The Next Sweet Thing 

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

Page 7 of 7

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

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