Friday, January 20, 2006
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.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Whew! And I thought I liked Pocky? Here’s a few posts that might interest you from The Journal of Ephemeral Inspiration:
I’ve seen these bars in Cost Plus World Market and other stores that sell UK sweets and it looked like a very complicated bar. Michal, my generous reader who sent me a huge package of candy that I’ve been slowly posting here, was good enough to include this one.
A Lion bar is creme filled wafers, caramel and crisped rice covered in milk chocolate. I don’t know if the photo does it justice (you can click on it for a larger version). It’s a very sweet bar with quite a bit of texture to it. The package exalts that it’s “Dangerously Better” but doesn’t say what’s better about it or what else it might be better than. It reminds me a great deal of the other Nestle bar, the 100 Grand, which doesn’t have the wafers in the center but the same sort of caramel and crisped rice.
It’s quite a tasty bar and because of the variations in textures, the different crisps, the saltiness of the caramel, it’s a really satisfying bar.
I’m glad I’ve had a chance to try it because I figure now it’s an easily identified bar no matter where I may be in Europe when I’m on the metro and need a little candy boost. It’s a solid, middle of the road choice for snacking.
I haven’t the foggiest why it’s called a Lion bar, but there are a lot of incongruously named bars out there and I shouldn’t start picking at them now. The official website for the bar is German, but the bar says that it’s manufactured in France.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
It’s been known for a while that dark chocolate and cocoa contain high levels of flavinoids, which are antioxidant compounds found in many food products like red wine and berries. These flavinoids are thought to be beneficial to cardiovascular health.
The compound in cocoa was isolated through by a team at the University of California, Davis using the Kuna Indians of Panama who are known to consume large quantities of cocoa.
UC Davis biochemist Hagen Schroeter, who co-authored the paper along with cardiologist Christian Heiss of the Heinrich-Heine University said “The results of this study provide direct proof that epicatechin is, at least in part, responsible for the beneficial vascular effects that are observed after the consumption of certain flavanol-rich cocoas.”
The article is pretty interesting and details how they isolated epicatechin using two different populations of Kunas. The most intriguing part is that the Kuna who had the best cardiovascular health were the island-dwellers who drank three to four cups per day!
Full text here: Heart-Healthy Compound in Chocolate Identified
Mars (makers of M&Ms) contributed to the financing of the study.
See also: Why Chocolate is Good for Your Heart from the Hindustani Times.
There are a lot of good things about chocolate. It tastes good and in moderation it could actually be a good addition to a normal diet. But one of the suprising things is that chocolate may actually be good for tropical economies and ecosystems as well. See more here.
There are quite a few free trade/organic chocolate companies now, but one that’s making the best inroads with consumers, including kids, is Endangered Species Chocolate Company. (I have no data to back this up, just my awareness of people’s affection for it and that I see it in far more stores than other bars of the same type.) They have a huge selection of bars and chocolate formats, good packaging and a pretty good distribution network. Oh, and they taste good, too!
Because Endangered Species has such a large selection of bars, I thought I’d start small. I saw these little impulsive tasting squares called Bug Bites that came in both dark and milk chocolate. They’re obviously a little bit of chocolate for the kids, but I’m a kid at heart and I love bugs.
The little .35 ounce squares are Fair Trade certified, organic and Kosher. The little nibble has a butterfly on it and though the package says something about a bug trading card, I didn’t get any in either of my packages. The milk chocolate is very sweet and in the style of the European dairy milk chocolate bars. It has a good milky, woodsy smell, but is probably too sweet for me. It’s exceptionally smooth and I’m sure will please children quite readily.
The dark square was exceptional. Very fruity, with some apricot and cherry notes it also had some woodsy balsam qualities. It was buttery and had a slightly bitter finish that wasn’t too dry.
Though not all the bars are completely Fair Trade or completely organic Endangered Species Chocolate Company donates 10% of profits to protect wildlife (including those animals featured on the bars). Inside the wrapper is a profile of the animal on the package, in this case it is the bat and notes that of the 45 species in the United States alone, 7 of them are endangered.
I was specifically looking for this “Bat Bar” which is 75% cocoa content and cocoa nibs. I hadn’t seen it at Whole Foods, where I’ve been picking up my other organic bars. Whereas the other nibby products I’ve tried like the Michel Cluizel Noir au Grue de Cacao and Max Brenner Dark Chicao have large nib pieces in them, this bar had kind of crushed bits in it. This has its advantages, but it also creates a different sort of bar.
First, this is a very dark bar. At 75% cocoa, it’s already pretty dense. Because the nibs are crushed smaller they impart a bit of a grain to the chocolate that I didn’t detect at all in the Bug Bites, so I’ll credit that to the nibs. The nibs add a wonderful variation in texture though, with a good fruity burst in spots and sometimes and unpleasant astringency. Nibs are pretty high in fiber too, so eating a serving gives you 3 grams of fiber! I wish the entire bar wasn’t quite so sweet though.
I think if I’m going for a nibby fix I’m going to stick with the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Covered Cacao Nibs ... but the wide availability and decent price of the Engangered Species bar would make it a close second.
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.