Spinnaker Chocolate isn’t quite everywhere. It’s more like it’s in the right places. The bars tend to be sold at high-end coffee shops and “pantry”-type stores, places whose clientele wouldn’t necessarily balk at paying $12 for a two-ounce chocolate bar. We’re talking like, Salt House Mercantile in Bainbridge, the Vixen Day Spa in Madrona, Renee Erickson’s Fremont restaurant the Whale Wins. The packaging is that classic millennial minimalism that signifies a quiet sort of luxury. There’s the Spinnaker logo (a drawing of a ship), the country of the cocoa beans’ origin, and not much else. If you don’t look closely, you might not even know it is chocolate.
But for a small chocolate maker, Spinnaker has gotten an enormous amount of praise since opening in 2021. It won nine awards from the Academy of Chocolate (surely the world’s most delicious academy) in 2022. Local tastemaker J. Kenji López-Alt pronounced it “insanely good” on his Instagram. Cafe Juanita, one of the most august fine-dining restaurants in the Seattle area, includes Spinnaker chocolate as one of its final courses; Holly Smith, the owner at Cafe Juanita, tells Eater Seattle she was “enamored by their chocolates” and “impressed by their quality and consistency.”
To understand what makes Spinnaker so special, you have to know something about their process. Chocolate is made from cacao beans, which are grown and harvested in equatorial countries across the world. These beans are fermented and dried by the harvesters, then shipped to chocolate makers. The makers sort the beans (often by hand) to weed out the ones that are weirdly shaped or otherwise defective, then roast them, remove the shells so only the “nibs” inside remain, grind the nibs to make cocoa paste, add sugar and sometimes milk or cocoa butter, then “temper” this paste by heating and cooling it until it crystalizes into its final form.
The brother duo behind Spinnaker, Kelly and Chris Van Arsdale, seem to treat this bean-to-bar journey as a series of engineering challenges. Inside their Ravenna-area production facility, they’ve built and designed a custom piece of equipment, which Kelly describes as a “vibrating table,” to separate the too-large or broken beans out while a vacuum sucks off debris, like dust and bits of plastic. From there, they don’t roast the whole beans — which Kelly says many chocolate makers do — but instead separate the nibs from their shells before the roasting process to ensure a more even roast.
Chocolate beans, like coffee beans, can taste very different depending on where the beans were grown and even when the beans were harvested. Many major industrial chocolate makers, Kelly says, combine beans from different places and do a darker roast in order to maintain a consistent flavor profile — a Hershey bar is always going to taste like a Hershey bar.
But just as some craft coffee companies now roast their beans more lightly in order to highlight their distinct flavors, Spinnaker lightly roasts its cocoa nibs, and the resulting bars showcase the differences between cocoa beans. The bar made from Ecuador beans is fudgy and heavy, the Uganda has notes of stone fruit, and the Tanzania starts off mellow but has a strong mango-passionfruit aftertaste. Very few of Spinnaker’s bars have anything added to them; the standout exception is the Belize with bourbon, where the nibs are soaked in bourbon — to an incredible degree, the result has the warmth and flavor of bourbon. (This is the bar that has won the most awards and which is served at Cafe Juanita.) These bars are unmistakably luxury products, and biting into one feels luxurious.
So far, the Seattle area seems keen to embrace Spinnaker’s craft chocolate the way Seattleites have embraced craft coffee and beer. Kelly says that they’re getting new machinery (buying, not building this time) that will enable them to provide coffee shops with chocolate powder. He envisions the company expanding, maybe into a space where people could sip drinking chocolate or eat brownies while they watch the chocolate making process. He doesn’t necessarily think they’ll grow into the size of Theo, Seattle’s most famous chocolate maker (which recently announced plans to close its local factory).
But Spinnaker is growing, putting its bars in more locations, expanding its footprint and spreading the gospel of craft chocolate.
“I told my brother the other day, I was like, I think we’re just gonna grow until it’s no longer fun to grow,” Kelly says, “and then we’ll just stop.”