This article was written by Diani Urbani de la Paz and was originally published in The Peninsula Daily News on February 5, 2020.
I SLIDE OPEN the door and enter the sanctuary. A fragrance says buenos dias: a scent from Ecuador. Canopied forest. Green river valley. Yet here I stand in wintry Port Townsend, in a building that was once a blacksmith’s forge, where a woman is going after her dream.
“I follow the beat of my inner drummer,” said Susan Fitch, founder of the Cocoa Forge, her self-described “microscopic” Monroe Street chocolate factory near the Northwest Maritime Center.
“Are you feeling courageous?” she asked.
In fact I feel a little drunk on the aforementioned aroma.
But I straighten up and do my job: tasting a warm sample, in a teensy cup, of dark chocolate made a few feet from where we are.
Turns out the difference between mass-produced chocolate and what I’m tasting — the Forge’s Fortaleza — suggests the contrast between your $3.99 wine and your $100 bottle of French Champagne.
For Fitch, it all began years ago with a question: What ever happened to chocolate’s flavors?
It’s gotten so waxy and boring.
Her answer came from an unlikely spot.
A student of herbalism, folklore and botanical mythology, Fitch grew heirloom roses and used cocoa bean husks as mulch.
One day the scents of roses and cacao, like two cupped hands, wafted up into an epiphany.
Off she went on a quest for heirloom cacao beans.
There being no coco university, Fitch went to the rainforests where the fruit, and yes it’s a fruit, flourishes.
Cacao’s “happy place,” she said, is in the shade, also called the madre de cacao.
Then, on the equatorial farms, she received her education in post-harvest phenomena, the techniques that distinguish deeply delicious chocolate.
Here is the ultimate slow food, Fitch added, because of many steps: fermentation, drying, roasting, winnowing, stone-grinding, tempering and, at last, languorous tasting.
Fitch tells me how she chooses heirloom cacaos, which are less than 1 percent of the beans grown in the world, as well as fine or flavor beans, 5 to 7 percent of the global harvest.
In her factory, they become chocolate without emulsifiers and overfiltering.
“This is me trying to get out of their way,” Fitch said, “to showcase these individuals and their flavors.”
Her individuals are dark and milk chocolates with anywhere from 60 to 80 percent cacao.
So this is no confection.
It’s more like a mindfulness exercise.
Taste a food this complex, and your brain awakens.
You marvel at the nuances that a moment before, you didn’t know were possible.
When talking about this, Fitch’s face glows.
Her words are leavened with firsthand knowledge.
Yet building a bean-to-bar, as she calls it, chocolate business is far from a trip to the candy store.
The Cocoa Forge’s bars run as much as $14. Which, after all, is equivalent to a nice bottle of wine.
Still, Fitch faces an uphill climb.
I admire the way she’s going about it.
In her marketing, this entrepreneur has not employed those ubiquitous tools called Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Sure, they might be effective, but Fitch instinctively focuses instead on the core experience.
In the tasting room and on thecocoaforge.com, a tour of the chocolate biosphere beckons, reminding us of the dazzling planet we live on, from Oceania to Mesoamerica to Bali to the Caribbean to Africa.
Then there’s a tantalizing page about shipping cacao by sail, aboard the under-construction Ceiba.
“I wanted a community-based business, so I could do this,” she tells me, “this” being time in her little tasting room, learning about the world’s flavors.
“Come back,” she said by way of farewell, “and taste more.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month.
Transforming the Town Forge Blacksmith shop into a WSDA licensed food production facility has been a long, interesting journey.....
What is "The Cocoa Forge"?
The Cocoa Forge is a local, craft, stone-ground, bean-to-bar chocolate maker specializing in Heirloom and Fine Flavor Cacao. Our adventure statement: to seek out the world's most extraordinary, rare and exquisite responsibly grown cacao, direct-sourced from small-holder farms around the equator; to reverently process this "food of the gods" into the purest form of chocolate possible; to present it respectfully and honestly without the smarmy bruhaha and trendy descriptions.
What do you mean by "local"?
These beans have traveled thousands of hard miles. It doesn't make sense to travel hundreds or thousands more. They are here to be appreciated and enjoyed by YOU. We believe in "local"; the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. If you want to know exactly where your food comes from, you should be able ask any question you have about the food/process/packaging/craft. Local = our neck of the woods. Can you easily walk/bike/paddle/sail/drive here?
What do you mean by "craft"? "Stone-ground"? Bean-to-Bar"?
