Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Chocolate Maker Unconference and The Northwest Chocolate Festival

I am freshly back from Seattle where I attended the chocolate maker Unconference and the larger Northwest Chocolate Festival.  I am a little tired, but so inspired by the stories of other chocolate makers and industry professionals that I met while on my travels.

These are (nearly) all of the craft, bean-to-bar chocolates that I brought back from Seattle!
What a haul!

The chocolate maker Unconference was a two-day event where chocolate makers, suppliers, impassioned chocolate writers and researchers, and even a few cacao farmers, came together to learn from each other. It was a beautifully open-concept, where we decided as a group, what topics to discuss based on a sticky-note voting system. And in each session throughout the day, brought together small, medium, and in some cases, large chocolate makers to learn from each other. What I learned is that everyone approaches chocolate making differently, and can all learn from each other, whether they have been doing this job for a while and have scaled up to larger factories and equipment, or if they're making their second batch of chocolate with equipment designed for a small workshop.

I joined a few sessions where I knew I could learn, and then on the second day, I joined a few where I knew I could be helpful.  The conference format encouraged open discussion and the 'Law of Two Feet', where you could walk from session to session and join in when you like, in order to find the right topic that was helpful or interesting to you.  Many people used this 'law' and were able to pick and choose based on the conversations going on at any given moment. If some groups of people felt their needs were not being met, they would break off into smaller workgroups and discuss something that could be more helpful to their own chocolate business.

Chocolate makers could also bring their chocolate for a massive chocolate sampling session, and if they liked, get feedback from other chocolate makers on their bars.

My overall experience at this conference reiterated my sentiments in the article I recently wrote for Archive, a Canadian-focused magazine, where, based on my discussions with many new Canadian chocolate makers, I found them to be collaborating, rather than fiercely competing with each other. This is a great way to learn and grow together, and help fuel awareness of the bean-to-bar industry within Canada.  I saw the same thing at this conference among American chocolate makers, and bean-to-bar chocolate makers from all over the world.

At the Northwest Chocolate Festival, the sampling was out of this world. Whether you are a chocolate maker looking for inspiration from new textures, origins or inclusion bars, or if you are just a person who loves chocolate, this is the event for you! I must have tasted more than 50 samples of chocolate on Saturday alone, and then I purchased my weight in the delicious stuff. I bought a few Christmas gifts too, and sat in several sessions that were designed for both the general public to learn about chocolate and confection making, as well as for the chocolate maker to help with sourcing cacao, equipment and other needs.

My weekend ended at a fun Saturday night party, with trapeze-style dance artists, another chocolate tasting, an awards ceremony, DJ, and a final trek to a Seattle-based ginger beer bar with my new industry friends. On Sunday, the chocolate-tasting and fun continued for Seattle residents at the Northwest Chocolate Fest, while I flew back to Toronto to stay with a friend, and then made the long 7-hour drive back to Manitoulin Island. 
I even picked up two huge bags of cocoa beans along the way, from my friend Juan Gonzalez, of the Mexican Arabica Bean Company in Toronto.

Overall it was worth the travel time and the expense.  I learned a lot, made new friends and had the opportunity to meet many people in person with whom I've spoken only over the phone or through social media in the past.

If you are considering attending either the Unconference or the Northwest Chocolate Festival, visit the festival website is: http://www.nwchocolate.com/.

If you have any questions about the festival or event, or met me at the event and want to connect, feel free to e-mail me at info (at) ultimatelychocolate.com.

Below are some pictures I took over the weekend. Enjoy!

Fun new packaging idea designed by students and showcased
by their teacher at the Unconference during a packaging discussion.
One of the nicest couples in chocolate: Erik and Ariane Hansen
from DesBarres Chocolate in Uxbridge, Ontario.

The makers of Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate
win an award for best 'Inclusion' chocolate bar.
Making chocolate the traditional way,
a great way to demonstration chocolate's past,
so we can see how it has evolved and what it has become.
Beautiful displays of chocolate, like this one, were everywhere at the Northwest Chocolate Festival.
This chocolate is not American-made, but rather made in the country of origin (Philippines),
a way of bringing more money to the farmers and residents of cacao-growing regions.

Event attendees create art out of cocoa beans
when they need to take a break from chocolate tasting.
Beautiful displays of cacao and Mayan art and culture
at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle.
Fresh cacao pods opened in a presentation on cacao,
 and chocolate's true origins.

Wine, port and spirits were also being sampled and paired
with chocolate in the designate 'bar' area.
The perfect afternoon delight.


  1. Looks and sounds like an awesome event. I have meant to go for several years now, but like you said, it so SO far from central Canada. (I'm in rural Manitoba.) Maybe next year ...

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