Seattle is well known for its coffee and microbrews, evidence of the city’s vibrant local culture of foodies who enjoy experimenting with flavors. And you can add craft chocolate to that list.
It turns out the city’s history of renowned chocolate makers stretches all the way back to 1942 with companies like Boehm’s (founded in a candy kitchen on Ravenna Avenue before it moved to Issaquah) and the Frederick & Nelson department store (which created Frango mints in 1918.)
They paved the way for a more recent wave of artisans. Now, dozens of local companies are innovating with chocolate recipes and even teaching people how to make their own. A new book on the topic, "Seattle Chocolatiers," chronicles the history of the emerging scene.
And you can go in person to learn all about the process, from chocolate beans to the cocoa nibs inside them, at the eighth annual Northwest Chocolate Festival taking place this weekend in Seattle. Among the offerings at this two-day exhibition: a deep tasting with meditation on flavor.
Another great way to experience “bean to bar” chocolate in Seattle is by visiting one of the city’s up-and-coming makers, indi chocolate. The shop is tucked away inside the Pike Place Market, where it will soon be expanding into a larger space. Despite a tough-to-find location on the lower level, the store has a loyal following that’s enabling its growth.
Perhaps it’s the smell of roasting chocolate beans that attracts customers and keeps them coming back.
“We roast our beans, that I source from around the world, right here in store,” says owner Erin Andrews. “So that gives everybody the ability to watch it and smell it as they come into the store.”
She specializes in small batches of just 2 lbs. at a time, to ensure the best quality. And she makes that into a single dark chocolate recipe consisting of only three ingredients.
“I like to say I’ve gone to the dark side and I’m not coming back,” she jokes, adding that some of her bars also have inclusions of crystallized ginger or dried cherries from Washington state – two of her favorite flavors. But the only other things she adds when making the bars is cocoa butter and sugar. That allows her to showcase the subtleties of flavor in the beans she sources from around the world.
“What I like to do is I like to have the same recipe, the same three ingredients in the same proportion,” she says, to teach people about the world of chocolate. “So I can take you on a flight of Peru without a flight to Peru. And how I do that is on your tongue.”
Part of the experience is tasting the nibs that are inside the fresh roasted cacao beans you smell when you enter the shop. Crack a bean open and you find the seed-shaped fragments inside. They're 100 percent pure cacao and full of subtle flavors after an initial taste of bitterness that’s surprisingly smooth. It’s easy to see why Andrews has so many repeat customers and people coming back to buy bags of pure beans or the much-coveted nibs.
“The nibs are what makes me feel like I’m a drug dealer,” she says. “Because people come in not knowing what they’re all about and then fall in love with them. And then they start coming back and asking me for new destinations because they know where I’m going and ask ‘if the nibs are ready yet.’”
She says bags of the roasted beans have also become very popular among people who are adding them to their coffee grinders for a special kind of “50/50” mocha, in which coffee beans are blended with cocoa beans.
“So, it’s a really nice way to enjoy in the morning, either hot or cold – we also do a cold brew with it,” Andrews says.
The shop also sells savory spice rubs made from cacao as well as kits for infusing spirits with the essence of chocolate and a line of body care products made from cocoa butter.
But at the heart of the operation is the use of the fresh roasted beans to teach how chocolate is made into bars.
“I really love people to not be intimidated by chocolate, to really enjoy it, to explore it and have fun with it,” she says, “to see that contagious enthusiasm catch on.”
She says the Northwest Chocolate Festival is a great place to do that. She’ll be there this weekend, giving several talks and celebrating the sixth anniversary of her company, which she launched there six years ago.
"So it’s always old home week, it’s always another year for us at the festival. And that’s really special to us as a company," she says. "Come join us."
The Northwest Chocolate Festival takes place this Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., November 12 and 13, at Seattle’s Pier 91 Smith Cove Cruise Terminal. More information is on their website.