If you’ve gotten into craft chocolate during the pandemic, now’s the time to meet your people at a chocolate festival. Whether you get a ticket for the Salon du Chocolat in Paris or the Northwest Chocolate in Seattle, you’ll be surrounded by chocoholics like you who’ll geek out on cacao origins and percentages. You’ll get to share bars with nerdy Instagram friends, and fill up the chocolate stash for the rest of the year.
Attending a chocolate festival for the first time however can be an intimidating experience. I remember how overwhelmed I was at the first DC Chocolate Festival back in 2016 (all these samples! all these people!), so much that I regretted half of the purchases I made that day.
The following year, I was determined to make the experience better, so I relied on Barbie Van Horn’s advice on her blog, Finding Fine Chocolate to plan for the event.
Barbie is an experienced, yet approachable, chocolate educator, who provides a wealth of advice on palate training on her blog. I’d saved her top 5 tips for Chocolate Events and Salons, which I am pleased to say helped me make the most of every chocolate festival since 2017. You be the judge.
Before the Event: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Barbie’s tip #1: Plan to meet up with people you don’t want to miss well ahead the chocolate event.
The month leading up to the second DC Chocolate Festival, I made plans to meet with my friend Adrienne Henson, a chocolate personal shopper based in New York City. This year, I’ve convinced Shirley Lum, a certified chocolate judged, to book a plane ticket from Toronto so she could be at the French Embassy in DC for the festival (what can I say? I have good persuasive skills.) We ended up swapping bars with colleagues way until after the sun set. It was awesome.
Barbie’s tip #2: Schedule classes and presentations with vibrating reminders in your calendar.
In addition to help you deepen your understanding of chocolate, classes provide a welcome respite from the bustle of a festival. The day before the event, I review the class schedule online and usually look for the “Bean-to-Bar” presentation by Potomac Chocolate’s charismatic founder Ben Rasmussen and any other classes from respected people in the cacao & chocolate industry like Dr. Martin of The Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute or Emily Stone of Uncommon Cacao.
Barbie’s tip #3: Assemble lists for your own inventory and chocolate gifts for others before the event.
I won’t leave the house without a chocolate checklist or else I’ll blow a small fortune on bonbons, truffles, and bars. Because I usually buy most of my bars locally, this year’s list only included bars from makers I cannot find at the local coffee shop, such as Mademoiselle Miel from Saint Paul, Minnesota (I love her tahini dark chocolate) and Sleep Walk Chocolateria from Chicago (Jägermeister chocolate, anyone?).
My tip: If you are new to the world of craft chocolate, research makers on a review site like Choco Files, Finding Fine Chocolate, Opening Chocolate’s YouTube channel, or the C-Spot.
Before heading to the event, make sure to have a good, protein-rich breakfast (this will reduce your cravings for sugar). Next, here’s a small checklist I recommend you run before leaving:
- A reusable cup to fill with water for palate cleansing purposes.
- A reusable shopping bag.
- Cash to help makers keep all the profits of the sales.
Wear your most comfortable shoes and leave early to avoid lines.
During the Event: Eat, Learn, Buy, Repeat
The festival will likely take place in a large venue. Before you start nibbling at the free chocolate, take a brief tour of the hall, take it all in, and only then start sampling.
Barbie’s tip #4: Protect your palate with intentional tasting and lots of water. Don’t overwhelm your palate.
If the idea of free chocolate samples is appealing at first, it won’t after your 10th sample of 70% spicy dark chocolate. So don’t rush into your tastings; drink a lot of water to help cleanse your palate between samples. Next, unless a bar blows you away, take your time to buy.
To avoid buyer remorse, here’s my technique: sample chocolate at each booth, go for a short walk, attend a class, and let impressions of each bar sift through your mind. After the class, you’ll have forgotten about some bars but some will be calling your name: go ahead and buy them. Although this shopping technique takes more time (you’ll stay in line twice), it helps you focus on the bars you absolutely love.
Over the years, I admit to having stopped sampling altogether. I now buy chocolate based on intuition and let myself discover the flavors at home. The tactic is unconventional, but it works for me.
Barbie’s tip #5: Meet the chocolate makers with gratitude, get to know them and follow online for future updates.
Say “thank you” to exhibitors — for coming to the festival, for the free samples, and for the time to talk to you about their bars. Makers take time away from production to meet YOU and we should be grateful for the opportunity to learn more about their work.
Next, if you are active on social media, make sure to introduce yourself, exchange Instagram handles and email addresses with makers. A business card may come in handy if you’d like to interview a maker or need to order more bars. Which brings me to…
After the Event: Stay Connected
Once you’re back home, upload your best pictures and videos on social media, thank the festival organizers, thank Barbie, and email the people with whom you connected at the event. Find a quiet spot and start working your way through your stash… until the next festival.
ETA: read my tips to prepare for the Northwest Chocolate Festival here.
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