Tucked into an unassuming historic building on the edge of Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Theo Chocolate is becoming a sweet spot for local families and tourists alike. In what used to be the Redhook Ale Brewery, Theo fits a retail store, organic chocolate factory, confection kitchen and warehouse into its corner of Phinney Avenue.
If everything you ever learned about chocolate until now came from the silly songs sung by the Oompa Loompas on Charlie’s whirlwind tour of the chocolate factory, then you are in for a treat on the Theo Chocolate tour. It’s not scripted, there’s no boring video to watch — and did we mention all of the organic chocolate tasting?
The Theo Chocolate tour begins with a crash course in cacao bean sourcing and chocolate making — a sort of Chocolate 101. For example, Theo roasts beans from different countries of origin to create its line of Theo Origin bars, such as the Theo Ghana Dark Chocolate Bar 84% and the Theo Venezuela Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Bar 91%, along with three others. As you sample some of the organic chocolate bars, you will be able to taste the differences between beans grown in various geographical locations.
You’ll also learn that flavors such as vanilla, chai, bread and chocolate, and coffee make up Theo’s Phinney 3400 organic chocolate bar line. In addition to using organic and Fair Trade Certified cacao beans (see sidebar), Theo prides itself on procuring local products to use as added ingredients in the Phinney line. The French baguette used in the organic bread and chocolate bar is purchased fresh from the Tall Grass Bakery in Ballard, and the coffee used in the chocolate coffee bar is from Lighthouse Coffee Roasters in Fremont.
Theo Chocolate brings part of the cacao-farming process to the factory tour with samples of real cacao bean pods and images of farms in action. And finally, with hairnets in place and chocolate on the brain, you’re guided through the double doors right onto the chocolate factory floor — no plexiglass viewing window separates you from the massive machines that process the cacao beans.
First stop is the destoner. The tour guide shows you how cacao beans are checked for quality and then fed into the destoner to be cleaned. From there, the beans are sent over to the roaster for a pre-roast, run through the winnower to be husked and turned into nibs, and then sent back to the roaster for a second round. Unlike many chocolate makers, Theo Chocolate roasts its cacao beans twice to maintain a distinctive flavor.
After viewing the roasting process, you get a chance to taste the nibs. Not always a crowd favorite because of their bitter and nutty taste, the nibs are the roasted and crushed version of the cacao bean. The nibs make their way to the stone mill to be crushed into a paste. Then the ball mill minimizes any solids into particles the size of a red blood cell to ensure that no air, chunks or inconsistencies remain in the newly formed chocolate liquor. The chocolate liquor travels through a special piping system to the mixer. Here, organic sugar and, if making milk chocolate, organic milk, are added. The mixture then courses through the refiner on its way to one of the holding tanks.
You will notice that Theo Chocolate, in a unique move, paints its machinery bright green and yellow. The yellow indicates that the product is on the move from one part of the machine to another, and the green indicates that something is happening to the product. It gives a great visual representation for kids of what is happening to the cacao during each stage of chocolate-making process.
If chocolate bars are on the menu, the chocolate will be sent through the tempering machine and into the depositor to be molded into bars. But if confections are on deck, the adjacent confection kitchen crafts delectable truffle-like treats for Theo’s confection line. (Because they are not like traditional round truffles, Theo calls them “confections” instead.) Tour groups can catch a glimpse of confection making in progress before heading into the final stretch of the tour, the chocolate packaging room. It may not sound very exciting, but some say it is the best part of the tour. Here, visitors get to taste every Theo chocolate bar made before heading back to the retail shop.
Still not convinced your kids will enjoy the educational aspect of a chocolate tour? According to tour guide Catherine Gipe, kids make up a good portion of the tour groups, and the company even books tours for children’s birthday parties. Theo is also considering adding a family-only tour in the near future.
And if that’s not enough, perhaps the confections will do the convincing. One of Theo’s popular confection flavors is a kid favorite: PB&J.
Karla Lindula is ParentMap’s South Sound calendar editor.
Theo Chocolate’s retail store is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Theo Chocolate offers factory tours daily at 1 and 3 p.m., with an additional 11 a.m. tour on Saturdays and Sundays. Tours are $5 per person for ages 5 and older, and reservations are recommended. For information about children’s birthday parties and private tours of 10 or more people, email firstname.lastname@example.org. 3400 Phinney Ave. N., Seattle, 206-632-5100
Theo Chocolate is the only roaster of organic cacao beans in the United States, and it only uses organic sugar in its products. In fact, Theo’s founder, Joseph Whinney, imported the first organic cacao beans to North America in 1994. Theo also became the first roaster of Fair Trade Certified cacao beans in the United States. This means that the company only purchases its beans from farms that practice fair trade principles.
Theo’s social and environmental commitments are evident throughout the factory tour. The company doesn’t just make and sell chocolate, but opens up its factory to share the process of chocolate making the fair trade and organic way — from the bean to the bar.
Originally published in the December, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.