Portland's micro-chocolatiers with a knack for DIY innovation
A few years ago in the DIY paradise of Portland, Oregon, Jessica and Charley Wheelock began cultivating an idea. If home brewers and coffee roasters were dotting the national food scene with successful independent businesses, why were there so few independent artisanal chocolate makers? The two cobbled together repurposed coffee and grain equipment together with information culled from the Internet, starting Woodblock Chocolate a little over a year ago.
"Even Theo and Scharffen Berger are massive compared to what we're doing," said Charley on a recent sunny afternoon in his kitchen in south Portland. In the background, their melangeur—originally a grain grinder from India—whirs gently as it conches a fresh batch. A coffee roaster ticking on a sideboard releases the warm smell of home-roasted cacao beans. "There are maybe 20 artisanal chocolate shops in the country at our level," added Jessica.
Woodblock Chocolate currently operates out of the Wheelocks' home. Although they work around the clock to produce chocolate at a rate of two kilos every 72 hours, demand has proven so strong that they're currently in negotiations to expand their operations only a year after opening. "Our children beg us not to talk about chocolate," laughed Jessica. "But they're pretty psyched about our work."
The couple's success relies on three things: Charley's handiness with machinery (he's currently working on a homemade winnower prototype in the garage, designed to quickly husk the roasted beans), their shared background in design and, of course, their chocolate. The bars are denoted by percentage of cocoa and where the beans were grown. The salted 70% La Red D.R., from the Dominican Republic is smokier and tangier than the Mantuano, but both are just barely sweet, with a hint of fleur de sel.
Charley brought in a tray of just-roasted beans and broke one open. The dark nibs taste so richly and strongly of chocolate that it's hard to imagine they can need any further embellishment. "Sugar and these nibs, that's all that's in there," Jessica said. If direct-sourcing coffee beans hasn't yet changed the world, perhaps it's chocolate's turn to give it a try.
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