The first whiff was mysterious and bad ... very, very bad.
Funky gym socks had nothing on a miasma of decayed fruit and steamy asphalt that wafted through a family car cruising Ecuador’s Cloud Forest, where cacao trees thrive among the howler monkeys and misty air, back in 1990. Impoverished cacao farmers, lacking ovens, often dry and ferment their beans right along the highway. Thus, the reek.
Little Sebastian Cisneros asked his brother: “What is that?” “It’s going to become chocolate,” he said. Who knows how; it just did. You know, magically. For a 5-year-old chocolate fiend, the notion was gross and cool. Cisneros had to know more—“hooked forever” as he puts it.
He wasn’t kidding. Twenty-eight years later, a place called Cloudforest—2,500 square feet of chocolate making and chocolate drinking—has arrived in Portland, Cisneros’s adopted home since 2007. For years, he flew under the radar as Cocanú, infusing bars with bittersweet eloquence and oblique flavors, like Pop Rocks or Ecuador’s shamanistic “holy wood.” Each came tucked in a letter-pressed, wax-stamped origami wrapper that unfolds like a flopsy flower. Cloudforest (the new name for the chocolate factory, espresso counter, and bar collection) is Cisneros’s coming out party. “Sebastian is Portland’s most talented chocolate maker—just incredibly nuanced,” says Aubrey Lindley, co-owner of downtown chocolate bar shrine Cacao, where Cisneros worked for five years.
He started as a chocolatier, working with a premade base. With Cloudforest, Cisneros joins the more fanatical bean-to-bar movement, where carefully sourced whole beans are roasted, ground, smoothed, and formed into something more personal—a process on display at the shop through a giant glass window up front. Steps away, the house chocolate seeps into everything at the espresso counter—choco-lattes to chocolate croissants—run by ace barista Tim Roth.
The house drinking chocolate is already a find—pudding-luscious and sweetened with the rounded hit of maple syrup. It marches over the tongue like desire. From the shelves, check out the bars pushing the boundaries of “white chocolate:” a Japanese-esque Goma bar goes gray-green with cacao butter, black sesame paste and matcha dustings; the Bruno tastes like a buzzsawing, chocolate-dipped espresso bean, despite containing no actual chocolate.
The 33-year-old’s latest project? Ecuadoran Cloud Forest vanilla pods, which he transforms into the best extract I’ve tasted, doubling down on fragrance while spinning a rich, almost syrupy texture. Cisneros, whose voice is as soft as a brownie crumb, even dabs it on his wrist, like perfume: “I wave my hand and smell like marshmallows and lilies. Crazy!”
I like this guy.