Every single part of the process of creating chocolate from cacao seeds is done purposefully and methodically - each step babysat and fussed over. Each origin behaves differently. The art is to try to bring out and showcase the lovely characteristics and personality of the origin. They are all so unique. Genetics, terroir, weather, farming practices, post harvest practices - all of it matters - all has to be taken into consideration before and during each step of the chocolate making process here in Port Townsend; testing, sorting, roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, refining, conching, tempering, moulding, packaging. We do the grinding and refining the old fashioned way with granite rollers shearing against a granite plate but instead of human energy we use electricity to drive it. That particular process takes up to 3 days to get the particle size down to about 20 microns. (In case you were wondering why that part is not done by hand).
Why don't you have a retail shop here at The Cocoa Forge?
The way the building is set up in conjunction with the WSDA licensing, we literally had to choose between humans or cocoa beans being in here. Um. The cocoa beans won.
Do you do tours?
No. But we could do appointments for *custom-batch clients. You will need to go through the sanitation chamber to remove pet hair, lint or any other loose debris that could float off into space; then suit up in hairnet, labcoat, booties, gloves. Also, a mask if you don't look very hygienic and/or a beard net if you are hairy.
Why don't you have social media?
Don't know much about it and never learned to use it. It's on my list.
So then, how will you interface with your customers?
Ahhh so glad you asked! Face to face! Besides the online shopping, we are going to have "Saturday Samplings and General Chocolate Partying on the Patio"! Starting mid/late April, on Saturday afternoons from 2:00 to 6:00 (stay tuned for the date/announcement by joining our newsletter), we will host an open patio and chocolate tiki bar where you will be able to learn about all things cacao and chocolate, participate in a rustic traditional South American/Mesoamerican hands-on preparation of bean-to-beverage process AND taste the results of your labors. Throughout the afternoon we will sample and talk about the origin(s) that just came down the pike and discuss and anticipate what is going into the hopper for the next week. Fun! This is also the time to pick up your orders you purchased online and/or purchase your bars. As we get rolling into summer, we will add some fun chocolate foods and beverages (thinking churros dipped in warm liquid truffle or house made s'mores). ALSO, this is a good time to start your order for *your-own-custom-batch. Yep. You get to pick the beans, the roast, the sweetness, the refinement and the end result (bars, blocks, tempered, untempered etc).
What can be expected?
Expect the unexpected. We are not the company who makes 6 different bars, each the same forevermore. At The Cocoa Forge, we shake it up, do things the hard way. Each run is a limited edition and challenges a new learning experience. Because part of the fun is exploring the different flavors and characteristics of the genetics and origins. And part of sourcing is a never ending quest to find and bring back the holy grail(s) of cacao - a seriously complex and continuously moving target. Anti-industrial chocolate.
You lovers of wooden boats,
you sailors and boat wrights,
paddlers and rowers.
You lovers of mountains,
of rivers that reach to the sea.
This is where bike rides go forever.
Where brassy steampunk
comes alive and where
history echos from the past
tempting you to go back ...
if only you could find the secret portal.
Where craftsmanship and
arts are part of daily life.
Where healing arts
are the norm;
body's and spirits are renewed.
And where the deer are
so smart they use the crosswalks.
Come savour, you aficionados,
our slow foods;
the result of respectful
and thoughtful farmers and chefs.
Where world class ciders,
brews and wines
are here for you to discover and enjoy.
You must come and witness a special magic moment. The moment at the end of day,
just before violet darkness falls. A moment of grace when the first stars become visible
and the anchor lights on the sailboat masts blink on and these shimmer and reflect on a canvas
of a thousand shades of impossible blue; sky and water connected by the twinkling light.
This best enjoyed with good friends and an adult beverage on the deck of Sirens overlooking the bay.
And come for the slowest food of all; local, craft, micro-batch bean-to-bar chocolate made from heirloom and fine-flavor cacao beans deliberately direct sourced from courageous and careful farmers from cacao growing regions around the equator. Created here in Port Townsend with care, vigilance and reverence with only one other ingredient of pure organic cane sugar - just enough to ease the bitterness and show off the flavors of this very special cacao.
The Cocoa Forge
Opening Summer 2019 - See you soon.
I think I inherited a blessing/curse from my mom.
I call it the "what's-around-the-next-bend" gene. When we were hiking she would always want to go a bit farther; needed to know what was around the next bend. And the next and the next. As a kid, it was normal. As a teen, it was irritating. As an adult, it became charming. Because there was always such wonder and appreciation at what was around the next bend if you just took the time to go see. She loved maps too. She would always want to go on a road she had never been on. This summer, she left to go around the next bend.
I bring this up because in her leaving, I have been deep in reflecting on her life; and in that, realizing the gifts she left me - even though they can be a real pain-in-the-neck; so much of it is the foundation and driving force of what I do. And this is what brings The Cocoa Forge to life.
The chocolate pool is deep and dark and endlessly mysterious.
I am not talking about the stuff you find on grocery store shelves, so just toss that out of your mind. This is not about confections. In fact when the City wanted to pigeon-hole my business into the "candy" slot, I had to refrain from having a cow.
