So the NW Chocolate Festival is coming up! (And for all I know, there still might be a Groupon?) Here’s your guide for making the most of this awesome weekend.
Note: I posted the original of this on Seattle Dessert Geek; I’ve brought it over and updated it for 2019. I was also given a Media Pass in 2018.
The short version:
- Drink water and pace yourself. You’re not in an eating competition, and water will help keep your palate up for the adventure.
- Eat something that’s not chocolate. Again, your stomach will thank you.
- Best ‘bang for buck’: Try everything that sounds great, take notes, buy a few bars to eat in the comfort of your own home as a private tasting. (Don’t feel pressured to buy.)
- Attend a chocolate tasting on site if you haven’t before. Craft chocolate doesn’t eat like commercial chocolate, and this will give you a serious confidence boost.
For way, way more, read on.
What’s it like?
The Chocolate Festival has two areas: the upper show floor, with tasting booths; and the lower floor, with more professional booths and the workshops/lectures half-hidden in the back.
Workshops/lectures wildly vary in content, from introductory tastings/talks to demonstrations to professional development. I’d definitely read the descriptions and make plans before you go – ideally with vibrating phone reminders to stop tasting on the show floor 10-15 minutes ahead of the talk so you have enough time to get there. (A five minute warning will not cut it because you will almost certainly get distracted walking over.)
Each company will have something to taste, often many somethings/their whole line. These are usually chunks of chocolate served on plates with tongs to reduce contamination/germs, and some places will serve you. Ask if you’re unsure. (Con crud is still a Thing, even at a two day chocolate show. Especially at a two day chocolate show.)
Most companies will also have bars/confections for sale. You are not required to purchase anything at the show. Don’t feel pressured to buy anything at the show.
Some consistent things I’ve seen happen every year:
Fran’s will have a huge booth. With amazing giveaways. They do that.
Someone will have a breakout product and everyone will line up for it.
Several brands will incorrectly estimate the amount of product they need to bring (or there will be a delivery error, or both) and they will sell out of Their Best Stuff – or everything – by the afternoon of day one. Be kind to them, but also make sure to buy if you really want something.
A note on accessibility: it’s escalators, with semi-hidden elevators to get between floors. It’s not the greatest for wheelchair access, and I haven’t heard anything on ASL translators on site, but I think some folks bring their own.
How much time should I spend there?
The absolute minimum is 2-3 hours: enough time for one round of tasting, a break, then another tasting. Less than that and you’ll feel rushed. (That’s show floor time, not time spent waiting in line. And those lines can be bad.)
At least one day is ideal. You want enough time to do several tastings, eat some stuff, take a lunch break, and see some workshops. I’m personally going both days in case my palate decides to mutiny on day one (it’s happened before) and so I’m not stressed out to complete everything in one day.
No matter what, you will not taste everything. The more okay you are with that, the less stressed you’ll feel.
How do I best eat chocolate?
Chocolate & Zucchini has a good intro primer, yet here’s the thing: the Chocolate Festival is not the optimal space for evaluating chocolate. It’ll have florescent lights and slightly cramped spaces and lots of talking, along with everyone around you grabbing samples while you’re tasting. (Yes, people will be polite, but it’s still a convention floor.)
(And since the C&Z post mentions bread and apples: no, you don’t need to bring snacks on the show floor. Eating bread will be difficult. And I personally find sparkling water hurts my ability to clear my palate. Your mileage will totally vary there.)
The best thing you can do is figure out how to best evaluate chocolate for yourself in those conditions, and rock it. I (like most food media peeps I know) do this by letting my eyes unfocus while I concentrate on what I’m tasting. If you’re uncomfortable with the resulting dead eye stare, tilt your head towards the chocolate on the table and everyone around you will totally think you’re staring at the chocolate.
If at all possible, have some money (~$20-$40 is a good minimum) set aside to buy a few of your favorite bars to taste in the comfort of your own home. That’s how I get the best ‘bang for my buck’ from the event: taste a bunch, buy my top 3-4 bars, then taste at home a few days later. (Don’t feel like you must do this. I just find it super helpful.)
Also: take notes of what you like, what percentages, and why. Even a quick note on your phone will help jog your memory later. (There are 100+ chocolate brands and each will have 2-10 bars. Your memory of what tasted good if you eat more than five is totally going to suffer.)
How can I best eat a ton of chocolate?
- Step 1: Drink water. There’s a thing called palate fatigue, where your tongue just can’t process more flavors, and with chocolate it maxes out in 5-6 pieces in a row if you’re tasting effectively.
- Step 2: Pace yourself. I’d plan things like this: get in your 5-6 tastings/until you feel full, go see a talk, go back out. Just eating and eating chocolate will make you feel awful. It’s not Halloween candy, and you will get full more quickly than you might expect.
- Step 3: Eat something that’s not chocolate. It might feel counterintuitive, but eating something savory will give your taste buds a break and also probably make you feel better.
Palate fatigue? How can I avoid that?
You can’t. You can stall it by eating slowly, drinking water, and taking breaks, but your stomach will cry uncle at some point.
What shouldn’t I miss?
Ooh, the tough one.
Honestly, I can’t answer what you should/shouldn’t miss, because we have different palates. So, here’s what I’m excited for (honestly, I’m excited for everything, these are just some of the ones I’ll be making a beeline for that aren’t Intrigue or Chocolopolis or other obvious places):
- Green Bear to Bar Japan. These wonderful folks have wowed me the last two years with their amazing yuzu and green lemon bars. I still regret not buying the Green Lemon, the most refreshing 70% bar I’ve ever encountered. Whatever they bring as their limited release bar will almost certainly be a delight.
- Hogarth Chocolate. Hogarth has quickly catapulted from ‘I’ve never heard of them’ in 2017 to making me stop in my tracks. They usually have a limited release, but brought us sarsparilla and orange bars in 2018. Fingers crossed for something fun this year.
- Map Chocolate. Mackenzie is a sweetheart of a human being and creates simply gorgeous bars.
- Madre Chocolate. They’ve been just putting out beautiful things this year, and I want to try more of them without breaking my budget. (Drat their glorious $14 bars!)
Talks I’m excited for:
- Fresh Cacao Pods (Saturday, 12 pm) – It’s a chance to eat fresh cacao. Obviously not as good as eating at the farm, but it’s better than nothing.
- Women in Chocolate Panel (Saturday, 1 pm) – Women are still fairly rare in chocolate, so I’m hoping it’ll open more discussions and collaborations.
- Tasting & Evaluation (Saturday, 2 pm) – Not one for me, but all you peeps wanting to learn basics will have a blast. Lauren of Chocolopolis really knows her stuff.
- Cacao & forest conservation (Sunday, 11 am) – might be too beginner for a restoration ecologist like me, but I’m always interested in forestry practices and cacao.
I’m visiting Seattle; is there anything I should see?
I’d make dinner plans! You’re probably going to be eating chocolate all day, and want something easy and fast when it’s over. (That and if you’re only there for the weekend you’ll miss all the brunches and Pike Place Market.)
In 2018 the food truck list was actually pretty decent, which helped for lunch but not dinner. I’d be grabbing something light – and likely a salad or something super high in protein to offset the sugar and carbs you just consumed.
The Eater 38 restaurant list is rather solid, and I’d grab something on the lighter side like a salad if possible. You’re going to be more full than you might expect, and heavy meals will feel uncomfortable. (Though if you see something you have to try, try it!)