After closing time at Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe one evening last month, twenty heads bent over plates with small squares of dark chocolate set around the rim. Twenty mouths worked busily and forty eyes gleamed bright. “I smell jasmine,” a coiffed middle-aged woman told her co-workers. Her friend was already on to the next sample. “Oh, that’s smoky!” she exclaimed.
Such a scene wouldn’t have taken place even five years ago. Until recently, any American who could discern the difference between bittersweet and baking chocolate might have passed as sophisticated. All the rest of us knew, pretty much, was light and dark, and by and large we preferred the light. But those days may soon be history. Just as beer and coffee have been turned into experiences rather than mere habits, chocolate enthusiasts in the gastronomically forward-looking Bay Area have begun to view the cacao bean much the way an oenophile perceives wine grapes. Forget Hershey, Pennsylvania: A new crop of manufacturers, confectioners, publishers, vendors, and serious connoisseurs — many of them based here in the East Bay — are bestowing upon the cacao-challenged a bewildering array of new choices. Would you like 62 percent or 84 percent cocoa content? Criollo or Forastero? Do you prefer your beans from Venezuela, or would Javanese or Ghanaian varieties be more to your liking?
Welcome to the Chocolate Revolution.
It’s Good for You
To get a sense of the staggering variety making its way to market, look no further than Bittersweet, which opened five months ago in Oakland’s upscale Rockridge neighborhood. The quirky little cafe, done up in lime green, orange, and — ahem — chocolate brown, froths up six different styles of hot chocolate to drink. Its pastry chef, Bonnie Rostan, bakes chocolate cupcakes, chocolate croissants, and brownies. But the truly impressive sight is the cafe’s wall of high-end products: more than one hundred bars, ranging in size from small batons to appetizer plates. Some, like the Maison Pralus Vanuatu — the smoky one — sport high-design paper and plastic packages that show off their contents like a low-cut dress. Others, such as Chocolove’s Vintage 2004 São Tomé bittersweet, are hand wrapped. Yet others, like Vosges’ coconut-curry milk chocolate, seem about as far from a Nestlé Crunch as it gets.
Bittersweet’s resident guru is co-owner Seneca Klassen, who introduces the tasting with a lecture on cacao processing and the history of chocolate. Though he has absorbed an astonishing knowledge of the technical minutiae, the trim, quick-spoken Klassen started out in graphic design, not confections. During a Hawaiian vacation several years ago, he toured a cacao plantation, which stirred up memories of childhood trips to Honduras to visit an uncle who did agricultural consulting on similar plantations for USAID. The tour also recharged Klassen’s curiosity about the pods behind the bar. He returned to the Bay Area convinced that there must be variations in chocolate as great as those in wine — and that other people out there would share his fascination.
Three of them, in fact, decided to join Klassen in opening a store devoted exclusively to chocolate. Beth Rostan, his wife’s best friend from college, came on board to manage operations. Her old boss, Penny Finnie, one of the founders of Ask Jeeves, had been raving about the dark hot chocolate she’d sipped in France, so Beth arranged a dinner between Klassen and Finnie. The two hit it off. Finally, the team persuaded Beth’s sister, Bonnie, a restaurant industry vet, to move from Kauai to Oakland to run the bakery. Over the next two years, the four traveled to Europe and South America, contacted suppliers, and tasted hundreds of varieties, compiling a database of their tastings.
In January, following eight months of remodeling, they opened their small storefront. Locals responded so enthusiastically that the owners had to rethink their business plan: “We reached in the first month where we thought we’d be in a year,” Klassen says.
Bittersweet isn’t the only local store to catch on: Whole Foods, Star Market, Berkeley Bowl, and even Trader Joe’s now stock dozens of dark chocolate bars — all priced far higher than the standard brands — and new varieties appear on their shelves every month. It’s not that Americans are eating more of the stuff. The Chocolate Manufacturers Association reports that the average American ate 11.64 pounds of chocolate in 2002, down from 12.2 pounds four years earlier. And overall chocolate sales in the United States are growing at a relatively stagnant rate of 3 percent to 4 percent — about on par with inflation — according to a 2005 report compiled by market research firm Packaged Facts. Yet sales of gourmet chocolate are growing at a brisk annual rate of 16 percent. We’re not buying more; we’re buying better.