I came into the world of chocolate years ago and through the back door. As a long time student of herbalism, I was interested in the folklore, culture and mythology along with the botany and medicinal aspects of Theobroma Cacao. This tree hits the jackpot on every level. Every day more is revealed and every day I marvel at the vastness of all we DON'T know. Before the Heirloom Cacao Preservation teamed up with USDA/ARS and started collecting samples and data, we only thought there were 3 main varieties; Criollo, Trinitario and Forestero (and Nacional) (more on that). Now, with DNA testing and genome sequencing we have identified at least 20 varieties and counting! But what is alarming is the rate these trees are disappearing and being replaced with tasteless (yet hardy?) (serious environmental and long-term social ramifications there) hybrids.
So what happened?
Why is cacao now a mere caricature of what was once held so precious that wars were fought for it? That taxes and tributes were paid with it? That it accompanied Royalty into the afterlife? Entire cities rose, and fell, with cacao at center stage. It was transported thousands of miles along the vast trade routes of the early Mesoamericans. Cacao was used in every life ceremony and on every altar. Think about the 'doctrine of signatures' and how the pod resembles the human heart. But the real significance there might be not so much the resemblance but that both are a vessel for a precious liquid - necessary for life. And now, most chocolate is just...sigh...it's just not worthy. Even though every single step of the farming and post harvest practices remain the same. Or they should anyway. (Many steps are skipped in the case of "industrial" beans = impossible to develop the beautifully complex, inherent chocolate flavors) (and "raw" - save for another post).
At The Cocoa Forge, we've gone around the bend.
Curiosity cannot be denied. We go that quiet extra mile to search out the precious strains and varietals of Cacao. Because it's important to know what once was. What's possible now.
We just finished restoring the old forge downtown. It's been a 2 1/2 year labor-of-love project. So many said it was impossible to restore and many more snorted in derision at the stupidity of the task. But this building is special. And it has some great PT stories to tell. It IS worthy. We have some big irons in the fire at The Cocoa Forge, not the least of which is bringing back cargo shipping by SAIL to Port Townsend. Yes, sail. You know those old time photos with Port Townsend Bay full of tall ships? Imagine that happening again. Well, maybe not a bay-full. But at least one particular ship, The CEIBA, is going to sail into our one particular harbor (you Jimmy Buffett fans, you) bringing precious cacao from far away enchanted lands. Be there. It will be a party. Like with a brass band and everything.
Spilling the beans;
I now have some help with communications so newletters and social media will be happening. Check back on the website for events, news and cacao bean spillage. Many fun things coming up; like custom local orders get delivered by bicycle! We are working on packaging for locals that will be natural, anti-microbial and reusable beeswaxed linen. We are working on having a "Cart of Cacao" with some extraordinary cacao and chocolate experiences! Wait, did I mention custom orders?! This is another throwback...sometimes I'd swear I was born a few hundred years too late... it used to be, traditionally back in the day, you'd go down to your local chocolate maker and choose your beans, your roast profile, your sweetness level, refinement level etc...your own recipe! FUN!! Also, as things stand now, The Cocoa Forge will probably not be a retail location. I mean, chocolate waits for no one. You can't just stop in the middle of a process to go talk to/help a customer. Perhaps instead we'll do a not-so-secret Port Townsend chocolate society that meets every month to discuss, taste, learn, play. Conjure custom recipes. And sales will take place online and from the Cart of Cacao... Stay tuned chocolate fans!
DEAR FELLOW INTREPID CRAFT CHOCOLATE LOVERS
If I may be so bold; I know a little bit about you. You are not content with the norm. You know about and care about where your food comes from. You have done, or are doing your research. You tend to be inquisitive; audacious even. Why, you have an adventurer’s heart, you chocolate thrill-seeker, you! You likely know all about the long journey this cacao has been on. The genetics, the terrior, the farmers care and attention. The worry. The harvest, the fermenting, the drying. All to be done with meticulous care if the beans are to go to a craft chocolate maker. Then bagging, and oh the shipping! Did my beans make it to the boat? Did they stay dry? Did they get stacked next to petroleum products? Did they get sprayed? Did they get left in the sun to rot? Oy! Then, clearing of Customs. Um. Did you wonder why your chocolate maker hugs those sacks of cacao? Because they are a danged miracle, that’s why! Then testing, then cleaning, then sorting, then roasting, then cracking and then winnowing! Every step critical to flavor. Into the melanguer to grind for days. Getting into the perfect micron zone, but not so much that it drives off flavor. To the conch to mellow and meld, maybe for hours, maybe for days, maybe not at all - it depends! Then, to age or not to age? That is another question - it depends! These amazing, unique little cocoa beans — genetics all so different! They each have a story to tell and we’ve got to let them tell it. Then on to the tempering, molding and packaging. Yup, these beans have come a long way baby, and not just in distance.
