Monday, January 30, 2006

We went to the Scharffen Berger Factory Tour last Saturday in the drizzling rain. Their building is surprisingly small. The manufacturing facility consists of two large brick rooms converted from a turn-of-the-century sulfur factory; in one room was a big green metal winnower spitting out nibs and bits of hull, and one shiny red vintage roaster looking like a monstrous Le Creuset Dutch oven; a few melangeurs and round orange conchers in the other room, and their molding line with the shiny chocolate bars coming down the line to be sorted by middle-aged Asian ladies with hairnets, earmuffs, and embroidered cursive nametags on their suits. (The woman nearest to us was apparently named "Temp.") They rejected any bars with visual defects or air bubbles (they weighed each bar on a digital scale). The good bars got picked up, placed in individual clear plastic bags, sealed with a sticker, and placed into boxes. The bad bars continued down the line to a big reject bin that would later be melted and re-tempered.

All around was the overpowering smell of chocolate and white plastic trash cans full of roasted nibs. Little labels dangled from the handles of the bins giving the origins and identification of each batch of nibs.

The lecture beforehand was pretty interesting. The only "waste" in the factory is the cocoa hulls, which get sold to chicken farmers as feed.

The cocoa fruits are grown in a band from 20 degrees north to 20 degrees south of the Equator. Scharffen Berger doesn't buy from the Ivory Coast, and they pay above fair-trade prices for their beans. The fruits are knocked down from the trees and the white, tangy, mangosteen-like pulp is scooped into banana-leaf-lined baskets to ferment for a week or so, bringing out the cherry/berry/fruit flavors in the chocolate. There are 20-40 beans in each fruit. They handed around some lacquered fruits to look at--they were a bit like winter squashes or gourds. The color of the fruits naturally ranges from cream to red or purple. The fruits look like warty footballs and grow straight out of the trunks of the trees, growing from creamy, ornate, orchid-like flowers the size of a pinky fingernail.

Scharffen Berger has a "bean-to-bar" production facility. The beans are removed from the pulp (they passed around some raw beans), roasted to bring out the smoky/bitter notes in the chocolate (they passed around roasted beans and allowed us to crush the hulls with our fingers and remove them), winnowed and crushed into nibs, ground with the melangeur into cocoa liqueur, then conched (stirred) for hours to smooth and mellow the liqueur. They are tempered, and this is the process as I understand it: they start by raising the temperature to remove unstable crystal formations, then stir until thickened while the heat is lowered to encourage stable crystal formation, heat the mixture again to dissolve any remaining unstable crystals, and then let it cool, with the stable crystal network now acting to seed stable crystal growth and make the chocolate nice and shiny and crisp.

We sampled their 99% unsweetened chocolate, their 72% signature blend, the 60% chocolate used for confections, their milk chocolate, roasted cocoa nibs, and chocolate-coated cocoa nibs.

All pure chocolate production takes place in the nut-free Berkeley factory; some of their confections, such as their Gianduja bars, are created in another facility nearby--in Sonoma, I think.

There was a sign in the front room explaining that due to the use of white sugar (refined with animal bone charcoal), Scharffen Berger dark chocolates were vegan from a dietary point of view--you wouldn't ingest any animal products--but not from a strict point of view, since they do indirectly cause harm to animals.

No comments: