February is arguably the best month of the year for chocolate fanatics. They surely give thanks for all the sweet Valentine's Day goodies on store shelves and consider February's designation as National Chocolate Lovers' Month another excuse for guilt-free chocolate gluttony. Tempted to shell out $10 for an artisanal bar? Instead, go to the source: These 10 chocolate companies invite visitors to sample chocolate for free or the price of a tour.
10 Chocolate Meccas Across America
Theo Chocolate takes pride in its organic, fair-trade operations. More than 50,000 visitors a year pour into the factory to learn the creation story of the company's chocolate confections. A $10 fee gets visitors a lecture about chocolate, a walk through the factory, and free samples at the end. Theo also offers a special $8 deal just for kids, which features a story about chocolate, a child-friendly tour through the factory, and, of course, chocolate treats.
Visit Taza Chocolate to watch the making of stone-ground chocolate and then sample the goods. The company's chocolate technique uses Mexican stone mills to grind the cacao, leaving the finished chocolate with a gritty and bold flavor that chocolate connoisseurs appreciate. The tour runs seven days a week and costs $6 a person (a bar of Taza chocolate goes for $7.50). Check the schedule for special child-oriented tours.
Lake Champlain Chocolates has been creating sweet confections since 1983. The company relies on ingredients sourced from local farmers and food producers whenever possible, and is fair-trade and social-accountability certified. A free factory tour runs weekdays and offers plenty of free chocolate samples. The company also welcomes chocolate lovers to free tastings on weekends.
In the heart of San Francisco's Mission District is a small bean-to-bar chocolate factory that creates artisanal single-origin bars with beans sourced directly from farmers. The factory features an in-house café, and customers can tour the factory after business hours to learn about (and taste) each step of the chocolate-making process. The tour costs $5 and includes a gift card for a hot cocoa at the café.
As if there isn't enough reason to spend time in Hawaii, free local chocolate is the chocolate icing on the chocolate cake. A recipient of multiple awards, Madre Chocolate is known for a variety of fruity and spicy flavors. Tours to a cacao farm are followed by a behind-the-scenes bean-to-bar tour, for $43 per adult, and weekly chocolate-making classes that culminate in a personal chocolate creation. Looking for freebies? Visit the on-site storefront.
DeBrand Fine Chocolates is all about producing fillings, such as ganache, caramel, and creams, to pair with different varieties of chocolate sourced from around the world. The company has been selling chocolate-confections since 1987 and operates three shops in Indiana. DeBrand offers tours at its Fort Wayne headquarters for $5 a person, sampling included, along with a $5 discount on purchases of $10 or more.
Videri makes handcrafted bean-to-bar chocolate and has stamped its name on the map with four flagship flavors: dark milk, classic dark, pink peppercorn, and sea salt; other varieties are also available. The company welcomes visitors to the factory for free self-guided tours through the production facility -- with samples, of course. Groups can arrange guided tours for $5 a person, with extra free chocolate thrown in for good measure.
Each bar of Askinosie chocolate sports a number on the packaging that customers can enter on the company's website to unlock the bar's farm-to-store origins. Askinosie runs a "chocolate university" that engages with schools to teach students about the chocolate business, from the farm to the factory, and introduce them to the communities where cacao beans are grown. The university is funded by the company's weekly tours ($5 or adults; $4 for students). They explain the chocolate-making process with plenty of sampling along the way.
The Mast Brothers (who are indeed two brothers) recently have been pilloried for selling industrial chocolate under a "bean-to-bar" label while launching their business. Still, the Brooklyn factory remains a destination for the name, exquisite wrappers, and daily tours on the hour. For a $10 fee, which happens to be the same price as a Mast bar, chocolate lovers get up close and personal with cacao beans -- touching them, cracking them, and watching the roasting process. At the end, visitors can taste five varieties of chocolate and experience how the beans create different flavors.
Visit the home of the Hershey bar to take a journey through chocolate land, starting with the bean and ending with the final delights. The 30-minute tour is free, and visitors can enjoy free chocolate samples at the end. While there, explore the rest of Hershey's Chocolate World, which features imaginative chocolate-related activities, from do-it-yourself chocolate bars to an interactive chocolate mystery (check the website for pricing).