Edit 29 January, 2009: Hershey's announced that they were going to close the Scharffen Berger factory down in West Berkeley, fire their workers, and move production to a plant in Illinois. It looks like they've already shut down the factory tour, as a visit to that website just redirects to Hershey's homepage. Get your California-made Scharffen Berger chocolates while you still can!
As a small kid growing up in America, I only knew two chocolates: Hershey's and Nestle. Both were milk chocolate, and both were (to me) just okay. Early on, I found that I preferred the Hershey's "Special Dark" brand of chocolate candy, just because of that slight bitter tang. Ever since then, I've always gone for dark chocolate over milk.
Annie is an avowed chocoholic. She introduced me to fine, European-style milk chocolates such as Lindt and Cadbury (the ones that are actually made in Europe, not the American-made ones). Those were good, but I still preferred dark.
Today we went to the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker factory in Berkeley to take their factory tour. (If you've not heard of Scharffen Berger before, they are a very popular maker of "artisanal" chocolates, specializing in dark chocolate.) Unlike the "Willy Wonka" factory, you don't need to have a golden ticket to get in. Just make a reservation online, and show up 10 minutes before your scheduled start time. It's totally free!
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker (Berkeley)
You walk in the store and are immediately enveloped in the sweet smell of chocolate. Just take a moment to breathe it in. Then browse the shelves for all manner of dark chocolate: truffles, bars, and blocks. Legally, dark chocolate is defined as containing 35% or more cacao. Scharffen Berger's chocolates start at 41% and go all the way up to 99%!
Scharffen Berger Dark Chocolates
The tour is actually mostly a lecture held in a room next to the factory. Our host took us on a trip through the company's fascinating history, a detour into the wilds of what defines and composes chocolate, and a discussion of how chocolate is processed from the bean to the bar.
Roasted Chocolate Bean
They source their beans from around the world and actually blend the beans to get the desired flavor. Much like blending grapes to make a good wine. They use vanilla from Madagascar, sugar from Hawaii, and only cocoa butter to make up the rest of the chocolate. This is significant because Scharffen Berger's parent company, candy giant Hershey's has begun using vegetable oil and shortening in place of cocoa butter in some of their chocolate candy products.
Yes, that's right, Hershey's owns Scharffen Berger, along with two other artisanal chocolate makers, Dagoba Chocolates and Joseph Schmidt, as part of their foray into higher-end chocolates. Fortunately, aside from a few safety improvements in the factory, nothing else has changed. Scharffen Berger is still committed to small-batch, high-quality dark chocolate.
So, after a very educational lecture, we are instructed to put on our hairnets and ear protection, and ushered into the factory. It is a cavernous brick building, cramped with vintage European chocolate manufacturing equipment such as this cacao bean roaster:
Cacao Bean Roaster at Scharffen Berger
After the beans are roasted, they are put into the winnower where the roasted beans are cracked and the nibs at the heart of the bean are extracted. From there, they go into the melangeur to be crushed by these huge granite wheels:
Scharffen Berger Melangeur
From there they spend many hours in the conching machine where the ground-up nibs are mixed with sugar and vanilla and refined into a smooth liquid. Next, the liquid is tempered so that the cocoa butter fats form a crystal structure that solidifies and stabilizes the chocolate. After that, the chocolate goes to the molding machine to form bars.
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Bars
The actual walk through the factory is quite fast. Before you know it, you are shown the door and find yourself back in the store, ready to buy some of their chocolate. The staff are eager to give you a taste of any of their bar chocolate. We came home with a 10th Anniversary bar (incredibly smooth), a mocha bar (kick your heart into overdrive), a nibby bar (studded with crunchy cocoa nibs) and an 82% extra dark (oh yeah, baby!).
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Bars
Annie also picked up a couple bags of dark chocolate baking chunks.
We'll be working on some recipes, incorporating Scharffen Berger dark chocolate, in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker
914 Heinz Ave
Berkeley, CA 94710
Monday through Saturday - 10 am to 6 pm
Sunday - 10 am to 5 pm