Catherine Liu spills the beans about cacao at the TCHO Chocolate factory tour. Photo: Sarah Han

Before you even arrive at the TCHO Chocolate factory in southwest Berkeley, you should know there is a somewhat long list of rules and requirements to be able to attend. First, guests must be at least eight years old, and all minors must be accompanied by an adult. Fine and good. There will be no Augustus Gloops getting sucked into tubes here. But the rules go on. There’s a checklist of things you cannot wear: No jewelry. No open-toed shoes. No heels. No fragrances. No nail polish. No excessive makeup (including, specifically, no false eyelashes). No shorts, skirts, capri pants or other bottoms where bare legs are exposed. No facial piercings. And, finally, you will want to avoid serious bodily injuries in advance of this tour, as there will be no entry by those wearing body casts of any kind.

All these rules may make you wonder: is this chocolate factory tour worth the $10 ticket price? Will it even be fun? And most importantly, will we get to eat chocolate? Fortunately, the answer to all of these questions is yes. Still, this is a tour best suited for chocolate nerds, or at the very least, people who like to learn a little while getting behind-the-scenes.

The presentation room and flavor lab at the TCHO Chocolate factory in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

It makes perfect sense that a tour at TCHO (pronounced “Cho”) would be an informative one, being that the company was originally founded by some brainy, technically minded people. A one-time NASA scientist, Timothy Childs, and Karl Bittong, a longtime chocolate industry guy from Germany, started the company in 2005 on Pier 17 in San Francisco. As makers of artisan, single-origin chocolate, their mission was to not only create better tasting and better quality chocolate, but to improve working conditions for cacao farmers and lessen the environmental impact of chocolate sourcing — both problems in the world of Big Chocolate.

In 2014, TCHO outgrew its SF facility and moved to Berkeley, into the Marchant Building at 3100 San Pablo Ave. (just south of Ashby), a space about three times bigger than the Pier 17 facility. One of TCHO’s popular attractions at Pier 17 was its guided tours, but for its first three years in Berkeley, the factory was closed to the public. The company used this time to settle in and focus on wholesale and distribution. It wasn’t until this October that it started giving guided tours again.

The friendly and informative Catherine Liu, factory tour and store manager at TCHO Chocolate in Berkeley. Photo: Sarah Han

TCHO’s factory tour and store manager Catherine Liu is one of 35 employees who works at the Berkeley factory. She is the company’s sole tour guide, giving two 90-minute tours a day.

A large part of the Berkeley tour doesn’t even concentrate on what happens inside the factory. Instead, the focus is across the world, on the farms in the four countries from which TCHO sources cacao, or the beans that become chocolate: Peru, Ecuador, Madagascar and Ghana. Guests learn how cacao is grown and processed, and about TCHO’s sourcing programs.

Tour guests can handle (and sniff) a huge hunk of cocoa liquor (made from cocoa solids and cocoa butter) and pure cocoa butter at the TCHO Chocolate factory. Photo: Sarah Han

According to Liu, many traditional cocoa farmers never taste the chocolate made from their beans, so they have little control over, or knowledge of, the final product. To help remedy this, TCHO has built flavor labs at each of the co-ops it works with to introduce farmers to the entire process of chocolate making. It provides training, equipment and technology for growing higher quality beans. Farmers take sensory training classes to expand their knowledge and palates. These classes not only improve the taste of the product, but give farmers the tools to work with other markets and hopefully, get paid a better wage for their product.

The processing of cacao beans — harvesting, fermenting, drying, roasting and then transforming it into a mass called cocoa liquor (made of equal parts cocoa solids and cocoa butter) — all happens at the bean’s country of origin. This means more employment for farmers, and a smaller carbon footprint for TCHO, which only imports the processed cocoa liquor to its factory.

A peek into the production room of the TCHO Chocolate factory. Cameras are not allowed inside. Photo: Sarah Han

The next part of the tour takes visitors on to the production floor, where the pure cocoa liquor is transformed into chocolate bars. Here, a series of machines melt, mix, grind, store, temper, mold and finally wrap each individual bar. Although the heavenly aroma of chocolate is pervasive throughout the factory, the rich fragrance is strongest in the production room.

Fans of shows like “How It’s Made” will get special pleasure out of the walk-through, although this segment of the tour is fairly short and, depending on what day you go, you may or may not see any chocolate on the production line. This is also the part of the tour where all those strict hygiene rules matter most. Disposable hairnets and lab coats must be worn inside. Phones, purses and other belongings are stored away in lockers before entry.

Finally, after viewing the machines, visitors are led back to the presentation room, where the best part — the tasting — happens.

Chocolates tasted at the TCHO Chocolate factory tour. Photo: Sarah Han

There’s a method to tasting single-origin chocolate bars, Liu told us. Chocolates should always be sampled in the order of darkest to lightest, otherwise bitterness will overwhelm any subtler flavors. Before you place a piece of chocolate in your mouth, first break it in half; you should hear a good snap. If a single-origin chocolate bar doesn’t make a sound when broken, Liu said, it probably wasn’t tempered correctly, which gives it its strength and glossy appearance. Then, give the chocolate a whiff, appreciating the aroma before finally eating it. Rather than chewing chocolate, let it melt on our tongue, to best detect its notes and flavor profiles.

During our tasting, we tried three single-origin dark chocolates: TCHO’s most popular, a 70% dark chocolate from Ghana with a rich chocolatey profile. It has a little vanilla added, which actually enhances the deep flavor of chocolate. Then, we had a 68% dark chocolate from Peru with a fruity profile. I immediately tasted raisins, but Liu said some detect notes of cherry, raspberry and even orange. This chocolate goes well with red wines. And last, we sampled TCHO’s lightest single origin, a 65% dark chocolate from Ecuador with a nutty, roasted flavor.

Like with wine, a chocolate’s tasting notes are often subjective to the taster, but inclement weather, or other environmental factors, can determine flavor. Liu said that flavor consistency is not easy when producing single-origin chocolate.

“When you’re dealing with nature and the ingredients are not genetically modified, flavors can differ from harvest to harvest,” she said.

A selection of TCHO’s flavored chocolate bars at its factory retail store. Photo: Sarah Han
A selection of TCHO’s flavored chocolate bars at its factory retail store. Photo: Sarah Han

Although TCHO’s specialty is single-origin chocolate, it does offer a few other types of blends and flavored bars. It makes two milk chocolate bars made from a blend of chocolate from Ecuador and Peru, one at 53% and another at 39%. (To compare, the average milk chocolate bar is 20% to 25% chocolate.) It also makes eight flavored bars, including its most popular and bestselling Mokaccino, featuring Blue Bottle coffee beans. And it recently started a special Maker’s Series. Every two months TCHO chocolate makers create a new, limited edition bar for this micro-batch series, where they can get a little bolder and weirder with ingredients. I took home the Umami bar, featuring black garlic, seaweed, shiitake and sea salt.

The tour ends with time in the TCHO retail store. The tour costs $10, but guests are given $10 credit to spend here, so, as long as you buy something, you’ve essentially gotten a free tour, a whole lot of chocolate knowledge, and, most probably, a bounty of chocolates for the road, too.

90-minutes factory tours take place two times a day at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at TCHO Chocolate, 3100 San Pablo Ave., Suite 170 (enter on Folger St.). Go to Eventbrite for available dates and to purchase tickets.

Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...