Pearl Chocolate’s Teresa Ulrich describes the single-origin chocolates she uses in her creations with the kind of adjectives and taste comparisons usually reserved for craft beer and fine wine.
Some varieties from Ecuador have “notes of jasmine,” others a “touch of oak-iness.” One from Trinidad evokes the taste of olives — which, she admits, “is really weird.”
On Thursday evening, Ulrich and six other Portland chocolate purveyors will match their cocoa-based creations with locally made microbrews at “Choktoberfest,” hosted by Alma Chocolate in northeast Portland. For $25, attendees can sample selected beer-and-chocolate pairings designed to bring out the unique flavors of each.
“Portland is known for its beer scene, but there’s also a growing chocolate movement,” says Holly Hukill of Mana Chocolate, who is making single-origin chocolate molds from Venezuela to go with a hoppy amber ale from Gigantic Brewing Company. “So it makes sense to pair the two in an event that’s quirky and fun.”
Choktoberfest marks the first-ever event organized by the Portland Chocolate Mob, a small cadre of Portland chocolatiers and bean-to-bar chocolate makers who gather to discuss common issues, improve their craft and think of ways to spotlight Portland-made chocolate, according to Charley Wheelock, one of the group’s organizers.
Wheelock and his wife Jessica own the 2-year-old bean-to-bar chocolate making company Woodblock Chocolate, which sells six different bars to retailers in 15 states and made Food & Wine‘s “Best Chocolate in the U.S.” list earlier this year.
Wheelock wants to elevate chocolate to the status afforded Oregon’s wine and beer industries by highlighting how Portland’s small-batch chocolate artisans can bring out the diverse flavors of cocoa beans in ways that industrial-scale chocolate makers either can’t or don’t.
In fact, Wheelock, who worked at Rex Hill Winery in Newberg for three harvests, sees wine as the perfect role model. “We’re looking at cocoa beans like a winemaker looks at grapes,” he says. “We’re trying to bring out the unique flavor of the cacao.” (Cacao refers to the tree and the raw beans; once fermented and dried, the beans are usually refered to as cocoa.)
In January, Wheelock gathered about two dozen local chocolate entrepreneurs together to meet one of his cocoa suppliers, who was visiting from Ecuador. A handful continued to meet monthly at Enso Winery to fraternize and talk shop, discussing topics ranging from optimal roasting temperatures to best packaging techniques. “Not only is it fun, but it’s very helpful to have each other to bounce ideas off of,” says Mana Chocolate’s Hukill, one of the group’s founding members.
Hukill is a self-taught chocolate maker who works out of her Woodstock home to turn beans from Peru, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic into three different 2.2-ounce bars she sells to about a dozen retailers, most of them in Portland. The bars retail for $8.
Hukill says her current production capacity is 20 pounds of chocolate a week, not enough to turn a profit. She hopes to purchase larger equipment that would allow her to increase production and secure a retail space to sell directly to consumers. One challenge is the lack of off-the-shelf equipment for small-scale chocolate makers; she and her husband made their own winnower — which removes the husk from the usable nib — using plastic buckets, PVC piping, Plexiglas and a Shop-Vac.
Hulkill is part of a budding craft chocolate movement, according to Portland’s Gino Dalla Gasperina, who distributes cocoa beans from small farmers to craft chocolate makers around the world. Since founding Meridian Cacao Company a year ago, Gasperina says he now has more than 20 clients, not only in the Pacific Northwest but also in places such as North Carolina, Texas, Australia and the Czech Republic.
“I get emails every week from new chocolate makers starting,” he says. “I always tell people craft chocolate is 15 years before microbrews, 30 years behind coffee and 1,000 years behind wine.”
One key to catching up, Gasperina and others say, is helping people see chocolate as more than a commodity. “Right now it’s, ‘Do you like chocolate? Yeah, I like milk chocolate,’” says Gasperina. “What we want for people to say is, ‘I don’t like the fruity taste of Madagascar chocolate, I like the earthier stuff.’”
That’s why the Chocolate Mob’s stated goal is “chocolate enlightenment.”
“We want to spread awareness that chocolate can be so diverse and different,” says Ulrich. She’s doing her part by making bonbons and miniature bars from cocoa beans that arrive at her southeast Portland workshop from Fiji. She knows some of the farmers personally, having twice visited cacao farms there.
The taste of one Fijian variety has “touches of pink fruit, like watermelon,” she says, while another has “brighter notes of citrus and oak.”
Most people don’t talk about chocolate flavors this way, Ulrich acknowledges. “But,” she adds, “I think they’re going to.”