This month is my turn to host our local Y-Guide boy's club, so I arranged for everyone to visit the Theo Chocolate Factory in the Fremont Area of Seattle. What a wonderful way to see (and taste) how chocolate is made! I highly recommend it as a place to bring out-of-town guests. Although they offer tours to the public each day, they are happy to arrange private tours as well at a cost of $10/person ($100 minimum).
When we arrived at their retail store, they warned us not to get carried away with all the free samples -- you'll get plenty during the tour, they said and I realized I was going to like this place already. Then they started us on a short lecture, with plenty of props (and tastings) to give you a feel for how cocoa beans are harvested and shipped to their warehouse. After everyone donned hair nets, they marched us through the factory where we watched the beans go from the destoner (which cleans them) and roaster, through the mill and refiner, where everything is crushed and then mixed with sugar and/or milk powder, to the conche (which circulates and oxidizes the mix), through a holding tank and tempering machine where finally it is deposited on special molds and through a cooling tunnel into your chocolate bar. Yes, we were offered generous samples all along the way.
By the time the tour is finished, you'll be full enough that you'll better appreciate all the wonderful items for sale in the retail shop, including my favorite, the $6 Theo Venezuela Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Bar 91%. The retail store also sells various wine pairing kits and other gourmet items that every foodie will love.
Throughout the tour you get a dose of the organic and Fair Trade philosophy of the company, which prides itself on how much they go out of their way to help local cocoa farmers and the environment. I asked how much of that $6 chocolate bar actually goes to the farmer...and the answer is 2 or 3 cents, maybe double if it's really special beans. The other $5.90+ goes to help all the distributors, marketing people, retailers, entrepreneurs -- everyone else who is making what is otherwise a foul-tasting and ugly tropical fruit into a wonderful pleasure to eat.