Not TCHO Mama’s Chocolate: San Francisco Pastry Crawl (Part 3 ½)

SF Pastry Crawl Day 3_23

On Day 3 of my recent San Francisco Pastry Crawl, my first stop was the TCHO Chocolate Factory, which I had been very eager to visit for quite some time. As I started writing about it, I realized that my original blog post (recounting my visits to several other sugary establishments) would be irritatingly long, so I’m writing this separate piece for more gushing detail about TCHO.

TCHO’s main facility sits at Pier 17 on the San Francisco Embarcadero, the beautiful palm-lined boulevard that traces the northwestern edge of the peninsula along the water. This is one of the most picturesque spots in all of SF these days, ironically as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. When I was a kid, that stretch of neighborhood used to be obscured by the eyesore that was the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway… until it was damaged so badly in the quake that it had to be torn down. The subsequent development of that area has been transformative for the city—it is now home to countless restaurants and retail spots, a sprawling pedestrian esplanade with views of the entire bay, a rejuvenated Ferry Building, and a bustling streetcar line to transport people to all of these wonderful new destinations.

SF Pastry Crawl Day 3

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Anyway, TCHO is located right on the water in a warehouse that holds a retail area/coffee bar (tasty chocolate drinks!) and their chocolate manufacturing operation. You can take a tour, where you will learn all about their bean-to-bar process and you will get to taste most of their chocolate varieties. TCHO has achieved such top-notch quality through a relentless chocolate obsession and their pursuit of the best possible cacao beans all over the world. While this in itself is impressive, what really sets them apart is that they go well above and beyond “fair-trade” practices, resulting in an amazing product and a contribution to humanity. TCHO works closely with their growers to educate them on the entire chocolate-making process, including sensory training on how to taste chocolate. Yes, I would like to do that for a living, thankyouverymuch. Furthermore, they have improved the cacao plant quality, chocolate manufacturing technology and equipment, and the working conditions of the growers. All of their chocolate packaging says “No Slavery” as a nod to their humanitarian philosophy and practices. TCHO chocolate costs a pretty penny, but this is an American company that I am very happy to support with my dollars and my palate!

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TCHO produces a variety of chocolate bars and disks of different chocolate percentages ranging from 39% cocoa solids (my current favorite milk chocolate– SeriousMilk Classic 39% milk chocolate disks) all the way up to 99% unsweetened chocolate, including special blends for professional bakers. They also sell a number of other products, such as their new Mokaccino bar (a blend of SeriousMilk and Blue Bottle Coffee), raw and chocolate-covered cocoa nibs, artfully packaged gift sets, and T-shirts. Each TCHO variety is a single-origin chocolate, meaning that the beans are all sourced from the same place. Because of this practice, each chocolate product tastes a little different with its own flavor notes; this is similar to the concept of terrior in winemaking—different soil, climate, and other environmental factors where the grapes (or cacao beans, in this case) are grown lend unique flavor to the finished wine (chocolate).

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To explain that concept, TCHO developed their “flavor wheels”, which describe each chocolate varietal according to its flavor notes, from darkest to lightest intensity. Chocolate is a blend of cocoa liquor (solids), cocoa butter, sugar, and usually other flavorings such as vanilla or milk solids. The chocolate’s intensity depends largely on the percentage of cocoa solids in said blend, which is indicated for each TCHO variety, in addition to a flavor profile description. After watching a video about their sourcing/growing/fermentation/production process and walking through the brief factory tour, we got to taste the different chocolate varieties. I’ve never been big on detecting flavor notes in wine, but our tour guide taught us the correct way to taste chocolate, which really does bring out different characteristics of the chocolate! When tasting chocolate, you want to use all your senses; first start out by touching the chocolate and warming it slightly in your hand. Then smell it and listen to its snap when you break your piece in half. Place it on your tongue and let it sit on the roof of your mouth without chewing for several seconds—allow it to melt slowly… this gives you the full effect of the chocolate’s flavor. I swear, it really works! We tasted from darkest to lightest:

  • Unsweetened cocoa nibs: Not my favorite to eat because they are more bitter than processed chocolate, but TCHO’s are the most pleasant that I’ve tasted, and they are fantastic for baking.
  • 70% “Chocolatey”: Deep, decadent, unabashed chocolate goodness. Pow. Goes great with stout!
  • 68% “Fruity”: Notes of cherry and berries, which I didn’t expect to like, but it was actually one of my favorites. I’m not a big chocolate/fruit person, but now I get it. This variety pairs nicely with red wine.
  • 65% “Nutty”: Full, warm, and creamy in your mouth—my favorite of the darker varieties!
  • 53% SeriousMilk “Cacao”: This tasted much darker to me than my idea of “milk” chocolate, but totally delicious and rich. Great for baking in recipes that call for milk or semisweet chocolate.
  • 39% SeriousMilk “Classic”: Likely to be the best milk chocolate I’ve ever had! Rich, creamy, fills your mouth with warm caramel flavor. Heaven. Awesome for baking.
  • 67% “Bright”: Notes of citrus fruits, a little zippy—As far as fruit notes go, I liked the “Fruity” better, but it was still very nice. (If I’m not mistaken, I feel like we tasted this one at the end, but I might be wrong about that…)

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Besides tasting, we also learned about the history of chocolate, from its Latin/South American origins as a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans, to its migration to Europe where sweeteners were first added, to its evolution into the present-day hardened, refined form that we cherish. It’s hard to say quite how far back chocolate dates (at least a few thousand years), but it’s known to have been used as currency, as a divine and magical brew in ritual ceremonies, as a luxury item for the rich, and as medicine; chocolate has a rather long, illustrious, and possibly scandalous history.

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In addition, we learned about some of the chemistry of chocolate on the TCHO tour, also an interesting story. The chemical compound theobromine is thought to be responsible for chocolate’s alleged reputation as an aphrodisiac, and it produces an effect similar to caffeine (a related alkaloid molecule), though there is no actual caffeine in chocolate. The word ‘theobromine’ is of Greek origin, roughly translating to ‘food of the gods’– need I say more? Some sources even claim that theobromine reduces blood pressure and acts as a cough suppressant; in other words, there are a lot of damn good reasons to eat chocolate! However, theobromine does have a dark side– it is this ingredient that makes chocolate poisonous to dogs, and it is even toxic to humans… if consumed in mass quantities! (My chocolate cupcakes once sent my friends’ inquisitive pug to the emergency room– now I know why…) Anyway, curious animals aside, the positive health effects of theobromine far outweigh the risks, which is a perfectly good justification to eat more chocolate– Now THAT is what I call “better living through chemistry”. 😉

As you can likely surmise, the TCHO factory tour was quite a chocolate education. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or if you plan to visit in the near future, I highly recommend visiting TCHO and taking the tour, which is free, by the way. I think it would be very interesting to any chocolate-lover or foodie in general, but especially to baking science nerds like myself! I’ve started baking with their milk chocolate and 66% chocolate disks, and the results have been rather excellent, including my recent Mississippi Mud Pie. (I admit that I only use it in small quantities though– gotta conserve that precious stuff!) As I said above, TCHO not only produces one of the best chocolate products I’ve ever had, and also institutes business practices that I am very happy to support.

Please check out the rest of my Day 3 pastry-crawling adventures in SF, including more info about my awesome experience at TCHO!

**Update: This original TCHO factory location closed in 2014 and the company relocated to a bigger facility in Berkeley, across the Bay Bridge. (More space to make chocolate!) They are not currently open to the public for tours, but will be at some point in the future. In the meantime, there are several TCHO kiosks in the Bay Area.

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© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.

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