Bittersweet chocolate
Bittersweet makes its own chocolate under the Bittersweet Origins label in facilities in Oakland and Berkeley. Photo: Bittersweet

When David Salowich, the buyer for the three Bittersweet Cafés — in Rockridge, downtown Oakland and Berkeley — sent out an email asking for volunteer chocolate tasters, I responded within 30 seconds. Other people have dreams of being an astronaut; for me, being a chocolate taster sounds about as good as it gets. What could be more wonderful for a chocoholic than tasting chocolate for a living?

I am not alone in my passion for chocolate. According to research firm Markets and Markets, the global chocolate market will be worth $98.3 billion a year by 2016. The United States makes up about 20% of worldwide consumption, with the largest growth coming from Asia.

And chocolate adoration is nothing new. The residue of cacao beans, the basis of all chocolate, has been found in excavated pots from 1400 BCE.  Research indicates that cacao beans were used as currency in pre-modern Latin America. The first chocolate bar was made in 1847 and the bars began showing up in the United States in 1851.It has been a love affair ever since.

Cacao beans
The residue of cacao beans, the basis of all chocolate, has been found in excavated pots from 1400 BCE. Photo: Bittersweet

The world of artisanal chocolate — chocolate that is produced in limited quantities using traditional methods — has exploded over the past few years, to the delight of those of us who consider chocolate our greatest guilty pleasure. That doesn’t mean we aren’t willing to eat the more well-known varieties. We just like taking it to another level.

Bittersweet Café was founded in 2004 by partners Penelope Finnie and Diana Meckfessel. All three of Bittersweet’s East Bay shops serve chocolate and coffee drinks as well as pastries and sandwiches. They roast their own coffee and make their own chocolate in facilities in Oakland and Berkeley. The products are sold under the Bittersweet Origins label. They also carry more than a dozen different chocolates from other manufacturers. Rockridge, which has the largest variety, even has a “wall of chocolate.”

“Director of the Chocolate Program and Resident Chocolate Geek” is Salowich’s official moniker, but his chocolate involvement goes beyond the stores.

“I like to think of myself as an American Craft Chocolate Advocate,” he said. ”I also just started a chocolate information and events site, affiliated with Bittersweet, called Double Monkey Chocolate.”

Salowich tastes chocolate about four times a month, but he enjoys chocolate on a daily basis. He likes it straight up, not paired with anything, and enjoys it best when shared with someone else. And he isn’t a chocolate snob — if a bar from the grocery store makes you happy, he said, enjoy it, don’t concern yourself with the pedigree.

wall of chocolate
Bittersweet’s Rockridge store has a “wall of chocolate.” Photo: Bittersweet
Bittersweet’s Rockridge store has a “wall of chocolate.” Photo: Bittersweet

I was invited to join Salowich as he tasted three different chocolate bars from Fresco, a small chocolate producer from Lynden, Washington. Fresco’s chocolates are all made in small batches, as are most artisanal chocolate bars. Fresco says their points of distinction are how they combine cocoa beans, the percentages of cocoa they use, and how they vary the roasting times.

The ‘conching’ of chocolate adds the final special touch, turning it in to a smooth, emulsified product. Conching is the process of putting chocolate through a ‘kneading’ action. A conching machine kneads and massages the chocolate and sugar into particles that are smaller than the tongue can detect, varying the feel in the mouth. This process determines the final smoothness and quality of the chocolate.

Conching is done by all chocolate manufacturers, large and small. The exception would be a chocolate that is deliberately being created to be gritty or crunchy. And it isn’t a little project — Bittersweet conches their chocolate for 2-3 days to get the texture they want.

The particulars of artisanal chocolate don’t end there. Right now we are in a period of ‘single bean varietals’ — much like in the area of third-wave coffee. Salowich explained that the single bean focus is a current industy trend that gives the chocolatier, “the challenge of coaxing the best flavor from a single bean.” The chocolate bars that line the shelves at Bittersweet have beans from a specific geographic destination, 80% of which are in West Africa. The Venezuelan beans aren’t mixed with the beans from Madagascar or New Guinea, and each region offers a different flavor, a different character.

The author tasted three different chocolate bars from Fresco, a small chocolate producer from Lynden, Washington, with glasses of water as chasers. Photo: Wendy Cohen

Salowich confirmed what I had told my mother for years — chocolate isn’t a candy, it’s a food! “Chocolate is a food, and as with all food, the quality and flavor of the produce is a collaboration between chef and farmer,” he said. “And most of all, as a food, it is nutritious and life-sustaining.”

We began our official tasting by breaking off a little piece from each of three different bars. The first consideration was the visual impression: does the bar look smooth, or gritty? Is it glossy? Then we moved on to the  ‘sniff’ test. Can you smell the deep, intense aroma? A little coffee undertone? Maybe a little fruit? I quickly learned how many variations there can be in a piece of chocolate.

The next step is to put a little piece on your tongue and let it melt. Is it silky? Does is feel waxy? And do new flavors come out as it melts? Are there undertones of apricot or maybe it is a little musky? Was that a little black pepper?

I was thrilled to be told that I have an outstanding chocolate palate and I was invited back to a second tasting. Again we tried small pieces of three bars, with glasses of water acting as chasers between nibbles. I resisted the temptation to gobble them all down quickly and ask for more. And, while some of the tastes were more appealing to me than others, there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch.

The truth is, for the unschooled such as myself, there is no bad chocolate. There are industry standards that a professional taster will look for, particularly a balance of flavor and how successfully the chocolate maker has created the nuance and distinction that he or she is aiming for.

“Flavor can be hijacked by improper processing, but the key is the bean. A nasty bean will make a nasty chocolate no matter what you do to it,” Salowich said.

My career as a chocolate taster is going to have to remain in the amateur league– Salowich’s knowledge and years of experience are no match for my desire to eat chocolate whenever possible. I will just have to keep trying new chocolate on my own and secretly hope he invites me back.

Bittersweet recently started offering scheduled Guide Chocolate Tastings for the public. For details, visit Double Monkey Chocolate.

Wendy Cohen, Berkeleyside’s Advertising Director, studied journalism and has extensive experience in magazine publishing and media sales. This story was written independently of her advertising work.

Bittersweet: Artisanal chocolate made in Berkeley (05.07.10)

If you love chocolate, catch up on all Berkeleyside Nosh’s chocolate coverage. And be sure to bookmark Berkeleyside NOSH for all your East Bay food news.

Wendy Cohen (business director) has been Berkeleyside’s business director since October 2010. She has an extensive background in magazine publishing and media sales.