5 Tips to Make the Most of the Northwest Chocolate Festival

The Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle is the largest festival devoted to chocolate in the US. Every year in November, the festival welcomes over 100 exhibitors and thousands of chocolate-lovers from all over the world over one cacao-filled weekend.

Living in Pennsylvania, I’d never thought I’d ever attend the festival, simply because crossing the country for a chocolate show seemed like an indulgence. This all changed in 2016 when I saw a gazillion photos of the festival on Instagram: everyone who is someone in chocolate seemed to have gathered at the event. As a chocolate sommelier, I so wanted to be with them. So, the following fall, I made the decision to go to Seattle for the “Superbowl of Chocolate,” as Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate calls it.

The event was so much fun. I met my favorite makers, ran into my friends from Ucayali Farms in Peru, and ate a lot of chocolate. However, nothing could have prepared me for how large and crowded the event would be. Sure, I had a great time, but I left Seattle knowing I had only scratched the surface of the festival. The good news is that I have learned some valuable lessons that I’m pleased to share with you today. I hope they’ll help you make the most of your own trip to the Pacific Northwest.

With Megan Giller (right), author of Bean-to-Bar Chocolate

Tip #1: Plan Ahead

If you’re a chocoholic like me, you’ll want to start planning your trip several months before the festival. My expenses for this trip were minimal, mostly because I started planning for it 9 months earlier in February. That’s when I signed up for a credit card which rewarded me 30,000 miles as a welcome bonus (the round-trip flight to Seattle for 40,000 miles.) As for lodging, I stayed at a friend’s house. Admittedly, not everyone has friends in Seattle, but you can save on accommodations by sharing a hotel room with another festival attendee or by renting an Airbnb.

There is a fee to enter the festival – the daily adult pass starts at $30 – but you can get early bird rates in the summer. Sign up to the festival’s newsletter to be notified of special offers.

With over 100 exhibitors attending the festival each year, you’ll have a fantastic opportunity to replenish your chocolate closet stash. I recommend budgeting for the event several months ahead, even setting a bit of money aside each month so you can indulge during the festival.

Tip #2: Come Early. Really Early.

Boy, did I learn this lesson the hard way. The festival officially started at 11 AM on both days and my friend Séverine and I thought we’d be at the venue by then. I had already planned on attending Chloé Doutre-Roussel’s session on “Chocolate Tasting for Professionals.” When we started hitting traffic a couple of miles of the entrance, I figured I’d be 10 minutes late. At noon, I gave up any hope of hearing the results of the “Survey of North American Fine Craft Chocolate-Makers Research Needs and Research Teams.” At 12:30, I left my friend in her car and ran toward Pier 91, where the festival was held.

At that point, I knew I’d have to attend the show with one single focus: in my case, people. Industry conferences and festivals offer incredible opportunities to connect with fellow chocophiles and makers and I was excited to finally meet Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate, and Hans from Hans Westerink of Violet Sky Chocolate.

While I made the best of my time at the show, I’m disappointed that the line to the parking lot was so long I had to miss speakers. First world problem, I know, but when I read the attendees’ feedback on Shawn Askinosie’s talk on finding work with purpose – the audience was apparently in tears – I was bummed that none of the talks were live-streamed or recorded. Next time, I’ll do what hardcore chocoholics did and get a morning entry pass to hit the vendor stands at 9:00 AM. Members of the chocolate industry should consider getting a professional ticket which allows access to both Friday’s Unconference and the festival.

T-shirts at a chocolate booth

Tip #3: Bring Cash

Hogarth Chocolate in New Zealand is of my favorite chocolate-makers — I could eat their Bread & Butter bar in one sitting and buy their Gianduia by the case. I was thrilled to find a new-to-me Rose & Tea bar and starting stocking up for future tastings at the local library — how special would the audience feel! I had gathered $70 worth of bars when I found out the maker only accepted cash. Wait, what? I withheld a tear and put the bars on the table, settling on two bars instead.

What I discovered that day is that only makers with US bank accounts were able to accept credit cards. That meant I only bought one camel milk chocolate from Dubai and zero from Austrian company Zotter. Lesson learned: next time, I will slip more than a couple of $20 bills in my wallet so I can stock up on foreign bars — chestnut praline, anyone?

