Satisfy your cravings at 11th annual ChocolateFest

COURTESY: CHOCOLATEFEST  - The 11th annual ChocolateFest returns to the Oregon Convention Center Jan. 22-24, a fundraiser for the World Forestry Center. From fudge to truffles, marshmallowy confections to dark and serious bean-to-bar creations, Portland is chock full of chocolate, and chocolatiers.

Many of them will showcase their wares next week at the 11th annual ChocolateFest, an event at the Oregon Convention Center that draws 10,000 people during its three-day run.

The festival is a fundraiser for the nonprofit World Forestry Center, at the foot of Washington Park — after all, the cacao bean (the raw bean, before it’s fermented and dried and then known as cocoa) does come from trees.

A whopping 65 chocolate vendors from around the Pacific Northwest will be at this year’s ChocolateFest, including Portland’s own Woodblock Chocolate, JaCiva Chocolatier, Rose City Sweets, Cupcake Jones and Xocai Healthy Chocolate, among others.

Another 30 local wineries and distilleries will sample spirits and showcase their booziest chocolate pairings — everyone from 2 Towns Ciderhouse and Eastside Distilling to SakeOne, Wild Roots Vodka, Naked Winery and Hip Chicks Do Wine, among others.

But noticeably absent will be 10 of Portland’s small, sustainably sourced and “pure” chocolate artisans that have been working for the past two years to grow their own movement.

They call themselves the Portland Chocolate Mob.

Their mission: “chocolate enlightenment,” they like to say — to improve the craft of chocolate making and sourcing, and work together to spotlight and elevate Portland chocolate — much like the Oregon wine and craft beer movement did.

“We have so much to learn from coffee, beer and wine,” namely the relationship to the agriculture, the sourcing, the distribution and branding, says Charley Wheelock, owner of Woodblock Chocolate and co-founder of the Chocolate Mob.

The artisans’ cacao beans — sustainably sourced from far-flung places like Fiji, Trinidad, Ecuador and Nicaragua — are their grapes and hops.

Far from single-note, the chocolate takes on some of the same complex profiles as beer and wine: nutty, acidic, a hint of jasmine; bright notes of citrus and oak.

Chocolate is “just a great backdrop for playing with flavor,” says Hannah Sullivan, whose mother founded Alma Chocolate 11 years ago. “You’re interested in sourcin, and flavors, and there’s just so many ways you can play with it — you can use candy, nuts, take spice blends, use agricultural products.”

Alma Chocolate is part of the Portland Chocolate Mob, along with fellow chocolatiers Batch PDX and Xocolatl de David, chocolate makers Mana Chocolate, Pearl Chocolate, Pitch Dark, Stirs the Soul and Woodblock Chocolate, and Meridian Cacao, a cocoa bean purveyor.

One common trait is that they don’t add any flavorings or fillers like lecithin, cocoa butter or palm oil to their chocolate, a common practice in commercial chocolates to produce the smooth creaminess of a bite.

In contrast, the Chocolate Mob are all about purity: “It’s more about the agriculture, the cocoa bean,” Wheelock says. “We’re hoping chocolatiers (here and nationally) will start using bean-to-bar chocolate more.”

Bean-to-bar is the practice of sourcing the cacao beans by hand, like Wheelock does.

He says the reason more chocolatiers don’t use bean-to-bar chocolate is that its flavor profile is stronger, and it’s not as easy to work with.

However, the new movement is “an opportunity to make different bon bons with different flavor profiles than in the past,” Wheelock says. “It requires them to use different methods.”

Woodblock Chocolate will be a vendor at the ChocolateFest, but other Chocolate Mobsters aren’t, in part because it’s too cost-prohibitive to give out so many samples.

“Our stuff is so labor intensive,” says Sullivan, Alma Chocolate’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We have a specific audience. We do smaller events with a targeted audience.”

One of the Chocolate Mob’s events is called Chocktoberfest, a beer and chocolate pairing held in November.

Another is the St. Patrick’s Day-themed O’Chocolate McWhiskey, a lineup of chocolates, whiskey and Irish food.

Next month for Chefs Week PDX, some of the Chocolate Mob businesses will band together with local chefs and restaurants on special bars, using some of their spice blends.

“We’re in a food world here in Portland that supports each other,” Sullivan says. “We’ve found power in numbers, rather than trying to stick it out on our own.”

The Chocolate Mob isn’t just working to improve their own craft or the state of chocolate in Portland — they’re pioneering the industry at a global level.

At Pitch Dark Chocolate, another Portland bean-to-bar member of the Mob, owner Brian Flick makes frequent trips to Nicaragua to oversee his sourcing.

“Much of our premium line is made of single varietal cacaos — comparable to wine with pinot noir and syrah — (which are) very rare to find within the world of chocolate,” says Flick, who began experimenting with chocolate 15 years ago.

To incentivize his farmers to cultivate the unique cacaos, they are compensated at prices 25 percent above world market prices, paid directly to them, Flick says.

During his latest trip to Nicaragua, Flick spoke at the national cacao conference to hundreds of cacao farmers, government officials and NGOs on the importance of quality and consistency on their cacao to the growing premium chocolate market, he says.

Pitch Dark has seen their distribution expand overseas, and they’re set to move into a larger facility this year.

When it comes to collaboration, Portland’s chocolate makers agree — like chefs, brewers, winemakers, distillers and others in the food and beverage world — it’s best to share the love.

“I don’t mind competition,” Flick says. “I think it makes everyone better.”


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