The Packaged Facts report put 2003 gourmet chocolate sales at $243 million, and although its definition of “gourmet” includes the best-selling milk chocolate Dove Promises, both Packaged Facts and market research firm Mintel International also report that consumption of dark chocolate is on the rise. There are a number of explanations for this trend: Some authors suggest older people are more likely to prefer the potent complexity of darker chocolate — and America is certainly aging. We’re traveling more, too, and encountering different styles of dark chocolate in Europe and South America.
The main reason, however, may be health. In the past five years a number of studies — some industry-funded, some not — have found that chocolate contains high levels of flavonoids, a class of antioxidants, and everyone knows those are good for you. In 2002, for example, researchers at UC San Francisco reported that chocolate flavonoids help blood vessels expand. Two months ago, Georgetown University scientists revealed that another component in cocoa had anticancer properties. Yet more studies have reported that the stearic acid present in chocolate lowers blood levels of so-called “bad” cholesterol. “I think the studies give people license to eat a product that they’re not sure is good for them,” says Gary Guittard, owner of Guittard Chocolate Company in Burlingame.
All the press surrounding these health studies mentions that the higher the cocoa content, the more potent the beneficial effects. Furthermore, the scientists state that the extra cocoa butter and sugar in milk chocolate tend to cancel out all the antioxidant goodness. In response, Mars and Barry Callebaut, two of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers, have trademarked processes for producing high-antioxidant chocolates. Other manufacturers, such as Hershey, are introducing dark-chocolate lines.
Also fueling the revolution, however, is a growing fascination with chocolate as an agricultural product, not simply a flavoring. Americans want to know where their wine grapes, coffee beans, and turnips come from. Why shouldn’t they wonder about cacao, too?
Klassen credits a local source for piquing that curiosity. “I think you have to tip your hat to Scharffen Berger,” he says. “Before Scharffen Berger, it was very rare to see people source beans and make chocolate from them — Scharffen Berger was the first American company in over fifty years to start with the raw product.”
You won’t find a chocoholic in the Bay Area who isn’t familiar with Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker. Founded in 1997 by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg, this fast-growing company has quickly become the emblem of American artisanal chocolate making.
An addiction to the dark stuff didn’t get Robert Steinberg into this biz. Cancer did. After Steinberg, himself a medical doctor, received a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1990, he stopped working full-time in his family practice and began reassessing his life. He cooked more. He traveled. He took drawing classes.
The 58-year-old chocolatier, who appears dour until you realize how often small smiles punctuate his gravitas, also spent a lot of time hanging out in cafes and restaurants, getting to know the folks who worked behind the counter. In doing so, he befriended restaurateur and small-scale coffee roaster Bob Voorhees. At some point their conversations turned to chocolate-making, and Voorhees, knowing his friend was looking for a project, asked whether Steinberg had ever considered it. “[Voorhees] knew I liked to cook and had this background in science,” he recalls. “He had looked into making chocolate, and had found the need to understand the science too daunting.”
Voorhees lent Steinberg a technical book on chocolate manufacturing, and the semiretired physician was soon seduced by the combination of agriculture and taste, science and geography. “It was so complex and surprising,” he says. “It was like pulling the disguise off of something. Here’s chocolate, this thing that we all think we know, but you look under the surface and it’s something different.”
Steinberg began planning his travels around chocolate. He toured the prestigious Chuao cacao-growing region of Venezuela, and accompanied Voorhees to Lyon to visit the atelier of Jean-Jacques Bernachon, one of France’s most reputed chocolatiers. He read more, took technical courses, and began corresponding with chocolate makers on how he could obtain equipment.