Hogarth Chocolate bars in 2017, before their makeover

Tip #4: Pack a Lunch

The Northwest Chocolate Festival was held on a pier, which means there aren’t dining options in walking distance from the show. Sure, there were food trucks by the entrance, but 4 food trucks aren’t nearly enough to feed thousands of hungry festival-goers. Personally, I’d rather spend my time talking to makers upstairs than standing in line for fish and chips, so I recommend packing a light lunch like a salad or sandwich to eat between tastings.

Tip #5: Stay Late

Although the festival closes at 5 PM, many exhibitors stay well after then to dismantle their booths and simply catch their breath. With the pressure off, I was able to have some nice chats with several chocolate friends, like chocolate educator Barbie Van Horn and Lauren Heineck from the Conversations in Cocoa newsletter. Sure, everybody was tired, but it was neat to have some quiet, quality time with good friends.

With Mackenzie Rivers (left), founder of Map Chocolate and The Next Batch school

Looking back, I did have a good time at the festival. Sure, I would have loved attending some talks, meeting all of my chocolate friends – sorry I missed you, Victoria – but I headed back home with a suitcase full of chocolate, a phone loaded with memories, and the conviction that I belong in this world.

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5 Tips to Prepare for a Chocolate Festival

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.

Cocoa Store line-up at the 2022 DC Chocolate Festival

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.

Potomac Chocolate line-up

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.

Shirley Lum and Ben Rasmussen of Potomac Chocolate

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.

Your favorite chocolate sommelier with a French accent (that would be me) hosting a class at the 2022 DC Chocolate Festival.

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?).

Mademoiselle Miel bars are a work of art

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.

Sleepwalk Chocolateria’s lineup at the 2022 DC Chocolate Festival

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.

Bonbons from Potomac Chocolate

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.

Rebecca Snyder, co-founder & head chocolate-maker of Lumineux Chocolate in South Carolina. I’m grateful she travelled to the DC Chocolate Festival this year.

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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October 2022 Zoom Tasting: a Brazilian Maker in France and Her Vegan Chocolate

Well, hello there.

It’s been a long and hot summer here in Pennsylvania and I admit to welcoming the first cooler days with a sigh of relief. Bye bye, ice packs! See you next year, insulated materials! Shipping chocolate in fall and winter is so much more fun and easier, that I’ve already scheduled 2 ticketed chocolate tastings this fall.

But First, a Word About September’s Tasting

Last month’s tasting featured 2 chocolate bars by Cacao de Origen in Venezuela. Back in May, I managed to secure 12 Cacao de Origen bars and 8 single tree (!) chocolate bars, both featuring true Porcelana cacao. If you’re a cacao nerd or have signed up for the 37 Chocolates newsletter, you probably now that Porcelana is the stuff of legend. We had two guests as part of the event: cacao expert Chloé Doutre-Roussel and chocolate educator Shobitha Ramadasan, who respectively joined from France and Ireland.

The reason you’ve not read about the tasting on the blog, is that I had so few available bars, that I saved it for attendees of previous events & newsletter subscribers. If you’re not on the 37 Chocolates mailing list, now’s a good time to change that. You’ll then be the first to hear about tastings that made attendee chocolatier Kristin Joslin rave. Here’s what she said about our time together.

“Estelle, I loved this tasting so much. Chloe is such an incredible guest. Her book was a revelation to me and this first one I bought! I really do love this bar and I will definitely follow the school!… More people need to participate in these events so they can appreciate what it takes to make chocolate. My favorite tasting yet!

October 2022 Tasting

** The event is now past, but you can order the tasting bundle on the 37 Chocolates e-shop.**

The next ticketed event will be held on Sunday, October 23, at 2 PM ET and is open to everyone in the US*.You’ll be trying 4 bars from La Brigaderie de Paris, 2 of which won a Silver medal at the Academy of Chocolate Awards. Founder Marina Stroh-Ibri and Amazon expert Ricardo Lomaski will be our guests for the tasting. Tickets are $100 per screen and are for sale until October 17.

Here’s the story behind the bars.

