Woodblock Chocolate’s new commercial space isn’t anything like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory — unless Willy Wonka moved to DIY-Portland. Instead it’s a clean, open space for creating bean-to-bar chocolate from nothing but high quality cacao and cane sugar, a product perfectly suiting Portland’s appetite for handcrafted goodies.
Woodblock owners Charley and Jessica Wheelock are bent on distilling the singular flavor of cacao beans in the same manner that Oregon artisans have raised the culinary profile of wine, coffee and beer. “Cacao is an agricultural product,” Charley says, a reality he says is lost on most of us who grew up with highly produced candy. “Bringing out the unique terroir of a cacao bean is a relatively new idea.”
Rather than buying premade chocolate and creating confections from it (that’s what chocolatiers do), the Wheelocks start with raw beans from places like Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Then they move methodically through the steps of roasting, sorting, cracking and winnowing (which separates nibs from shells), grinding and conching (aerating) before turning it out into large blocks to be aged. Then it is tempered, cut in to bars and wrapped by hand.
In creating a product that draws on the singularity of the cacao bean, Charley says he’s happy to follow the example set by Portland’s coffee industry, which has nurtured the general public’s appreciation of single-origin coffee beans. “Coffee has done the heavy lifting. Coffee has caused people to reconsider a staple.”
The Wheelocks didn’t come to chocolate making by the most direct route, but it clearly plays to their skills sets. Charley has a Master’s degree in industrial design, and Jessica worked as an editorial assistant at Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. The two met restoring museum quality antique furniture in New York City. When they moved to Portland from the East Coast six years ago, Plan A was for Charley to get a job in his field. When that didn’t happen, Jessica’s skills as a researcher kicked in. She looked into myriad potential family business opportunities, and discovered the niche of chocolate making. In doing so, she identified a field that married their artistic inclinations and building skills. “The stars aligned. Everything made sense,” Charley says.
While the Wheelocks don’t claim to be the only bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Oregon, they are very clearly onto something. Just 18 months into the business, they’ve received accolades from The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Portland Monthly and CoolHunting.com, and are selling vigorously to Portland retailers like Cacao, Salt & Straw, Olympic Provisions and The Meadow. Growing demand for their product necessitated a move into the new commercial space in late May. “I’m totally psyched to have it out of our kitchen!” Charley says.
The couple hopes the new space will allow them to offer chocolate tastings and classes in the future. In the meantime, they remain dedicated to nurturing the distinct and simple flavor of the cacao bean. “It’s incredibly Portland,” Charley says.
Peeling open the tidy Woodblock Chocolate wrapper, ripping through the carefully folded foil and exposing the smooth and fragrant bar of chocolate, I feel not unlike little Charlie in the Willy Wonka movie. As for the taste, suffice it to say I’m a believer.