Cacao to craft cocoa

Matt Armstrong

Photo by Shannon Rooney

Matt Armstrong’s love for making craft chocolate can be traced to 2010, when he traveled to Panama to visit his brother, who was working with cacao farmers in the Peace Corps. Armstrong had just graduated from Chico State with a degree in communications, and he found his career path after learning from indigenous tribespeople how to make chocolate in their traditional way. Upon returning to California, he and his brother opened a wholesale drinking-chocolate business and cafe in Santa Cruz, which they sold in 2016. After a brief detour to Denver, where he joined forces with a different chocolate maker, Armstrong decided to come home to Butte County—he was born and raised in Paradise—and start his own company, Armstrong Chocolate Co. One thing he’s maintained along the way is a commitment to purchasing top-quality cacao from ethically sound farms. You can find him most Saturdays at his vendor table at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, where he sells drinking chocolate as well as bars. He’s happy to chat with customers about anything related to chocolate—he uses a cacao bean, bigger than his hand, to spark conversation—and he often offers samples. Go to for more info.

You buy cacao beans from places like Costa Rica and Belize. How do you choose?

Some [of the things I consider] include proper management of trees, watering, shade, correct harvesting practices, and especially fermentation, with five to seven days the average.

What have you learned from visiting cacao farms?

I’ve learned to assess cacao …. Assessment includes aromatics, taste, textures, what it visually looks like, fermentation—when it has a good ferment, it has a very fruity smell. If it’s musky, you know something went wrong. You can’t always know what happened, but you have to know what off-quality looks like.

How do you buy the cacao you use?

I work with a broker who visits the [cacao] farms and does an evaluation. Working with a broker is critical. It’s not unusual for an armed person to be with the cacao. In some countries, you can’t be a foreigner with no established connections [and visit the farms].

How do you hope to share what you do with Butte County?

I like to teach chocolate classes, talk about chocolate, and share with youth the importance of travel. That one trip [to Panama] changed me in the direction of chocolate. I’m available to visit classrooms and talk about chocolate in relationship to topics like chemistry, history and more. I’d also like to team up with some restaurants.

What’s the status of craft chocolate right now?

Craft chocolate is where craft beer was about 10 years ago. Before, you couldn’t get machinery that was scaled down. A person in Washington state started making things like a winnower, refiners and grinders. He just started experimenting, asking, “What can I build to make chocolate in my home?”