Earlier this year, I told you about meeting Marina at Salon du Chocolat in Paris. I’d brought two of her signature bars back home: the award-winning Feijoada as well as the Moqueca, both of which are inspired by eponymous Brazilian dishes.

La Brigaderie de Paris Feijoada bar

I shared the bars with my neighbors last December, who immediately oohed at the beautiful, shiny bars. When we bit into the Feijoada, we fell in love with the contrast of smooth dark chocolate with crunchy back beans, and puffed rice. As we sampled the Moqueca, we couldn’t believe how well the savory blend of tomato, peppers, coconut played against the chocolate. I knew then I had to get more for the 37 Chocolates community.

When I returned to France last June, my dad drove me to Montfort l’Amaury, a chic village outside of Paris. There, I got a chance to see Marina again and pick all the bars for the tasting. She actually woke up early that day so I’d have enough bars to bring back to the US. How nice is that?

Marina Stroh-Ibri is on the left and I’m on the right

On October 22, you’ll discover the following bars, all of which happen to be vegan:

  • 70% Fazenda Camboa dark chocolate
  • 70% Tocantins River dark chocolate, which is made with wild cacao harvested by the Tocantins rivers
  • 70% Feijoada dark chocolate with black beans, puffed rice, and orange
  • 70% Moqueca dark chocolate with peppers, tomatoes, coconut, and coriander

Here’s the link to sign up.

So, will I see you then?

Did you like this article? Then sign up 37 Chocolates newsletter to be notified of blog updates and upcoming online chocolate tastings. For corporate and private tastings, please fill out this form and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

What I’ll Be Doing This Summer

Summer is a slow season for us in chocolate and, after 2 years of business reinvention and hosting over 300 online chocolate tastings, I’m looking forward to a REAL vacation with my family starting this Thursday.

My vision for this time away is simple — I want everyday to feel like a Saturday. I’m looking forward to drinking coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, and tasting lots of new chocolate before dinner. During this time away, I’ll take a break from posting on social media but will be checking email daily.

I’ll resume hosting private tastings in July and ticketed events in September. The 37 Chocolates shop with be closed from this Wednesday, June 8, to Wednesday, July 6. If you’d like to stock up on some bars for the summer, I recommend you do that now! You don’t want to miss the oat and coconut crunch of Hogarth Chocolate’s new Anzac bar.

June is also a good time to read about chocolate, explore new chocolate shops, and catch up on Netflix shows. Here are some links for you to enjoy:

Recently, I fell head over heels for The 7 Lives of Lea, a French Netflix mini-series about a teenager traveling back in time every night to save a teenage boy’s life. You’ll love the story as much as the breathtaking setting.

Please sign up 37 Chocolates newsletter to be notified of blog updates and upcoming ticketed chocolate tastings, which I no longer post about here! For corporate and private tastings, please fill out this form and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

The 37 Chocolates Guide to Paris Chocolate Shops – Part 2

Last October, I travelled to France for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. It had been three years since I last slept in my childhood bed, woke up to warm croissants, and shopped at Carrefour with my parents. It felt so good to be back home!

Of course, I took advantage of my hometown’s proximity to Paris for a pilgrimage at Kosak and check out new chocolate shops. The timing of my trip also coincided with the Salon du Chocolat, where I appreciated the dynamism of the French bean-to-bar scene and met promising new makers. Here’s the round-up of my favorite finds.

This post is the second part of The 37 Chocolates Guide to Paris Chocolate Shops and is in no way exhaustive. The places here will appeal to craft chocolate lovers who gravitate towards high percentage dark chocolate bars and not-too-sweet confections. Save this post for your next trip to Paris and enjoy!

Michel Cluizel

Founded in 1948, Michel Cluizel has been making chocolate from the cacao bean before bean-to-bar was a thing. A few blocks away from the Louvre, you’ll find Cluizel’s range of seven single estate bars, as well as jars of award-winning praliné spreads, and elegant bonbons. All their products are made with pure cane sugar, whole vanilla beans, and absolutely no lecithin.

The family-owned company stands out by its continuous dedication to innovate, whether that’s releasing a line of 100% organic chocolate bonbons in 2020, or redesigning their packaging and increasing the cacao content of all their dark chocolate bars in 2021 as part of an ambitious rebrand.

