SW Chocolate & Coffee Fest Trip Report & Travelogue | #PodSaveChocolate

SW Chocolate & Coffee Fest Trip Report & Travelogue | #PodSaveChocolate

Episode 34 of #PodSaveChocolate is a presentation of my impressions of the 2024 Southwest Chocolate & Coffee Fest as a first-time participant – traveler, presenter, judge, and guest.

When and Where to Watch

This episode airs live, starting at 10:00 AM PDT/MST (11:00 MDT, 12:00 CDT, 13:00 EDT) on Friday, April 12th, 2024.
SW Chocolate & Coffee Fest Trip Report & Travelogue | #PodSaveChocolate
Episode 34 Overview – Living #LaVidaCocoa #TheChocolateLife one story at a time.Destination: AlbuquerqueVenue: Expo NMEvent: The 2024 Southwest Chocolate & C…

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Episode 34 Overview

Destination: Albuquerque
Venue: Expo NM
Event: The 2024 Southwest Chocolate & Coffee Fest

Southwest Chocolate and Coffee Fest – The largest chocolate and coffee festival in the nation.

The day started early, before dawn. It was a crisp (about freezing), Friday morning in early April.

After making a thermos of coffee (AeroPress) and finishing packing my rented late-model Prius, I headed out of Prescott, west along State Rtes 69 and 169 on my way to Interstate 17 where the route turns NNE through the Coconino National Forest bypassing Sedona to Flagstaff, where it intersects Interstate 40. From there the route took me more or less due-east into the rising sun.

Google Maps estimated a driving time of six-and-a-half hours, not including the time zone change from MST to MDT.

Before I left, I planned to limit myself to two stops as, with the added hour, I wanted to arrive at the festival grounds, Expo NM, as early as possible. This was because I knew I was booked solid on Saturday and Sunday. I wanted to make sure I knew my way around the venue, was familiar with the room where my classes were being held, met up with the people who would be helping me set up for the classes, and had some chance to meet up with as many exhibitors as possible during before the chaos of the show unfurled.

I’d spent quite a bit of time as a child in this part of the country. I grew up in Southern California and we visited family friends just north of Phoenix regularly. We also took car camping vacations every summer, during which we visited many of the national monuments and parks west of the Continental Divide.

Leaving Flagstaff, the landscape was both familiar and foreign. To my left some aspects jogged recent memory — I’d seen much of it from the lounge car of an Amtrak Viewliner train almost exactly one year ago on my move from the East Coast out west. The driving weather was good – clear, though still cold. However, as I approached Winslow the wind started to pick up, causing the way in front of me to be obscured by blown sand. I stopped on the eastern edge of Winslow for fresh coffee at the MOJO Coffee Roasting Co. & Cafe [« Google Maps link].

Walking inside, holding my chocolate-brown cloth baseball cap firmly to my head to keep it from blowing away, I discovered a small fluid-bed coffee roaster tucked into a corner. After freshening up I got a black dark-roast drip coffee (much better than I had any expectations for it!) and headed back out into the glare, the breeze, and the dust.

Soon, the landscape began to seem eerily, dreamily familiar, as if I had passed through this place before. When I saw the first sign saying Petrified Forest National Park [« Google Maps link] I realized that I had been on this road as a child. Sometime in the mid-1960s – well before The Eagles and Jackson Browne started admonishing everyone to Take It Easy while making Winslow, Arizona a pop culture iconic destination on par with Route 66 (which cuts through town a lengthy stone’s throw south of I40).

Leaving Petrified Forest National Park a distant memory out the driver-side window, the rest of the drive to Albuquerque was windy but otherwise uneventful. I arrived in Albuquerque around 2-ish and headed straight to the festival grounds.

I’d been in Albuquerque just a year ago, but as I had taken commuter rail from Santa Fe to the downtown transport center I recognized nothing from the interstate. GPS directions were solid and I found myself entering Gate 3 of Expo NM and found the assigned parking without problems.

