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From Bean To Bar: The Bay Area’s Chocolate Revolution

Zeina Nasr
At Dandelion's Chocolate 201 class, employees learn how to make their own batch of bean to bar chocolate.

There’s a long history of chocolate making in the Bay Area that goes all the way back to the Gold Rush. Over a century later, a new guard of chocolate makers is picking up where a previous generation of innovators left off, and they’re leading a small but potent revolution in the chocolate industry.

“For the love of chocolate”

In Berkeley, there’s a specialty foods store called Market Hall, and once a year, they hold a popular event called “For the Love of Chocolate.”

Local chocolate makers and food experts are invited to display their products, and customers from all over the Bay Area stop by to get a taste of everything from innovative Italian chocolate to old school Oakland-made toffee.

There’s something for everyone. And as chocolate expert Vanessa Chang explains to the crowd gathered around her eclectic display table, “If you don’t like it, it’s not that the chocolate’s bad. It’s just not your cup of tea.”

9th and Larkin

Chocolate maker Lan Phan would agree that there’s no right of wrong way to taste chocolate.

“Maybe you taste one thing but I taste something different, and that's totally fine because it's subjective. As long as we love it,” she says.

Like the customers at Market Hall, Phan started as a chocolate lover, but a few years ago, things got serious.

“I was working a regular day job, but then I felt like I wanted to make something tangible. I wanted to be able to kind of hold something and know that, OK, I made this,” she explains.  

So she quit her job and started 9th & Larkin, a brand of small batch chocolate based in San Francisco.

She runs 9th & Larkin entirely by herself during the week, and she’s joined by her husband on the weekends. They control the chocolate making process from start to finish, starting with dry cacao beans and wrapping the finished bars by hand.

Credit Zeina Nasr / KALW News
9th and Larkin's melanger, or mixing tank, slowly grinds up cacao beans and sugar.

Phan keeps her chocolate recipe simple, using only cacao beans, cane sugar, and cocoa butter in their bars.

The complexity of flavor comes from the bean itself, because in each type of chocolate she makes, Phan uses only single-origin cacao beans: each bar is made from beans that come from only one part of the world.

“It's almost like you get to travel to that area,” Phan explains, “because the temperature in that area, or soil, or the amount of rainfall and sunlight, it affects how the cacao beans taste. So it is almost like you can travel with your taste buds when you eat chocolate.”

Phan herself is originally from Vietnam, a country that’s becoming known for producing high quality cacao beans. This is why she carries several chocolate bars made from Vietnamese beans. She also uses beans from Honduras, Tanzania, and the Dominican Republic.

Endorfin Chocolate

Over in Berkeley, Brian Wallace makes small batch chocolate using single origin beans from places like Ecuador and Columbia. His company, Endorfin Chocolate, is a little older and a little bigger than Lan Phan’s.

Unlike Phan, Wallace likes to add unusual ingredients such as wild harvested mugwort and cardamon to his bars, and favors coconut sugar over cane sugar, but his manufacturing process remains much the same.

He also makes chocolate in small batches, starts with dry cacao beans, and controls the process from start to finish.

Both Wallace and Phan are part of a growing wave of artisans in the Bay Area and beyond who make what’s known as “bean to bar” chocolate.

“The definition of ‘bean to bar’ seems to be a moving target these days,” says Wallace. But it comes down to this: bean to bar chocolate makers buy their own beans and process those beans to make chocolate.

By comparison, a chocolatier is someone who buys ready-made chocolate and then uses this chocolate to make confections like truffles or candy bars.

Bean to bar chocolate makers are arguably more purist in their approach. They carefully source their cacao beans, make the chocolate themselves, and add very little to it besides sugar.  

For Brian Wallace, the value of bean to bar chocolate making lies in its elevation of chocolate beyond the status of an easy treat.

“I wanted to put chocolate back in the limelight as this food of the gods,” he explains, “and put it back in this place of reverence and respect that it had been in for thousands and thousands of years throughout its history in the Americas.”