While you can’t go wrong with any Cluizel products, the organic bonbons are the true knockout. Once the box is open, you can show the same restraint as a real Parisienne because you’ll be satisfied with one bite. If you eat as many bonbons as I do, you know how rare that is.

Good to know: All Cluizel products are made in the company’s factory in Normandy and, if your schedule allows, consider booking a factory tour.

Michel Cluizel

201 Rue Saint Honoré

75001 Paris

Open Tuesday – Saturday from 10 AM to 2 PM and 3 PM to 7 PM. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

L’Instant Cacao

After leaving the Cluizel shop, head to the beautiful Jardin du Palais Royal to rest and relax. Heads up: the entrance is tiny and you may circle it a few times before finding it. Sit on a bench, then dig through your chocolate stash on a bench amidst the rose bushes (so romantic!), but leave room for the most delicious hot chocolate at L’Instant Cacao right outside the Jardin.

Entering L’Instant Cacao’s shoebox-size store will require you to play human Tetris, but the experience inside will all be worth it. Behind the glass wall, you’ll first spot founder Marc Chinchole turning transparently traded cacao beans into chocolate. On the left, you’ll find his work packaged in minimalist wrappers.

Chocolate aficionados will recognize respected cacao origins, like Maya Mountain in Belize, Lachuà in Guatemala, or Kokoa Kamili in Tanzania. You’ll be intrigued by fun inclusions like kumquat and guajillo chili or the white chocolate with sheep milk and Madras curry.

If you need help choosing the right bars for you, Agnès (who happens to be Marc’s mom) will be delighted to assist you. I was charmed with the mellow notes of the 78% Emmoni Bolivia bar (2020 harvest.) If Agnès isn’t busy, she’ll share the improbable story of how the shop secured the beans (spoiler: it involves yellow jacket protesters.)

Don’t leave without a five-pece box of (huge!) craft chocolate rochers and, my favorite, the drinking chocolate. The drink checks the boxes of what a perfect hot chocolate should be — balanced and nourishing, rich but not heavy, intense but not bitter.

Agnès explained to me it took some experimenting to nail the recipe, which is apparently made with both chocolate and cocoa powder. What I know for sure is I drank every drop and that I gave it the unofficial award of best hot chocolate in the universe.

L’Instant Cacao

3, rue des Petits Champs

75001 PARIS

Open Tuesday – Saturday, from 10 AM to 2 PM and 3 PM to 7 PM.

Plaq

When Plaq opened its doors back in 2020, it was dubbed “the Dandelion Chocolate of Paris.” Like the San Francisco company, Plaq attracts a new generation of chocolate-lovers with its sleek branding, two-ingredient dark chocolate, and a whole array of baked goods featuring house-made chocolate served in a café setting.

If your budget is tight, stock up on the single origin and milk chocolate bars which start at €8 per bar. If your boss gave you a raise, congrats! You can now splurge one of the praliné-filled and pistachio-covered Plaqs. I’m quite fond of the not-too-sweet, super tender almond chocolate cake, which is great with a shot of milk-based hot chocolate and a side of people-watching.

Good to know: Plaq is located in a vibrant neighborhood. You’ll like browsing the book selection at the adorable Petite Égypte before feasting at Salatim on some hummus and za’atar flatbread.

Plaq

4 Rue du Nil

75002 Paris

Open Tuesday-Friday from 11 AM – 7:30 PM; Saturday: 10 AM – 7:30 PM; Sunday: 10 AM – 6 PM. Closed on Mondays.

La Brigaderie de Paris

A Brazil native, founder Marina Stroh-Ibri has been sharing the flavors of her homeland in France since 2012. First known for her brigadeiros aka Brazilian truffles, Marina started developing a line of bean-to-bar chocolate back in 2018 using Brazilian cacao from Amazonia, Bahia, and Espirito Santo.

Admittedly, you’ll have to venture to the banlieues (suburbs) for a taste of La Brigaderie chocolate, but trust me, the savory inclusions of the Feijoada and Moqueca bars are worth the train ride. Both inspired by eponymous Brazilian dishes, the bars blend masterfully crafted dark chocolate with black beans, puffed rice, and orange (Feijoada) and tomato, pepper, coconut, and coriander (Moqueca.) These stellar flavor combinations are some of the most audacious I’ve had in France. If you really can’t make it to Montfort-l’Amaury, order her bars online and have them shipped to your Parisian address.

