Monday, April 13, 2009
When I first tried Scharffen Berger, years before I started Candy Blog, I didn’t like it much. Granted, all I’d tried was their Semisweet, but I found it rather bitter and acrid, a strong sourness that just didn’t have those qualities that I love about chocolate.
But over the years the Scharffen Berger product line has grown and I have found some superb products among their line that I really enjoy, such as their Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs.
For years I’ve spent time trying to love what other people love. But most of it is just not for me. Until the Nibby bars came along.
First it was the Nibby Dark Chocolate with Roasted Cacao Nibs (62%). I never reviewed it. The 62% base was rather sweet and melted a bit thin but the nibs are crunchy and have a great nutty and buttery crunch. I still prefer the panned nibs, which are much less sweet by proportion (they also use the 62%) and of course so spectacularly shiny and cute.
Then in 2007 I met the Milk Nibby Bar. This was a chocolate bar that was also food. Malty, mellow, caramel notes, a smooth and sticky chocolate background with the crunchy nibs. It was the perfect lunch.
I didn’t think anything ever needed to replace it, top it, or even compete with it.
Then at the Fancy Food Show in January I was walking by the Scharffen Berger booth. I’ve had mixed experiences there and usually just glance over things and move along to other booths. Instead I got a warm welcome and was urged to try their new Dark Milk 68% Cacao.
Oddly enough, it’s not a bar I would have been interested in if I were buying. I already liked the Milk Nibby. What I didn’t know was that the Dark Milk actually has nibs in it too! (Why that’s not really mentioned on the package is beyond me.)
Shown above is the Milk Nibby (41%) on the left and the Dark Milk (68%) on the right.
I wanted to compare it to the Milk Nibby and the Dark Milk. One of the things that the wrapper tells me is that the Dark Milk has more fat - 19 grams per serving over the 15 grams per serving from the Milk Nibby (that means 10 more calories per ounce). Sounds like a good start!
As you can see from the photo above, there’s very little difference in the appearance of the bars. The Milk Nibby is only slightly lighter, but if you just handed me one without the other to compare, I doubt I could tell on sight alone.
It doesn’t smell like a milk chocolate bar. It smells woodsy, dark and slightly tangy, a little bit of coffee and a little bit of toffee.
On the tongue though, the milk notes come out pretty quickly. The Scharffen Berger tangy is there, but the milk moderates it. There are some strong bitter elements, they’re dark roasted bitter flavors, like coffee and a sharp cheddar cheese. But there are other nice notes in there too, a sweet toffee, strong vanilla and oak. The malt is not as pronounced as the Milk Nibby bar, but it still makes an appearance.
This is not a morning bar, I think it’s an evening bar. Even though the bitterness lingered, I liked the complex notes and of course the texture. I found myself reaching for pieces of it until it was gone. Every once in a while I do get some bad crunching nibs, ones that seem more like shells than beans (but I find that with most nib products).
I’m still going to stick with the Milk Nibby bar (and just decided to , but this is an excellent high cacao bar for people who probably don’t like high cacao content. But if I can’t find the Milk Nibby, this one will be a more than adequate substitute. I had no trouble finishing the bar.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
This is the fourth Scharffen Berger Milk Nibby Bar I’ve gotten a hold of. The first one was a sample from a trade show last year. Unfortunately I stored it next to something minty and it was absorbed into the bar. I didn’t think it was fair to review it that way ... but I ate it and it was tasty enough for me to put it on my list. But I couldn’t find another one!
The second one I bought earlier this year when I was in San Francisco. I needed to get my parking validated at the Ferry Terminal so I figured the Scharffen Berger store there was the perfect place to make my $5 minimum and try this bar again.
And I did! I just, well, ate it, without making any notes.
So then I had to find it yet again. Luckily after my dismal experience with the Krackel bar, I went on the prowl at Cost Plus World Market’s high end chocolate shelves to console myself and grabbed one.
And then I ate it. Remember, I was depressed about the Krackel, grief makes you do strange things.
