Interview With Aaron Koch, Founder of Treehouse Chocolate

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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.

Why choco­late?

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.

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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.

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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!

Buy Tree­house Choco­late Here