La Brigaderie de Paris

14 Rue de Sancé

78490 Montfort l’Amaury 

Did you like this article? Then sign up 37 Chocolates newsletter to be notified of blog updates and upcoming online chocolate tastings. For corporate and private tastings, please fill out this form and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

A Modern Chocolate Lover’s Guide to Philadelphia

Imagine the scene: you’re in a specialty food store, staring at a chocolate shelf filled with dozens of options. Some bars are large and affordable, some are small and expensive. Some are certified organic, others are single origin.

Which one should you choose?

If you’re lucky, a knowledgeable store employee may be able to help you pick a bar you like. Otherwise, you may be tempted to pick the prettiest package/cheapest bar/biggest bar and regret your purchase at home.

Does the scene sound familiar? I know I’ve lived it early in my chocolate journey.

A year or so ago, I remember thinking, “wouldn’t it be nice if I could share some favorite shops and bars with people starting their chocolate journey?” And so the idea of “A Modern Chocolate Lover’s Guide to Philadelphia was born.

Today, the idea is now an Edible Philly magazine cover story that you can read in the latest issue of the magazine or online.

My goal for this piece was to create a guide you could throw in your purse to discover Philadelphia’s chocolate treasures — from chocolate-makers and chocolatiers to chocolate retailers, you’ll find recommendations that will help you kick start your own chocolate journey without the overwhelm.

Please sign up 37 Chocolates newsletter to be notified of blog updates and upcoming online chocolate tastings. For corporate and private tastings, please fill out this form and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

What it Means to be a Chocolate Sommelier

Confession: I envy people with a clear, recognizable job title. Ever since I started hosting chocolate tastings in 2016, I’ve struggled to coin the right term for my work. Chocolate blogger? That felt too limiting. Chocolate lover? Too personal. Chocolate educator? That was more like it. For a couple of years, I thus referred to myself as a chocolate educator.

After hosting my first wine & chocolate pairing events, however, I realized my colleague Sophia Rea of Projet Chocolat in Nashville called herself a chocolate sommelier. That sounded fancy. Could this be better-suited descriptor for my work? To answer this questions, I decided to research the meaning of the word “sommelier.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a sommelier is “a waiter in a restaurant who has charge of wines and their service : a wine steward.” Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need a certification to be a sommelier, though you can pursue one with the Court of Masters Sommeliers. For a deeper dive on the topic, check out Wine Folly’s detailed post on various wine sommelier levels.

As a wine steward, a sommelier works in a hospitality setting, like in a restaurant or a wine bar. In her book Cork Dork, author Bianca Bosker explains that a good sommelier should do more than pairing food and wine, they need to have solid people skills as well. Reading a table, listening to customers, and being receptive to potential dynamics at play at a table (someone may be able to impress their date!) are all important parts of a sommelier’s job.

This short foray into the wine world convinced me to start calling myself a chocolate sommelier. After all, whether I’m hosting an in-person wine & chocolate pairing or hosting an online chocolate tasting, I take great care in selecting bars or bonbons for each event. I strive to look for products that will expand a group’s chocolate horizon, while staying respectful of every attendee’s palate since some people, like my husband, will never like dark chocolate*. I also feel comfortable suggesting pairings to maximize your enjoyment of chocolate, because some bars will taste better when paired with wine, fruit, or tea.

This laser focus on the guest’s enjoyment is, in my experience, what sets a chocolate sommelier apart from a chocolate educator. So, while some of my peers may have an official a chocolate taster certificate with the International Institute of Cacao and Chocolate, I believe they need to be in a position of service to claim the “chocolate sommelier” title.

* Every single person perceives taste differently and I highly recommend attending Dr. Jessica Henderson’s chocolate tasting on the topic on September 25.

