Northwest Chocolate Festival – writing-off the sugar buzz

The Northwest Chocolate Festival was quite an experience, and perhaps only just a bit of chocolate overload. Pacing yourself is important here. Seriously! With over 100 vendors, most of whom are selling chocolate bars or other chocolate-based confections, there’s no way to survive them all in one weekend without great care.

First, the Dagoba folks were very generous with samples though, so a shout out to them. They were one of my favorite bars years ago, and one of my first introductions to “good” chocolate. They still make a great chocolate even if they are now part of the Hershey family. Scharfen Berger was also present next door, also part of the Hershey family. (As a PA native, Hershey’s is still a guilty pleasure of mine).

We mostly tried to focus on the unique and non-local offerings in the expo hall, since there’s only so much you can do with just a fermented chocolate bean and cane sugar. Creo chocolate out of Portland had an amazing dark chocolate peppermint bar. It wasn’t anything completely unique, just very well executed.

From California, TCHO of San Francisco was there, one of our favorites from the bay area (our top pick in SF is Recchiuti, who wasn’t there). There name may sound like someone sneezed, but there chocolate isn’t anything to sneeze at. Firefly was another bay area vendor that we couldn’t pass on. They make a milk chocolate bar from 30% wild-gathered bay nuts that gave it a nutty flavor a little like Nutella, but different too, and in a good way. Because of the significant manual labor in making it, it’s not a cheap bat, but it’s an experience worth trying.

Equal Exchange, a national producer out of Massachusetts (I think) may have been the most distant attendee (not counting vendors that have operations in the tropics for growing or to support local production). Equal Exchange is a staple for us from PCC, and their baking cocoa is our powder of choice for chocolate ice cream.

There were some very unique vendors, to be sure. The Chocolate Conspiracy was sampling their raw vegan chocolate, made with unfermented chocolates and raw honey as a sweetener. It had quite a different flavor profile, and didn’t really tickle my tongue, but for people into the raw movement, it’s a viable alternative, and it wasn’t bad. One of their staffers had my favorite shirt of the day: “Rhinos are just chubby unicorns.” Brevin’s Fudge from Astoria, OR was some of the best I’ve tasted, smooth and creamy, hand crafted by an artisan fudge-maker that’s been practicing his art for 25 years. His root beer float fudge was a great throwback flavor that reminded me of the old root-beer barrel candies a bit. We also got to try basil chocolate, maca chocolate, and quite a few other unique confections, and a delicious Madascar chocolate that had a distinctly cherry-like flavor, but was just pure chocolate. Maca was on offer from a few vendors, so it seems to be having a moment right now.

Familiar Seattle-local names like Fran’s and Hot Cakes also made a showing, but we mostly skipped them since they are easy enough to find around and about, and weren’t really putting anything unique on offer for the event.

There were also quite a few equipment vendors there, mostly focused on commercial operations. If you wanted a chocolate tempering machine to replace your washing machine, this was the place to find it. The Confectioner’s Friend had a few options for hobbyists and small scale operations like caterers, though. I could have bought a small professional-grade tempering machine for about $550, which is better than other options I found last time I looked. I didn’t splurge, since I don’t think I’ll use it often enough to justify the cost, but I did take a card just for good measure. Maybe someday. If I ever got into making food as a business, it would likely be chocolate confections or fruit wine (or maybe both, since they can go so well together).

We got a late start, so we didn’t get to attend any of the sessions, but it was amazing to see so many small businesses bringing such amazing variety of indulgences to our region. We did walk the lower floor where the seminars are held, though, and one thing that’s apparent is the focus on business models that promote fair trade, entrepreneurship and job growth in less developed chocolate growing regions. Of course there was also the 21 and over aphrodisiac session track as well, with sessions like “the herbs that arouse”.

I’m looking forward to going back next year. There was so much we didn’t get to see and taste that even if it were identical to this year, it would be worth a second visit. But of course, it wont be, and that’ll make it all the more exciting.