When it comes to premium chocolate, Seattle’s NW Chocolate Festival might be one of the most impressive festivals in the country. People come from all over the world to display their wares, and consumers come from all over the US to taste them.
There are as many reasons to go to a chocolate festival as there people walking in the door. For some folks just being somewhere that premium chocolate is lavished with such care and attention is reason enough. For others it’s about agronomy and supply-chain discussion. Something for everyone!
At the Friday night opening celebration the awards were announced for bean-to-bar chocolate makers, both for bars with and without inclusions. Interestingly enough the winning inclusion bars included cacao nibs and cacao fruit, perhaps suggesting a purists’ bent to the judges’ preferences.
Additional awards included a Lifetime Achievement Award for the beloved Bill Fredericks, the very fellow who, every year, makes sure there’s fresh cacao fruit on hand so attendees can taste chocolate’s from-the-tree origins. For a full list of awards, go to the NW Chocolate Festival web site.
And then, Saturday and Sunday, from 10am to 5pm, the festival proper.
Whoever you are, from chocolate enthusiast to cacao-geek there was plenty to make you happy, from demos on how bars are made, to truffle-creation, to talks about supply chain economics and global sustainability. You could get right down there on your hands and knees and make your own chocolate with cacao nibs, metate and mano (grinding stone and roller), hair dryer (really), and sugar. Indeed, Madre Chocolates was selling a make-your-own kit, a bit more cute than practical but a great way to introduce people to just how involved the process of making chocolate really is. (They sensibly include a chocolate bar in the kit in case you give up early.)
And, of course, there was enough chocolate there to keep even the most ardent enthusiast busy for days.
For a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of chocolate, I sat in on the Keynote presentation. As usual, it was filled with both industry folks and cacao geeks, touching on topics near and dear to everyone’s hearts. This year’s topic was “Cultural Borders: Crossing Boundaries in the World of Chocolate”, exploring how different cultures on the cacao-belt grow and process cacao, the challenges of building relationships between farmers and bean-buyers, and the problems facing today’s farmers and hence barsmiths.
While listening, the number that kept rolling around in my head was two; only two percent of all cacao grown world-wide goes to fine chocolate such as the bars and confections at this show. The remaining 98% goes to bulk chocolate, the commercial sort that most of us grew up on. To sustain and hopefully expand the heirloom cacao farms that produce this two percent, we need to shift the market so that there is more demand for this quality.
The panelists kept advocating for more knowledgeable and, yes, well-paid farmers, which should result in better quality beans. They’d also like improved communication and transparency across the entire production chain of chocolate, from growers to consumers.
After all that sobriety I headed over to the Aphrodisiac Room. The extra $10 fee for entrance was, frankly, a great deal. The room offered up samples of local wines, beers, spirits, and liqueurs, as well as music and some interesting adult-only presentations such as Tiberio’s amazing conversion of unclad women into food-art so breathtaking I barely remembered there was a woman under all the exquisitely arrayed fruits and vegetables.
But general admission alone got you plenty and kept you busy with all the fine chocolate you could sample — well beyond the RDA for most humans — and lectures galore on every chocolate-related subject you can imagine.
I warned my readers in advance to pace themselves but many overlooked my advice. The sad fact is, after a handful of chocolate samples, you just can’t distinguish one bar from the other the way you could when you started. Pacing yourself is essential, as is taking breaks and lots of water.
But sometimes the seduction proves too strong. Even for me.
Between samples I spent time chatting with the barsmiths, who, when they had a moment between offering samples and selling bars, were happy to talk about how they make chocolate. As I often find, they were warm, outgoing, and passionate, and very willing to share their thoughts about transforming beans into bars.
The future of chocolate? To more fully include farmers in the process so they have a stronger stake in the outcome. To bring the beauty and culture of the lands of cacao, along with premium chocolate, into the hands and hearts of increasingly discerning consumers.
For that to happen, of course, we need to corrupt you — yes, you, dear reader! — into craving premium bars and fine confections of the sort offered at festivals like this. Are you up for the challenge?