Please sign up 37 Chocolates newsletter to be notified of blog updates and upcoming online chocolate tastings. For corporate and private tastings, please fill out this form and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

This Chocolate Will Not Melt

Summer-friendly cacao tasting kit

Oh, what a difference a year makes. In July 2020, I was hosting online chocolate tastings for people like you whose original summer plans were cancelled by the pandemic. These days, my mailbox is filled with out-of-office messages and I spend more time under the shade of our oak tree than in my office on Zoom.

If you’ve been able to get away this summer, I hope you’ve had a wonderful vacation. If you’re now looking for a fun activity to do while escaping the scorching heat, I have good news: tickets for my summer-friendly cacao & chocolate tasting are officially live! Read on to learn more.

The idea for this tasting was born from a question: are there cacao products that do not melt in the heat? The answer, I found out, is yes. Innovative companies like Good King in Seattle and Jinjii Chocolate in Baltimore are reimagining how cacao beans are transformed, from crunchy snacks to squeezable liquid chocolate. Over in Ecuador, Cocoa Supply collects cacao fruit pulp into the cutest pouches to use in cocktails and more.

On Saturday, August 21 at 3 PM ET, you’ll discover these three summer-friendly cacao products that will challenge your perception of chocolate. 

Tickets for the event are $63.54 per household and include the following products shipped to your home:

  • A 3-oz pouch of cacao pulp from Ecuador
  • A 1-oz pouch of Good King candied cacao beans
  • A 3-oz pouch of Jinji Chocolate of 70% liquid dark chocolate made with cacao beans from Ecuador and agave nectar

To avoid shipping delays, the event is limited to US residents and Canadian attendees in Quebec and Ontario. Tickets must be purchased by Tuesday, August 17.

I hope to see you this month!

Please sign up 37 Chocolates newsletter to be notified of blog updates and upcoming online chocolate tastings. For corporate and private tastings, please fill out this form and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

This Chocolate-Maker Makes The best Dark Chocolate I’ve Tried This Year

A few weeks ago, a chocolate tasting attendee asked me how I discover new chocolate-makers. Reluctantly, I told her about my chocolate agent Barb, aka @chocochaser on Instagram. In addition to being an awesome friend (she took me to my first mammogram), Barb crosses the country looking for new chocolate bars and bonbons to try. When she finds a gem, she mails me samples and we’ll connect on Zoom with another friend (hi, Abhi!) to share our impressions on the goods.

Most recently, Barb has been quite excited about Odyssey Chocolate, a chocolate-maker based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Oh my gosh, Estelle, his chocolate is SO good, I have to send you samples!”

A few days later, I received three shiny morsels of 70% dark chocolate. I can’t tell you what origin they were, but I remember everything about the tasting experience: the smooth texture, the bursting flavors, and the feeling of being transported on a flavor journey. This was the most magical dark chocolate I’d had in months.

I’ve had a lot more Odyssey Chocolate since those three bites and let me tell you this: John Epps is one maker to watch. You’ll agree after a first bite of his chocolate. Until then, I hope you enjoy this interview.

John Epps, founder, Odyssey Chocolate

Thanks for answering my questions, John, please tell us how your chocolate odyssey started.

I always preferred chocolate over any kind of “candy” as a kid so there was already a tendency towards a more complex flavor compared to something that was just sweet. Then, shortly after I graduated college, I was working on another project for mixed use live-work egalitarian communities in Santa Fe. During that summer, I was hanging out in my neighbors backyard with a few friends when one of them said something like “the cacao was only for the kings,” and for some reason that really stuck with me, so I wanted to know why that was and began learning about the history of cacao, xocolatl, and also about the psychoactive properties of cacao. I started crushing up cacao beans into a paste using a coffee grinder then boiling almond milk over the stove mixing in the cacao with honey, chili peppers, and other herbs and spices. I started drinking this in the morning instead of coffee and it changed my life.

What do you mean by that?

Well this might sound a little crazy but it’s like something comes into you. A heart-opening energy. We’ve got scientific explanations for these things now but I came to see why cacao was so important in the ancient Mesoamerican societies. This is why I love talking to people who eat a LOT of chocolate because they know what I’m talking about.

Got it.

I was working at a solar energy company at the time doing office work and sorting screws then across the street one day a sign went up “Cacao.” Of course I was intrigued so I knocked on the door where Derek [Lanter] and Melanie [Boudar] owners of Art of Chocolate were working on setting up their bean-to-bar store. I actually offered to work for them then, but they really didn’t need anyone at the time.

