Almost since we started planning our trip to Seattle, I knew our visit would include a tour of the Theo Chocolate Factory. While I'm probably the biggest chocolate fan in the family, the munchkin also enjoys chocolate, including dark chocolate. And he loves seeing big machines and how they work, so it seemed like the perfect combination.
Tours available for advance reservations: 11:00, 12:00, 2:00, 4:00
Tours available for ticket purchases day-of only: 1:00, 3:00
FRIDAY, SATURDAY and SUNDAY
Tours available for advance reservations: 10:30, 11:00, 12:00, 12:30, 1:00, 2:00, 4:00
Tours available for ticket purchases day-of only: 2:30, 3:00, 4:30
We made the mistake of relying on prompt Seattle public transportation, and waited over 20 minutes for the 28 bus, so we were a bit late for our tour, though they graciously accommodated us. We quickly paid our $6 each, donned hairnets, and joined the rest of our group in the tour room, where our Theo Chocolate guide was talking about the bean to bar route the chocolate takes, and passing around samples of a number of Theo chocolate bars.
A few tidbits:
- Most chocolate companies melt pre-made chocolate and mix in additional ingredients, but don't make their own chocolate. Theo Chocolate is one of the few that makes chocolate from bean to bar
- The cacao tree produces cacao pods that are about the size of a coconut. It takes two to four of these pods to produce enough beans to make one 3 oz. 70% chocolate bar
- Each cacao pod must be hand harvested, making this a very labor intensive process
- The cacao beans undergo fermentation for several days, in order to improve their flavor profile and reduce bitter tannins. Fermentation itself is an art, but given how poor the farmers are and that they are not chocolate makers (most have never even tasted chocolate) it's challenging to ensure optimal fermentation
- Theo Chocolate is the first U.S. company to make organic fair trade chocolate. Their payments to farmers are 2-3 times higher than the market rate
After the talk and sampling, we walked to an enclosed viewing area from which we could see most of the machines. Our guide gave us a handy dandy step by step process map of how the chocolate is made:
In case it's too small to see well, here are the steps:
1. Cacao Beans arrive at the factory in burlap sacks, already fermented and dried
2. The Destoner cleans the exterior of the beans
3. The Roaster roasts the beans (temperature and time can be varied) to further develop the flavor
4. The Winnower removes the husks from the cacao nibs
5. The Stone Mill crushes the cacao nibs into paste
6. The Ball Mill reduces the size of the cocoa solids
7. In the Mixer the cocoa paste is mixed with sugar and sometimes milk powder
8. The Refiner reduces the particle size of the sugar
9. The Conche oxidizes the chocolate, reducing acidity and improving the flavor
10. Chocolate then sits in the Holding Tank awaiting the next steps
11. The Tempering Machine bonds cocoa butter with the cocoa solids at just the right temperature
12. Inclusions, such as nuts, fruits, nibs, or other ingredients are added
13. The Depositer pours the chocolate into molds
14. The Cooling Tunnel, as the name implies, carefully cools the chocolate in preparation for wrapping
15. The Wrapping Machine wraps the bars. The wrapped bars are handpacked into boxes for shipment to retailers, including Whole Foods, nationwide. Theo Chocolate is currently only available in the U.S. but will be in Canada soon.
Whew! Aren't you glad you can just buy chocolate, and not make it?
After viewing many of these machines at work, we visited Theo Chocolate's Confection Kitchen, which makes a number of candies, caramels, barks, brittles, toffees, and other confections. The munchkin and I sampled a lemon ganache, which was delicious: dark chocolate infused with bright lemon. Some of these are available to buy online at Theo Chocolate
although others are only available at the retail store. If you go on a tour, you receive 10% off of any confections you buy after your tour (although no discount for chocolate bars–only confections).
That was the end of the tour, and we then spent some time in the retail store picking up some gifts for friends and relatives.
Our favorites? The Bread and Chocolate fantasy bar (mine) and the Hazelnut Crunch fantasy bar (the munchkin):
Also the Meyer Lemon Chocolate Bark and Smoked Almond Toffee (sold only in the retail store; Meyer Lemon Bark is seasonal):
And the award for the most unusual flavor? The Coconut Curry fantasy bar, as seen on Top Chef. Great flavor, although I personally would prefer a darker bar (it's milk chocolate, 45% cacao).
Finally, did you know that chocolate that is 70% cacao or higher is essentially a health food? I knew that there are antioxidants in chocolate; these are polyphenols and catechins that have similar properties to the antioxidants in green tea. Health benefits include reduced blood pressure, reduced inflammation and improvements in cerebral blood flow. Just note that the theobromine in chocolate does act as a mild stimulant, similar to caffeine, so if you're very sensitive you may want to not have your chocolate for dessert and instead have your chocolate….for breakfast!
The Verdict: The Theo Chocolate Factory is in a small, historical building, so don't expect an enormous tour. I knew to expect this, and while the chocolate making process in general was familiar to me, I learned something new, mainly about the cacao tree and fermentation process. The factory is quite warm, but because the initial talk is in a cooler room, as is the observation area, you're just walking through part of the factory and it's not long enough to be uncomfortable. I will say the munchkin was the youngest on the tour, and in general it's better for older children and adults. Also, since this is a tour, there's something of a “pitch” for Theo's products, but our guide was so friendly and knowledgeable I didn't mind. After all, you wouldn't be doing the tour if you don't enjoy Theo chocolate, right?
Have you enjoyed Theo Chocolate or the Theo Chocolate Factory Tour in Seattle?