Theo Chocolate Teams Up with UW to Sniff Out the Perfect Bean

1/23/09

Theo Chocolate, Inc. wants to unlock the cocoa bean’s secrets. Together with chemists at the University of Washington, Theo’s chief operating officer and food scientist Andy McShea is using “electronic nose” lab techniques to identify the best organic bean he can find.

I met with McShea in the Seattle chocolate company’s office, which overlooks the factory floor and is filled with the pungent smell of roasting cocoa. McShea, a transplant from England and more recently from biomedical research (he came to Theo two years ago from the biotech company CombiMatrix, and before that worked at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), is really enthusiastic about chocolate—good, organic chocolate, that is.

Last week, the organic and fair-trade chocolate company, which has been in production for three years, won a one-year grant from the Washington Technology Center (WTC) to develop new lab techniques for quality and safety tests of cocoa beans. Together with UW chemistry professor Rob Synovec, McShea aims to take chocolate production beyond the “look and sniff test,” the currently used, less-than-quantitative means of assessing bean quality.

In part, the research could help them consistently find a better bean. But the technologies can go further than that, McShea said. The company wants to increase production—the factory is currently operating at less than 20 percent capacity, McShea said—but to do that, it needs a bigger supply of high quality, organic cocoa beans from fair-trade sources.

“There are actually very few farms with great organic cocoa and high production levels, and they usually sell out,” McShea said. Since going for lower quality is not an option, Theo wants to use its knowledge of the bean to convert cocoa farms from conventional to organic—raising the quality of the beans and chocolate in the process.

Theo and the UW’s proposal for the WTC was entitled “Magic Bean.” “It’s more in reference to, ‘What is the magic of the bean?’” McShea said. “We’re not trying to create chocolate flavor out of some … Next Page »

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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