You know what the best part is about being in a chocolate factory? You’re in a chocolate factory. This is where the chocolate gets made. That’s the stuff of childhood fantasy, of dreams coming alive. They make chocolate!
Theo Chocolate – named for the Theobroma cacao tree – is a chocolate maker as well as chocolatier, which means they do it all, from bean to bar, dark to light, confections and solids, infusions and inclusions. Their Seattle factory is housed in a large, old big brick building where they put out samples, give tours, and – of course – make chocolates.
But Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory this is not. You won’t see chocolate fountains or rivers of dark goop pouring into molds. Instead you’ll see huge steam-punkish green, yellow and silver machines doing their thing and you’ll walk the factory floor, inhaling warm chocolaty air. It’s the real thing.
It’s also a working factory, so it’s loud, and chocolate needs heat to melt and temper, so it’s warm. Dress cool. Be prepared to wear unattractive hair caps and stay inside the safety lines. But do inhale.
At six bucks per the tour’s cheap, but reserve in advance because it’s often full. My hour-long tour included samples of dark and milk and other seasonal in-store-only creations, so yes, there are treats.
I found out where cocoa beans come from, how they’re processed, and what happens between there and my mouth. Despite my decades of devotion to chocolate I’ve always been a little fuzzy on just how it gets from the plant to me, so I found it fascinating to touch beans, taste nibs, and see the roasting, grinding, and tempering machines.
The Theo folks are chocolate geeks. They know about chemistry, farming practices, and your mouth. Their mission, they say, is to make sustainable chocolate through fair trade and organic practices, to respect the welfare of people, plants, and the environment all at once.
Walking the floor, taking breath after magnificent chocolaty breath, I’m again struck by what’s right in front of me: the magic of turning cocoa beans into chocolate. Theo is rare among chocolate makers, giving these tours to the public. You won’t find this at most factories due to safety and health considerations. It’s a lot of trouble. Why does Theo bother?
As I walk to floor I realize that Theo has another mission: to bring people and chocolate together in an intimate way, to show us what this stuff actually is and what it takes to get it to us. Chocolate is global, political, and human, and Theo does a good job making this understandable while also providing yummy treats.
As for the chocolate, Theo shines in its flavorings and inclusions. I watched a chocolatier hand-mixing coconut curry chocolate, scooping it into a machine that drips it into bars. Theo’s chai tea and coconut curry bars are so good I’ll even eat milk chocolate, and the fig and fennel in dark is downright yummy. A delicate seasonal lavender caramel made me smile.
Theo’s factory has an easy charm. Tour or not, you can walk in off the street and sample nearly every bar they make. The place is well-lit, clean, and staffed by friendly folks who will gladly answer questions of all sorts.
If you have a passion for chocolate – and you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? – put the Theo tour on your Seattle itinerary. Here you’ll see real alchemy: the transformation of the seeds of a tropical fruit into chocolate. It’s like magic, but magic you can eat.