Charley Wheelock is a man with big dreams. Sitting on his back deck in inner Southeast Portland, he talks of building a chocolate factory, running small cacao plantations all over the world, and sailing boatfuls of beans from South America. But before he can do any of that, he has to make his first dream come true: starting Portland's first bean-to-bar chocolate company.
An industrial designer by trade, Wheelock and his wife, Jessica, decided several years ago that they wanted to start a more sustainable business for their young family.
"We were going to dig a cave and be cheese finishers, make yogurt, fancy Popsicles," he says. "Then we came across chocolate. Beyond chocolatiering, but making chocolate from the bean…. In Portland, no one's even doing it!"
Wheelock enrolled in a chocolate science class at UC Davis, purchased some hobby equipment, and the family started making loads and loads of chocolate. A year and a half later, they're ready to take their Woodblock Chocolate brand to market.
It's almost surprising that no one else in local-obsessed Portland is making chocolate. The city's top chocolatiers—Alma, Sahagún, Xocolatl de Davíd, even Moonstruck—don't. They buy couverture chocolate, often from Europe, and use it to make "confections." In the industry, they're known as "remelters."
Wheelock makes chocolate. In his kitchen, he takes raw cacao beans from big burlap sacks, roasts them in a tiny coffee roaster, cracks them in a grinder powered by his electric drill, removes the shells with a homemade contraption built from PVC pipes and two vacuums ("For a long time, I was in the backyard with a salad bowl and a hair dryer—so this is a big step up!" he says), grinds the nibs down in a juicer, then smooths the paste for three days in a small "conching" machine. The chocolate then ages for about a month, before being tempered and set.
It's a time-consuming, scientific and notoriously delicate process, and mastering it requires patience, practice and passion—something Wheelock appears to have in spades.
Earlier this year, he went to Costa Rica to visit cacao farms and learn about how the growing and harvesting determine the quality and flavor of the final product. "For the first time, people are looking at cacao like grapes, like wine,â he says.
Out on the deck, Wheelock pulls out three finished bars, all made from 75 percent Venezuelan beans. "Oh, yeah," he whispers to himself as he peels back the foil. We bite into the first, from the Ocumare region. It begins subtly, building into a long, rich earthy flavor that develops across the palate. The next, from Rio Caribe, is a totally different experience: shorter, bigger, fruitier.
This week, Woodblock Chocolate finally launches, selling bars at artisan charcuterie bar Olympic Provisions. Wheelock is already thinking big: a real factory, a tasting room, collaborations with local chocolatiers. But to get there, he will first have to sell Portland on why Woodblock's bean-to-bar chocolate is unique.
We taste the third bar. Studded with bittersweet cacao nibs and fleur de sel, it's a beautiful synthesis of tastes and textures. "This is fucking great, right?" Wheelock—who estimates he's on track to eat 80 pounds of chocolate this year—says, beaming, before taking another piece.
EAT: Woodblock Chocolate bars ($3.50) are available at Olympic Provisions, 107 SE Washington St., and 1632 NW Thurman St.