Attending a Chocolate Salon: Notes from 2017 DC Chocolate Festival

Saturday was the second edition of the DC Chocolate Festival, which gathered 25 chocolate vendors and hundreds of attendees. Living only 2 hours from DC, I jumped on the opportunity to celebrate my favorite food and connect with fellow chocolate lovers. Last year’s edition was the first chocolate festival I ever attended: I was overwhelmed (all these samples! all these people!) and regretted half of the purchases I made that day.

This time, I was determined to make the experience a better one and, so I relied on Barbie Van Horn’s advice on her blog, Finding Fine Chocolate. Barbie is an experienced, yet approachable, chocolate educator, who provides a wealth of advice on palate training on her blog. Last fall, I saved her top 5 tips for Chocolate Events and Salons, which I am pleased to say helped me make the most of this festival. You be the judge.

Before the Event: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Barbie’s tip #1: Plan to meet up with people you don’t want to miss well ahead the chocolate event.

The month leading up to the event, I made plans to meet with my friend Adrienne Henson, a chocolate personal shopper based in New York City. With over a decade of experience tasting chocolate, she has a very developed palate and witnessing her sample chocolate is quite a treat (she can tell when chocolate is made of over-fermented beans.)

With my friend Adrienne (on the right). The connections you’ll make at salons are priceless.

Barbie’s tip #2: Schedule classes and presentations with vibrating reminders in your calendar.

In addition to help you deepen your understanding of chocolate, classes provide a welcome respite from the bustle of a festival. The day before the event, I reviewed the class schedule online and decided to attend the “Bean-to-Bar” presentation by Potomac Chocolate’s founder Ben Rasmusser and an “Ask Me Anything” session led by chocolate consultant Clay Gordon.

On the video below you’ll hear Clay share his views on raw chocolate.

Barbie’s tip #3: Assemble lists for your own inventory and chocolate gifts for others before the event.

This year, I took the time to develop a chocolate checklist as to NOT to blow a small fortune on bars. Because I usually buy most of my bars on Bar & Cocoa, my list only included bars from makers I cannot find online, such as Potomac Chocolate (I love their coconut bar) and Charm School Chocolate (their vegan white chocolate is addictive.) I added La Naya, a Lithuanian maker, based on the recommendation of the owners of Kosak, a bean-to-bar chocolate shop in Paris.

Chocolate bonbons by Potomoc Chocolate. I admit these were not on my list.

My tip: If you are new to the world of craft chocolate, research makers on a review site like Choco Files or the C-Spot

Before heading to the event, make sure to have a good, protein-rich breakfast (this will reduce your cravings for sugar). Next, here’s a small checklist I recommend you run before leaving:

  • A reusable cup to fill with water for palate cleansing purposes.
  • A reusable shopping bag.
  • Cash, to help the makers keep all the profits of the sales.

Wear your most comfortable shoes and leave early to avoid lines.

During the Event: Eat, Learn, Buy, Repeat

The festival will likely take place in a large venue. Before you start nibbling at the free chocolate, take a brief tour of the hall, take it all in, and only then start sampling.

DC Chocolate Festival, April 2017

Barbie’s tip #4: Protect your palate with intentional tasting and lots of water. Don’t overwhelm your palate.

If the idea of free chocolate samples is appealing at first, it won’t after your 10th sample of 70% spicy dark chocolate. So don’t rush into your tastings; drink a lot of water to help cleanse your palate between samples. Next, unless a bar blows you away, take your time to buy.

To avoid buyer remorse, here’s my technique: sample chocolate at each booth, go for a short walk, attend a class, where you’ll let your impressions of each bar sift through your mind. After the class, you’ll have forgotten about some bars but some will be calling your name: go ahead and buy them. Although this shopping technique takes more time (you’ll stay in line twice), it helps you focus on the bars you absolutely love.

Sampling chocolate from Chocotenango, a Washington DC-based maker

Next, if you are active on social media, make sure to introduce yourself and exchange cards with makers. Those cards may come in handy if you’d like to interview a maker or need to order more bars. Which brings me to…

Barbie’s tip #5: Meet the chocolate makers with gratitude, get to know them and follow online for future updates.

Regardless of your opinion of a maker, say thanks: for coming to the festival, for the free samples, and for the time to talk to you about their bars. Makers take time away from production to meet YOU and we should be grateful for the opportunity to learn more about their work.

Saying thanks to Ben Rassmussen from Potomac Chocolate

After the Event: Stay Connected

Once you’re back home, upload your best pictures and videos on social media, thank the festival organizers, thank Barbie, and email the people with whom you connected at the event. Find a quiet spot and start working your way through your stash… until the next festival.

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