The Next Sweet Thing 

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

Page 3 of 7

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.

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