When I’m on the west coast, I hesitate to use the word “epicenter” because I lived in LA for 30 years and have felt the ground shift.  But I think it’s safe to say the ground did shift in Seattle but in a good way .

Earlier this month, it seemed everything chocolate was happening in Seattle and that’s where I was heading after the LA Chocolate Salon.  Every phone call I made to set up interviews was met with — Not available, getting ready for Seattle. See you there!  We were all heading to the North West Chocolate Festival and some of us were heading to the Chocolate Makers Unconference (put on by the same organizers two days prior to the Festival).

Chocolate Makers Unconference (October 1 & 2, 2015)
Bell Harbor Conference Center, Seattle

Although not a chocolate maker, I was allowed into the Unconference due to my position with the Fine Chocolate Industry Association.  There were strict rules – no recording; no photography. This was the second year that chocolate makers (and there are so many more this year) could come together, set their own agenda and talk through issues without a leader or an audience. It sounded like chaos might ensue, but it worked!

Conference Center in Seattle for both the Unconference and the NW Chocolate Festival
Conference Center in Seattle where both the Unconference and the NW Chocolate Festival took place.

I’m not permitted to tell you who said what, but I can tell you some of the major themes that stood out for me:

  • Quality – with so many new chocolate makers coming on to the scene with new approaches to making chocolate, where does quality fit into the mix? (I’ve been hearing “quality” in so many of my interviews that I’ll be doing a “Going Deeper” piece on the topic and bringing in many voices.)
  • Standards – everyone agrees that the fine chocolate sector needs standards both to aim for and to communicate to the public about, but agreement on how to develop standards and what they should look like is not yet clear.  Shall we create standards for the bean? Standards for the finished chocolate?  We can look to the craft beer and specialty coffee sectors to provide insights, but there’s no simple 1-to-1 comparison for the chocolate industry.  It will be interesting over the next couple of years to see how this plays out.
  • Consumer education – this is an area where there’s quite a bit of agreement (we need to do a better job) but again, not clear agreement on how to achieve this.  The craft chocolate movement is bringing new flavor experiences to the market and a higher cost. The cost can be explained, but are consumers willing to take the time to dig in deep to learn?  The consensus is that we have to make it accessible and fun. (Two great examples of how to do it effectively are ChocXO in Irvine, CA and Theo Chocolates in Seattle.  I participated in both of their public tours, learned the complexities of bringing single origin to market, learned about sustainability and tasted the possibilities. I’ll be digging deeper into those topics later on.)
Aaron leading a recent tour at Theo Chocolates in Seattle.
Aaron leading a recent tour at Theo Chocolates in Seattle.
Sasha leading a recent ChocXO tour.
Sasha leading a recent ChocXO tour.

There were other discussion groups centered around equipment and process, but I couldn’t go to them all. If you are a chocolate maker, I highly recommend these two days next year. The best thinkers and doers in chocolate making were represented.

My take-aways — the New American Craft Chocolate Movement is burgeoning and although there is uncertainty about many issues, they keep looking to the craft beer and specialty coffee sectors for inspiration and feel confident they will find their way. This was definitely a private discussion among chocolate makers and I felt lucky to be permitted to sit in and listen.

* * *

North West Chocolate Festival (October 3 & 4, 2015
Bell Harbor Conference Center, Seattle

NWChocolateFestival_Header_2015_2-01

For this event, I was considered “Media” and was not permitted to photograph or interview onsite. (I wish I weren’t such a good girl because it seemed everyone on social media had photos.) I could write thousands of words about this event, but I’ll just share some impressions and let you check out the workshops and presenters online and the exciting lineup of exhibitors.

If you’ve never been, put the NW chocolate Festival on your calendar for next year.  It is an amazing event! I was blown away by the quality of presenters and presentations. I was torn each time because there were so many I wanted to go but they were running concurrently. Here are a few I attended:

  • Keynote:  Women of Chocolate (So inspiring and moving! Led by Carla Martin, Ph.D. and panel included Andrina Bigelow, Chole Doutre-Roussel, Maria Fernanda, Gillian Goddard, Deb Music and Sunita de Tourreil. Glad to be made aware that chocolate is not just a boys club).
  • Beyond #chocolate: Successful Social Media for the Chocolate Industry  (Three knowledge folk took us on a social media ride: Alysha Kropf of Ecole Chocolat, Charley Wheelock of Woodblock Chocolate and Drew Zandonella-Stanndard of Theo. I took notes! Let’s see if I can incorporate them.)
  • Chocolate for Neophytes (Maya Schoop-Rutten’s video is great. Of course, her personal narrative and the tasting she led made it come to life. I’ll be visiting Maya at Chocolate Maya in Santa Barbara on my return drive home in November.)
  • Craft Chocolate: A Brief History (I’m quickly becoming a Bar Cacao – Jessica Ferraro groupie and I’m sure she thinks I’m stalking her.  Worth stalking! I’ll be including Jessica in my “Going Deeper” piece about Influencers in the US chocolate experience.)
  • Introducing the Fine Cacao & Chocolate Institute (Carla Martin, Ph.D. and Colin Gasko are up to some big things in the chocolate world and it ties back to issues of quality and standards that surfaced in the Unconference.  I’ll be talking with Carla and will bring you more in depth information on this topic.)

There were oh so many more workshops and presentations.  And the lineup of chocolate makers and chocolatiers was dizzying. Luckily, I’ll be meeting up with some of them along my road trip around the US.  I loved watching the public come face-to-face with these molders of the US chocolate experience.

Part 2:  I’ll be sharing impressions of my visits to Seattle chocolatier Intrigue Chocolate, chocolate makers Theo Chocolate & indi Chocolate and highlights of my conversations with pioneers of craft chocolate John Nanci & Steven Devries.