Curiosity has driven Aaron Koch to do some wild things…
It made him leave his Singapore homeland and venture to the frigid waters of the Oregon coast. It led him to sail a boat through pirate territory in the Celebes Sea. A boat that later got struck by lightning. But the greatest thing curiosity guided him to do was work on the cacao farms of Hawaii. There, Aaron dug his hands into the dirt and discovered a lifelong passion.
In the tiny treehouse he called home, an idea formed: a chocolate company that does justice to the craft and spirit of cacao farming. That uses only premium organic cacao, sustainably sourced direct from the farmers. Treehouse forgoes unhealthy substitutes in favor of simple, natural deliciousness. We sat down to talk with Aaron about what chocolate means to him, why sustainability is crucial, what his plans are for the future, and much more. When you’re done reading, check out Treehouse Chocolate here.
Cacao farming led to a curiosity in chocolate which led to chocolate making. I was visiting Portland and never left… In one morning (3 days before I was supposed to fly back to Hawaii) I bought a small shipping container, signed a lease on a warehouse to put it in, and rented a room in a house 5 blocks away. I really hit the ground running and haven’t looked back.
Sustainably sourced ingredients and natural products seem to be integral to your chocolate; can you talk about why that is?
My interest in organic permaculture farming is what landed me on a cacao farm initially, so everything I do comes from that foundation. First question is always, is it sustainable, is it something I believe in? If I scale it, will it make the world better?
Cacao is an understory, which means it needs taller trees to shade it because it can’t take direct sunlight. With organic, cooperative grown cacao in Northern Peru, they’re using the wild existing rainforest to shade the cacao from the harsh sunlight. So by supporting these types of farming practices, we’re preserving the rainforest as a default.
Where do you source your chocolate from?
We’re sourcing cacao from the Oro Verde Cooperative in Northern Peru. Peru has some of the best cacao and can produce it with consistent quality.
Can you talk about the different flavors Treehouse offers? What inspired them?
Each of the flavors were inspired from an adventure or an experience I’ve had. The Nectar uses a coconut milk and coconut sugar which was inspired by the time I spent the winter surfing in Bali and when the surf was flat for a few days I hopped on the motorbike and rode to the east side of the island where it’s coconut trees as far as the horizon. I bumped into a coconut farmer while filling up at a gas station and he offered to give me a tour of his coconut farm. We rode our motorbikes to various coconut farms around his region of the island and he even brought me to a secret mountain top moonshine operation! The road to that one was so steep that if we stopped our bikes we’d start sliding back down the dirt road. It was fun stuff!
The Cherrywood uses a cherry wood smoked sea salt from the Oregon coast. For me that’s close to my heart because when I moved from Singapore to Oregon at 18 I learned to surf here. I’ve swallowed my fair share of Oregon sea water over the years to the point where I feel it’s a big part of me. I was excited to find an Oregon based salt maker just 5 blocks from my shop.
The Camp was inspired by wanting a decent cup of coffee on my many adventures and never finding one that was quite up to snuff. I decided to create my dream hot morning beverage option. CAMP was born! It’s a mocha in a bag and it’s honestly better than you can get in most coffee shops.
The Original was the foundation concept… a thick rich drinking chocolate you can make with just hot water. Organic, and directly sourced from farmer owned cooperatives…. True to the roots of cacao farming, which is what got me interested in chocolate in the first place.
From start to finish, can you speak towards the process of how this chocolate comes to live?
We pick an organic farmer owned cooperative, in this case we source from a region in Northern Peru (Oro Verde). I work with my buddy Juan, (who lives in Portland and grew up in that region of Peru) to source the beans by the ton. These beans are roasted and ground down into liquid chocolate for about 3 days, then poured into blocks. Those blocks are shaven down into a powder, and mixed with organic cocoa powder, organic skim milk powder, and other delicious ingredients to form blends which you just add hot water to for an epic chocolate experience.
What were some of the hardest things about starting this company?
Everything! Joking… no, I’m not sure how to answer that one. I’d say it’s not for everyone, but if you really love something and think it should be brought to the world, then you’ve got to give it your everything or you’ll always regret not trying. I’d rather fail epically a hundred times than never try to make my dreams come to life. It’s just a way of being for me.
It says on your site you were raised in Singapore, sailed around the Pacific, and ended up farming cacao beans in Hawaii, can you speak to how your adventures have gotten you to this point?
Yup, I feel like I spent a large part of my life gathering stories. Like opting to take a 2 week sailing adventure to get from Singapore to Bali instead of a 4 hour plane ride. That 2 week sailing trip turned into an epic adventure when we got struck by lightning and lost all navigation/radio equipment in the heaviest pirated waters of Indonesia. Then when I got off the boat I found myself stranded amidst the chaos of some civil unrest on the island of Sulawesi and spent 3 weeks living with a family in a little village waiting for the next ferry to arrive.
Experiences like this can’t be bought or found with convenience… it’s a concept our grandparents understood inherently. My grandpa used to describe the importance of the development of character in the same sentence as he’d describe hard work or discomfort. The cultivation of adventure requires us to put ourselves into uncomfortable circumstances and find out what we’re made of.
What on earth does that have to do with your question?… well, I guess all the adventures I’ve put myself through have led to this point, and every time I run into something with Treehouse which seems nearly impossible, I look back on all the seemingly impossible stuff I’ve made it through and think… this is totally doable.
Out of all the places you could have chosen to start this company, why the Pacific Northwest?
I love it here! It’s where the city meets the country in every sense of the concept. You can be in the most serene and remote environment within 1 hour of the city. The people are down to earth and see the value in simplicity. Things like bike lanes are normal here.
I just built a tiny house setup and live on 1/3rd acre of land about 4 miles from my shop. It’s pretty sweet waking up and feeling like I’m back in my little farm bungalow on Kauai but being a few minutes away from my chocolate factory in the center of the city. After spending most of my life traveling around remote islands and living on farms in Hawaii, Portland is the biggest city I’d feel comfortable living in. It’s just right for me.
What would you say your biggest achievements have been since starting Treehouse, as a company?
Every day is huge for me! I wake up and say… “Let’s do this thing!” I’d say being interviewed by you guys and making it to this point right now is a pretty damn big achievement!
What advice would you give to a young person trying to start similar business?
Make sure you love it and are doing it for the right reasons and either be prepared to fail epically or succeed epically… try to avoid the in between stuff.
What’s the next step for Treehouse Chocolate?
We’re going to start working with a Canadian distributor to cover Canada in Treehouse drinking chocolate. Also we just signed up for a booth at the New York City Fancy Food Show, so in June we’ll be launching our product line on the east coast. That’s a pretty big move for us.
We’re also working on some really rad new stuff that I can’t tell you about but will be launching early this summer… it’s going to knock your socks off!