Dandelion chocolate

In San Francisco’s Mission District, the bean to bar company Dandelion takes the reverence for chocolate to another level. Founded in 2010 by Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring, Dandelion is perhaps the most visible of the Bay Area’s bean to bar chocolate makers.

Credit Zeina Nasr / KALW News
At Dandelion's cafe on Valencia Street, customers enjoy chocolate in the front while cacao beans are ground up in stainless steel tanks in the back.

They make their handcrafted chocolate on a relatively large scale, and they invite their customers to delight in all things bean to bar at their bustling cafe, where they sell single origin chocolate in the front, make chocolate in the back, and teach chocolate making classes upstairs.

Like many other bean to bar chocolate makers, they pay a lot of attention to how their cacao beans are sourced. Greg D’Alesandre is Dandelion’s self-proclaimed “chocolate sourcerer”, and he spends most of his time sourcing cacao beans from farms all over the world.

Because Dandelion’s chocolate has only two ingredients in it -- cacao beans and sugar -- the flavor of the beans is very important. D’Alesandre says, he quickly realized, “getting good beans is much more about relationships than it is about the beans themselves almost.”

This is why D’Alesandre stays in regular communication with cacao farmers in places like Belize, Guatemala, and Madagascar. He then buys beans from them directly, and he pays them well above market rate.

By valuing these foundational relationships as much as it does the final product, Dandelion is part of a small but growing shift in the chocolate industry.

The ethics of cacao

As D’Alesandre puts it, “The history of cocoa has been one of power dynamics. At one point, it was essentially free because people were growing it in their colonies.”

And there’s still an undeniable imbalance in the relationship between the countries that grow cacao and the countries that consume chocolate. This is because cacao is strictly grown in the tropics, in developing countries, while chocolate is largely consumed in developed parts of the world like Europe and the U.S.

“If we're ever going to get to a point where there is actual fairness in the whole system,” says D’Alesandre, “it's not just about changing prices. It's about changing attitudes of what it means to be a cocoa producer versus what it means to be a chocolate maker and how those people interact.”

But it’s not always easy to figure out how to change these attitudes and what price to pay for cacao beans.

“The way I think about it is, we don't set the prices. The people who are selling the product to us set the prices. We don't even really negotiate,” says D’Alesandre.

So how do the farmers know what prices to charge?

“That is the question of the decade, maybe even century. I think it is an ongoing process of trying to figure that out.”

Which is where Emily Stone comes in.

Uncommon cacao

Stone is one of the founders of Uncommon Cacao, a cacao supplier based in Berkeley that connects small farmers in Haiti and Central America with chocolate makers in the U.S. like Dandelion.

And her aim is to change the way that cacao is bought and sold.

“Cacao, for the last century, has been traded as a commodity,” says Stone.

On the commodity market, there’s no such thing as a high quality cacao bean. All beans are treated as equal, and their price is usually set very low. So the only way most cacao farmers can make more money is by selling more beans, and with the push for increased quantity comes inevitable exploitation.

“Child labor, slavery, and deforestation are major problems in the chocolate supply chain,” says Stone, “and from our perspective, a lot of that is related to price and the serious undervaluing of cacao as a raw material or as an ingredient.”

When there’s a demand for higher quality beans -- from bean to bar chocolate makers like Dandelion -- farmers can begin to ask for higher prices.

And along with higher prices, Stone says that ethical trade cannot be achieved without transparency. Uncommon Cacao publishes its prices and margins in a yearly Transparency Report. It’s a new model that Stone calls “transparent trade,” but she acknowledges that this model still has a long way to go.

“I would say that in general we're still really far from farmers in most of the world earning a living income from cacao.”

If progress is to be made, Stone says it comes down to changing the way we think about chocolate and how much we pay for it.

“We have been tricked over the last several decades into thinking that chocolate is cheap,” she says. And bean to bar chocolate is not cheap. At around $8 a pop, it’s significantly more expensive than your average supermarket candy bar.

So should we start start paying more for chocolate? And what is chocolate actually worth? According to the Bay Area makers leading the bean to bar revolution, it’s worth a lot more than you think. And the chocolate lovers across the country are starting to change the way they consume their favorite treat.