- Lisa Sipe
- R.C. Gartrell scoops cocoa beans into an antique 1924 coffee roaster.
Remember the days when most coffees tasted the same? Back then, we didn't discuss acidity or fruity flavor profiles. The blonde roast didn't exist. It wasn't until the late '90s that artisan coffees emerged. Back then, R.C. Gartrell was roasting for Stumptown Coffee Roasters when, believe it or not, you couldn't find good coffee in Portland. Today, Gartrell, who owns Bend's Seahorse Chocolate, says "Chocolate is where coffee was 20 years ago."
Yes, friends, the bean-to-bar movement is here.
If a brand controls the chocolate making process through every stage, it's considered bean to bar. There's no official definition but that sums up the concept. The simplistic definition doesn't well describe the process—an artisan approach to chocolate making yielding ranges in flavor. Chocolate isn't just chocolate; it has individuality and flavor nuances. Bean-to-bar chocolate produces chocolate that you can taste, like wine or coffee.
Gartrell is using the skills he honed coaxing the flavors out of coffee to do the same for cocoa beans. It all starts with him trying to find what he calls, "an awesome, special" bean, done by ordering samples from importers. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Gartrell says the industry is "10 to 15 years behind coffee. Not many people are bringing single origin." Once he finds the beans, he roasts them in different ways to bring out their individual characteristics. Not everyone roasts cocoa beans, and if they do they're usually roasted in a pan. Gartrell uses a 1924 coffee roaster that looks just as much like a piece of art as it does a functional machine. Roasting is when Gartrell has the most fun and he lights up when he talks about the process.
"The Dominican Republic has a cherry thing to it," he says as he describes beans from one farm. "I have to coax what's cool about it out in the roasting process. It's easy to cover up the flavor, it's a delicate balance."
Each Seahorse Chocolate bar is 70 percent cocoa, from a single farm, and 30 percent sugar. With each dark chocolate bar using the same recipe it's easy to compare differences in flavors, which can include berry, tart cherry in the Dominican Republic bar and spicy fruit and butter from the Honduras bar. R.C. Gartrell says the cocoa "is an agricultural product, so it changes all the time. Each crop is different." This means the same beans can taste different the following season.
Why Seahorse Chocolate?
Gartrell runs the business with his wife, Amanda, who came from the wine business. As the Gartrells tried to come up with a name, they enlisted the help of friends and their two sons. After two weeks of discussing options, R.C. finally suggested that the next word that came out of their mouths would be the name. Son Rowan was studying seahorses in school, so the name ended up being Seahorse Chocolate.
With a large teal seahorse illustration on each label, it's impossible to miss a bar of Seahorse Chocolate, but the dimension of the wax seal that closes every hand-wrapped bar is what really grabs the eye.
The Gartrells have been producing Seahorse Chocolate for over a year and will soon be opening the doors to their chocolate factory on Bond Street, across from Palate. Amanda Gartrell said they want to have, "beer, wine, coffee and chocolate in the tasting room. We want it to be a comfortable place that is mellow, not pretentious. We'll have limited hours and tasting nights. We want to have things you can't find anywhere else in town."
The Seahorse Chocolate tasting room should open in early May. Until then, you can find their bars at Crow's Feet Commons, Jackson's Corner, The Workhouse, Spoken Moto, Thump Coffee, Wild Roots Coffee and Palate.