Because I have lived here, at least part-time, for the past fifteen years, my chocolate eye has been most closely trained on Seattle. In Seattle we have a big and famous bean to bar factory (Theo Chocolate), industry innovators who offer brilliant combinations of education and retail, like Lauren Adler and Bill Fredericks, and, of course, the country’s leading festival. A short road trip with my brother, though, reminded me that just to the south, another city rivals Seattle for chocolate energy and enthusiasm. In some notable ways, Portland even has an edge over us.
This summer, I updated my list of bean to bar chocolate makers in the US. I’ve got 137 such companies in there now, and I know that a few more have opened up since my most recent count in August. But while we seemingly add a new maker every few weeks or months in this country, a few chocolate epicenters have emerged and will likely remain. By state, California leads the pack, with at least twenty bean to bar makers from Los Angeles to Eureka (Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate). Oregon comes in second with at least twelve (and I believe a thirteenth was added recently; I’m researching it). The states of New York and Hawaii also have sizeable chocolate maker concentrations, with at least nine and seven companies respectively. But by city, Portland is the chocolate makers’ choice of home: there are more bean to bar companies there than in any other US city. (So long as we sever Brooklyn from the rest of NYC, which I guess they do there anyhow.)
A large part of this has to do, I believe, with the delight Portlanders take in craft goods. For his excellent account of the resurgence of artisanry in the US, Charles Heying chose Portland as his case study. Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy (Portland: Ooligan Press, 2010) takes us on a tour through the many industries that have embraced a craft scale and vision in Portland. Heying didn’t include a chapter on chocolate, perhaps because there wasn’t the same critical mass of makers while he was writing as there is now. But he does have a chapter on food, and certainly the sentiment of artisanal food production—small scale, intimate knowledge of provenance and process, priorities of seasonality and locality—has long been well established in Portland.
Indeed, the city has achieved iconic status for its embrace of an artisan aesthetic, as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein lovingly mock its hipster ethos in Portlandia. For a while—in Seattle, at least—it wasn’t possible to order chicken in a restaurant without someone quoting the skit, “Is the chicken local?” The diners in that scene won’t order a chicken dish until they read through a dossier of the chicken’s life history, learning that “Colin” was a “woodland raised chicken . . . fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts.” Questioning the server further, Brownstein’s character wants to know if Colin’s organic certification was issued by Portland itself, as if the standards of the USDA or Oregon Tilth labels are not stringent enough for this most sacrosanct requirement of food.
While the hyperbole of Portlandia is what makes it funny, its grains of truth also make the real-life city a really good place for chocolate. Craft infrastructure begets more craft infrastructure, and having a whole lot of people buying and selling foods and furniture and bicycles that they made themselves attracts an ever-more-like-minded crowd. And thus the craft chocolate scene in Portland has expanded more than in any other city, at least by my count.
If you are in Portland, I suggest you make time to check out at least one of its bean to bar makers: Cocanu, Mana Chocolate, Pitch Dark Chocolate, Ranger Chocolate Company, Stirs the Soul, Treehouse Chocolate Co., Woodblock Chocolate Manufactory, Wren Chocolate Makers, or the new one that may or may not exist! If you are in a hurry, like I was this morning, you can stop by Cacao DrinkChocolate. Not only does Cacao carry Portland’s finest, they curate a stunning selection of US and international craft chocolate, and have some of the best hot chocolate in the country. I drank a cup of their cinnamon-infused this morning as I drove back to Seattle, and was barely across the bridge when I wished I had ordered ten of them.
So there’s your next holiday plan: book a flight to Portland, Oregon, and the city will keep you busy in chocolate.