A Visit with Woodblock Chocolate in Portland, Oregon

Maker Tour

Who: Charley and Jessica Wheelock
What: Woodblock Chocolate
Where: Portland, Oregon

You may recognize Charley and Jessica from their warm kitchen and home tour published a few months ago. Since then they've opened up their own manufactory to produce their pure and delicious bean-to-bar chocolate bars, and they've barely been able to keep up with the demand! It's a very exciting time for this husband/wife company.

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Their passion and creativity for chocolate started several years ago, when they launched the business from their home kitchen. Jessica and Charley have backgrounds in fine art, design and art direction, so it's no surprise that their chocolates would be as beautiful and simply crafted as they are flavorful. They are one of only a small handful of producers in the area to create chocolate confections starting from whole bean form. It's a lot of work to go from cacao farms to roasting to tempering and shaping into .88 ounce handsome little bars!

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Their chocolates come in only a handful of variations, and all are made with 70% chocolate. The only other ingredients are cane sugar, and in some bars, salt and cacao nibs. The purity of the chocolate taste is head-exploding. Each batch of bars comes from a different location, and there's quite a bit of variety in flavor from place to place. Venezuela tastes very fruity compared to Madagascar, for example. And the bars with cacao nibs and dusted with a little salt? Well, those are my favorite - a synthesis of flavor and texture unlike any I've had before. And there are more combinations on the horizon, so beware if you are a connoisseur of the good stuff! How many chocolates can one eat before turning into Veruca Salt and bubbling away into the ether, ala Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I'm willing to go the distance, Charley and Jessica.

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The Workshop
The Woodblock Chocolate Manufactory is located in SE Portland, near the Wheelock home. The space is flooded with natural light and has all the equipment needed to create chocolates. There's an ancient coffee roaster, found on eBay, which roasts all the beans before they get separated from the hull in a separator. The nibs then get ground up in a grinder (very similar device is used to pulverize olives into olive paste for oil) and heated with sugar in another machine for up to 72 hours! Finally, the heated chocolate gets poured into a very heavy tub, then aged in a glass-encased cabinet for about a month. From there, the final stage is to temper the chocolate, pour into molds, and wrap in their signature labels for shipping/eating. The process is lengthy and much more related to making wine or beer, with all the aging/time management, than I expected.

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The Secret Sauce
The secret here is that Charley and Jessica are passionate about quality at each stage of the lengthy chocolate producing endeavor. They've gone to the farms they receive bars from and have connections with the folks growing their beans. Each machine used is tinkered with and maintained by Charley (whose background in industrial design is apparent in this part of the work). Jessica is obsessed with the details of each flavor and design decision and keeps the quality of the product tip top. Together, they work to each other's strengths and are able to bring amazing, affordable chocolates into the world.

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The Business Plan
Woodblock is growing quickly. Their new space will allow them to produce in the volume their public demands of them. Each step of their business they've tested at home, refined, adjusted and then mobilized into a greater scale. Their model of starting small allowed them to try to make the very best chocolates without the pressure of paying rent and employees in another space. It is this "try, try, perfect, then create more" model that seems to be working so effectively for Woodblock.

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The Community
Charley and Jessica are deeply connected to the city they live and work in. Portland has loved Woodblock chocolate since their inception and local support continues to help the company grow and thrive. Woodblock recently partnered with Portland ice cream super stars Salt & Straw to be the chocolate provider in all of their chocolate-filled flavors. They also attend food festivals and craft shows to sample and inform the public of their hard work.

• Visit Woodblock Chocolate: Woodblock Chocolate
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6 Quick Questions for Charley and Jessica

Favorite online resources for your kitchen?
McMaster.com

The one thing you can't live without?
Thermometers! Temperature and humidity are so important to every aspect of chocolate. We need to know when to start freaking out and thermometers usually let us know without casting judgement. We love thermometers!

If you could spend a day with anyone, who would it be and why?
We have always been inspired by Charles and Ray Eames. Soup to nuts, their whole game seems like so much creative fun and justified indulgent explorations. Justified by the final product. We like to pretend that we are like them in our spirit and our productivity.

What's in your Google reader?
We don't even have internet at the manufactory. How's that for living the dream of the 1890's? We are all flame roasted and stone ground.

I do like looking for Facebook postings by several cacao oriented pals and organizations. The CRU facebook postings from Trinidad are always good for some geeky cacao fun. I can't imagine it is very interesting to normal people...yet! I love it. We are always checking in on the other chocolate makers in the country also. We are a small group and it is pretty easy to follow each others' progress and we can really commiserate.

Jessica is a more dynamic web surfer and she sorts through all of the information in the universe and distills it for me in terms that I (Charley) can understand. Interpretive dance, tag lines, wolf calls. Some of the places she checks in are:

Ashley Rose Helvey
101 Cookbooks
David Lebovitz

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If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?
We would probably use it to go deeper in debt! Perhaps invest in a super rad cacao seeking mission, find a cool old Sirocco ball roaster and refurbish it. Maybe build some prototype machines for small batch chocolate making. Do we have any left? We better do something nice for our kids and our moms and our friends!

How can we best taste chocolate, with wine, water, nothing? Should we crunch down on it? Suck on it? Describe an ideal tasting.
Take a little piece of chocolate and rub it a little between your thumb and finger till the surface starts to melt. Close your eyes and take a long sniff. Enjoy that for a couple of seconds then put it in your mouth and munch it into little pieces that will melt out on your tongue. Slosh it around a bit and then just give in and gulp it down. With a good chocolate, the ride should be far from over as the flavor complexities reveal themselves and tell the story.

No gnarly snorting sounds, no spitting. It is really much more civilized than wine or coffee.

There are other opinions on how to taste chocolate and we would say that if you prefer,
you could taste it in a boat!
you would taste it with a goat...
And you could taste it in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree.
It is so good so good you see!

So you can taste it in a box.
And you can taste it with a fox.
And you can taste it in a house.
And you can taste it with a mouse.
And you can taste it here and there.
Say! you can taste it ANYWHERE!

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Thanks, Charley and Jessica!

Related: A Visit with House Spirits Distillery in Portland, Oregon

(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)