With a little help from my GPS friend, and two trips around the block searching for a parking lot (which I finally found directly across the street from theo, hidden behind the trees!), I arrived at 3400 Phinney Ave N. - the home of an artisan chocolate marketed as 'theo.'
The cool July morning was on the edge of brisk. I stood on the sidewalk with a growing multitude of eager men, women, and children, waiting for the door to be unlocked at 10AM. After a last minute decision to visit the chocolate factory, I knew I did not have a tour reservation. I entered the store along with all the excited chocoholics, added my name to the wait list, and hoped for the best. Just before the chocolate tour began, my name was called, I was given the blue hair net, (paid my $6) and off I went, saying a little prayer of thanks for my good fortune.
We were guided through the door, down the hall to the right, under the brick arch, and into a room lined with chairs, yellow tape lines on the floor, and a lively tour guide welcoming us into her arena. She entertained us with her enthusiasm for the chocolate production process and educated us via her tantalizing voice, pictures of chocolate production, and....are you ready....chocolate samples to taste!
As an aside, theo is not a person. Theo is the partial name of a tree. Education...
Always taste chocolate from darkest to lightest, our guide stated; following this method, the sugar content of the lighter will not interfere with the tasting of the darker chocolate. Education...
(I have read conflicting information related to tasting. Other sources state that chocolate should be tasted from the least % cacao to the highest % cacao.) [comment from theo: It is true that there is some debate about whether to go from dark to milk or vice versa. We find that for Theo chocolate, going from dark to light works best because sugar, as well as strong flavors (like curry) can muddy the palate.]
We began tasting with a 91% cacao content chocolate / single origin, meaning all the beans came from one place - in this instance a co-op in Costa Rica. We were encouraged to hold the morsel of chocolate in our mouth, and let it melt slowly. The tour guide explained that the longer we held the chocolate on our tongue, the more flavor we would experience. I must confess that I didn't hold my morsel long enough to sense all the nuances of the sample. Maybe next time...
Next we sampled a 74% cacao content chocolate, made from Madagascar, single origin beans grown in the red soil of the land. We were encouraged to sense the tartness of this chocolate. (I'm beginning to think I'm on a wine tasting tour.) [comment from theo: We generally share that the flavor is influenced by 'terroir', which includes soil, weather patterns, production methods, etc. Flavor is not influenced by surrounding crops necessarily, but environmental and human cultivation techniques.]
The next tasting was a 70% cacao, flavored with mint and marketed in a green wrapper. Image the very best Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies on overload. This was delicious, imparting its cooling, cleansing freshness.
There are 20-40 cocoa beans in one pod, which is approximately the size of an American football.
One bar of chocolate is comprised of 2 to 4 pods, or up to 160 beans. Education...
The cocoa beans are removed from the pod, and allowed to dry. Fermentation takes place, just as in wine, cheese, and bread. Dried beans are bagged in burlap and readied for shipment. Education...
Next sampling was a 45% milk chocolate flavored with Chai Tea.
We saw the roaster and the winnower (the machine that removes the husk from the bean). At this point, we tasted cocoa nibs, which are 100% cacao. I enjoy baking with cocoa nibs, including them in shortbread, granola, and cookies to name a few items. Next we tasted 70% cacao nib brittle.
The nibs are placed in the auger to be stone ground. The dispensed product resembles chunky peanut butter and is called cacao liquor. Steel balls are added; they spin and pulverize the cacao liquor to yield a silky smooth molten textured chocolate. This process establishes the 'melt in your mouth' feel.
Next comes the mixer and then the refiner and then the conche where the spray releases acidity. In this holding tank, the chocolate awaits formation into bars.
Theo's production process does not remove the cocoa butter; thus, yielding a smoother chocolate. Education...
70% cacao chocolate with toasted bread crumbs was next on the tasting list. Theo incorporates the Essential Baking Company's toasted bread crumbs into chocolate, and they produce a chocolate bar with a texture that was delicious. We were told this is the perfect chocolate bar to pair with wine.
We next sampled a tray of assorted chocolates flavored with such additions as caramel, or salt, or figs, or basil, just to name a few. There was also a a lemon-white chocolate treat on the tray, and for the vegan taster, there was a blueberry almond ganache.
The final chocolate we tasted on the tour was a 45% cacao, packaged as a tribute to Jane Goodall.
Back in our original meeting room, we removed our hair nets, asked a few final questions, and were directed back into the showroom. Placed on easily accessible tables, samples of many, many Theo chocolate bars were steeply piled and waiting for eager tasters. I tasted a spicy chili chocolate that had a kick on the tongue, and a lingering effect in the throat.
As you can see, we tasted many chocolate varieties. If I have misstated facts above, please forgive me, or let me know and I will correct the post. I was taking notes and eating chocolate during the tour. At that particular moment, the tasting was more important than the note taking.
This was an excellent opportunity to sample a huge variety of chocolates.
thanks, Audrey at theo, for helping me keep the facts correct
Click HERE to see pictures from the tour.