American manufacturers were willing to talk machinery, but didn’t otherwise open their doors to him. Eventually Steinberg wrote Bernachon to ask if he could intern there. In 1994, the famed chocolate maker, now in his eighties, allowed the American two weeks to observe, ask questions, and help out where needed. What struck Steinberg most was how small Bernachon’s shop was, and how it managed to make top-quality chocolate from cacao beans on such a scale. He returned to the States impatient to get started.
If Steinberg gave Scharffen Berger its soul, then John Scharffenberger provided the flair. Quick-witted where Steinberg is pensive, and savvy in managing and promoting a growing business, Scharffenberger has emerged as head of the company. But in 1996 he had just sold Scharffenberger Cellars — the winery he’d founded fifteen years earlier — to Veuve Clicquot, and he, like Steinberg, was on the lookout for a something new.
Scharffenberger says Steinberg won him over by handing him a lump of French chocolate. Intrigued by the idea of doing with chocolate what he’d done with sparkling wine, Scharffenberger decided he was in. The partners began to source beans and search for small-scale equipment, largely funded by the sale of Scharffenberger’s winery. By 1997, they had imported a collection of old chocolate-making machines from Germany and set them up in a space in South San Francisco. The two started making chocolate in Bernachon’s style, with a winemaker’s palate and high-quality beans from all over the world.
Even today, there are only a dozen chocolate makers in the United States, and most are what the French call fondeurs, or “melters.” Premium chocolatiers in the Bay Area such as Michael and Jacky Recchiuti, Lisa Lerner, and Joseph Schmidt buy couverture (or “covering” chocolate), then flavor, adjust, and temper it to fit their purposes. Few dare to start with cacao beans, especially in small batches. It’s just too much work.
In the 1980s, pastry chefs started talking up the couverture they were using to make their cakes and pies, and before long the pupils of savvy chocophiles were dilating at the mention of Valrhona, the revered French chocolatier. Steinberg and Scharffenberger first sought to market their chocolate via the same route, but pastry chefs found their wares too expensive. The upstarts then brought some bars to hawk at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Crowds surrounded their table, and Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker’s business plan turned on a dime to focus on consumers.
Before long, countless news outlets were trumpeting the story of Steinberg and Scharffenberger as the first American chocolate manufacturing company to start up in a half-century. Scharffen Berger was also the first American chocolate maker to advertise the cocoa content of its product in the French fashion. Theirs wasn’t just “bittersweet” chocolate, it was “70 percent cocoa bittersweet.” Chocophiles who’d glommed on to the findings of the new health studies could begin quantifying their antioxidant intake.
At first taste, the most striking thing about Scharffen Berger’s product is its distinctiveness. Like a Sonoma Zinfandel, the dark chocolate hits quick and hard. Almost before it melts, you can sense the coffee-like roastedness of the beans. Just as you’re acknowledging that flavor, cherries and plums kick in, the aromas of anise and vanilla wafting overtop. Then the fruity acids emerge — it is quite tangy — and finally, that familiar chocolate taste comes through to linger on the tongue.
People still don’t know what to make of it. “Scharffen Berger has a flavor profile that isn’t for everybody,” Bittersweet’s Klassen says. “Customers either tell me they want something like Scharffen Berger or they don’t want something like Scharffen Berger.”
Putting hype aside, Scharffen Berger didn’t exactly launch America’s chocolate revolution. Each member of the new breed of chocolate professionals interviewed for this story credited trips to Europe and Central America, not Berkeley, as inspiration for getting into the business. But all acknowledged that Scharffen Berger caught the wave just at the right moment. And they can’t have helped but notice a small new American company that was doing well. Really well.
It took Scharffen Berger just three years to outgrow its original digs. The company rehabilitated a portion of the historic Heinz factory complex in Berkeley, invested in much larger equipment, and moved production there in 2001. In seven years, its staff has ballooned from six to sixty, and with $10 million in sales last year, the company nearly doubled its 2003 revenues. This year Scharffen Berger anticipates $15 million in sales, according to Jim Harris, the company’s chief operating officer. Most of this explosion has come from improving national distribution, but the company also operates retail stores in Berkeley, San Francisco, and New York City, with a second Manhattan store and one in Healdsburg soon to follow.