Now I’m feeling better (3 ounces of real chocolate is one of the lesser known 5 Stages of Grief) and thought I should give it another go.
The Milk Chocolate Nibby Bar is much darker than most milk bars. At 41% cacao, it’s almost as dark as the middling Hershey’s Special Dark (which is 45%). So the color is like coffee with only a dash of milk.
It doesn’t smell particularly sweet. More like wood chips and of course chocolate.
Snapping the bar, it’s pretty solid and crisp. Inside there are the little nibs, not as many as a crisped rice bar, but a great many of them dotting the chocolate base. The chocolate is smooth but still a little rustic. The notes are a strong caramelized flavor, the cocoa and lots more woodsy scents. The nibs are crunchy and buttery, almost like they’ve also been caramelized before adding to the chocolate. The texture is like a macadamia nut and perhaps a little of the soy bean’s malty flavors.
It’s a very dark bar for a milk chocolate product. The tangy bite that I didn’t care for in their straight bar is moderated well by the dark and bitter punch of the nibs.
I’m in love with this bar. I can’t say that it’s a replacement for the Krackel, because, well, it was $3.99. But it sure makes me smile when I eat it and it’s pretty rare for me to go out and keep buying the same bar over and over again when I have so many new ones at home.
The package has full nutritional labeling but also helpfully tells me that the whole 3 ounce bar has 410 calories. A quick calculation also tells me that this bar contains 100% of the my saturated fat for the day. Oops, I guess I’m eating pretty wholesome for the rest of the day. (But also 24% of my daily fiber in the whole bar plus 10 grams of protein!)
UPDATE 4/11/2009: I’ve had two more of these since the review, including comparing it to the new 68% Dark Milk and have bumped this up from the original rating of 9 out of 10 to a perfect 10 out of 10.
Friday, April 28, 2006
I picked these up last December and have been munching on them.
There are some things that I really like about Scharffen Berger chocolate, but few of them have to do with taste. I like the idea of them. I like their design aesthetic, I like their vibe, I like their factory. I, unfortunately, don’t care much for their chocolate. Of course there are exceptions, such as the Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs, it just goes to show, you can’t judge all products by their brand.
Try as I might, I just can’t like their plain chocolates.
Extra Dark 82% Cacao - yes, it’s very dark lookin’ stuff. Lustrous and glossy, it has a nice snap and a strongly chocolatey smell. The immediate burst on the tongue is an astringency that just sucks you dry. There are some anise notes and even some basil all laced with an unpleasant bitterness. The chocolate itself is smooth but very sour. It’s great for making sauces though and this is the stuff I used at Thanksgiving for making a hard sauce for pecan pie.
Mint 62% Cacao - really, really minty. No, seriously ... you’ll take a bite and look at it the little bar and wonder why it even resembles chocolate. Kind of sweet, there’s a strange smoky quality to it that doesn’t really go with the mint.
Semisweet - after tasting the Extra Dark, this was more than semisweet, it was very sweet. It’s got a very strong woodsy base to it that reminds me of cedar. It’s slightly grainy, like the sugar isn’t completely emulsified with the chocolate or something. There is only the slightest indication of the acidity and astringency of the darker chocolate but it does have a hint of black pepper that I find very nice. Still, the mix of sweet, butter and chocolate flavors just isn’t right for my palate.
Milk Chocolate 41% - again with the tartness. Even the creamy dairy notes are missing, it’s smooth but it’s missing the fullness of flavor. There are lots of flavors at work here, but none of them particularly chocolatey.
Mocha - the coffee notes here are well rounded and feel much more honest than most coffee chocolates that I’ve tried. But it’s not as smooth and has both the acidity of the chocolate and the coffee that just combines in a way that in a way is tasty, but keeps me from eating a lot. But really, why would I want to keep buying a chocolate just because I don’t want to eat it that much?
I know I send some pretty mixed messages when it comes to Scharffen Berger. I raved about the Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs, but I don’t like the chocolate that they make them into. I can’t explain it, so I’ll just let it be what it is.
