The Next Sweet Thing 

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

Page 6 of 7

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?"

Growing Pains

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.

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