Raising the bar

A winemaker and a doctor change the way Americans think about chocolate

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"When we started, the chocolate industry was where the coffee industry was 15 years ago," says John Scharffenberger. "Nobody was making European-style espresso because the prevailing belief was that Americans did not like strongly flavored products."

His success has proven this to be as untrue for chocolate as it was for coffee. In the five years that Scharffenberger, a former sparkling wine-maker, and Robert Steinberg, a physician, have been in business, the two have achieved national attention for making a flavorful, high-quality chocolate using small-scale European artisanal methods ― nearly unheard of in a country dominated by a handful of large-scale chocolate producers. Still tiny by industry standards, Scharffen Berger's 30 employees produce 400,000 pounds of chocolate annually.

In the beginning, the two figured their heady, dark chocolate ― a blend of eight separately roasted beans selected from around the world for their flavor and acidity ― would appeal mostly to chefs and bakers. But one day Scharffenberger went to a farmers' market with about 100 of what he describes as "funny little candy bars" that they'd made by filling their larger molds halfway. He sold out of the bars in an hour.

Five years later, consumers want their dark chocolate smooth and well balanced, and there has been an explosion of interest in the beans that go into it. Last year, for example, Guittard Chocolate Company, the 134-year-old San Francisco Bay Area chocolate manufacturer, introduced an artisanal line of chocolates labeled with the names of cocoa bean varietals.

As in the wine business, which tends toward "exclusivity and secrecy," Scharffenberger has discovered that a little consumer education goes a long way, which is why three daily factory tours lead chocolate enthusiasts through Scharffen Berger's process of transforming cocoa beans into shiny chocolate bars, depositing visitors in the gift shop at the end.

"People are more interested in a product if they understand it," says Scharffenberger. More importantly, as with coffee, people are more interested in a product if it tastes great. Go figure.

How to use the new chocolates

•Grate chocolate over red wine-poached figs or pears.

•Chop into irregularly sized chunks and make grown-up chocolate chip cookies.

•Whisk finely chopped chocolate into hot milk for a bittersweet but more sophisticated and rich hot cocoa.

•Enjoy a single square of dark bittersweet chocolate with a glass of rich, earthy Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.

•Sandwich chocolate between two of your favorite cookies (we like digestive biscuits) with a melted marshmallow for a gourmet s'more.

•Nibble chocolate chunks mixed with chopped marzipan, dried cherries, and apricots.

•Use Scharffen Berger's cacao nibs ― the roasted nutmeat of the cocoa bean ― in place of nuts in your favorite cookie recipe.

Tours Mon-Sat; free. Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, 914 Heinz Ave., Berkeley; (510) 981-4066 or www.scharffenberger.com.

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