Inside the Chocolate Factory

I had an article in the May issue of Seattle Magazine about Theo Chocolate, Seattle’s only chocolate factory. Unfortunately, it wasn’t posted on their web site. As of now, though, I’m allowed to post it here. Thanks to my editor, Monica, for her mad editing skills and providing the final text. Enjoy.


*We have the golden ticket to Fremont’s eagerly anticipated new chocolate factory*

by Matthew Amster-Burton

Standing inside a cavernous building in Fremont, I inhale the rich, dank smell of fermented cocoa beans as lime green machines throb all around me–crushing, melting, tempering and conching. A decadent square of mint ganache made from dark chocolate and fresh organic mint leaves melts on my tongue.

It’s hard to believe that this is the old Red Hook Brewery, now home to Theo Chocolate, Seattle’s first and only chocolate factory (the name is short for Theobroma, Greek for “food of the gods”).

I toured the factory in February, just before it opened to the public. I wanted to experience the sights and smells–and I figured there would be free samples.

“A couple of people said, ‘Look, we just need to tell you, this smells like a horse barn,’ ” says Debra Music, the company’s sales and marketing director. It’s the smell of fermented cocoa beans, and I think it smells great–like chocolate that has been doing something a little naughty, like spending all night in a brewpub.

For the past one and a half years, Theo Chocolate founder Joe Whinney–along with Music (his ex-wife), chocolatier Autumn Martin and production manager Dan Donohue, a former Caffe Vita roaster–has been buying chocolate-making equipment, importing organic cocoa beans and assembling the first factory in the country devoted to producing 100 percent Fair Trade chocolate. There are less than two dozen bean-to-bar chocolate factories in the United States, and Theo is the only one in the Northwest.

Whinney, 39 (known as Whinney Wonka around the factory), traces his interest in the chocolate business back 20 years (“30 pounds ago,” he jokes), when he was working as a conservation volunteer in Belize. “There were a lot of do-gooding gringos like me who wanted to help out,” he says. “I realized that social and environmental degradation were economic issues and thought that a market approach was necessary.”

The chocolate market was a natural fit. “I fell in love with cocoa,” Whinney says. “Cocoa was one of their main crops, and it had tremendous cultural relevance for them, which really resonated with me. And at the time, the organic market was much smaller, and there was no organic chocolate that I was aware of.”

Though grown organically, the Belize cacao was not certified as organic, which was the case in many of the countries where cocoa beans were grown. So in the 1990s, Whinney taught himself how to make chocolate and built a business, the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based OCP Chocolate, which supplied certified organic chocolate to companies such as Newman’s Own Organics (based in Westport, Connecticut) and Cascadian Farm (which is now owned by Minneapolis-based General Mills). Whinney was directly involved in the production but didn’t personally operate the equipment, as he does now.

OCP’s profits were hit hard after 9/11, and it shut down in 2002. It was a setback, but the timing was fortuitous. That same year, Red Hook closed its Fremont brewery, and Essential Baking leased the building with the intention of building a chocolate factory. Then Essential decided it didn’t want to go into the chocolate business after all but would rather stay focused on baking. In January 2004, Whinney, along with local investors who had originally sought his comments on the viability of a chocolate factory in Seattle, bought out Essential’s interest and started building the factory. A native of Cambridge, he jumped at the chance to move to the Northwest. “Seattle has always been my favorite city in the U.S.,” he says. He and Music moved here with their son, and the other members of the team were hired locally.

We step into the roasting room, which contains hundreds of burlap sacks holding fermented raw cocoa beans from Ghana, Madagascar, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela and the Ivory Coast. All of the beans are organic and Fair Trade certified. (The Fair Trade label indicates that the grower is receiving a fair market price and engaging in responsible labor practices: no child labor, no discrimination, no union busting.) Like coffee beans, cocoa beans from different countries have different genetics and different flavor profiles, and a range of quality is available from any given country. Theo makes both single-origin bars, for which all the beans come from the same country, and blended bars.

“We have the first Fair Trade–certified beans coming into this country from the Ivory Coast, which is a really big deal because that’s an area that has been fraught with problems with slave labor and child labor,” says Music.

Whinney unsheathes a pryer, a dangerous-looking tool used for pulling beans out of a burlap sack without making a permanent hole in it. (If you had a pryer, you would never lose at Operation.) He extracts some Ghanaian beans, which wait their turn in Theo’s vintage 1930s roaster, a heavy black sphere that looks like a diving bell. The beans are cleaned and briefly roasted, then go into a winnower, which separates the inedible shells from the cocoa nibs. The nibs are then roasted further to bring out the best flavor.

