by Matt Baume
If you find Valentine’s Day exhausting and stressful, just wait until you hear what it’s like for a chocolatier.
Karl Mueller and Aaron Barthel are the co-founders of Intrigue Chocolate Co. in Pioneer Square, and the last few weeks have been a blur of roasting and milling and tempering and packaging, all in the name of impending romance. Their gift-wrapped boxes of truffles have a look of polished simplicity, but their behind-the-scenes process verges on mad science, with meticulous attention to complex equipment and chemical reactions.
“We joke about me being a mad scientist,” says Aaron, who has a degree in ecology with an emphasis on botany. “I learned enough from my science degree to take good lab notes and figure out my variables and replicate an experiment.”
But he’s also an expert in the timeless art of romance.
How did chocolate become the standard Valentine’s Day gift? Well, for one thing, it’s easier to ship when it’s cold. “But why we define it as something romantic,” Aaron says, “is because there’s nothing more romantic than a shared sensory experience. Taking your time with a good chocolate, melting, releasing the aromatics, is an arc of experience that takes you into a moment of mindfulness that you can share with somebody.”
If you’re hunting for a moment of mindfulness with someone special, they suggest a ganache truffle box, hot cocoa, or spiced chocolate bars — all are excellent opportunities to savor a new flavor.
But while you’re indulging in a treat, for chocolatiers this season is a nonstop rush that started back in November, with a flurry of kitchen time in December for the holidays, followed by a brief respite to prepare for one of their biggest weeks of the year. For them, Valentine’s Day starts in earnest right after the new year, when they put in orders for supplies and then wait for ingredients to arrive.
“As soon as that shows up, we frantically start,” Aaron says. Next to him on the counter of their shop is a squat metallic machine that looks a bit like a shop-vac; inside, granite wheels pulverize the cocoa beans on a nonstop 24-hour cycle for several wheels. As the ingredients are crushed, they’re poured out, melted, and tempered to maintain a pleasant sheen; then it’s time to hand-wrap package after package after package.
When Valentine’s Day arrives, they’ll be there for pickups, and for pop-ins to browse what few last-minute offerings they’re likely to have left.
And then: “At the end of the day, I’ll go home, breathe real deep, and look forward to sleeping in the next day,” Aaron says.
“It’s kind of our new year,” Karl says. “We celebrate the day after Valentine’s Day.”
In most years, they decorate the shop with balloons and lights in the storefront window. But not this year.
“One of the weird things is what it looks like in Pioneer Square right now,” says Aaron. “The vacancy of businesses has been really traumatic.”
“And since we live in the neighborhood, we also feel that,” Karl says.
But on the other hand, Aaron adds, “the neighborhood is poised for a quicker recovery because there’s so much connection between businesses and residents who are still here.”
“All the pop-and-pop style businesses are ready to go!” Karl says.
They both credit the Alliance for Pioneer Square, a neighborhood nonprofit, for connecting them and their neighboring businesses with resources to navigate the pandemic.
“We’re ready for people to come back to the Square,” Karl says, glancing from the piles of chocolate bars to the mostly-vacant street outside. “Hopefully soon.”