Photo courtesy Emily Wiswesser, Chugach Chocolates

Forrest Gump’s mom saw life as a box of chocolates: “You never know what you’re gonna get.” With good brands, you do know. Marketing Alaska craft-food gift-boxes, Ryan Wiswesser and his wife, Emily, in 2016 bought Girdwood’s Chugach Chocolates from two fourth-generation chocolatiering brothers and added flair and excellence. 

As with coffee, the bean quality is crucial. The Wiswessers’—fermented and dried in the pods after harvesting—come from Madagascan, Dominican, Fijian, and Vietnamese rainforest farms. At their Anchorage factory, two-pound batches are roasted, the shells cracked, and the seeds winnowed and then broken into cacao nibs. Finely ground, these become “chocolate liquor,” which, when pressed, separates into cocoa butter and powder. After sugar and flavorings have been folded in, the mixture, tempered for optimal snap and gloss, is poured into molds on a marble cooling-table to be hand-cut and scored.

Bittersweet creations of this four-person business incorporate specialties rarely sold elsewhere: kelp, sourdough, birch-syrup toffee, Prince William Sound sea salt, and Mat-Su Valley potato chips. Wiswesser, a foodie-tinkerer who “sort of fell into chocolate,” strives for “good balance and some complexity.” Because of its pronounced notes, “you typically need strong flavors to pair with it, otherwise it completely overwhelms the other flavors.” Samplers, single-origin bars, hot chocolate mixes, and a mix for brownies round out the assortment of bliss. A one-time Bostonian always on the go, Wiswesser has growth plans: a chunky trail bar, a tasting room, and chocolate classes. He’s also considering spruce tips, even mushrooms and salmon.

Making chocolate bars is a temperature-sensitive process, but cold isn’t the issue. Some summers, the midnight sun chocolatiers start at 3 a.m. so batches can properly set before the room heats up too much. 

That’s probably why the Aztecs drank their xocoatl instead of shaping it into tablets. They believed the cocoa tree bridged heaven and earth and that this “Food of the Gods” imbibed at sacrifices and weddings granted them wisdom. Having more antioxidants than blueberries, dark chocolate indeed boosts blood circulation to the brain and produces endorphins. A choice bar for many Alaskans keeps the winter blues at bay. 

Chocolate bar with scattered salt
A Chugach Chocolates bestseller, with notes of Prince William Sound. Courtesy Emily Wiswesser, Chugach Chocolates

Chocolate at the Chilkoot

Rapid City’s sourdoughs welcomed 1899 with canned pineapples, pie, and hot cocoa. Miners hauled two-chambered beef-and-cocoa concentrate tin “cartridge rations” over the Chilkoot Pass. One camp subsisted on chocolate and cereal for months without suffering scurvy. “There is more nutriment in cocoa or chocolate,” a pamphlet advised, “than in nearly any food product.”

~ Michael Engelhard


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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