After they opened their shop, I would come over from the solar company to get a drink. A guy named Mark [Sciscenti] was now working there who was masterminding the recreation of ancient Mesoamerican drinking chocolate along with some other recipes that high society Europeans were drinking when cacao first came over sea.

This was my jam. I was always so excited when Mark or Derek came out with some new drink. They created a special button in their POS [Point of Sale] systems just for me to get a much larger than normal sipping chocolate.

Fast forward two years and I was interning with them. I started learning about making bean-to-bar and about how to make the mysterious flavors of those drinks.

Odyssey Chocolate display at Charlottesville Farmers Market

How did you end up in Charlottesville?

That was actually an exact opposite kind of story from the last one. Moving to Charlottesville was a very calculated decision. I did a fair amount of travelling around looking for a place that wasn’t too big, wasn’t too small, decently close to my parents and most importantly of all a place that didn’t already have steep craft chocolate competition. The Southeast [of the US] is probably one of the least chocolate-dense regions as it is, but I had it in my mind that I wanted to be “THE Spot” for whatever area I decided to set up in, so Asheville for instance was off limits due to French Broad Chocolates.

So now please tell us about your bars, what’s the goal you’re trying to reach through your chocolate?

So, I’m vegan and have my reasons for not eating animal products so naturally Odyssey’s focus is on dark chocolate. Also, as someone who really appreciates the flavor and the heath benefits of straight cacao beans, I want to bring as much of that into my bars as possible. I don’t focus on high sugar bars or add cocoa butter to my regular line because I really want my chocolate to be as healthy as possible. I also really want Odyssey to be able to take people on a journey just like the name suggests. The origins I work with are all specifically selected based on having very unique flavors. The last thing I’d want is for two of my bars to be nearly indistinguishable from each other. If I’m doing my job right, I shouldn’t need to label any melangers with what origin is in them. I only need to dip in a tasting spoon and know “oh that’s obviously X origin because nothing else I have tastes anything like it.”

At the end of the day I don’t follow any trends or pick a bean because a lot of makers are using it or something. I go after origins that are unique, and sometimes that hunt isn’t easy. For example I’m winnowing Venezuelan Chuao today for it’s premiere regular-line batch. It took me over a year of searching to find a way to get this origin.

John Epps at the Charlottesville Farmers Market

I understand you sell your bars at Charlottesville Farmers Market, how has the local community responded to your bars so far?

It’s been pretty great. It was definitely interesting starting my first business then a couple months later getting hit with lockdowns and a worldwide pandemic, but the community here has been so supportive. I remember I launched the website last March and then in April I made a post in a mutual-aid Charlottesville Facebook group and told my story there. I’ve still to this day never topped the sales that came in that month. All from local people who wanted me to succeed and make it through this pandemic. It showed me that people here really care. And I have to give a shout out to all my regular chocoholics at the market too!

What are your best-selling bars?

Okay, so my best sellers are probably my India Idukki Hills and my Vietnam Ben Tre.

So many people are obsessed with the Idukki Hills for its intense tanginess. I also really love including it in tastings with people because it’s so different from what people expect to taste with chocolate.

Ben Tre is just immaculate. I love this origin from its flavor to its texture and mouthfeel. A lot of times people ask me what my favorites are and Ben Tre is usually on that list which definitely accounts for some of the boost in sales for that bar.

You make me hungry.

My Monster bar was born out of a need for a vegan milk chocolate bar. I essentially came to the realization at one point that I didn’t really need a replacement for the milk itself because I didn’t need to actually mask anything in the chocolate, I just needed to make it less intense and sweeter, so I took my most gentle origin (which at the time was Catongo from and now it’s Chuao) mixed it with a bit of Uganda for the familiar flavor of an earthy origin, then added in Ecuadorian vanilla, sugar and a bit more cocoa butter to house it all, and BAM I couldn’t stop eating so I thought I’d created a monster!

The best thing about the Monster bar is that the flavor grows. What I mean is that it’s sweet but has a long finish. Milk chocolate doesn’t really have that because of the actual milk.