I’ve been attending trade shows as an exhibitor, presenter, and member of the press since 1983. Very early on I picked up the habit of visiting the venue during setup day whenever possible. It’s a chance to learn where everything is located and there is the possibility of meeting people in a far more casual atmosphere and having conversations uninterrupted by attendees during the show. While the festival end of the setup was substantially complete, there were many stands that were completely empty – the exhibitors would show up early to get ready the morning of.

About 5:00 I headed to my hotel, checked in, unpacked, freshened up, and headed down to the lobby bar. I’d extended an invitation to all the chocolate exhibitors to join me there (if they could) for a chance to relax and meet other exhibitors – something they might not be able to do during show hours. Meetings like this are something I did for all the bean-to-bar classes I hosted in Las Vegas. While only a small handful of people showed up, the conversations were interesting and, as often happens, introductions were made that could lead to business.

So, mission accomplished.

The Southwest Chocolate & Coffee Fest

I showed up bright and early – 7:30-ish — at the venue. The temperature was in the high 30s, it was blustery, rain was threatening, and that was the forecast for most of the day. As many activities and exhibitors were outside, there was a last-minute scramble to move things indoors where possible. As my first class started at 11:15 and the doors did not open until 10:00, I made use of the time to wander the show during the calm before the storm.

First Impressions

The SWCCF combines two favorites – chocolate and coffee – with wine and beer, along with a wide variety of complementary foods; from gourmet popcorn to caramels to ice cream, BBQ rubs, pickles, and cooking and demo classes, merch, live music at multiple locations, and more. While 2024 was the 14th edition, the crowd is not obviously a chocolate-savvy crowd, at least not in the way that the crowd attending the NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle seems to be. The offerings include craft chocolate but that’s not the focus, and the background of the organizers is theater/music/dance, not event management, and that different background expresses itself here.

I had a small aside with Dean Strober of Blue River Productions, the organizer of the Fest and my main contact, late Friday afternoon where we laughed about the scene from Shakespeare in Love where Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush) remarks about how things just sort of magically come together out of the chaos at the last minute. No one knows why or how – but they do.

This year, the featured territory was Hawaii. There were several featured chocolate and coffee vendors from the state throughout the venue and there was a room dedicated to Hawaiian tasting classes.

I was in the room where my classes were being held at 10:00 when the doors opened. When I made my way out onto the main floor at about 10:15 the space was already quite crowded, with people moving about fairly freely and already queueing up in front of stands to taste and buy. The fest was crowded but not unbearably so the entire day, and for the most part all of the guests took the weather into account and were very polite.

But I was not there to wander the show, I was there to give four classes – the Grand Tasting Classes, to be precise. And to moderate an interview on the “Art and Business of Chocolate.” And to judge the Guittard Dessert Competition. So I don’t have a lot of photos of stands and products and the crowds.

One of the things I enjoyed about working with Dean and his crew in advance of the Fest is that we spent a lot of time – more than I had ever spent in advance of an event before – going over the details. And there were a lot of details; I was giving four of these classes, two on Saturday and two on Sunday.

When I arrived on Friday, I learned that all four classes were completely sold out, in advance. (Not just mine, all the ticketed tasting classes were sold out.)

In addition to having 10 (ten!) chocolates on each mat, there were two wines and at the very end, a cup of freshly made hot chocolate. As you can see in the above photos, there was a bowl on each table with a cocoa pod and a mallet. Each class started with one person at each table breaking open the pod, which was passed around the table and every person was encouraged to grab one or more seeds and taste the pulp.

That’s as much as I am going to describe of the classes here – if you want to know more about what went on, watch the episode,


I’d followed my better instincts on Saturday after the show to go back to the hotel, pursue a simple (and early) dinner option, and get as much sleep as possible after what had been two long and exhausting days.

Sunday dawned, bright, clear, and cool – much warmer than Saturday. I struck out slightly later and caught breakfast at a diner not far from the fairgrounds. I found myself wandering the show floor by 9:00 (for a 10:00 show start), talking with exhibitors about how sales went on Saturday. Some reported they’d sold out of everything they brought with them and had to go back to the kitchen and replenish. Many of the chocolate makers reported excellent sales and some were nearly sold out by the end of the first day. In a word? Excellent!

