quick overview of how chocolate is sourced, roasted, and turned into the lovely confection we know and love. Theo Chocolate takes its name from the Latin name for the cacao tree, theobromo cacao, and sources all their cacao beans from small, organic, fair trade producers in countries such as Madagascar, Ecuador, and the Ivory Coast. They produce small batches of chocolate that are currently available only in Washington, Oregon, and California. They also make flavored chocolate bars (such as the aforementioned Bread and Chocolate) and intensely flavored truffles, such as the fig and fennel creation we were able to sample before beginning the tour.

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The former Red Hook brewery, now a chocolate factory

After listening to a brief, informative lecture and sampling truffles, we were ushered onto the main factory floor. The main factory floor is very warm and has a rich chocolately smell. We moved through the main floor and into a separate room where the destoner sat. The destoner cleans and polishes cacao beans, preparing them for pre-roasting, the next step in the process.

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The bean slicer, used to test cacao beans before they are purchased

During the pre-roasting stage, the shells are winnowed away (Theo sells them for garden mulch). After the shells are winnowed, what is left are the nibs, tiny, intensely flavored bits of cacao. We were given samples of nibs to try; I found them somewhat nutty with a distinctive bitter taste. Julie did not care for the nibs at all; fortunately, the fine chocolatiers at Theo provided some nib brittle alongside the nibs. The nib brittle (nibs embedded in dark chocolate) quickly overwhelmed the bitterness of straight nibs, and we were able to continue with the tour.

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Their 1930s gas-powered German cacao bean roaster

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The shiny bean roaster

From this point, the process moves fairly quickly. The nibs are milled to reduce the particle size of cocoa solids and then mixed with sugar and, for milk chocolate, with milk powder. The blend is then sent to a refiner to reduce the particle size of the sugar, then to the conche, which heats the blend and reduces the acids in the chocolate. The chocolate is then tempered to form a bond between the cocoa solids and the cocoa butter, then sent on to the enrober (for confections), the depositor (for bars) and the cooling tunnel.

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The roller refiner

After this whirlwind tour, the prospect of tasting some of the chocolate was very appealing. The first type we tried was a 75% cocoa bar made from Ivory Coast cacao. It was rich and dense, with a slightly dusty flavor. Next up was the Madagascar 60% bar, which had a sweet and fruity palate that would blend wonderfully with a slightly tannic merlot. We then tried 70% blend of Ghana, Panama, and Ecuador beans that was rich, with a slight hint of coffee and a winey finish.

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Peanut butter confections are sprayed with chocolate, to protect them from the heat of the chocolate waterfall. Not available for bachelorette parties, according to our tour guide.

From the pure chocolate bars, we moved on to the flavored bars. First up was the Bread and Chocolate; this time, Man of La Muncha and I did not find it overly salty, instead focusing more on how the richness of the chocolate played against the savory aspects of the breadcrumbs. The chai milk chocolate bar was very smooth, with a spicy cinnamon/cardamom flavor.

The last bar we sampled was the coconut curry dark chocolate bar, which was good (curryriffic is the term that comes to mind), if a little strange. I don't know that I would buy it for myself, but I did enjoy trying it; the combination of sweet savoriness from the chocolate and spicy heat from the curry made for a surprisingly palatable experience.

Though we did not see Oompa-Loompas, and the chocolate waterfall was disappointing in comparison to the one described by Roald Dahl, we enjoyed our trip to Theo Chocolate and appreciated the time and effort that these people are putting into their business. And, most importantly, we enjoyed the chocolate, even the stranger ones. The next time I buy a Theo bar, I'll know exactly how it was made, where, and by whom, and it will taste all the sweeter.
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The tiny, disappointing chocolate waterfall. Augustus Gloop, you are safe.

(Photos and captions by Man of La Muncha)

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