On entering the small Creo Chocolate factory in Portland, Oregon, the first thing you smell is chocolate, and the first thing you hear is a custom-built winnowing machine next to the door, just across from an elegant front counter where you can buy rich sipping chocolate and elegant bars that were produced in the very same room.
Janet and Tim Straub started Creo Chocolate with their son Kevin in 2014, but their story began years before, when the Straub family spent half a year touring the United States in an RV, visiting factories across the country to learn how things were made. That passion for creation and learning is what set them on the path to establishing their own educational factory. Today, Creo sells chocolate bars at several local shops in addition to their own storefont in the small central-city factory. Their passions are twofold: making good chocolate, and teaching people about it. That’s why, several days a week, you can sign up for a class or free factory tour.
Samuel and Anna, the farmers that supply beans for Creo Chocolate, make test batches in their kitchen before shipping the beans. They roast beans in a clay pot on the stove, shell them by rolling the beans between their palms, and process them with a hand-cranked grinder. The result is coarse, but it’s still chocolate!
When we took the tour, Janet showed us a barrel of beans and pulp fresh from Ecuador so we could smell the acid-and-alcohol tang of fermenting cacao—something you normally find on the farm, not in the factory. Our next stop was the roasting ovens, where beans go in on trays and come out darker, more flavorful, and ready to crack.
Much of Creo’s technology is simple and/or DIY: the bean cracker, which splits the shell from the nib, is powered by a cordless drill. From there, the mixture of nibs and shells is carried up to a small custom-built winnower artfully placed in the window, where it blows the cacao through a series of transparent tubes to separate out shell fragments and drops them into a bin in the basement—some local gardeners use them for mulch.
After a few minutes of shouting over the winnower’s fan noise, we headed for a cramped back room to look at the refining and conching machines. When they started, the Straubs ran several of the little “Wonder Grinders” favored by home chocolatiers that can handle several pound batches. Since then they’ve upgraded to bigger, higher-capacity machines that conch faster and relegated the little grinders to making test batches. After about two days of conching, the chocolate is smooth and ready to be formed into large blocks that will age in cupboards behind the counter for at least a month.
Once aged, blocks of chocolate go to the tempering machine, which carefully heats, cools, and reheats them to establish the desired crystalline structure. Then, with the push of a button, molten chocolate pours from the nozzle into molds. The molds are hard plastic, sturdy enough to be slapped against the counter to eliminate air bubbles before they slide into the fridge to cool and harden. Creo’s process is the same one used by chocolate factories around the world for the past century, though each has their own minor variations. Valrhona, famous French maker of fine chocolate, operates ancient equipment in a sterile, climate-controlled environment to eliminate contaminants and produce chocolate that showcases the flavor of the bean without sacrificing consistency. Guittard Chocolate of San Francisco sometimes skips the molding and hardening steps, sending tanker trucks of liquid chocolate to the nearby See’s Candy Factory, according to Elyce Zahn of Cocotutti, another chocolate company in the same part of town.
Some of these factories are bean-to-bar companies like Creo, who source their cacao from specific growers, visiting Africa and South America to find top-notch beans and establish ties with farmers. Others, mostly larger companies like Valrhona and Felchin, focus on producing bulk chocolate that they sell to bakers and chocolatiers instead of selling bars directly to consumers. Industrial chocolate makers may vertically integrate the process—from bean-buying stations in equatorial countries to globe-spanning production and sales operations—but they can’t be as selective about their beans, and end up favoring consistency over quality.