Monday, March 6, 2006
As part of this year’s Independent Food Festival and Awards sponsored by tasteEverything, I’ve been tapped as a jurist to give out an award for excellence in food. (You know it’s gonna be candy.) I decided after my mind-blowing experience touring candy factories in the Bay Area last December that it had to be something that really helped me to immerse myself in the true source of chocolate.
My 2006 Winner of the Independent Food Awards is The Best Things to Stick to your Marshmallow: Scharffen Berger Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs.
Cacao nibs are roasted cocoa beans, what all chocolate is made from. Scharffen Berger then pan coats them with 62% cacao semisweet chocolate. They’re complexly flavored little buggers, about the size of rice crispies - they’re crunchy, sometimes fibery, sometimes buttery and nutty ... always a surprise. Some flavors are like wine, raisins, coconut, coffee, oak, banana, apricot, sweet almond, grapefruit, cherry, cinnamon, clove ... I could go on and on. They’re like a blank canvas and a symphony all at once. They take over the senses and make you forget your train of thought. The coolest part is that each little morsel is independent of the others - it might have come from a different tree, might have been harvested weeks before or after its buddies in the tube. Eat one and get a sense of the particular, eat a palmful and travel the world.
So, what do you do with these besides just eat them like candy? You can bake with them, as I saw at Tartine in San Francisco, where you can get Rochers (like soft meringues) made with cacao nibs.
But I’m not really a baker. You can’t just serve an olive boat of these morsels to guests. Then oddly enough the answer came to me in the mail the same week. I was reviewing Plush Puffs, flavored, handmade marshmallows. With proximity being the mother of invetion, I tried putting things on my marshmallow. Actually, I tried mashing my marshmallow into things.
Now, given that I have the title of jurist, it was incumbent upon me to evaluate at least several other marsh-mashables. So I ordered up more Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs and a full array of Plush Puffs (Orange-Honey, Sam’s Sour Lemon, Maple Pecan and Vanilla Bean) and scoured my kitchen and a few stores for some options.
In the interests of trying to find the perfect thing to mash into my marshmallows, I pulled a few things out of the cupboard and ordered some others off of Chocosphere. Here are the results:
The definition of pure confection heaven has to be Orange-Honey Plush Puffs with Scharffen Berger Chocolate Covered Cacao Beans. This is the standard by which all other mashmallow-ables will be judged. (Really, why did I go on, how much better could I expect things to get?)
My second favorite thing to mash into my marshmallows has to be these Valrhona Chocolate Covered Orange Peels (Equinoxe Noir des d’ecorces d’oranges confites). They’re tiny pieces of lightly candied orange peel pan coated with 66% cacao dark chocolate. Smooth, sweet, crisp and with a great zesty orange taste. At $4.00 for 1.8 ounces, they’re even more expensive than the Scharffen Berger Cacao Nibs, but as a little dash mixed in with the Cacao Nibs, it’s a welcome little burst of citrus energy. They go really well with both the Vanilla Bean and Maple Pecan ones but unlike the cacao nibs, they don’t work with everything.
It wouldn’t be fair of me to evaluate chocolate covered cacao nibs without trying out the naked ones. So I selected the Dagoba Cacao Nibs, which are also organic. The pieces are less consistent in size and shape than the chocolate covered brethren. They have a wild, alcoholic aroma. Smoky and woodsy to the nose, they provide a huge burst of flavor when eaten on their own but they’re also incredibly acidic and sometimes acrid, astringent and puckeringly dry. When pressed into the Vanilla Bean marshmallow, the sweetness and blankness allows the subtle cacao notes to shine while moderating the overt acidity.
With the success of the malted rice krispies squares, I thought I’d just go with the source materials. This wasn’t as pleasant. The malted milk powder is a bit salty and of course dry. The milk powder, I think, is part of the issue. Milk doesn’t really belong with marshmallow. In fact, it turns out that I don’t really care for the flavor of powdered milk.
I love molasses and my favorite sugar is Billington’s Muscovado. It’s got a sort of whiskey aroma to it, a complexity that you won’t find in refined sugars. I like to let it dry out in chunk and eat it that way. It doesn’t really stick to the marshmallows very well, and frankly, it makes it too sweet.
