The Next Sweet Thing 

High-end chocolate makers such as Scharffen Berger are revolutionizing how Americans view cacao.

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.

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