A tour of Theo’s organic and fair trade chocolate factory
Walk into any trendy coffee shop in Seattle and you’ll spot bars of Theo chocolate. These dark chocolate organic treats are in huge demand and not just because they taste out of this world. The ethos of the company is to support the actual growing of cacao and to ensure that fair trade dealings really do benefit the growers.
The Factory in Fremont
he first time I’d heard of Theo was accidentally stumbling upon the door of their chocolate factory. It was our first day in Seattle and we were walking along the canal in Fremont trying to find the dinosaur topiary.
Just a stone’s throw from the ivy covered Apatosaurus mother and baby are a set of glass double doors at the back of a brick building. Josh and I had never heard of Theo before so what caught our attention was the crowd of people standing inside wearing hairnets. We’d stumbled on the beginnings of a tour at the right place and the right time.
Learning about Chocolate production
The tour was completely booked but fortunately they managed to tack us on. On went our own hairnets (and beard-net in Josh’s case) and our group was ushered into the chocolate classroom.
In between sampling five different types of Theo Chocolate we learned about how their dark chocolate was made from just cocoa, cocoa butter, sugar, and vanilla. We were also encouraged to help ourselves to more than one piece of chocolate per bowl and I took the invitation to heart.
The Food of the Gods
Chocolate begins as a humble-tasting fruit the size of an American football and its latin name is Theobroma cacao, which means ‘Food of the Gods. The ‘Theo’ in Theobroma is where the company gets its name from. I wonder if its founders chose the name as an aspiration to be less the food of the gods but more the chocolate of the people.
The flesh inside cacao fruit is white and gooey and though it doesn’t make it into the final product it’s still very important. Cocoa and cocoa butter come from the seeds inside the fruit but they need to be fermented in the white flesh before they start their life as rich chocolate.
Fair Trade isn’t always Fair
Aside from being fascinated by the growing of cacao I was dismayed to learn that the label ‘Fair Trade’ in many cases is misleading. If the government of the country you’re sourcing from is corrupt then it’s probable that only small percentage of profits actually reach the hands of farmers.
Theo has instead joined the ‘Fair for Life’ scheme and has whittled down its cacao growers to just two places in world – the Congo and Peru. Supporting farmers here means that more profit goes to the farmers and less to the pockets of government officials.
The Factory Floor
Stuffed with 85% Dark Chocolate, Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt, Dark Chocolate and Raspberries, Dark Chocolate with Coconut, and a crunchy milk chocolate kids bar we set out on the tour. From the classroom we entered a glass fishbowl in the centre of the factory floor.
All around us were bright and clean pieces of machinery and silver ceiling pipes that flow with chocolate five days a week.
Theo chocolate is produced on the floor and then sent to the kitchen to be filled with extras and moulded into bars. Inside it’s very warm, very clean, and space is at a premium. Only a few people can be working out there at any time given the number of large pieces of equipment.
Learning how the magic happens
Though we call them ‘Cocoa Beans’ it’s actually the seed of the cacao fruit that is used to make chocolate. The steps used to transform these them into the food we know and love is mind boggling. Growing, fermenting, drying, cleaning, roasting, winnowing, and all the other steps that follow will make your head spin. You’ll wonder how people figured it all out in the first place.
More chocolate to eat
Just when you’re coming to terms with the processing of the raw dark chocolate in the factory you’re then whisked into their kitchen. No cameras were allowed in there unfortunately but it was the scent I wish I could have captured. It alone could have been bottled up and sold for a fortune.
In the kitchen we were given yet more chocolate treats to try including the Big Daddy smores bar that they only sell direct given its shorter shelf life. It was the most amazing sweet I’ve had in a long time. Gooey marshmallow, dark chocolate, caramel, and a hint of woodsmoke to top it off.
In the Kitchen
On the factory floor is where all of the chocolate in its pure form is made but its in the kitchen where it’s transformed into masterpieces. They roast coconut in their two ovens to go into the coconut bars and use marble tables to hand cool chocolate truffle interiors. Though immaculately clean, it felt like a comfortable and creative space and did I mention how it smelled?
Visit Theo in Seattle
You may have this idea of a factory being a anonymous place where conveyor belts cart mass produced food through great halls. At Theo the production is personal and from field to packaged bar people have a role to play in making their high quality chocolate.
Tours of Theo run regularly and though we were able to join one that was already full I’d recommend that you book ahead. It takes just over an hour and is the perfect treat for those who love dark chocolate and want to learn more about the magic of making chocolate.
It costs $10 per person, lasts about an hour, and you’re able to shop for even more chocolate in the Theo shop afterwards.