Take a bean-to-bar journey with an Oregon chocolate tour
Last updated 11/28/2023 at 5:38pm
"Don't be a consumer of chocolate," says Tim Straub. "Instead, savor it, as you'll enjoy it better, plus you'll eat less of it, but have a better experience." Good advice, especially coming from someone in the know.
Straub is the owner of Creo Chocolate in Portland. The company, which has been making all things chocolate for nearly 10 years, combines craftsmanship, chemistry, and creativity to produce its award-winning confections.
Creo, which translates to "I believe" in Spanish and "I make/create" in Latin, is a labor of love for Straub. He and his wife Jessica, who had been longtime berry farmers, first made chocolate as a hobby.
They raised eight kids, but none of them wanted to continue the farming heritage, so the couple opted to leave the ag world behind and fully devote themselves to chocolate. Son Kevin joined them in their endeavors and today is a full-fledged chocolatier and self-described "maintenance geek."
For several years, the Straubs experimented with roasting beans and incorporated chocolate into every recipe imaginable while testing their creations on family and friends. They ate their way through chocolate shops in the country and visited a variety of multigenerational, family-run cacao farms in Ecuador, a country known for growing some of the best beans in the world.
In Ecuador, they spent time with farmers, watching the way they worked together, which reminded them of their berry farming years with their family.
"Having been farmers ourselves," says Straub, "gives us a heart connection that is very meaningful to us and influences the way we treat our customers and farmers and run our business."
At Hacienda Limon in Los Rios, Ecuador, they found an unusual Heirloom variety of cacao with a delicious, complex flavor. These are the beans that Creo Chocolate directly sources for its creations, which include chocolate bars, truffles, caramels, chocolate-covered fruit and nuts, chocolate drinks, baking supplies, and even skin care products like cocoa whipped body butter and chocolate mint lip balm.
For a peek behind the scenes at this unique company, take the "Make-a-bar tour." During this informative experience, you'll learn where chocolate comes from and how it's made at Creo, then you'll get to design a chocolate bar to take home.
And yes, you'll need to wear a hairnet and apron for the complete stylish ensemble!
Chocolate, which is native to Central and South America, was a drink first, called "bitter water." The Spaniards became enamored with it, brought it back to Spain and fed it to the nobility. Later, they added sugar and dairy to it and it became more like hot chocolate. Decades passed before it evolved into hard chocolate.
Creo's small-batch process involves a series of steps. First, the beans from Hacienda Limon are shipped to the U.S. They are inspected and reinspected along the way, requiring extensive paperwork in the export/import procedure. Upon arrival at Creo, the broken beans are winnowed to separate the husk from the nibs. The nibs are ground until they liquefy into what is called "chocolate liquor," then mixed with sugar and other ingredients and ground together. This refinement process can take several days.
Conching is next. The chocolate is constantly agitated in a special machine called a conche, while temp and air flow are manipulated to put the finishing touches on the flavor and texture. The chocolate is then poured into blocks and stays in this form until it's ready to be used.
At Creo, the chocolate is aged for at least a month. Each finished bar is packaged by hand.
Straub, who happened to be the guide during my tour, emphasized that the seeds are the foundation for chocolate. A dried pod has 30 to 40 seeds in it – it takes about one pod to make a bar of 73% cacao. The seeds are very astringent and, surprisingly, humans are the only ones who eat them. Animals spit them out.
As for the nibs, you'll learn they have health benefits, boasting the second-highest amount of antioxidants of any food in the world (the acai berry is number one). They also contain polyphenol, a mood enhancer. Now I know why I feel so happy when I eat chocolate!
Throughout the tour, participants are treated to chocolate samples. On my tour, we sampled Dark Orange, Meyer Lemon Pie White Chocolate, Caramelized White Chocolate, Black Sesame Seed Brittle, Spicy Dark and Whiskey Milk Chocolate.
The Spicy Dark is made with three different chilis for a combined total of seven different spices. As I let it a sliver melt in my mouth, I first tasted cinnamon and ginger, but at the back end, there was a bit of a kick from the chilis.
The Whiskey Milk Chocolate bar features roasted cacao nibs that have been barrel-aged with Portland's own Westward malt whiskey. There's actually no alcohol in the end product, so you get the flavor of the whiskey without the burn.
We also got to try the Washu Project chocolate bar, a mellow concoction with floral and fruity flavor notes. If you purchase this bar, you'll be supporting endangered species protection, rainforest conservation, and sustainable livelihoods for Tesoro farmers in Northwestern Ecuador. This project, which is near and dear to Straub's heart speaks directly to Creo's motto: "Real Chocolate, Real Relationships and Real Change."
Designing your own chocolate bar is perhaps the highlight of the tour. Each participant gets a mold of liquid dark chocolate that he/she can add ingredients to, i.e. toffee pieces, coconut, dried berries, sprinkles, peppermint, brown rice crisps, potato chips – yes, potato chips – and more. The bars, which are labeled with participants' names, are tempered and – voila – you have your own special bar to take home.