As a final confirmation about the Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs, I brought the array of my top contenders to an Oscars (tm) viewing party Sunday night. At the end of the night the marshmallows were nearly gone and so were the CCCN while the plain nibs were largely untouched. On top of that, people were pleased with the fun combination of flavors. (And as a capper we got to taste some new regionally-sourced chocolate ice creams. Yum!)
There is one other company that I know of that makes chocolate covered cacao beans, called SweetRiot. I haven’t tried them yet, but I imagine they too are awesome.
If you’ve stumbled across this posting without first visiting the tasteEverything, have a look at all the other incredible finds from around the globe.
Friday, January 20, 2006
At my visit to Scharffen Berger last month I gave their full line another try. It confirmed for me that the bars I’ve tasted are fresh and true to the Scharffen Berger style. They’re complex and dark, with a lot of woodsy notes and a pretty overwhelming acidity that I don’t care for. There are exceptions in their line of course. The Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs are one. And one of their newer bars, the Gianduja is another.
I haven’t a clue how to pronounce it. I had the tour guide say it twice for me when she did the tasting and it still didn’t stick in my brain. (Perhaps JHEE-an-du-JHAH.) I want to pronounce it JHWAN-doo-jha ... hmm, how about I call it the Nutella bar? That’s what this is, a creamy combination of dark chocolate and hazelnuts. Only without the hydrogenated oils. It’s like a gourmet version of Ice Cubes.
This is a ridiculously fantastic bar. Really. It’s insanely smooth and nutty and melts so well on the tongue with a cooling effect that’s just stunning.
The price is also similarly ridiculous, but I’m guessing there’s a whole tree’s worth of hazelnuts packed into each bar, so that’s likely what you’re paying for. There’s 4 grams of protein in the bar alone. The bar is more soft and pliable than the others that I’ve had, again owing to the nut oils in there that have a lower melting temperature than the cocoa butter. It’s not too sweet and happily doesn’t have nary a trace of that acidic/dry bite that the other Sharffen Berger bars have. There’s still plenty of flavor, this is not just a Nutella bar. It’s woodsy and nutty with some smoky notes and a slight dryness.
Of course there are a lot of calories in it and a lot of it comes from fat. It’s candy, I know, but I think maybe they ought to suggest that the portion is not 1.5 ounces, but simply a single ounce instead. I responsibly took about a month to eat it, sampling a few pieces and then wolfing the rest of it today. It’s also pretty expensive and I haven’t seen it at Trader Joe’s. If not for that, I think it would have been a straight 10.
On December 2nd I had a fabulous day filled with seeing candy go from raw materials to finished product.
After my morning at the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, CA, I toodled back towards San Francisco and hopped off the freeway in Berkeley to see Scharffen Berger.
Though I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of their stuff (or at least I wasn’t at the time), I was excited at the prospect of being let into the factory to actually see the process. There are very few factories in this country that allow people to just walk in off the street to see how they make their producuts. Scharffen Berger is the only chocolate factory and the tour is FREE. Scharffen Berger chocolate is like wine, it’s got a distinctive taste and is more for savoring its complexity than its hedonistic sweet satisfaction.
The building itself was started just before the great quake of 1906 (not quite finished at the time) and was completed and occupied immediately after that. It’s been through a few different incarnations but is a wonderful example of brickwork, with an impressive curved/vaulted brick ceiling in the winnowing room. The 27,000 square foot facility houses the chocolate manufacture, factory store and their cafe. The company only makes the raw chocolate here, the basic chocolate is then sent to an additional facility up north (I think Napa) to be molded into the their consumer bars.
The tour starts in a little room next to their cafe. People sit on the plain benches for a little lecture about the origins of chocolate and how Scharffen Berger makes theirs. Some of it is rather well known stuff and other bits of info are interesting. The lecture is long and I was antsy to see the factory itself. The environment of the factory itself is rather casual and of course it’s a small company so everyone seems to know each other. It gives a homey feel to the candy, that someone really cared about it. They also give plenty of samples during the talk, which helps everyone pay attention.