Scharffen Berger now offers ninety products, including milk chocolate and organic chocolate. Chefs on both the sweet and savory sides of the kitchen have tinkered with Scharffen Berger’s unsweetened cacao nibs to coax new flavors out of the roasted, cracked beans. And although the company has recently ventured into confections such as chocolate-dipped coffee beans and dried fruits, consumers have from the start treated its plain chocolate bars as if they were truffles — a singular pleasure to be savored. “Up until Scharffen Berger, most of the chocolate that American manufacturers made was all-purpose,” notes Alice Medrich, the doyenne of chocolate in the East Bay and author of books such as Cocolat and Bittersweet. “There wasn’t an attempt to make chocolate with big personality.”
Another way Scharffenberger and Steinberg differ from the crowd is in their willingness, zeal even, to openly discuss their methods. As Roald Dahl fans may recall, Willy Wonka closed his fictional chocolate factory to the outside world after rival confectioners began stealing his secrets. Real-world chocolate makers tend to be Wonka-esque that way: In his 2005 book Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, Mort Rosenblum describes getting permission to tour the Valrhona factory in France as “a little like applying for a North Korean visa.” Even inside the factory, the bags of beans are numbered instead of named so that employees can’t identify their country of origin. Valrhona may be the extreme, but it’s certainly emblematic of an industrywide tradition of secrecy.
By contrast, Scharffenberger and Steinberg, who hail from the Californian food scene, have set out to school the public about where cacao beans come from and how the company makes its chocolate. Talking up bean quality (see “Growing Pains”) and the precision of its manufacturing process also helps the newcomer undermine the long-held public notion that Belgian and Swiss chocolate, made by firms with more than a century of experience, is the crème de la crème. The tactic has paid off. Everyone who takes Scharffen Berger’s factory tour these days emerges a de facto member of its marketing team. School trips, tour buses, mother-daughter bonding dates — about forty thousand people make the rounds annually. Sometimes the owners still lead tours themselves, as Steinberg recently did with a group of docents for the California Academy of Sciences’ upcoming chocolate exhibition, which begins June 11 in San Francisco. Asked whether he isn’t worried about rivalry, Scharffenberger practically shouts: “I welcome it! In fact, I’m surprised that Seattle doesn’t have its own chocolate company, and New Orleans its own.”
Indeed, as the players in the 1970s wine revolution can testify, fueling America’s interest in premium chocolate will likely fuel the sales of every premium chocolate maker. Besides, the US market for high-grade chocolate is potentially vast and lucrative enough that there’s still room to be generous.
Hills of Beans
Spend fifteen minutes reading packages at Bittersweet and you’ll become familiar with the names of the three major cacao-tree varietals: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero.
Long before Columbus and Cortés, the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs bred what is now called Criollo (say cree-oyo, Spanish for “native”) cacao trees to produce beans with a complex, fruity aroma and soft finish. Cultivated by indigenous peoples all over Central America by the time of the Conquest, Criollos were the beans the Spanish first encountered, and the trees they took to Venezuela in the 1540s to establish the first colonial cacao plantations. Criollo trees have made their way to select spots as far away as Indonesia, Madagascar, and parts of Polynesia.
At some point during the colonization of South America, the Europeans discovered another strain of cacao in the Amazon Basin. Called Forastero, this strain produces more beans and — more importantly — is hardier than delicate Criollos. Forastero trees went to other parts of South America, Asia, and West Africa. Over the centuries the two strains, which are pollinated by midges, have crossed and recrossed hundreds of times. The resulting hybrids are generally known as Trinitario, after Trinidad, where the first hybrid strain was documented.
