The Theo Chocolate Factory Tour, Seattle, Washington

Posted on
May 21, 2012
 

I have a confession. It’s kind of a doozy. Are you ready? Here goes …

I don’t love chocolate.

Hey, where are you going? Hello… ? Wait … what is that?

Is that a straight jacket? OH DEAR GOD WHY DO YOU HAVE A STRAIGHT-JACKET?

No, no – don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. The point is, I’m not wearing that thing. I haven’t gone completely bonkers, okay? Plenty of people don’t like chocolate. Courtney Love recently went on a rant about how she can’t touch the stuff.

Okay, fine. I realize that example doesn’t really work in my favor.

It’s not that I hate the stuff. I appreciate a good s’mores, and I can make a chocolate cake that will literally make your head spin (provided you eat it while swirling around in the spin cycle of my washing machine). But I’m not obsessed with chocolate. Truth be told, it gives me a headache, eating it makes me weirdly hungry for EVERYTHING IN MY FRIDGE, and frankly, I prefer vanilla.

There. I said it.

What? No, NO I DO NOT THINK THAT LAST STATEMENT MAKES ME A RACIST.

And yet, despite all of my reservations against chocolate, I enjoyed the Theo Chocolate Factory Tour. While my friend Katie was visiting Seattle from California, we decided to check it out. Though I had had Theo chocolate before, I’d never been to their plant (which is located in the quirky little hood of Fremont), so I braced myself for awesomeness of Willy Wonka-esque proportions.

In that respect, I was pretty bitterly disappointed. There are no Oompa-Loompas. I repeat: there are no Oompa-Loompas (there is a petite woman manning the front counter, but she is not orange and refused to sing, despite several requests).

But we did get to wear hair nets, so there’s that.

Our tour guide was a cheerful woman who was incredibly sweet, upbeat, and competent. She explained that most chocolatiers in the U.S. aren’t chocolate makers – they are merely chocolate melters. Melters purchase their chocolate already made and then melt it, adding in flavorings and ingredients.

Theo however, is a chocolate maker – meaning they handle every step of the creation of their chocolate from bean to bar.

 

Step 1: Beans. Step 2: ???? Step 3: Profit.

And yes, they let you sample everything. It was quite lovely right up until it gave me a raging headache.

The tour took us right on to the factory floor where we encountered giant tubs of cocoa beans:

Must. Resist. Urge. To. Dip. Hands. Into. This.

And where this cheerful fellow was scraping melted chocolate out of a machine:

We gained all sorts of knowledge that’s useful to have during chocolate-themed trivia nights (of which there are none). Like how white chocolate isn’t really chocolate (which, not to brag, but I already knew). And that chocolate is actually a fermented food. That’s right: the beans used to make chocolate are left to ferment for about a week (don’t dwell on the thought).

We even found out why some chocolate “blooms” (you know, those weird white smudges on the surface of the chocolate) – if it is heated improperly, or stored in conditions that are too warm or too humid, the cocoa butter separates out, and leaves white traces on the surface of the chocolate.

Fear not: if this happens, it is still safe to eat. I repeat, you can still eat your bloomin’ chocolate.

The tour walked us through the entire chocolate-making process. Here’s the abbreviated version:

  1. Cocoa beans arrive from the growers, already fermented. A machine called “the destoner” (heh) cleans the exterior, and the beans are then roasted.
    – 
  2. A machine called the winnower removes the husks, and reduces the beans into little shrapnel-like nibs, which are crushed into a paste.

    Katie shows off her nibs.

  3. The paste is further smoothed by going through a mill, and then goes into a mixer where sugar and/or milk powder are added.
  4. A machine called the refiner reduces the particle size of the sugar, so the chocolate won’t be gritty. It is then oxidized in another machine, making it less acidic.
  5. Next, it goes into a huge canister known as the Holding Tank, which is where I think Augustus Gloop finally ended up.
  6. A tempering machine heats the chocolate to just the right temperature, forming a bond between cocao butter and cocoa solids as impenetrable as that between Starsky and Hutch.
  7. Inclusions – like bits of cookie or fruit, are added at this point (and no, the folks working there are NOT open to suggestions, like “steak” or “Fritos.” Spoilsports.). The chocolate is sent to a machine which will pour it into molds, which are sent through cooling tunnels.
  8. BOOM. The chocolate bars are done, and can be wrapped and shipped off. Any chocolate that is visually flawed, but otherwise perfect, will be used as samples in the factory tour.

The finished product, some of which, rather inexplicably, are covered with vampires despite it being the middle of spring.

The tour took us about 45 minutes, and includes a discount for any of the handmade confections on sale in the store. Plus, you get to try nearly every single chocolate bar that Theo makes. It’s perfect for a chocolate lover.

And for a gal who’s merely a chocolate liker? Well, I got a kick out of it, too. And lots of free samples. And a headache. But let’s not dwell on that last part.

—————

The Essentials on the Theo Chocolate Factory Tour:

  • Verdict: Yes. It’s not a must-see, but if you’ve already hit up Seattle’s touristy hot-spots, this place is worth a stop (especially if you love chocolate).
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  • How to Get There: Personally, I drive (there’s free parking right adjacent to the factory), but you can also take the bus (the 28 will get you to Fremont, and you can walk through the little downtown area to the factory.)
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  • Ideal for: Rainy days (the tour is entirely indoors); foodies; chocoholics
    – 
  • Insider tips: Call ahead to book your tour, as they often fill up WEEKS in advance. Be sure to wear close-toed shoes, and be warned: it can get a little warm on the factory floor. Also, leave yourself some time to tour Fremont, because it’s a great part of town.
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  • Nearby food: One of my favorite restaurants – Revel – is right next door to Theo (but note that they are closed from 2pm to 5pm and get quite crowded). Fremont also has a bunch of decent Thai places, and a stellar cake shop.
  • Good for kids? Very little ones will have a hard time with the tour. You’re not allowed to touch anything, and the path you must follow is clearly marked. There’s no running around, so if you are under the age of 10, this place will just be an hour or so of boredom, punctuated by too-bitter-for-your-infant-tongue chocolate samples.

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