Food & Drink

With Tease, Tacoma gets its first bean-to-bar chocolate makers

It doesn’t look much like a chocolate factory from the outside: a small storefront backing up to the Stadium Thriftway parking lot, just next to the dry cleaner’s. But in the newly refurbished maroon-and-black interior is something you won’t find anywhere else in Pierce County — a chocolate shop that makes its own chocolate from bean to bar. Tease Chocolates, run by local couple Julie and Topher Farrell, has just moved from Vashon Island to set up its first retail storefront for bars, truffles and caramels, all made by hand from cacao beans right there in the shop.

“I think there’s a demand for healthier food in Tacoma,” says Julie Farrell, who pours and molds the chocolates. “People are conscious about what they put in their bodies.”

“Cocoa beans are a super-food, rich in antioxidants and polyphenols,” adds Topher Farrell, who does the hand-processing. “We sweeten mostly with honey and coconut sugar. We don’t add dairy, except for our blue cheese bar, and our other inclusions are also healthy. We also source our beans ethically.”

And while chocolate might not immediately sound like a health food, the Farrells know what they’re talking about. For the last year, ever since they began Tease Chocolates out of a rented commercial kitchen on Vashon, their handmade bars, truffles and caramels have been selling well at farmers’ markets — especially the ones made from vegan ingredients. But even the non-vegan products have an ingredient list that reads like a Whole Foods grocery list: organic butter and cane sugar, organic vanilla, fleur de sel salt, green tea. There’s even fresh bee pollen: tiny beads of green and orange, tasting sweetly wild and fuzzy, used for a hazelnut-beer truffle.

Of course, it helps that Tease Chocolates are tasty as well as healthy. While the Spicy Mayan bar is lush with dark chocolate and chili, the Salty Mermaid’s darkness is tempered by a light toffee crunch and tangy saltiness, and the Geisha’s Pleasure has a fascinating mouth feel and unexpected exotic sweetness from the brown rice crisps and green tea. (All Tease’s signature bars are 86 percent pure cocoa.)

Then there are the truffles, hand-filled by Julie on the shop’s workbench: richly intense for the plain, chewy caramel for the Cyprus Flake and mouth-fillingly heady for the Absinthe. Farrell also makes custom-painted truffles for Seattle’s Copperworks Distilling, infusing each with the company’s gin, vodka and whiskey and swirling the tops with edible paint like an artist’s palette.

There are also caramels, their little packets tied with raffia and each named for an island: Charlottetown for the popular maple-bacon, L’Esprit de Ré where Farrell sources her salt, and Vashon Cornerstone, a thick, wholesome-tasting caramel named for the farm where Farrell buys her raw milk.

But the bars to look out for are the ones still in development mode in the little Stadium shop: Tacoma’s first chocolate bars hand-processed right from the bean. And like the signature bars, each one has an individual artwork printed on the wrapping. There’s Mika (pistachio and cherry, the label finger-painted by a friend’s child), Missy (blue cheese and berries, with a bluebird dripping blue tears painted by Topher’s cousin), Princess Superstar (honey and cocoa nibs, wrapped in a photograph of the rapper of the same name), Verdine (ginger and orange, with a photograph of a butterfly) and Synesthesia (a single origin chocolate sent to a synesthetic artist friend who painted what she tasted — chalky purple-white blurs and apple-green 4’s trailing across a fluffy pink background).

“Chocolate-making is an art, and we wanted to pair dark chocolate with art,” explains Farrell.

Right now, about 30 percent of Tease Chocolates are bean-to-bar; the Farrells are aiming for 100 percent within a year.

Inside the shop, with flooring and cabinets yet to arrive and the walls freshly painted, Farrell proudly shows off her workspace. There’s the crusher, a small hand-cranked machine that crushes the papery hull off the cocoa beans the Farrells buy from Trinidad, Ecuador and Tanzania through a Portland importer. There’s the winnower, that separates hull from nib, and the melanger — about the size of a food processor — with two stone wheels that turn in two directions at once to crush the nibs with honey into chocolate liquor, which is then melted in the temperer (another table-top size machine) with seed chocolate to give it crack and shine when it dries in the molds.

The Farrells are still expecting some more equipment (a larger fridge, another temperer and grinder) but even so, this isn’t Theo Chocolate, the Seattle bean-to-bar factory where folks reserve weeks in advance to tour these exact same machines on a room-size scale.

“Everything is really small-scale right now,” says Farrell, a former marketing manager who got into chocolate making back home in Wisconsin when the economy crashed. She did one of her internships at Theo Chocolate. “We produce about 200-250 pounds per month.”

Not that being small has impacted sales: Stadium Thriftway is going to stock Tease Chocolates as soon as they can produce enough, the Hotel Murano sells them in the gift shop, and Whole Foods is also interested.

But one thing Farrell likes about being small is being able to show ordinary folks that anyone can make chocolate. She loves teaching truffle-making classes and intends to use the new Tease space to hold classes this December.

“Truffles are the easiest thing in the world to make,” she says. “Theo Chocolate likes to make it seem like Willy Wonka — all mysterious. But it’s not. It’s accessible. Cocoa beans are affordable, and the main cost in processing them is time.”