IT'S A LONG, LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY
But what I really want to say, what I really want for you, is to know the journey these little beans have been on so that you can stop. And appreciate. Slowly. Slowly. Soak in the appreciation. It is truly a miracle and a marvel that we can taste these heirloom beans so very far away from their origin. That heirloom beans still exist in small tropical pockets, in the hands of farmers who care enough to save them, is wondrous. Because as we all know, it would be so much easier and more lucrative to grow industrial flavorless beans. So Gods bless the cacao farmers who go the extra mile and who tend the precious heirloom cacao. Otherwise, we never would have known what those ancient Mesoamerican elite were tasting. And maybe we still don’t know for sure - but one thing we do know … it was precious enough for the Kokopelli-esque long distance trade merchants to walk thousands of miles with a backpack full of cacao from equatorial lands, through all the dangers and strangers, to sell/trade as far away as to the Chacoans of Pueblo Bonita. I’ll just wait here while you absorb the full impact of that. That would be like the Brinks Security man walking from Fort Knox, Kentucky to Sacramento, California, with a backpack full of money. His only security and protection being quick wit and storytelling. The logistics of that feat is mind-boggling. Maybe they set it up like the Pony Express? A small illustration as to the value and importance of cacao before it went industrial. Nowadays, we wouldn't even walk a mile for what passes as chocolate, let alone 2000 miles. Must have been some pretty good stuff.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY "CUSTOM, CRAFT CHOCOLATE"?
For hundreds of years, the way people would buy their chocolate was to go down to their local chocolate maker and pick out their favorite cocoa beans. The chocolate maker would then keep the customers personal recipe on file … whether they preferred a blend or single origin; what level of roast they liked; what level of sweetness; what level of refinement; if they wanted it in bars, in pieces, in blocks or pressed into cocoa powder and cocoa butter or with additions like vanilla or cinnamon. Now that is my kind of shopping local! You should be able to go to your butcher, baker and choc-o-late maker and they should be able to answer any question you have about sourcing, origins, shipping, processing, growing, harvesting. My favorite example of this is Mama’s Fish House in Maui. At Mama’s they tell you WHO caught your fish, WHERE they caught it, HOW they caught it and WHEN they caught it. It brings a deep appreciation and understanding of how that fish came to be on your dinner plate.
WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
Heirloom and Fine Flavor beans represent a tiny percentage of all the cocoa beans grown today. They are in danger of becoming extinct and hybridized into something unrecognizable. Farmers are paid per weight so why would they go to the extra trouble to grow a picky Heirloom? They can get up to 4 times the volume and weight with industrial beans. It would be a real shame on so many levels to lose Heirloom and Fine Flavor Cacao. For one, tasteless industrial beans are grown as a mono-crop which means the Rain Forest is bulldozed and the industrial hybrid cacao then planted in rows in full sun and which require loads of fertilizers and pesticides. Heirloom and Fine Flavor Cacao is best grown Cabruca style and is happiest as a jungle understory tree amongst a diverse forest and with thick cool mulch on its feet, plenty of shade from Madre de Cacao overhead and a big, healthy midge population for pollination. So its the classic story of the tortise and the hare. Industrial farms versus smallholders. Somewhere along the way, we humans traded flavor and quality for cheap and tasteless. And now, most people don't have a clue what chocolate used to taste like. There is some middle ground though. These are not black and white issues but many shades of brown. Many farmers carefully consider genetics and plant amongst other species not only making the cacao happier but also being able to yield other crops between cacao harvests. And you wouldn't use precious heirloom beans to make commerical candy bars. It's like the difference between one of those huge, tasteless supermarket tomatos compared with an heirloom you grew in your own summer garden that bursts with flavor and squirts all over the place. I think it is important to know what real chocolate tastes like. I want to know why cacao was sacred and used in every life (and death) ceremony, why wars were fought over it, why it was used as money and tax/tribute, why it was offered on the altars to the Gods and why it accompanied kings into the afterlife. I think we should not lose the chocolate and cacao of the ancestors. And it's not too late to save Heirloom Cacao. But you have to know about it first! Because it is ultimately YOU that will end up saving Heirloom Cacao with your interest and demand. Farmers and processors will notice that it is important to people. And yup, it's gonna cost more than "grocery store" mass produced "chocolate".
Susan Fitch is the Master Chocolate Maker and teller of stories at the Cocoa Forge. Besides making chocolate, Sue is a dog-lover, a sea breeze savor-er and an unconventional Virgo following the lead of Theobroma in the most unconventional and ever-changing second career one could imagine. Cheers!