Genetically speaking, some 95 percent of the world’s cacao beans are Forastero — or largely so. Forasteros often are called “bulk” beans because they are produced and sold as commodities. Chocolate makers use the more expensive “flavor” beans — Criollo and Trinitario — in small amounts for the ornate aromas and bright acids they provide to chocolate blends.
Few pure Criollo trees exist nowadays — they’re largely found in a tiny region of Venezuela. When characterizing Trinitarios, a person would say “more Criollo” or “more Forastero.” The genetic variety can be vast even when the beans come from the same estate. Steinberg likens the variation in cacao fruits to that of citrus fruits. One might be the grapefruit, one the tangelo. Even a novice can taste the distinctions.
During a factory visit John Scharffenberger proffers squares of test-batch chocolate bars that project coordinator Brad Kintzer has made using a coffee grinder. One is a Forastero from Ghana. The other is a Dominican Republic Trinitario that he calls “high up on Criollo characteristics.” The unfinished squares bend easily, their grainy texture lightly rasping the tongue.
First up, the Dominican. “You can taste the Criollo,” Scharffenberger says as we chew. “It’s high in fruit and high in fruit acids.” It’s bright and snappy, and finishes quickly. The Ghanaian Forastero comes next: It tastes like the chocolate we all know. The advantage of Forastero, Scharffenberger says, is that it has a full, earthy flavor and lingers beautifully. “You add a little of that Criollo to the Forastero, and the Forastero will carry the berry notes along with it much further.”
Chocolate: the New Wine
With all of this talk of berry notes, fruit acids, and lingering finishes, it’s clear the new guard of the chocolate world is taking more than a few cues from the wine industry. At the Bittersweet event, Klassen passed out a colorful chocolate-tasting wheel that would look familiar to anyone who has ridden the Napa wine train. Developed by the store for its customers, the wheel defines broad categories of flavor in its inner circle — spicy, fruity, vegetative — which give way to specific aromas around the outside, such as hazelnut, soil, fig, and black olive.
Mirroring decades-old events in the wine world, the appearance of a vast new variety of high-end chocolate products has created a new breed of connoisseur. Consider the Berkeley Chocolate Club, started a year and a half ago by local performer and author Leonard Pitt. If not the first club of its kind in California, it is at least the first with a Web site (BerkeleyChocolateClub.com).
Pitt and several friends — authors, critics, Bittersweet’s Finnie, and the founders of MoveOn.org — began gathering in Pitt’s home to taste chocolate bars and truffles. A formal protocol arose: no more than eight chocolates at one sitting, with the tastings moving from lowest cocoa content to highest, and sips of water in between. (Klassen advocates tasting from lowest to highest sugar content.) Pitt, who limits club size to fifteen people, has ninety more on his waiting list. He encourages others to start their own clubs. “Everyone brings a different way of seeing chocolate,” he says. “I’m always surprised. Some people who are chocolate novices have a very sophisticated palate and a sophisticated way of interpreting their experience.”
Catering to these avid chocolate consumers are the likes of San Francisco’s Alexander Morozoff, who in November launched the magazine CocoAroma. The great-grandson, grandson, and son of chocolate makers in Kobe, Japan, publishes a glossy, beautifully photographed quarterly that spotlights some of the preeminent manufacturers and cocoa-growing plantations around the world. If Chocolatier is the Good Housekeeping of chocolate magazines, CocoAroma strives to be its Saveur.
Every revolution needs its pundits, of course, new faces such as veteran tech industry exec Clay Gordon, who, after tasting a named-origin chocolate bar in France in 1994, set out to become the chocolate world’s Robert Parker — the independent American wine critic with the clout to crown kings and slay giants. “Americans have spent a lot of time and money educating themselves about gourmet food products — olive oils, farmstead cheeses, balsamic vinegars — and, in particular, wine,” Gordon says of his decade spent learning the nuances of cacao. “Almost all of that knowledge is directly transferable to chocolate.”
