The Stuff of Dreams

Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker

“Chocolate” comes from the Mayan word xocoatl, we are told by a bullhorn-toting tour guide as we sit on benches looking at a map of the chocolate world. All the major cocoa plantations are located near the equator. The picked chocolate beans are fermented for seven to nine days before being shipped to the United States, where they are roasted, hulled, ground, and mixed with other ingredients. Her lecture continues, lively and fact-filled. But I can barely concentrate. The smell of chocolate and vanilla is too heady.

Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, founded by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg in 1996, moved its factory to Berkeley from South San Francisco nine months ago. Using refurbished European machinery built in the 1920s, the plant’s 34 employees now produce up to 500,000 kilos of chocolate a year (one day’s production at the Hershey’s plant, we are told). The new facility, neighbor to the Heinz complex, now offers free tours to the public.

The need for the bullhorn becomes apparent once our group of fifteen dons puffy gauze hair nets and enters the factory. Eighty-year-old machinery roars and clanks. We are led past the roaster and winnower, and step onto a stool to peer into the mélangeur, where the roasted chocolate nibs are ground together in small batches with sugar and whole vanilla beans before being blended (“conched”) with cocoa butter and lecithin and then tempered. The chocolate smell turns woody and brown near the roasters, then intensifies and sweetens around the tempering machines.

With the exit in sight, we finally get to see finished, molten chocolate being piped into molds. On our left, glossy brown bars flow down a conveyor belt and spill into cardboard boxes; on our right four women sit in a glassed-in room, chatting and wrapping bars by hand. A wrapping machine would cost as much as all the other equipment combined.

As we exit, my friend Joe and I sniff at the chocolate bean he palmed from a basket passed around during the lecture. It’s sour and nutty, nothing you’d want to put in your mouth. It takes a factory to make chocolate the stuff of dreams.

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