Usually, when we go about making a “kid food” into an “adult food,” we have to add certain ingredients that connote grown-up-ness: coffee, booze, psychotropics, and so forth. Not this time, though. Treehouse Drinking Chocolate succeeds precisely because of its stripped down, primal appeal.
We asked Treehouse Chocolate Co. founder, Aaron Koch how he decided to get into the drinking chocolate trade, and it turned into a full-on schooling in cacao farming, coconut sugar harvesting, and why adventure is the best ingredient for business.
You decided to call your product “drinking chocolate,” which has a kind of quixotic charm to it. How does it differ from hot chocolate—are you just trying to sound fancy?
There is a big difference between drinking chocolate and hot chocolate. With drinking chocolate, you’re literally sipping a dark chocolate bar. Hot chocolate, or hot cocoa, on the other hand, is made with cocoa powder heated up: you take the cacao beans, grind them, heat them, and then put them under intense pressure to compress out all of the cocoa butter. What’s left over is a dense cake, which gets ground up, and ends up on shelves.
Drinking chocolate has the natural cocoa butter that’s in the beans. Every bean has 50% cocoa butter content, which gives the chocolate a lot of flavor and a different mouthfeel.
A buttery mouthfeel does sound delicious! So how did you become interested in cacao in the first place? You learned on a farm, right?
Yes, eventually. I grew up in Singapore, then moved to Oregon, and finally Hawaii. In Hawaii, I got into this pattern of saving up money working then going to Indonesia to surf. I’d run out of money after four or five months, then go back to Hawaii to find work. Usually it was on an organic farm, because you could do work-trade there.
Cacao farms in Hawaii—it’s not something we’re that familiar with. What was that like?
In Hawaii, it’s different from what I’d call real cacao farms, like in Peru or in Central or South America. In those countries, they’re cranking out huge volumes of cacao. It’s their number one economy crop. They have their systems really set up.
In Hawaii, you get a lot of hobbyists and small family farms. The first one I worked on was just seven acres. Then I started contracting with my buddy to plant cacao trees on a twenty-six acre property.
We would design where we wanted to plant trees, put in irrigation that went from the top of the mountain all the way down to the beach, create everything from scratch. It was really fun, and it’s what got me interested in cacao.
Sure, but it’s one thing to be an aficionado and quite another to be an entrepreneur. What made you decide to pursue a business?
I worked on a lot of different farms, from coffee farms to permaculture farms, to fruit farms, and the one that really caught my interest was cacao. The reason was that if cacao is grown the traditional way—say, the way it’s done in Central America—it inherently preserves the rainforest.
Cacao is an understory crop, meaning it needs the shade of the natural rainforest to grow, to thrive. If direct sunlight hits it, it can burn the leaves and then you don’t get any fruit. People who grow it in the traditional style, basically farms in Peru, Venezuela, pretty much everywhere in the northern part of South America, do it in this way. I realized that if I invested in this crop, I’d be supporting the preservation of the rainforest. That’s when I hit the ground running, focusing on figuring out what my chocolate product was going to be.
So you knew you wanted to source from Central or South America?
Yeah, you’re never really going to make your money off the actual cacao beans in Hawaii. After the labor, the cost of American wages, it’s like $25 per pound. You’d end up with a $20 chocolate bar!
There are just so many steps involved. People don’t realize how much work goes into it until they start doing it themselves. Then they’re like, “Damn! What was I thinking?” It’s incredible that there are so many chocolate makers out there today.
Do you see a similarity with the rise of craft coffee? How does chocolate-making differ from coffee-making?
With coffee, you buy the beans, roast them, and that’s that. With chocolate, after you buy and roast the beans, you have to crack and winnow them, which means separating the shell from the nib or the actual bean. Then you put them in stone grinders for anywhere from three to five days, eventually pouring the ground beans into sheet pans. Then you have blocks of chocolate that you age for a minimum of three weeks.
What happens during the aging process?
We call it “letting it rest” and, as you would expect, it’s when the flavors sink in. They calm down and the aroma goes from being kind of nasally and musty, to something fruitier. It’s loud in the beginning, then it simmers down.
