Yesterday I gave myself the morning off from food, drank a lot of herbal tea and took in a yoga class. It was a nice break from all the eating I’ve been doing. Also, I was saving my stomach for dinner at Tilth (more on that later).
Before dinner, Braiden and I met Irene for a late afternoon tour of Theo Chocolate‘s factory. Theo is currently the only organic, fair trade chocolate producer in the country, and they welcome visitors daily to tour their small production line, located in a red brick building that once housed the Red Hook Brewery.
During the pre-tour mini-lecture, we learned that cacao is the second most antioxidant-rich food (açaí being number one). Cacao is also a vasodilator, it can help lower blood pressure and promote heart health. It is a common misconception that cacao, and therefore chocolate, is high in caffeine. In fact, three ounces of cacao contains about as much caffeine as one cup of decaf coffee. What cacao does contain is theobromine which triggers a much smoother high, and subsequent low, unlike the crash that can result when caffeine wears off. The darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao content, thus the better for you. When it comes to milk chocolate, one could argue that you simply need to eat more of it to reap the same health benefits of dark, but milk chocolate also contains more sugar. The more sugar you eat, the more you counteract the potential health benefits of cacao, or any other food for that matter. Lastly, there’s white chocolate — made of cocoa butter and sugar — which many will argue is not chocolate at all as it doesn’t contain any cacao solids. I personally don’t care for the stuff, but for those who do, just know that it doesn’t contain any antioxidants at all, as they are found in the solids.
After donning oh-so-chic hairnets, we were taken through the entire production line that turns bean into bar. We were shown the various machines that process the beans into the more recognizable products that we are used to buying. I won’t bore you with the names and functions of them all, but I will highlight a few.
All but one of the machines in the Theo factory are second hand, including their winnower and ball roaster (the two seen above). The winnower removes the beans from their husks, readying them to be roasted. The vintage roaster, which can handle one bag of beans at a time, is one of the most crucial stops along the journey from bean to bar. Unlike coffee beans, which can be roasted for varying lengths of time to produce different flavors, cacao has a roasting “sweet spot.” If you over- or under-roast the beans, the resulting chocolate will not taste right.
Cacao in various stages
Once the cacao is roasted and the beans ground, it is liquified and sweetened. Our tour guide told us that anything larger than 20 microns is interpreted as a texture by our taste buds. Therefore, the liquid cacao is passed through a tube thinner than a human blood vessel in order to get the particles to about seven microns. Only then is the cacao liquid ready to be sweetened to the appropriate level, and milk added if milk chocolate is being made. Theo uses organic cane juice from Uruguay and organic milk powder from Humboldt Creamery in California.
Once complete from a flavor perspective, the liquid chocolate is held in these tanks and can be hand-tempered and turned into confections or else sent to a large machine (the only one the factory bought new and had made to fit the space) that tempers the chocolate and pumps it into molds for bars. Each of these tanks holds enough liquid chocolate to produce 22,000 bars!
After the tour we were able to taste a lot of the chocolates, and taste we did.
That’s a ginger flavored confection that I tasted. My favorite bar that I had was the coconut curry milk chocolate bar from the 3400 Phinney collection. I also liked the nib brittle dark chocolate bar. We left the tour with bellies full of chocolate, bags full of bars (I bought several to bring back to NYC as gifts), and our clothes smelling of the factory. We even had a moment of choco-Zen towards the end of the tour.
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