Three years ago, Gordon launched Chocophile.com, where he posts his reviews of specific chocolate makers and invites reader discussion, and organizes East Coast chocolate education events similar to Bittersweet’s. Also enabling the nation’s sophisticated new sweet tooth are Jerry and Joanne Kryszek, proprietors of Chocosphere.com, an online retailer of high-end dark chocolates. Business, they report, is booming. “People are becoming more and more aware of the differences,” Jerry says. “You have different winemakers and different regions. In chocolate you have very analogous things — different cacao growers, different chocolate makers applying different skills and talents to make vastly different products.”
Chocolate makers have been aware of the differences between regions and varieties since Aztec times. But marketing specific named-origin chocolates to the public like wines is a very modern phenomenon. Well, sort of. “As near as I can tell,” Gordon says, “the first company to start actively marketing terroir in chocolate was the French company Bonnat in 1903.” (Terroir is an expression often used by French winemakers to describe subtle distinctions each plot of land can impart to the same grape varietal.)
The modern push to print the cacao source on the label also came from the French. “In the mid-1970s,” Gordon explains, “the French government, in conjunction with a whole bunch of chocolatiers, got together and said, ‘There’s a lot of cheap chocolate from Belgium. We want to protect the patrimony of French chocolate. ‘”
As the French style defined itself more clearly, chocolate makers like Robert Linxe of La Maison du Chocolat and Michel Cluizel began bumping up the cocoa content of their chocolates and accentuating the fruity characteristics. “Most chocolate makers, except for the Belgians, Italians, and Swiss, perhaps, agree that the French make the most subtle, flavorful, and richest stuff in the world,” author Rosenblum says. “The French can be insufferable about this sometimes, but that does not change the basic reality.”
Around 1996 — no one can agree who did it first — Valrhona and Michel Cluizel, two French industrial manufacturers specializing in high-end chocolate, began mass-marketing high-cocoa chocolate bars from specific growing regions, even single estates. By 1997 and 1998, when Scharffen Berger was just beginning to make waves in America with its French-style chocolate, the named-origin phenomenon was rolling into high gear in Europe.
The Kryszeks had started Chocosphere.com out of their Tulatin, Oregon, home to supply the United States with artisanal Belgian chocolates, but their focus soon shifted. “In 1999 or 2000 we got our first estate chocolates in,” Jerry says. “I have built quite a clientele in them, and I can’t always satisfy our need.” Chocosphere now carries hundreds of varieties from 32 producers in Europe and the Americas. The prize for terroir hype goes to the Estate line of chocolates from the Italian company Domori, which markets bars made from three distinctive cacao clones grown at the Hacienda San José in Venezuela.
American chocolate makers have jumped on the estate-chocolate trend. In 1997, Frederick Schilling, now an Oregon-based chocolatier, launched his Dagoba line of bars, all-organic, fair-trade chocolates. More and more come from single regions, each of which is described in glowing terms in the company’s marketing materials.
In 2002 Burlingame’s Guittard, the largest privately owned chocolate manufacturer in the world, introduced the E. Guittard premium chocolate line, named after founder Emile Guittard. The company has specialized in industrial chocolate since the 1860s and supplies such companies as See’s. But this new line of chocolate bars and couverture is made with higher-quality beans and old-fashioned, smaller-scale production methods — the “Sur del Lago” comes from Venezuela, the “Chucuri” from Colombia. Fondeurs such as Michael Recchiuti and pastry chefs around the Bay Area have begun using E. Guittard. “It’s beautiful stuff,” Chocosphere’s Kryszek raves.
More recently, in 2003, Rob Polevoi and Timothy Childs started up Cabaret Chocolates out of the old Hooper’s chocolate factory in Oakland, where they make dense, smooth chocolate confections using only Carnero Superior beans, a high-Criollo Trinitario from the Barlovento region in Venezuela.
Not everyone, however, appreciates the move toward named-origin chocolate. Among the critics is Terry Richardson, a British-born confectionery teacher whose chocolate-making classes at UC Davis have attracted students from around the world, including Steinberg. “There are over five hundred compounds in chocolate, but not all chocolates have them,” he says. “I’ve worked in Venezuela and Colombia, and the chocolate there is nice but it’s flat. It begs to have other liquors blended with it.”
