By Clotilde Dusoulier
During the holidays, an estimated 68% of your brainwaves are devoted to thinking about chocolate. I just made this up, but I bet that figure is pretty close to reality. And if you’re going to do any traveling this season, what better opportunity to seek out the best local artisans – especially if they’re bean-to-bar operations that allow you to take a peek at their manufacturing process. Here are some of our favorites, in the US and beyond.
Where? Seattle, WA
An American pioneer in sustainable and fair trade chocolate, Theo makes bean-to-bar chocolate in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. They are committed to changing the world one chocolate bar at a time, and their range includes limited-edition bars whose proceeds support various nonprofit organizations, so you can feel extra good about that bar of sea salt dark chocolate you’ve inhaled. The holiday selection – Nutcracker brittle! Peppermint stick! Gingerbread spice! – makes splendid stocking stuffers. One-hour factory tours are offered daily, led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides who will tell you all about the chocolate craft and its social and environmental implications, with lots of samples thrown in. Same-day online reservations are recommended.
Where? San Francisco, CA
Located in the hip Mission district of San Francisco, the Dandelion Chocolate factory is a beautiful workshop-like space where tiny batches of carefully sourced beans undergo the many-step process that turns them into smooth bars. The factory includes a shop and café in the front, where you can sit and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate or a chocolate malt cookie. Tours of the factory are free (and limited to five guests for a practically one-on-one experience), and informal “Meet the Maker” conversations are held at the café every Wednesday. The team also offers hands-on chocolate classes for would-be chocolatiers looking to learn even more.
Where? San Francisco, CA
The San Francisco-based bean-to-bar manufacturer prides itself on its Silicon Valley start-up spirit, and has made it its mission to shake things up on the “New American chocolate” scene. They’ve established direct relationships with growers, and create bars that aim to reveal the intense flavors they derive from those cacao beans (nutty, chocolatey, fruity, classic, cacao…), but also to surprise palates with innovative flavors, from strawberry rhubarb pie to mint gelato. Free one-hour public tours are offered twice daily at the Embarcadero facility, and include a guided chocolate tasting. Online reservations are encouraged.
Where? West Bridgewater, MA
A worker-owned company based in Massachusetts, Equal Exchange develops close partnerships with small farmer cooperatives on four continents to bring “fair foods” to its Western customers. As part of a widening range of products (coffee, tea, bananas, avocados, nuts, dried fruits…), they source organic cacao beans from Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Panama, and work with the local communities to make a difference in their development. The Equal Exchange Cafés in Boston and Seattle, also worker-owned, are great places to learn more about their philosophy – and to sample their chocolates, coffees and teas.
Where? Somerville, MA
Using granite millstones inspired by the rich chocolate tradition of Mexico, Taza produces powerfully flavorful chocolates made from sustainably grown and organic cacao beans sourced through their direct trade program. Their chocolate bars retain a slightly gritty texture that is absolutely irresistible; our favorite is the 80%, but we also love the chocolate disks flavored with chili or cinnamon, created for you to prepare your own Mexican-style hot chocolate. Public tours are offered daily, and must be reserved through the site. They last about 45 minutes and allow you to take a close look – the kind of close look that requires wearing hair and beard nets – at the one-of-a-kind, vintage equipment Taza uses, with lots of opportunities to sample the goods.
Where? Henderson, NV
The “M” in Ethel M. stands for Mars, the name of the family who originally created what would become the international chocolate giant. The Ethel M. brand is part of the group, and was created by one of the original founders, Forrest Mars, Sr., to honor his mother, whom he credits for teaching him all about chocolate. The factory is located just outside of Las Vegas, and this is where their Belgian-style bonbons and brittles are produced. In addition to the self-guided factory tour you can take every day, it is worth visiting the adjoining botanical garden to discover its unique cactus collection.
Where? North Charleston, SC
Sweeteeth founder John Eric Battles is a poster child for the new generation of food artisans: bearded, tattooed, and passionately independent. In his North Charleston studio, he and his assistant craft chocolate bars and bonbons using single-origin Colombian chocolate and wacky ingredient pairings. The stuffed bars are especially popular – think crunchy peanut butter and chipotle peppers, or gooey port wine caramel. Johnny is happy to show visitors around his studio, and chocolate buffs who also have a taste for beer should consider a tour of the fantastic family-owned brewery down the road, Coast.
Olive & Sinclair
Where? Nashville, TN
At the helm of Olive & Sinclair is native Tennessean Scott Whitherow, who named the company after his wife's great-aunt and his own grandfather. The self-taught chocolatier creates small-batch, stone-ground chocolate bars celebrating the flavors of the American South – brown sugar, bourbon, buttermilk, smoked nibs – on antique machines, and wraps them in gorgeous retro packaging. The company has recently moved to a new East Side location that used to be a woodworking shop, and will be offering factory tours from December 4, 2013.
Lake Champlain Chocolates
Where? Burlington, VT
Family-run and firmly established in Vermont for three decades, Lake Champlain Chocolates – named after the lake a stone’s throw from the factory – is dedicated to making Belgian-style chocolates using sustainably-sourced chocolate and fresh, local ingredients, from the honey to the cream or the maple syrup. Originally a third-tier chocolate maker (i.e. one that buys its chocolate from a manufacturer and melts it to make bars and bonbons), Lake Champlain has recently hopped on the bean-to-bar bandwagon with a Blue Bandana micro-batch line made from scratch using Madagascar beans. A free through-the-window tour of the factory can be taken on any weekday, to catch a behind-the-scenes look at what’s in production that day, including seasonal specials.
Where? Adelaide, Australia
A fourth-generation, family-owned Australian manufacturer, Haigh’s Chocolates has been making bean-to-bar chocolate for almost a century, and has expanded over time to open fourteen stores in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. They continue to hand-dip, hand-roll, hand-wrap, and hand-mark many of their chocolates, including the “fruit centers” they’ve been making for a solid 90 years. The whole process can be observed during the twenty-minute free tours offered at the Adelaide factory (reservations mandatory), where you’ll also be able to purchase factory-fresh chocolate bites and “chocolate seconds” – those not-perfectly-perfect but just-as-tasty concoctions – for a bargain price.
Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse
Where? Paris, France
World-renowned French chef Alain Ducasse has joined forces with his former executive pastry chef, Nicolas Berger, to open the very first bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the heart of Paris, right by the Bastille. Their chocolates are made with top-quality ingredients on vintage machines they’ve hunted for all over Europe. The pralinés (chocolate bites filled with ground nuts) are especially outstanding, as are the unconched chocolate bars and their pleasantly gritty mouth feel. The entire operation and the artisans’ precise gestures can be observed through the glass windows in the handsome boutique, and the sales team is happy to answer the curious customer’s questions.
About the author
Clotilde Dusoulier is the 30-something Parisienne behind the award-winning food blog Chocolate & Zucchini, in which she shares her passion for all things edible. Her focus is on fresh, colorful, and seasonal foods, making room for both wholesome, nourishing dishes and lots of chocolate.
An enthusiastic explorer of flavors and acute observer of culinary trends, she contributes to food and travel magazines in France, the US and the UK. She is the author of three books; her latest is The French Market Cookbook. She lives in Montmartre with her boyfriend and their young son.