In Seattle, we’re super spoiled. After all, we’ve got Theo wafting the scent of chocolate across the Fremont Bridge every day. Most cities aren’t that lucky – but things are getting better as more artisan chocolate shops start. And some of these shops are even letting you visit.
So, today is a tale of two tours: Theo Chocolate and Ranger Chocolate.
It’s Seattle versus Portland.
Large and established-but-creative versus small and hyper-experimental.
Same weather patterns.
At $10 per person (for either of them!), you’re in two very different experiences. Let’s get started!
Ranger Chocolate is three years old, and their facilities are at Cup & Bar, a shared tasting space with Trailhead Coffee Roasters. There is only one tour on Saturdays at 1pm, and we were lucky enough to be squished in with a local chocolate meetup group when we were in town. And it was precious.
George and Rhonda, owners and makers, gave the tour, and they’re as lovely as their chocolate. Though the tour isn’t much of a tour, since they have all of two rooms: a prep/making space and a storeroom for finished chocolate and products. (Their winnower is super precious. It includes a shop vac.)
First they talk about their chocolate process under a photo gallery of their trip to Peru. Then you walk five feet into to the storeroom to try raw, roasted, and fermented cacao beans, then you walk ten feet to their kitchen to taste their entire lineup. This is actually something of a challenge. As in, there were ten full chocolate bars, two of each kind, and fifteen people. And they really hoped we’d eat it all. Ever heard of palate fatigue? Well, there’s a first time for everything.
And we weren’t done with just that tasting. Then they starting opening up their tempering machines full of chocolate and handed out spoons of chocolate. And in case we still had space in our stomach, we finished the tour with shots of their 80% Chulucanas in hot chocolate form.
(We made the delicious mistake of going to Wiz Bang for soft serve before the tour. Learn from our pain.)
And the entire time, people asked questions. Which was awesome. I mean, how often do you get one on one time with the makers? Also, this group was knowledgeable enough that there was some serious geekery going on.
But here’s the thing: they don’t just make chocolate. They’re making good ice cream in their Portland shop. We’re talking gloriously smooth chocolate ice cream with caramel undertones. And another chocolate ice cream called Microchip which sounds like a straciatella turned up to eleven. And their caramels are huge but old school and tasty, full of vanilla flavor.
I did have some frustrations about the tour. The big one: why offer sparkling water at the tasting? For me, I couldn’t to use it get the taste of the previous bars from my mouth. I’d personally prefer tap water. It’s a small thing, and I appreciate their efforts, it just wasn’t what I needed. Maybe next time I’ll ask for a glass from the tap.
Theo just turned ten, and is the most established bean to bar operation in the US. And by chocolate standards – well, non-Hershey standards – it’s a huge facility. We’re talking multiple holding tanks, a winnower the size of a car, buckets and buckets upon buckets of cacao nibs. And because it’s a huge facility, the Theo tour is professional. We’re talking hair nets, beard nets, spaces where you can’t take photos for safety reasons, taped spaces to stand in, microphones. That doesn’t mean it’s a boring tour, it’s just very different.
But for a national-level operation, it’s also super small. Inclusion bars are made in twenty pound batches, in bowls that barely hold it all, and are folded together by hand. And the confections? Again, all by hand. People were cutting slabs of ganache with guitars while we watched. (It must be so awkward some days to be watched while making treats.)
The Theo tour also starts with a talk about how beans are made into chocolate, and has interruptions for tastings from their 85% and 70% bars. Then we went into a room where we could see all the equipment, and our tour guide Aaron stopped a video at choice moments to talk about cocoa flakes and chocolate liqueur. After that, we went through the loudness of the production facility to be whisked into the kitchen to see exactly how everything was being made, by hand and with care. And we were fed key lime confections and caramels. Oh darn.
I really wanted to talk to Aaron more, since apparently he’s a recent transplant from another chocolate company, but this entire group was very new to chocolate. I was not going to be the hipster that got them scared off the amazingness that is artisan chocolate. But that’s the thing: Theo’s the entry point for a lot of people into single origin or fair trade chocolate. And at $4/bar (or as low as $2 when it goes on sale), it’s a relatively affordable start.
Professional bright green equipment is professional.
Also like Ranger, a lot of their goodies aren’t making it out of the store. To which you’re going Jess, we’ve seen their stuff. They take over Whole Foods! And I know! But did you know they have moon pies? And nougat bars?
Really. Don’t feel bad; even I didn’t know until I walked in their shop after the tour. And while I try to keep an eye on Theo, it’s hard to keep track of everything they’re doing because there’s simply so much going on. It’s why I take the tour again every few years – it reminds me to visit the shop in person rather than go to PCC or the Co-op for my fix.
Would I recommend one over the other? No. They’re very different experiences, from chocolate makers at very different stages in production growth. Though I’d visit Ranger soon – as they grow, they may not have as much time to stuff you with tales and chocolate.
Have you gone on either tour? I’d love to hear about it!