Seattle’s Theo is a Fair Trade Version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory
"Sweet dreams are made of this " It was pure coincidence that the 1983 Eurythmics hit was playing on the radio as the staff of Theo Chocolate readied the next 6,000-pound load of cocoa beans. Theo, based since March 2006 in the hip Seattle neighborhood of Fremont, is the first roaster of organic and fair trade-certified cocoa in the U.S., and the owners have found that making chocolate is an exact science without many established guidelines.
Debra Music, vice president and half of the husband-and-wife team (along with CEO Joe Whinney) at Theo’s helm, leads tours that include a stop at a pin-dotted world map. "We wanted to make a difference all along the supply chain, because cocoa is such an important global crop," she says. Pins are clustered in the African continent, because some 60 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa. Theo sources its organic beans from Ghana, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Cocoa is an equatorial crop and, in the U.S., only grows in Hawaii.
In the Ivory Coast, where 43 percent of the world’s cocoa originates, underage farm workers are regularly abused. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture has documented some 284,000 children aged nine to 12 working in hazardous conditions on West African cocoa farms. Major chocolate producers, including Hershey’s and M&M/Mars, have committed themselves to protecting child workers, but have been slow to take action. Fair Trade requires producers to pay living wages that allow workers to get their kids out of the fields and into school. And organic production helps protect tropical forests, because the untreated beans are grown (like organic coffee) in the shade of large trees.
But Theo is not only politically correct, it’s also a gourmet roaster, trying to import the concept of "terroir" from the wine industry. Theo’s three-ounce dark chocolate bars are labeled with their country of origin, because, as with wine, local environmental variations produce regional differences in the fruit of the cocoa tree. The bars also list how much pure cocoa they contain, ranging from 65 percent in the Madagascar bar to a rich 91 percent in the Venezuela-sourced product. These bars, mixed with organic sugar from Swedish sugar beets, are milk-free and vegan, listing for $6.
The two-ounce 3400 Phinney milk chocolate products (a more affordable $3.25) are available in exotic flavors such as vanilla, chai and coconut curry. Dark chocolate variations include coffee and nib brittle. You can order Theo online but soon you won’t have to because Whole Foods is slated to carry the company’s line.
The Laid-Back Line
Whinney emphasizes that his operation is a chocolate "maker," not a "melter." The whole production process, from roughly sorted beans to packaged chocolate, takes place under one roof, in a former brewery. Comparisons to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory are apt, because the whole process uses vintage equipment, much of it sourced from the famous chocolatiers of Europe.
Raw cocoa beans.
The beans are shipped in rough burlap sacks, and go first to a cleaning room that removes everything from pebbles to gum wrappers. The roaster, which operates at 240 degrees Fahrenheit and also cools the beans, is a German model from the 1930s.
The roasted beans are hulled and then mashed by two huge grinding stones. Ball bearings help reduce the particle size. The process creates a thick, cocoa-butter rich brew called "chocolate liquor" that is carried by a conveyor belt into a storage tank called a conche (making chocolate this way is actually called "conching"). Sugar is added and mixed with the liquor after it is refined through giant rollers. In the molding room, the hot chocolate flows into white plastic forms that turn it into bars.
Theo employs a young chocolatier, former pastry chef Autumn Martin, to dream up confectioner’s delights that are sold regionally and in the retail shop. Because no artificial preservatives or emulsifiers (such as soy lecithin) are used, Theo’s confection chocolates have a two-to-three-week shelf life. There are other fair trade chocolate bars—Divine, Green and Black, Sweet Earth, Dagoba and Endangered Species Chocolate. But Theo’s aroma-filled factory adds another dimension.