Inside the Theo Chocolate Factory

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chocolate and caramel

BY KATRINA MOORE
PHOTOS BY KELLY CLINE

 

If you walk into Theo Chocolate at certain times of day, you will find a flock of blue-hairnet-wearing individuals patiently abstaining from the shop’s free chocolate samples. Soon, they will be embarking on a tour of the bean-to-bar factory, where they anticipate hoards of samples and, if they’re lucky, a chocolate river, complete with a waterfall, surrounded by a garden of sugar buttercups and marshmallow mushrooms.

In the two years I have worked at Theo Chocolate, I have given at least 300 one-hour tours. There’s no set script, as long as all the points are covered. I like to begin my tours by pointing out the high antioxidant levels in chocolate. This way, tour-goers can feel better about all the samples they are about to consume. While the samples are being passed around, I discuss cocoa farming and fermentation, and of course, Theo’s status as the first organic and Fair Trade certified chocolate maker in the United States.

As I put on my own blue hairnet and launch into my opening speech, nearly anything can happen. Toddlers shriek. Adults pick their noses. People answer their phones. On hot days in the summer, I have seen a few snoozers. None of this is unusual. All the tour guides encounter our share of distractions, but the one that requires the most finesse is The Funny Guy. He’s the one who pipes up with, “When do we get to see the Oompa Loompas?” while I’m discussing poverty and human trafficking in the global cacao industry. Just to clear the record: Lucy and Ethel are not in back cramming confections into their craws, we don’t have fizzy lifting drinks, and as Abby, the 5’2″ Quality Assurance Specialist, likes to say, “I’m the closest thing you’re gonna get to an Oompa Loompa.”

Instead, you will see gobstopper-green machinery, a color that adds whimsy to the industrial ambiance. Depending on the time of day, you may glimpse cocoa beans stirring in the roaster, liquid chocolate flowing through the mills, or nearly complete confections gliding through a chocolate curtain.

One of the first stops on the tour is the roasting room, where one of two people may be spotted hanging around the German ball roaster, a cast-iron beast built in 1937. David Anderson, one of Theo’s two roasters, came to the company by way of Hawaii’s Kona Brewing Company, where he interned after attending brewing school. David roasts an average of 1100 pounds of beans per ten-hour shift. The beans make a comforting, homey sound while they roast, like buttons hitting the side of a clothes dryer. “Roasting is kind of like driving a car on a very straight road,” he says, adjusting a lever. “You still want to have a driver in the car, but he doesn’t have to do a lot of turning. So every once in a while I have to nudge the gas, bring it back down, open up a baffle or something like that, but in general, I can have this going and winnow at the same time.”
He points to the big green machine across from the roaster. This is the winnower, which removes the husks from the beans and shatters the beans into pieces called nibs, nut-like snacks that the tour gets to taste in the roasting room. David watches over the winnower in addition to the mills that grind the nibs into liquid chocolate, which he describes as having a texture like “mayonnaise or creamy peanut butter” before it is refined to ultra smoothness. He still spends most of his time roasting, which means he tastes each batch of cocoa beans several times to determine doneness. When I ask him if he ever gets sick of eating chocolate and cocoa beans, he says, “No, I think it’s kind of like bread and butter, or beer. It’s not something that people get sick of. It’s such a basic flavor.”

After viewing the roasting room and the mills, the tour detours into the confection kitchen, a room filled with marble-topped tables where chocolatiers pour, temper, frame, and slice chocolate ganache, the creamy chocolate inside a truffle. Here, tour-goers try ganache enrobed in chocolate couverture (the chocolate used for coating truffles and other confections). With twelve standard flavors and at least five rotating seasonals, the confections team stays busy crafting each piece with painstaking detail. The classic burnt sugar ganache, deeply caramelized sugar folded into house-made custard and white chocolate, is decorated by hand with pearls of burnt sugar. In November, the team will layer balsamic-swirled milk chocolate ganache with an Anjou pear paté du fruit to create the pear balsamic confection.

Across the kitchen, Marianne Robertson, also known as the Caramel Queen, ladles honey-colored apple cider caramel from a copper cauldron into frames. The caramel will be allowed to cool overnight before the confections team slices the sheets into one-inch rectangles, coats them with chocolate, and decorates each piece with a sprinkle of mulling spices and sugar. Like many other Theo employees, Marianne was first drawn to the company’s ethos. Theo is working to make organic and fair trade chocolate available (and affordable), and shows corporate responsibility by visiting the cacao farms and developing direct relationships with growers. Though we all love social responsibility, Marianne echoes the sentiment of many Theo employees by saying, “What keeps me here is the people. It’s almost like a family but better, because you can’t pick your family. People want to be here. I like to be here because everybody likes to be here.” She looks up from ladling caramel, grins and adds, “And because the chocolate is so good. Okay, let’s face it. I’m really here for the chocolate.”

Back in the factory, the tour stops by the depositor, a stainless-steel contraption that deposits chocolate into bar molds and cools it down. Dave Follis is the Lead Depositor at Theo: he’s the guy who makes the chocolate bars. He mixes inclusions like hazelnuts, brittle bits, and sea salt into the chocolate before pouring it into the machine, and he runs the 1960s bar wrapping machine, which has a tendency to break down without warning. Dave describes his title as a “Crisis Control Agent” or “Professional Panicker” because “a lot of things can go wrong with the wrapping machine. It’s just a nice old vintage piece of machinery. It’s got a lot of character.”

After the tour, the group grazes the samples available in the retail store—or at least the folks in the tour who aren’t already sated. I feel lucky to have a job teaching the public about chocolate, and even luckier to work for a company that shows such dedication to its mission. Even though I was originally compelled to work at Theo because of that mission, maybe, like Marianne (and, come to think of it, like those fictional Oompa-Loompas), I’m just here for the chocolate.

Katrina Moore looks forward to babbling more about chocolate while she works on her Master of Food Studies degree at NYU. You can find her alter ego, Lemon L’Orange, refrigerating her way through the 1962 book Joys of Jello at www.lemonlorange.com.

 

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