In addition to my two, 75-minute classes (at 11:15 and 1:15) I was scheduled to be one of three judges in the Guittard Dessert Challenge.

The Dessert Challenge is for amateur bakers and there are three awards in two classes – adult and under-18. This was my first stint as a judge but fortunately, the other two judges, Grace and Troy Lapsys, were veterans of this competition and walked me through the minutiae in advance.

This year there were nine entries. Our first task was to visually examine all of the entries (appearance was one of the judging criteria), which were arrayed on a table, along with their entry numbers, a description, and an ingredient list.

Once this was done, we were served each entry, in order, while the baker introduced themselves and described their creation to the judges and the assembled audience. We tasted each piece, rated them, and provided feedback to the baker.

I will end the written portion here – I will go into more detail in the episode.

Monday – The Drive Back

I awoke, finished packing, and checked out of the hotel before dawn. I headed back to I40, started driving west against the direction of rotation of the earth, and caught glimpses of the sun rising above the hills in my rear-view mirror through the clouds. Unfortunately (the date is April 8) I was pointed in the wrong direction to view the eclipse and the forecast called for it to be overcast for most of the day.

As I had a late deadline to return the car, I had decided to take a longer route on my way back to Prescott from ABQ. So, just east of Grants, I40 and I departed company, and I headed south on State Rte 117 through El Malpais National Conservation Area. Almost immediately upon entering the protected lands, I spotted a herd of deer and a herd of cattle. The scenery was spectacular, the road just two lanes, and the sun hitting the peaks of some of the hills brought a huge smile to my face and I realized I had made a good decision to take the long way back.

I searched for diners along the route for breakfast and found one in a little town called Quemado, about two-and-a-half hours into the drive. When I got there I found the diner had permanently closed (of course). Fortunately, right next door, was a food truck offering really quite excellent breakfast sandwiches and okay coffee. I asked one of the people working the truck about the history of the town (why was it there?), and what I learned is that Quemado (she pronounced it kwuh-mah-doe) had burned down at some point in the past and the town was renamed Quemado because the word meant burned.

More fully informed and feeling more awake after finishing my sandwich and coffee, I headed west on State Rte 60 towards Show Low, Arizona. Along the way, the route would pass through 7000 feet in elevation. The sky started to brighten (I was not able to discern any darkening from the eclipse through the clouds), and the scenery continued to astound.

One interesting thing about the drive from I40 to Show Low was that I encountered almost no vehicles traveling in the same direction. Just one from I40 to Quemado and just two from Quemado until about ten miles before Show Low. It was really quite enjoyable not having to contend with impatient drivers.

From Show Low to Prescott there was always some traffic heading west. There was spectacular scenery, a lot of fun driving down extended 6%+ grades, but no more deer (or even cattle). The sky continued to clear and brighten and by the time I arrived in Camp Verde where my route intersected I17 (which I would take south for a ways before heading west on the final leg back to Prescott), it was a brilliant, clear blue, again.


If you’re looking for a hugely fun festival to participate in as an exhibitor or guest, you should seriously consider heading to Albuquerque for the Southwest Chocolate & Coffee Fest.

The dates for the 2025 SW Chocolate & Coffee Fest have been announced – the weekend of April 5-6. Mark it in your calendar and start making plans now!

While you’re in ABQ, consider taking a side trip to Santa Fe (there’s a commuter rail option) and check it out. The downtown ABQ is walkable, if a tad touristy, and there is the Georgia O’Keefe Museum to consider. There’s also some interesting chocolate and coffee to take in.

And while you’re in New Mexico, make sure you check out hatch chile in anything as well as the state cookie – the biscochito!

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The Tuesday, April 16th episode of PodSaveChocolate will feature a discussion of The High Cost of Expensive Cocoa.

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