Berkeley’s TCHO chocolate company goes all-vegan, trading dairy for oat and nut milks

The global chocolate brand will only produce milk-free milk chocolate …and it’s pretty good

TCHO chocolate’s new chocolate line trades dairy milk for milk from nuts and oats. Courtesy: TCHO

Big changes are coming for TCHO, the Bay Area candy company that’s been based in Berkeley since 2014. By 2022, all its baking products (which are used by chefs and restaurants across the country) will be fully plant-based — that is, without milk, butter or other animal products on the ingredients list. The same will be true of its entire retail line, with a plan to swap its milk-based bars for oat and nut-milk confections by the end of 2022.

TCHO didn’t set out to become a vegan company, Brad Kintzer told Nosh. His title at TCHO is “Chief Chocolate Maker”; he’s also the president of international trade group the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. “We’re always looking for a new challenge,” Kintzer said, “and we’ve always talked about what it takes to make a new, reimagined milk chocolate — a world class milk chocolate.” Wildly, he said, that journey ended with a milk chocolate that didn’t involve milk at all.

Kintzer, who studied botany, said they started working on the vegan bars about three years ago, after wondering “what could we do with plants?” Obviously, cocoa beans, the heart of any chocolate, is already a plant, so this isn’t the wildest idea, and most products labeled as “dark chocolate” are already vegan by definition

Milk chocolate is a different story. Milk chocolate dominates the consumer chocolate market (take a look at the multitude of milk chocolate candy bars at your grocery store checkout lane if you doubt that claim), which means to remain viable a chocolate company has to have a solid lineup of the creamier, oft-sweeter bars. Since its founding in 2005, TCHO has developed several milk-based bars that have been embraced by consumers, including “Toffee + Sea Salt” and “Mokaccino.” Those bars will be phased out, and replaced with the new, vegan line.

Soon, Kintzer said, candy bar buyers will instead grab a Toffee Time, which trades milk for cashew butter, oat milk, and coconut sugar (“for that carmelly-ness flavor,” Kintzer said), and is made with a plant-based toffee “that was really hard to come up with.” The milky Mokaccino bar will be replaced by Choco Latté, also an oat milk confection. 

Those new bars, as well as four other new options, dropped on TCHO’s website this week and are rolling out to retailers now. By the end of next year, Kintzer expects the last of the dairy-based bars to be off shop shelves. But killing off the milk-based bars wasn’t always the plan, Kintzer said.

“A fun thing that got in our heads was trying to make a plant-based milk chocolate that was as good, if not better, than the milk chocolate we make now,” Kintzer said. “We tried hundreds of iterations, and at some point, we started asking ‘why wouldn’t we just switch completely to plant-based?’” 

Citing the lengthy and oft-impenetrable ingredient list for most mock meats, Kintzer said that TCHO wanted to avoid “a lot of processing and engineering” and focused on “how can we do this and keep the label really clean, really simple.” Also, he said, they didn’t want to “hold ourselves to an exact recreation of milk chocolate,” and worked instead to create a new product that “has a lot of the things people love” about that type of candy. 

It’s a risky move, made riskier, perhaps, by the negative reception big-name plant-based milk chocolates have gotten. (TCHO is arguably a big name, too — though Bay Area residents might think of it as a small, home-grown company. Since 2013 its majority owner was venture capital firm Emil Capital Partners, and in 2018 TCHO was purchased by 100-year-old Japanese food giant Ezaki Glico Co. Ltd., the company that makes Pocky and other popular candy snacks). Kintzer is prepared for pushback from die-hard fans of the company’s longstanding milk-based products. 

“It’s definitely going to be hard to convert some people,” Kintzer said with a sigh. “But if they try it with an open mind, they’re going to be pretty surprised.”

TCHO’s new bars are divided into thirds and individually wrapped, a game changer for folks who only want a square or two at a time. Courtesy: TCHO

The newly launched bars are a departure from TCHO’s past line in a number of other ways. The packaging has been redesigned, a detail that isn’t usually interesting enough to put in a news story. But there’s one element worth noting: Now the bars are divided into thirds, each with their own individual wrapper made with 100% post-consumer waste paper and certified compostable film. “It always drove us nuts that if you only wanted a square or two, you’d have to sort of crumple and fold the foil and wrapping back up,” Kintzer said. 

That individually wrapped thirds thing was the first thing I noticed when I checked out the new bars, which TCHO provided to Nosh to preview for the piece. The next thing was the creaminess and smoothness of the alt-milk bars, and their sweetness. Unlike many plant-based attempts at a milk chocolate alternative, the bars weren’t brittle or gritty. And in many ways, I liked them more than milk chocolate — the finish and aftertaste was more pleasant, and avoided the occasional sour notes one gets with some dairy-based candy.

Still, Kintzer retains a fondness for dairy-based candy. “Milk is amazing, it’s so beautiful, creates so many great textures and flavors,” he said. But with this line, TCHO isn’t “closing the door on dairy, we’re just opening the door to a whole new world.”

And at the same time, Kintzer said, the company has also converted fully to a fair trade model, which means the company can avoid the cocoa industry’s more problematic and exploitative elements. “This was so much work,” Kintzer said, as for years some of its chocolate suppliers were “traceable on a certain level … but were not completely there. Now every bean we buy is fully traceable and transparent.” In addition, after a years-long push, all its retail bars will be fully organic as of January 2021. The company was also certified as a B corporation, an official designation for companies that follow certain standards for social and environmental performance.

Vegan, fair trade, compostable packaging, organic…there’s a lot of virtue there. Does Kintzer ever worry that all these different aspects to TCHO will obscure the actual chocolate? He laughed for a second at the notion. “We’re a craft chocolate company based in Berkeley, California.” He said. “If we’re not wild and a little wonkish, I don’t know who would be.”

Eve Batey is the editor of East Bay Nosh. Email: eve@eastbaynosh.org. Twitter: eveb.