In 1900 BCE, Mesoamericans used cacao beans to make a bitter, fermented drink. By 1400, Aztecs traded cacao as currency. Spaniards later thought to add sugar. Nowadays, we just go to the store when we want to buy chocolate, divorcing the exquisite substance from its historic origins. But a tour of the Seattle Chocolate factory helps visitors deepen their appreciation of one of the world’s favorite treats. This woman-owned, Rainforest Alliance-certified company has put decades of thought into how to make its treats both delicious and sustainable.

A tasty tour

Seattle Chocolate started in Seattle in 1991. But the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001 destroyed the original factory. One of Seattle Chocolate’s investors, entrepreneur Jean Thompson, took over as owner and CEO. The company found a new, 60,000-square-foot factory in Tukwila, a town just south of Seattle.

Visitors go to this nondescript building for the tour. It is hard to believe that something so plain on the outside turns out more than 30,000 colorfully wrapped chocolate bars per day.

Our tour starts in the chocolate classroom, where guide Chris Hardwick talks to us about the history of chocolate in general and Seattle Chocolate in particular. In class, we learn it takes three to five years to grow cacao. Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast produce 70 percent of cacao beans. Midges pollinate chocolate, answering that age-old question, what are midges good for?

Related: Fueled by chocolate — Ghana’s newest biofuel

Hardwick explained that Seattle Chocolate has two directions, the line with the original name, and Jcoco, more of a culinary experimental brand. “Seattle Chocolate is a fruit-forward, acidic chocolate,” he said in the assured language of a wine expert. Jcoco is more likely to include ingredients like edamame or cumin. Hardwick passes around jars of cacao beans and nibs, so we can smell the terroir of beans grown in different countries.

Because every good factory tour requires a hairnet, we don blue netting before continuing on to the next part of the tour: the factory floor. As well as chocolate bars, Seattle Chocolate is known for its 20 truffle flavors in bright metallic wrapping. High on the catwalk, we look down at workers bent over enormous boxes of truffles, scooping armloads into smaller containers. It’s a chocolate-lover’s fantasy come to life.

The tour ends with a chocolate tasting. We sit at placemats with six chunks of chocolate to compare. The regular tasting includes varieties of white, milk and dark chocolate. The vegan version offers several types of dark chocolate. Hardwick guides us through a more mindful tasting process, rather than a simple devouring. The experience changes how visitors interact with this sweet treat — it makes them more appreciative of it.

Tours are offered year-round. But if you visit on certain days in October, you can experience an exciting bonus — a haunted factory. The company website explains, “A troublesome spirit has escaped and is creating havoc for the Seattle Chocolate Factory! Help repair the damage while gathering clues to speak with Ixcacao, the Goddess of Chocolate. With her help, you’ll brave the dark factory and cast the fell spirit out.” Hardwick assured me this family-friendly tour is fun, not gory.

Sustainability measures

Seattle Chocolate carefully addresses social responsibility throughout the entire chocolate life cycle. It uses Rainforest Alliance Certified cacao to ensure just labor practices and good environmental measures in the countries the cacao is grown. In the factory, workers compost 25,000 pounds of chocolate scraps annually. They use non-GMO ingredients in the bars and truffles. Wherever possible, Seattle Chocolate sources ingredients like fruits, spices, mint and honey from local partners.

Packaging is especially problematic for environmentally conscious companies. Seattle Chocolate has recently developed cellulose truffle twist wraps made from sustainably harvested eucalyptus trees. This is significant, as it churns out 12.5 million truffles a year, wrapped in about 8,000 pounds of bright truffle twist wraps. By mid-2020, all truffle flavors will be wrapped in the new cellulose material. Customers can throw the truffle wraps into their home compost piles, where they should break down in six to eight weeks.

Giving back

While the ordinary chocolate fan might question the presence of edamame beans in a chocolate bar, the Jcoco line isn’t just for foodies. Thompson created the line in 2012 with an underlying goal of feeding hungry families. The company donates a fresh serving of food to those in need every time somebody buys a Jcoco bar. So far, Seattle Chocolate has donated nearly 4 million servings of food to food banks in Washington, California and New York.

In addition to tours, Seattle Chocolate invites the public in for events like tastings of new seasonal chocolate flavors or classes on pairing beer with chocolate. It hosts the haunted chocolate factory in October, and a large holiday party in December.

+ Seattle Chocolate

Images by Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat and Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority