Scharffen Berger Chocolate - The Best of Sweets for your Sweetie

A visit to the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker Factory in Berkeley

Imagine giving your love the richest, most flavorful chocolates made from the purest and best cacao beans in the world.  Then, imagine seeing that chocolate being made, as a true labor of love, right before your eyes?


One of the most pleasure-filled food manufacturing tours I've ever experienced is the free tour given daily at the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker facility in Berkeley, California.

Founded in 1996 and owned by entrepreneurs extraordinaire John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg- a wine maker and a doctor- Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker is one of only twelve actual manufacturers of chocolate in the world.  Their chocolate blenders use only whole bean Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla, and the purest large crystal sugar.  To boot, they pride themselves in turning out their highly acclaimed product by using small-scale European artisan-style methods, something generally unheard of in a country dominated by a small number of large-scale chocolate producers.  Their distinction sounded amazing, but considering that most companies do not make chocolate- they mix prepared chocolate in with other ingredients to produce their product- this added another level of exclusivity and Willie-Wonka-style wonder to the place.


The Scharffen Berger facility is housed in a quaint, 27,00 square foot brick structure.  This, in itself, inspired my imagination to consider it almost a fairy-tale-like place and ponder the possibility of meeting oomp a loompas inside.

On the day we visited, a small group of adults waited outside the welcoming room.  It was a bit chilly, and almost all were sipping a complimentary cup of hot chocolate.


Notice I use the term "hot 'chocolate,'" and not "cocoa."  There's an important difference between the two!  Real drinking chocolate is solid chocolate gently melted in a liquid, while hot cocoa is typically made with cocoa powder, sugar, and milk.  Let me tell you that the hot chocolate is waaaaaaay higher on the "yumminess" scale.  Being exposed to a new beverage was the first of many things we learned about while on the visit.

As a side note, it's worth mentioning that the company also makes a cocoa product.  However, theirs is one made with natural cocoa powder, not your usual Dutch-processed stuff.  As it was explained to us, cocoa powder is made from ground cacao, with some of the naturally inherent fat removed, that is then processed either "pure" or with added alkali ("Dutch-processed").  The use of alkali was praised since its first use in this process because it increases the solubility of the product, i.e., it's faster to stir up in the milk, and it is reported to strengthen the chocolate flavor.  It can, however, impart some of its own flavor, something frequently described as "salty" or even "slightly metallic," as similar to baking soda.  The Scharffen Berger team worked hard and discovered that allowing fermentation- carried out by the farmer shortly after harvesting- allows the beans to express their strongest flavor.  Thus, when the owners were just starting out, they went on a quest to find not only the best beans, but also the best farmers who could lovingly process them.  They then began testing roasting and processing the beans without alkali and found that they could produce a purer and competitive product.


This philosophy and technique are applied to the production of beans for producing solid confections.  The company earned itself quite a following for its pure bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa).  Introduced in October of 1997, this product turned the chocolate world upside down.  But Mssrs. Scharffenberger and Steinberg would not rest:  they continued (and still continue) to search out the best sources of cacao beans.  Their chocolate product blend contains up to 50% small plantation Venezuelan hybrid beans combined with a mix of the finest beans from places around the world including Central and South America, West Africa, Indonesia, and the Caribbean.


Chocolate Apricots

Upon walking in the entrance door, we had the pleasure of feeling we were inside an old-world candy store.  The greeting room and gift shop are a feast for the eyes and filled with confections- gaily-wrapped bars of chocolate in extra dark, bittersweet, semisweet, mixed, milk, mocha, and mint varieties, golden packages of chocolate-dipped apricots and figs, brightly colored home baking products, and more.

We were also immersed in the sweet aroma of roasting cacao beans.  The scent was heady, intoxicating, in a way.  I would say that it was almost an aromatherapy treatment just to stand in the place, and it was impossible to bring any cares or troubles along.  Our friendly tour guide, Jeni Coxe, explained that the chemical theobromine in the cacao bean is a caffeine-like substance- and a natural anti-depressant.  I did my best to take as many deep breaths as I could of the richly scented air so I could get a chocolate lover's version of a contact high!


Tours are one hour long- ours flew by! -  and include a lecture, chocolate tasting, and factory walk-through.  The lecture was very informative.  Ample seating was available, and the room was comfortable, the vibe casual.  One can learn much about what goes into the confection we love so well- both about ingredients and techniques.  Samples of a variety of chocolates were offered, including milk chocolate- a newer product.  The most exciting offering for me was the chocolate "nibs."  These are what could be called the "meat" of the roasted cacao pods before they are ground and blended with the other ingredients to make the chocolate product.  The nibs are crunchy and pure-cacao tasty, and they can now be purchased on their own for those of us who have acquired a taste for them.

After sampling, the tour then moved into the production areas.  Visitors were asked to don hairnets and ear coverings before entering into the "inner sanctum."  This added to the fun and uniqueness of the tour as we stepped through the door marked "Employees Only" and into the noisy, wonderful-smelling world of Scharffen Berger chocolate production.


The first stop in the production area was the storage room where sacks of fermented cacao beans are kept.  The tour proceeded to the areas where the actual production machines are housed and operated.  There is an astonishing collection of vintage equipment here- another of the owners' delights.  Each machine- from bean cleaner, roaster, winnower, melangeur (nib grinder), and conche (mixes nibs, sugar and vanilla beans)- was purchased secondhand in Europe, shipped to the United States, and lovingly restored to full working order.  These machines encourage the European tradition of production in small batches that enables monitoring of each step to ensure consistency of taste and texture.

The last stop on the production tour included the packaging areas, where employees were hard at work applying various decorative touches to pieces of special-order chocolates and where the bar chocolates were being packaged up for shipping for commercial use by pastry chefs, candy makers and bakers (their original consumers).


We had a million questions at the end of the tour and we were given as many answers.  After chatting with our tour guide, we were too enchanted to simply be on our way, so we chose to stay and enjoy a chocolate beverage in Caf頃acao, the lovely restaurant that is part of the facility.  The food menu looked promising, and the sweet-smelling, cozy place offered a nice, romantic ambiance.  Had there been more time, I would have opted to stay for a meal.  Experiencing the place with a close friend was a lot of fun, but I can definitely picture myself snuggling there with my sweetie and sharing a fantastic dish with a glass of wine, followed by a rich and decadent chocolate-y Scharffen Berger "something."



Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker has received praise for its product from the media, including The New York Times, The Wine Spectator, Forbes, People, and our own Los Angeles Times.  The chocolate is, without a doubt, the highest of quality, and the company is the highest of caliber.  It's worth noting, however, that the tour is not some slick, commercial event, but a comfortable, down-to-earth experience.  It's well worth the trip.  Take your sweetie up to the Bay Area for the weekend, take the tour, buy some chocolate, sip some hot chocolate, and rekindle your romance.  You'll be glad you did.

The Scharffen Berger facility is located at 914 Heinz Avenue at Seventh Street in Berkeley, California.  Free tours are given Sunday through Friday at 10:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m., and at 4:30 p.m.  On Saturdays, tours are given at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., and at 1:30, 2:30, 3:30, and 4:30 p.m.  Private tours for groups of up to 30 people may be made for a flat fee of $35.  Reservations are required.  These can be made by calling 510/981-4066 or by visiting the web site at  Note that closed-toe shoes are required to be worn by visitors, and children must be over the age of ten (no infants permitted).

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