Cocoa nibs are crunchy chocolate-flavored bits with a distinctly nutty flavor that’s equally at home in sweet and savory dishes. Theo reserves some nibs for making nib brittle, a cousin to peanut brittle, but most of the nibs make their way through a variety of large machines and finally emerge as liquid chocolate.

Theo’s factory is loud and beautiful enough to make you romanticize the industrial revolution, although it’s not exactly Wonkaesque. It would be hard to figure out what they’re making by looking at the middle of the production chain, where the chocolate moves from machine to machine looking sometimes like sludge, sometimes like powder.

“We’ve had some hilarious episodes,” says Music, standing next to a chocolate holding tank. “The first time they poured chocolate into this one, they discovered that when they sent [the tanks] out to have them insulated, they had covered over a hole. And so 600 pounds of liquid chocolate went in and then proceeded to come out all over the floor. It was a comedy.”

Nearly all of the machines at Theo are painted a cheerful lime green, though nothing could make the refiner (which combines chocolate with sugar, cocoa butter and/or milk powder) look friendly: It has five metal rolls that spin alarmingly fast. The refiner could flatten you faster than a steamroller.

The refiner is totally cool.

After the chocolate is complete, a depositing machine forms it into bars, and it goes to the wrapper, a German machine that appears to have thousands of interlocking moving parts.

Theo chocolate is marketed under two brands. The Theo moniker goes on the chocolate candies, the pure dark chocolate bars and wholesale dark chocolate for sale to other businesses. There’s also a line of 2-ounce flavored chocolate bars in whimsical packaging called 3400 Phinney Chocolate Factory, which includes familiar flavors such as coffee and more inventive bars like the Bread & Chocolate bar, a crunch bar made with toasted artisan bread crumbs instead of puffed rice.

Martin, a former Canlis pastry chef who is 25 and looks younger, is Theo’s chocolate wunderkind. She makes 13 different confections and helped develop the Theo and 3400 bars. On production days, she stands at the enrober, a machine that covers the candy centers with a thin layer of melted chocolate. I watch the ganache fillings pass through a curtain of liquid chocolate and into a cooling tunnel.

As the glistening candies emerge, Martin places a transfer sheet on them to leave a signature pattern that tells you this is a mint or Scotch whiskey or PB&J candy. The mint, which I eagerly sampled, comes from an organic herb farm in Duvall, and Martin infuses it into cream to make the filling. During the run-up to Valentine’s Day, she was making about 5,000 confections a day.

The best feature of the Theo factory isn’t any of the machines. It’s the factory seconds tray, where Martin places any not-quite-perfect chocolates for the staff to eat. “When we first started, I was eating about seven of these a day,” says Music. I nod, cramming chocolates into my mouth for research purposes.

At press time, Theo expected to be selling its chocolate bars locally this spring and internationally by the end of the year. But the confections, which have a two-week shelf life, are confined to the Northwest (find them at Whole Foods and PCC) and certain specialty shops outside the region.

Which is fine by me–they’re too good to share.


Public tours of the Theo factory are available on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. (call ahead to reserve). As much as I’d like to pretend I got special treatment, you too can watch the machinery hum, decide for yourself whether fermented chocolate smells tasty or horsey, and even get a free sample.


Theo Chocolate
3400 Phinney Ave N

Hours: Sat-Sun: 11am-4pm (approximate); Theo plans to open seven days a week after Memorial Day

6 thoughts on “Inside the Chocolate Factory

  1. Neil

    Excelent article, Matthew. Thanks for posting it online.

    Do you know if they plan to produce chocolate in “pistole” form (essentially large chocolate chips). This is the preferred form for pastry chefs and is much more convenient to measure and melt than having to chop up large blocks.

  2. mamster Post author

    I don’t know for sure, Neil, but I suspect they will. I haven’t actually gotten to try any of the pure chocolate bars yet, just the flavored bars. The bread and chocolate bar is great–nice and salty.

  3. kymm

    I’ve been meaning to blog about this company since trying all their flavored bars. My CSA (Full Circle Farm) is offering packs of the flavored chocolate bars as add-ons to our weekly box delivery. And of course I felt it was my duty to try them all! My favorite was the Chai while my husband liked the Bread and Chocolate. The curry flavored bar was too intense though, it’s still languishing in my cupboard. The packaging on these bars is truly beautiful. Thanks for the story.

  4. Chris

    If you go for a tour, go during a weekday if possible. We went on a weekend and none of the exciting machines were running. They always have excellent (i.e. large and tasty) samples, though!

  5. M

    Great article. I’ve been planning on going on the tour one of these weekends. I tried the chai chocolate bar and was disappointed, however. The chocolate was waxy, much like Hershey’s.

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