The chocolate making process starts in the jungles where Cacao is grown. The cocoa beans are harvested from squat, strange little trees that grow under the high canopy of the forest. They gather these large pods, as big as a large papaya and then hack them open to reveal the flesh and seeds within. The mush from inside is scooped out and allowed to dry. The seeds are separated from the fleshy detritus and allowed to bake in the sun to ferment at bit.
After the cacoa beans are ready, they’ll be loaded into big burlap bags and shipped around the world.
Scharffen Berger mixes their beans from different regions of the world and from different varieties of cacao to make their basic bars. Most of the bars (except for the single origin bars) contain beans from at least eight origins. This gives them a great deal of control over the consistency of the bars from year to year. Most manufactuers do this, otherwise chocolate bars would taste different every time we opened one. However, with the big guys like Hershey or Nestle, they have the advantage of quantity to give them consistency. Little guys like Scharffen Berger have to do it with variety.
After the lecture is over (about 40 minutes later) we’re given lovely hair nets and ear muffs. The machinery is literally deafening and without it on, we wouldn’t be able to hear the tour guide anyway.
The first room processes the raw beans. It holds the “winnower” which is a machine that removes the chaff and shell and skin from the cocoa bean to reveal the part that’s good for making chocolate, the nib. The nibs are then roasted, just like coffee would be in this large roaster. All of the machines are steel so the team at the factory uses magnetic labels to identify what origin of bean is inside.
The next part of the tour is the money shot, it’s the thing that people come to see, the image that lasts a lifetime. It’s the melangeur. What is that? It’s the mixer/crusher. The roasted nibs are put into this spinning bowl along with the additional cocoa butter and some vanilla and sugar (if it’s sweetened chocolate) and then it’s macerated by two huge rollers that crush the stuff together. During the tour everyone gets an opportunity to stand on a little riser to look into the machine. It smells quite good and the batch that was being worked on while I was there seemed to be rather grainy still and must have been far from done.
The next part, the conching, isn’t terribly sexy, as from my vantage it’s just a huge, closed tank. The concher is where everything is combined further under precisely controlled temperatures.
Next was the tempering process, which we didn’t get to see, but is basically where the melted chocolate is raised and lowered to particular target temperatures to aid in the formation of the perfect crystaline structure to the chocolate. If chocolate isn’t properly tempered it melts too easily, looks cloudy or may separate (bloom) more easily.
After that it’s ready for molds. At the Scharffen Berger factory they are only processing the basic chocolate product. The chocolate gets flavored and further made into bars or shapes at another facility. When they’re done with the tempering here, they make them into simple bars, which travel down this simple conveyer and meet a rather strange end falling into boxes where they’re shipped up to a facility north of San Francisco that ages the chocolate (chocolate is one thing you do not want fresh from the factory) for a few weeks before making the signature bars.
As free trips go, it’s pretty good. They have a rather cramped parking lot, but it’s close to public transportation if you want to take the BART and a bus from San Francisco if you’re in the area. I wish there was more to the factory part, but as a tiny working factory, there’s not much else to do other than breathe in the scents and take a few photos.
The building itself is rather interesting too, and the way that the company has cobbled together various bits of machinery from different time periods is also rather remarkable. I’m rather fond of old buildings and machines and I wish I could have spent more time looking at them. The gift shop is also really nice. I bought a few posters that I’m going to frame and of course I’ve mentioned their sassy tee shirts before. They have plenty of books, baking supplies and of course all sorts of their chocolate (some which they’ll let you sample there). The prices in the store are the same on the web, though sometimes they have little sale offerings.
There’s also a highly regarded cafe as well, Cafe Cacao, so making an afternoon of it is also a nice little treat. Tours require a reservation.
Weekday tours at 10:30 AM, 2:30 PM & 4:30 PM.
UPDATE: Scharffen Berger has closed their Bay Area factory and no longer offers tour at this location.