It sounds a bit like winemaking.
Very much so. My favorite part of the whole process is roasting. It feels like driving a race car—you have no room for error and you’re going really fast and you just have to wing it. Even five seconds makes a difference.
What made you set up shop in Portland, aside from the fact that boutique food businesses seem to magically thrive there?
I had a different chocolate factory before this one, but I put it in storage and went back to Hawaii because of my friend’s invitation to work on the cacao farm. After some time, I got a job offer to start a chocolate company in Portland. It ended up falling through, but right before I was about to fly back to Hawaii, I thought, you know, I still have some machines in storage, why don’t I test the waters?
I looked at setting up a factory in the city and within a four hour window on one morning, I found a shipping container, a warehouse to put it in that was centrally located, and a room in a house five blocks away!
Yes, I guess it was meant to be. I’ve been in Portland for two years now.
It seems we’re seeing a chocolate revolution right now, even beyond PDX. People are moving from an expectation that chocolate should be pretty cheap to one where it’s not unreasonable to spend some money.
Ironically, cacao used to be money, actual currency in Central and South America. A lot of that depended on land access. If you had cacao, you had land. You were wealthy.
In terms of the revolution that’s going on, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re actually seeing a food revolution. Maybe it started with Starbucks, with coffee, and then we started to see the wine industry changing, then restaurants. We’re coming back to quality, heirloom type foods.
Tell us about how Treehouse developed its flavors. It currently has four: Original, Camp, Nectar, and Cherrywood.
For me, it comes down to an authentic story and simple ingredients. Every product in the line is connected to an actual experience I’ve had.
Take Nectar, for example. The Nectar Drinking Chocolate is flavored with a coconut sugar that I found by accident. I was on a surf trip in Bali in the winter and the surf got flat for a week so I hopped on a motorbike and cruised over to the east side of the island. As far as you could see, it was just coconut trees to the horizon. I bumped into a coconut farmer, told him I was interested in seeing how the sugar was made. I guess he wasn’t doing anything that day so we just drove around the farms and he walked me right into people’s kitchens and showed me what they were doing!
They had a mono-crop farm, but you’d also see cacao, mango, avocado, and banana. In the morning at 7ish, all the guys would come out and climb the trees with their machetes. They’d go up with one or two buckets, basically coconut shells with their tops hacked off, and they’d climb to where the coconut flowers were, cut off an inch of the flower that is wrapped up and tie the bucket to it. All day, the sap would collect in the bucket. At night they’d climb the trees again and swap out the buckets.
They’d take the sap and bring it to these huts where the women would have a fire going under a giant wok. They’d pour in sap and the women would stir it until it turned into a kind of caramel. Then they’d pour that into these large bowls. And those would turn into coconut sugar cakes, which would be sent to a big cooperative to be ground up and shipped to America. It was incredible. It was the most sustainable farm I’d ever seen in my entire life. They can harvest from the same coconut tree for over a hundred years. Every day.
What’s the best way to enjoy Treehouse’s drinking chocolate?
Anywhere! All you need is a little hot water. I make cups of drinking chocolate everywhere—campgrounds, airports, ski lifts, in my own home. Actually, I’m trying to talk Amtrak into having a chocolate bar on the train. Hydroflasks are great, too. Get a 12-ounce flask, screw the top on tight, and shake it up. It’s almost like a blender.
Any new flavors coming down the pipeline?
Yes! In a few weeks, we’re releasing a classic Mexican drinking chocolate called Spice. It uses an aji chili from northern Peru, from the same region as our cacao. The aji is grown in small batches, which you have to pre-order because they run out. Then we’ve added cinnamon which comes from a company called Red Ape. 5% of their proceeds go to adopting an orangutan in Sumatra.
From my house growing up I could see Sumatra from the roof. Every year we’d go to the zoo for my birthday and we’d have a party with the same orangutan. He’d sit at the table with us! So they’re very close to my heart. Including an ingredient that supports orangutan adoption and habitat preservation is fun, don’t you think?