Theo Chocolate factory tour: the sweet experience

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Grace Amsden, Editor-in-Chief

The words “chocolate factory” may bring about images from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: life-sized lollipops, lickable wallpaper and only a few golden tickets.
Almost two dozen Pierce College Puyallup students obtained similar tickets in the form of a waiver that would eventually lead them to chocolate. But to earn this, they didn’t have to purchase chocolate bars. All they had to do was sign up for this tour in the Office of Student Life.

Sign-ups began the first day of winter quarter and it took six days for the event to fill up, Sustainability Coordinator Morgan Pasquier, who planned this event, said. More than 20 students were placed on the waitlist.

“I was stunned, honestly,” Pasquier said. “After how difficult last quarter was in terms of student participation, it was a little alarming. I’d expected it to be popular, but not that popular.”

Twenty-one students, Pasquier and two drivers traveled down the chocolate river to the Theo Chocolate factory in Seattle on Feb. 13. Well, they actually traveled on the freeway in the Pierce College vans, but this group stumbled upon plenty of chocolate upon arrival.

Students first visited the gift shop, which offers many selections of chocolate, caramels and other confections. There’s sea salt dark chocolate, chili dark chocolate, hazelnut crunch, moon pies and the Valentine’s Day My Cherry Baby milk chocolate bar with cherries mixed in. There’s also salt ed vanilla caramels, licorice caramels and milk chocolate peanut butter cups.

After getting a glimpse at some of the kinds of chocolate that would later be discussed, the group checked in for the tour. As required, everyone had to wear blue hair nets, and beard nets—if necessary. Tour visitors also had to use a lint roller on their clothes prior to entering the factory where the information and taste testing would begin.

Even prior to the tour, samples of two clustered chocolates were waiting to be taste tested by guests who’d evaluate them on a survey.

After the reminders for all hair to be tucked into the hair net, tour guide Katrina Keddy led the group into a seating room for the first part of the tour.

Students learned during this informational session that this organic chocolate company, founded by Joe Whinney, is certified in fair trade. This means that the farmers of the cocoa beans are paid fairly and “are better able to provide their families with adequate nutrition, access to healthcare and education, ultimately opening up a world of opportunities,” according to Theo’s website.
As for the cocoa beans, used to make the chocolate, Theo uses them from Congo, Panama and Peru.

The company’s principle for the cocoa beans is to pay a fair price for cocoa beans based on quality, according to Theo’s website. This provides incentives for producers to improve the quality of their cocoa beans.

The name Theo actually comes from the Theobroma Cacao. Inside the pods of this cocoa plant, which take about six months to mature, is mucilage: a sticky substance and within this are the seeds.
During this stage of the tour, the samples began, the first being 85 percent dark chocolate. This is the highest percentage of dark chocolate Theo produces. The second sample was dark chocolate with sea salt and third was dark chocolate with candied ginger.

“I really liked the dark chocolate with ginger in it,” student Marissa Espino said. “I don’t usually like dark chocolate, but I really liked that one. It tasted really earthy, which I’m not usually used to.”

The toasted coconut came next for sampling and the final was from the My Cherry Baby bar.
Keddy explained that because each individual’s taste palette differs, the flavors from the chocolate can vary depending on who’s tasting it. One kind may be interpreted as spicy, fruity, floral-like, roasted, bitter, sweet, nutty or creamy.

“Hershey’s (chocolate) is super sugary and Theo’s chocolate was very real,” student Kenna-Rose Burns said. “It’s kind of like when you have coffee and you can taste the caramel syrup and the coffee itself. This is what it’s like. I’m taking in all the different components.”

After the seated portion of the tour, Keddy led the group into the actual factory area, first into a glass-paned room that overlooks the machines. A scoop of nibs were given out to be sampled. Nibs are small pieces inside the cocoa bean that are ground into the chocolate.

Keddy shared facts about the machinery for Theo’s chocolate making process as well as the steps required to make the chocolate. She gave out an illustrated diagram which has 16 steps and finally to the last step: when the chocolate is available for purchase.

Simply stated, the first step in this process is for the cocoa beans to be cleaned on the outside and then roasted. After this, the husks are divided from the nibs and then crushed into a paste until they’re continued to be made smaller.

Next, sugar and/or milk powder is added, the sugar size is made smaller, acid is removed and then it’s all put into the holding tank.
After this, a bond is made between the cocoa butter and cocoa solids, inclusions such as sea salt or dried fruit may be added in and the chocolate is poured into molds. The chocolate is then cooled, wrapped and available for purchase.

The confectionary room was the next place Keddy led the group. This room is saturated with a rich scent of chocolate and cream.

“I feel like just smelling it made me gain weight,” Espino said.

More samples were given out in this room: a piece of spearmint chocolate, ganache, caramel and toffee.

After this, the tour was complete. The group went back into the gift shop to make purchases before departing.

This trip was free to students including transportation, a boxed lunch (provided by Lancer Hospitality) and the tour itself.

Because Valentine’s Day was Feb. 14, Pasquier said she purposefully planned this event in conjunction with that holiday, which led some students to become interested in it.

“I knew it was right around Valentine’s Day and I thought it would be fun,” Burns said. “I’ve never done anything like it. Plus, I’ve been single for 18 years, so why not go get chocolate?”

The tour went well, Pasquier said, though she would’ve liked more discussion about fair trade. She also said this may be a recurring event in the future and thinks students enjoyed the chocolate sampling and overall experience.

Theo is an excellent company, Pasquier said, and even though it’s pricier than other chocolate goods, it’s better.

“Buying a Hershey bar, yeah – that’s cheaper for you (but) it does a lot of damage on a global scale to other people and other things where you’re paying a little bit more, but you’re getting stuff that’s coming from people who are treated fairly,” Pasquier said.

Even though students didn’t get to try an everlasting gobstopper or win a lifetime supply of chocolate like at Wonka’s chocolate factory, they got to learn about fair trade, the history of Theo’s, process of chocolate creation and get a head start on chocolate before Valentines Day. [/responsivevoice]

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Grace Amsden
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Theo Chocolate factory tour: the sweet experience

by Grace Amsden time to read: 5 min