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
Name: Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs
You’re saying, what the heck is a cacao nib and why cover it in chocolate? (Well, never ask why cover anything in chocolate ... we cover things in chocolate because that’s what sets us apart from animals.)
Cacao (that’s pronounced cuh-COW) nibs are what chocolate are made from. They’re the edible part of the cocoa bean after it’s been harvested, dried, fermented, roasted and hulled (winnowed). Yes, after all those steps (usually invovling at least two continents) you get these unassuming little crumbly brown bits. These are raw chocolate. In order to make a chocolate bar you take a bunch of them and mash them into a paste and then add some more cocoa butter and some sugar and maybe a little lecithin to keep everything smooth and you’ve got a chocolate bar. (The extra cocoa butter is made from taking nibs and expeller pressing them to get out the cocoa butter which leaves behind the cocoa solids which are used to make powdered cocoa.)
You can eat the nibs just as they are. They’re kind of like really roasty tasting nuts. Not quite chocolately, but they have a wonderful butteriness that you don’t find in many nuts. But they’re a little chalkier than a regular nut as well and can be freakishly bitter at times. Apparently using nibs in recipes is all the rage now, especially since Martha Stewart featured them in a recipe recently. By coating the nibs in chocolate they’re a lot more scrumptious.
But enough about the history lesson. This is pure chocolate enjoyment. Seriously. Whew!
The chocolate coating is 62% semi-sweet Scharffen Berger chocolate over the cacao nibs, which are unsweetened. They look kind of like little glossy cocoa krispies. But they taste absolutely divine. There’s an alcoholic aroma to them, an intense bitter start and then this incredible mix of woodsy flavors, acidic elements, astringency and this lingering smoky feeling on the tongue. The vanilla of the chocolate coating also lingers nicely. The nibs, being a rather raw product, are unpredictable. Sometimes they’re crunchy and smooth, sometimes you get one that’s a little fibery or chewy.
What’s also odd is that some of them taste different. I guess they may have been from different trees or harvested a different week or something. Some mouthfuls will be fruity, with intense plum or apricot notes and sometimes it’s oaky or maybe have a touch of maple or even sassafrass to it. What it does is make me want more ... I keep eating them. Which is bad. These are expensive little puppies. (As is all Scharffen Berger.) Of all the Scharffen Berger products I’ve tried (and they’re very well regarded though I’m not particularly fond of them) this is the one that sends me over the moon.
Rating - 10 out of 10
Monday, August 22, 2005
I actually had three bars but ate one before I could take its picture (milk chocolate in a saffron yellow wrapper), so pretend there’s a third one in there.
I was excited that Trader Joe’s was carrying these because I was hoping that it meant that they’d be a little less expensive (which they are). Still, I’m not sure I’m on board with this high end chocolate bar movement. Perhaps I’m just looking for a different thing in my chocolate than some other folks.
I think cocoa is great, it’s obviously one of those things that makes chocolate unique, that blend of earthy roasted flavors with those fruity notes that many people compare to wine or coffee. But what makes chocolate so great, for me, is cocoa butter. It’s one of those rare fats that is solid at room temperature and melts at body temperature. It makes it smooth and creamy and portable. Sharffen Berger chocolate bars lack that smooth and lustrous feeling on the tongue.
Scharffen Berger, I think, can be described as sour. There’s a pervasive acidic note in all their chocolates that I’ve tried and I don’t find it pleasant. It does provide a good base (except for the fact that acids are not bases as in alkaline) for the other flavors. In the pure dark chocolate I tasted some fruit notes: grape, apricot and some apple. I also tasted some oaky/woodsy notes and something which reminded me of lichens or wood ear mushrooms.
I know Sharffen Berger has its aficionados, but I don’t count myself among them. The product was definitely consistent and for a high-end chocolate, Trader Joe’s has certainly made it more accessible. I can definitely see this as good cooking chocolate - I wouldn’t hesitate to add some of their cocoa to my chili (yes, I put cocoa in my chili), but for eating it just leaves me, well, unaffected.
Rating - 6 out of 10.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.