I actually have a bar that’s been in the works for a long time now that’s going to be “The Penelope” I plan on it having its own packaging and everything. I plan on doing that for the Monster bar as well. Penelope will be a blend at 90% and it’s gonna be amazing.

Odyssey Chocolate display at Charlottesville Farmers Market

So it sounds like you’ve been really honing your craft and focused on making a good product. Do you consider your business successful?

What I would say is that it’s a mindset. I started last year with essentially nothing, and now I have so much more in every way imaginable from equipment to customers to packaging to a certain small level of recognition, and I’m of the mindset that I’m very much still starting this business. It’s been a year and three months. The progress that has been made greatly outweighs the uncertainty to me. I feel like I’m pushing the right buttons.

The name of your company is Odyssey… so where do you want to take us?

Well where I really want to take everyone is a journey of a topic in and of itself. The vision for Odyssey Chocolate is to set up a full fledged bar/lounge in Charlottesville where we make the chocolate and serve drinking chocolate elixirs as an alternative to “going out for drinks.” I really want to make a place where people want to come on a date, with their friends, or with their families to relax in a warm colorful environment. I really want to introduce more people to the ancient drinking chocolate recipes. Of course there will also be factory tours, tastings, samples, kids classes all that kind of stuff, but what I really envision looks a lot like a bar where alcohol has been replaced by cacao.

If I can bring this business to high enough level of success I’m going to transform it into something completely different – the income source for an egalitarian community much like Twin Oaks just 30 minutes from Charlottesville. To make clear what that means and why I’m a crazy person: that means I’ll build up this business to as big as I can make it and then give it away. This is my actual biggest goal in life. To make a chocolate community.

Do you have an anecdote to share about a customer reaction when trying your bars?

There was one time a blind woman came up to my stand at the farmer’s market. I told her what I sell and she expressed that she likes to put a little chocolate in her coffee. I gave her a sample and she got really quiet and had a sort of serious look on her face. She told me “I can’t put this in my coffee. That would be a waste. This is too intense. I don’t think you would be able to understand, but as a blind person this is transporting me somewhere – to a different place.” And that’s what Odyssey Chocolate is all about.

Order Odyssey Chocolate at http://www.odysseychocolate.com.

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A Dream Come True + April Chocolate Tasting

Photo credit: Ruth Kennison, The Chocolate Project

Ever since I started my chocolate journey, I dreamed of connecting a loyal community of chocolate lovers with cacao, aka the source of our favorite food. Through a series of serendipitous encounters and good old-fashioned teamwork, that dream came true this month. 

On March 13, Melanie told us about how her team in Guatemala processes cacao beans into chocolate at Diego’s Chocolate. She went all out for us, cutting a fresh cacao pod, grinding cacao beans, and answering our many questions about their chocolate-process. Nico, the US distributor of Diego’s Chocolate, translated her explanations to non-Spanish makers like me. It was an amazing experience and the awe on every attendee’s faces made this tasting one for the books. 

If you missed Diego’s Chocolate tasting, don’t worry, you’ll have an opportunity to connect with another chocolate-maker on April 10.

Upcoming Online Tasting

A pioneer of the bean-to-bar movement, Amano Chocolate has been turning carefully sourced cacao beans into instant chocolate classics for 15 years. If you’ve had the company’s Dos Rios Bar, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, sign up to my next tasting to find out!

On Saturday, April 10, at 2 PM ET // 11 AM PT, you’ll sample three (vegan!) bars by Amano Chocolate and share your impressions with the group. Art Pollard, co-founder of Amano Chocolate, and his son Aaron Pollard, vice president and chocolate-maker, will share the stories behind each bar and answer your questions on their chocolate. I’m planning to bring a twist to the tasting, but I can’t say too much now 🙂 Tickets are $52/household and include three chocolate bars shipped to a US-based address. I saved a few spots to international attendees, please email me at estelle(at)37chocolates.com to arrange shipping.

On a side note, you can watch a 20-minute interview of Denise Castronovo by Seth Godin here. You’ll be hearing the story behind the Castronovo Chocolate 80% Arhuacos dark chocolate so many of you love. 

I hope to see you soon! If you’d like to schedule a private tasting for your family or team, please fill out the following form

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