On Valentine’s Day, I took Sig to Theo Chocolate for a tour of their factory at 3400 Phinney Avenue North in the Seattle Fremont Neighborhood. For a $7 tour, you get a quaint history lecture, a tour of their factory floor, chocolate samples and a modest 10% discount at their confectioners counter. You also get hair nets, which you must wear for obvious health reasons. If you have a beard net you must also wear a beard net.
Theo Chocolate was founded in 2005 in a historic brick building in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle. The building was built in 1905 and it has housed an interesting array of tenants. It sheltered Seattle’s electric trolley fleet until 1941. After being a transportation hub, the building housed painters and artists in the later part of the 20th century. Then Redhook Brewery in 1989 moved in and opened an adjoining pub called the Trolleyman. You can learn more about the building’s history by taking the Fremont Historical Society’s walking tour.
According to their presentation, Theo Chocolates gets their name from the scientific name of the cacao tree: Theobroma cacao. Theobroma means “God Food” – theos for “god” and broma for “food”. They did have a small cacao tree, but there is a better specimen on display at the UW Botany Greenhouse which actually flowers when in season. Or you can visit Hawaii’s Big Island or Kauai Island for tours of cacao plantations.
Theo is the first roaster of organic and fair trade cocoa, from “bean-to-bar” as they put it. Fermented beans sourced from Costa Rica, Madagascar, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, and the Congo travel all the way to this Seattle factory. On one factory floor they sort, roast, mill, mix, conche, mold and package.
The air in the factory has a biting chocolate smell, mostly coming from the acetic acid. Tanks of chocolate paste is conched, or gently ground for smoothness, and heated to over 70ºC. Conching refines flavors and drives off the acetic acid produced during cocoa bean fermentation. There are more floral (South America) or earthy dark (Africa) smells depending on where the beans come from
In the Confection Kitchen, they make all kinds of sweets and even offer classes on how to make truffles, toffee, caramels and really anything you want to learn about making chocolate treats.
Dr. Chocolate: Better Science Through Chocolate
Andy McShea COO of Theo Chocolate is also known as Doc Choc, and his personal motto is “Better Science Through Chocolate.” He had no prior chocolate experience before joining Theo, but he knows how to develop an assay and focused on the quantitative analysis of cocoa. For on-site experiments, he has a small research space at the chocolate factory, behind a door marked “super-secret chocolate laboratory.” He’s worked with collaborators from Seattle to Cleveland to Manchester, England. This international chocolate team has developed chromatography and mass spectrometry methods that generate profiles of the volatile compounds released by fermented cocoa beans. The goals are to find biomarker compounds and specific chemical profiles that indicate bean quality, and possibly country of origin.