Steinberg also is wary of the phenomenon. The subject actually makes him a little cranky. “I see estate chocolates mostly as a marketing tool,” he says. “It’s academically interesting from a taste standpoint, but if you delve below the surface, some of these assumptions about what people think they’re eating are not true. They think, ‘I’m eating Venezuelan chocolate’ — as if Venezuelan chocolate had an identity.”
He elaborates in an article posted on Scharffen Berger’s Web site: “Geographically defined beans are not nearly as genetically homogeneous as they are often assumed to be. Cacao (and hence chocolate) described as coming from a particular region of a country — let alone the country as a whole — is far more likely to represent the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of farmers cultivating land with a variety of soil and climatic characteristics and using a range of techniques.”
Influenced by Bernachon and Richardson, Scharffen Berger made the first batches of its bittersweet by blending eleven different beans from around the world. A key reason large manufacturers have always blended chocolates is to assure consistent quality. The world’s cacao supply is ever shifting, and Scharffenberger says the formula for each of his company’s chocolates changes constantly as employees exhaust new batches of beans and must source new ones. “More earthy chocolates have better finishes,” he explains. “So you add those to the chocolates that have fruitier, higher tones and show themselves earlier in the flavor experience. As in champagne blending, you look at it as a time sequence, and link the flavors to have the most there.”
Scharffenberger is less averse than his partner to the named-origin trend. Over the past two years, the company has issued two chocolate bars that showcased varietals: The Porcelana and Cuyagua bars, each a blend of only two beans, sold out within months and elicited uniformly high praise. The Dominican and Ghanaian chocolates we sampled also will be issued as limited-edition bars. “It’s a way to make a name for ourselves in Europe,” he acknowledges. Britain in particular is crazy for named-origin chocolates, and Scharffenberger says anyone who is just selling “bittersweet” or “semisweet,” as opposed to clone 641 from the Valdez family hacienda, just isn’t getting the same respect — or sales.
Klassen, who carries an equal selection of blended and estate chocolate bars, steers customers toward both. “We’re trying to be a catalyst to get folks interested in a new way to taste chocolate,” he says. “We try not to talk smack about any bar. I don’t want to dissuade people based on my own taste.”
One thing chocolate geeks can agree on is that they don’t want to be wine geeks. The cacao revolution has its limits in terms of snobbery. “I spent years in that world,” Scharffenberger says, waving his hand as if shooing away a bad smell. “I’m tired of all that.” By contrast, he argues, the most expensive chocolate bars, at ten to twelve bucks a pop, are still an affordable luxury.
Even the chocolate world’s aspiring Robert Parker now wants to distance himself from the real Parker. “I’ve realized that there is a danger in being exclusionary, in pushing connoisseurship too far,” says Chocophile’s Clay Gordon. “Is it fruity? Is it acidic? Is there an aftertaste three minutes later? That’s as far as I want to go with it. I never want anyone to be afraid to order dessert. How awful would that be?”
As gourmet chocolate surges in popularity, securing the right beans is becoming an Indiana Jonesian undertaking.
In John Scharffenberger’s office — a loft on the top floor of the factory building — are ten pots of six-inch seedlings, each sprouting no more than a couple of leaves. “Those are pure Criollo seedlings that I discovered in Hawaii,” he says. That’s a little like announcing that you’ve found a Mayan codex outside Omaha. Scharffenberger, who graduated from Cal with a degree in biogeography, plans to give a couple sprouts to the San Francisco Conservatory and the Berkeley Botanical Society, and intends to work with a Hawaiian plantation to cultivate more.
