“How much time do you have?” asks Koch, when I ask him about the journey that led him from his childhood home in Singapore to Portland, Oregon, where he's currently elbow-deep (literally) in a fresh batch of chocolate.
It's been a few years since Aaron Koch bought a shipping container, transformed it into his workspace and began crafting small batches of artisan drinking chocolate under the name Treehouse Chocolate.
The idea was simple: Do justice to the craft and spirit of cacao farming; commit to clean, natural ingredients; use only the best organic cacao, and make sure it's sustainably sourced directly from farmers.
His menu currently boasts four flavors, including Cherrywood (which is flavored with sea salt harvested from the Oregon coast) and Camp, a hot chocolate and coffee hybrid perfect for early morning adventures.The taste? As amazing as it sounds. The story? Even better.
Aaron has spent most of his life following whims, like the time he hitchhiked to Saigon or the day he accidently found himself in the middle of a civil war. And then there was that solo trip to the Himalayas, a stint working on a dive boat and that time he decided to go to Papa New Guinea and ended up in those aforementioned dangerous waters.
“I was at home in Singapore, and if you want to go somewhere, you just go down to the docks and ask around,” he explains, saying he eventually scored a bunk on a 65-foot Alaskan fishing boat that had been hit by a freighter and converted into a sailboat — one he discovered later was en route to pick up the singer Jack Johnson.
“Apparently that boat is in the film 'Thicker Than Water',” Koch laughs, “And it was late to pick him up, so instead of going south, we cut a beeline right through really heavily pirated waters.”
“It got really intense for, like, five days when we were between islands,” says a laughing Koch. “We were so close to land we could see people on the beach. We were nervous.
“The two Thai guys on the boat kept grabbing the shotgun and shooting up anything they saw — like, a log floating in the water — and we'd all hit the deck, you know?”
That was before the boat's mast was struck by lightning.
“We were in those waters and a monsoon hit us," he remembers. “My bunk was the top bunk and there was a little window in front of my head. For some reason I opened my eyes at three in the morning and I saw lightening hit the mast. In the morning we had no radar, no radio and zero electricity.”
It makes sense that Koch's fascination with chocolate goes hand-in-hand with adventure, too. After learning to surf from some friends in Oregon, he followed them to Hawaii and started working at various farms around Kauai, eventually landing a position at a cacao farm.
“I'd worked with a ton of other crops, but when I saw the cacao plant — this fascinating, understory plant — it just made sense to me,” he says. “The plant needs the shade of the jungle to survive, so instead of stripping the earth like you would to harvest sugar cane or pineapples, cacao is really good for the whole ecosystem.”
It took a few tries to get it right (Koch founded one business hawking antidepressant and aphrodisiac chocolates, another selling sugar-free chef's chocolate), but eventually, he launched Treehouse Chocolate, inspired by the treehouse he stayed in while in Hawaii and formulated to be thick, rich, delicious — and to put watery, powdered hot cocoa to shame.
“Each flavor is something I would personally want,” Koch explains. “The Cherrywood is inspired by surfing on the Oregon coast. The Camp came from the hassle of dealing with a French press — this one you can just wake up and turn the Jet Boil on for.
“The coconut one is inspired by a surf trip to Bali a few years ago, when I watched a parade of men with machetes climb trees and collect nectar from the coconut flower. Each one is part of my story, in a way,” he said.
More from GrindTV