Finding consistent sources of high-quality beans is a terrific problem, and stories abound of top-drawer chocolate manufacturers engaging in Indiana Jones-style excursions to hunt down good trees, or hatching nefarious schemes to secure exclusive contracts with the top estates. The problem, Scharffenberger says, is that 90 percent of the beans sold on the market come from family farms of less than ten acres. And because of the finickiness of the cacao tree, which doesn’t fruit outside a ten-degree band north and south of the equator, almost all of the cacao plantations are in the developing world. Most growers live hand to mouth and sell their beans at subsistence rates to brokers, who in turn sell them to larger brokers. Bulk chocolate is traded as a commodity.
As a result, many conventional chocolate makers have no real clue where their beans come from. Colorado-based aspiring chocolate manufacturer Steve DeVries says that he recently consulted for a major European chocolate company, whose name he won’t reveal. His main task was to show one of its senior staff members around a cacao plantation. “He’d been buying twenty tons of cacao a week for twelve or thirteen years and had never been to a plantation,” he says. In the history of the century-old company, he adds, the exec was the first employee ever to travel to the source.
Complicating the supply chain, cacao trees are notoriously susceptible to disease. In the mid-1980s, for example, Brazil produced 400,000 tons of chocolate, a quarter of the world supply. Then the fungus called “witches’ broom” struck with a vengeance, eliminating three-quarters of the country’s production. Something similar happened in Costa Rica in the 1990s. Scientists are working furiously as it is to breed disease-resistant strains of bulk chocolate; forget Criollo and Trinitario.
Scharffenberger, along with many of the higher-tier chocolate manufacturers, has found that the best way to secure great chocolate is to work directly with the farmers. The day after we spoke, he was flying to New York to meet with Counterpart, an organization helping Mayan farmers in Guatemala to plant and tend trees in the rainforest. Scharffenberger has donated some Criollo seedlings to these farmers, and his company is joining in as a technical adviser and contract buyer of the end product. Scharffen Berger is doing the same with another group of small-scale farmers in the Dominican Republic. At this end of the chocolate spectrum, fair trade is more than just good ethics; it’s good business practice.
Getting the right kind of beans, though, is only half the challenge. You also need to secure properly fermented ones. When the raw beans and surrounding pulp are scooped from the cacao pod, they are heaped on trays, where the pulp ferments. This is done on the plantation, and it’s a crucial step. Steinberg and Scharffenberger say a well-fermented Forastero bean can be a beautiful thing — certainly more appetizing than a badly fermented Criollo.
Finding well-fermented beans, however, is like kissing a pondful of frogs in search of a prince. In his office, surrounded by Ziploc bags of beans, Steinberg stares down at a booklike tray with fifty small indentations on each side. To test the beans for quality — three hundred from each batch the company is considering — Steinberg fills the tray, closes it, thrusts a guillotine-like blade down the middle, and finally opens it again to inspect the halved beans.
He shakes his head. “These are from Ecuador,” he says dolefully. “It’s a real shame they’re so badly fermented.” Some of the interiors are purple-gray, some more greenish. The beans with a texture like slate are the least fermented, Steinberg points out. He identifies one of the best beans on the tray and passes me a bit. It has none of the chocolatiness you’d expect from a cacao bean — roasting would bring more of that out — but it’s pleasantly fruity. The flavor drops off with a lingering faint bitterness.
“This one is less well fermented,” he says, handing over another piece. Its slight floral notes quickly give way to an astringent bitterness that crackles up the nerves of my mouth. I spit it out, coughing. Then, masochistically, I reach back for a third bean, the least fermented of the lot; it has no flavor at all.
Scharffen Berger is investing in fermentation facilities for its Central American and Caribbean suppliers, and trying to teach them to produce reliably fermented beans given fluctuations in temperature, humidity, bean ripeness, and other factors. Steinberg isn’t so sure a bunch of Californian chocolate manufacturers know much more than the folks who’ve worked with cacao trees for generations, but clearly the dialogue between grower and manufacturer is beginning to grow closer. Perhaps America’s chocolate revolution is just another part of Alice Waters’ bigger, beautiful one. — Jonathan Kauffman