Pros:Interesting, free, and chocolaty!
The Bottom Line: If you're a local, save this tour for a rainy winter day. If you're a tourist, mark this down as a fun and free activity while in the Bay Area.
On a whim I decided to visit the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory in Berkeley. I signed myself and my husband up for one of their free, hour-long factory tours through their website. I had no trouble on a Friday afternoon making a reservation for the two of us to join the latest tour on Sunday, even though (as we found out later,) weekends are their busiest times.
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There are private and public tours available. The private tours are for groups and must be arranged in advance for the price of $35 per head. As the public tours were free and easily available, they suited us. The website makes it sound as if there are strict requirements for joining the tour. Everyone on the tour has to check-in at the gift shop at least ten minutes before the tour begins. Close-toed shoes are also strictly required. Children under 10 are not admitted for the tours. I found out that they're not terribly strict about the check-in time when my husband was a few minutes late getting to the gift shop. They did check our shoes, and there weren't any children on the tour, so I suppose they might be reasonably strict about those conditions. Supposedly they'll give your space away if there are people trying to get into the tours and you don't show up ten minutes prior to the scheduled start time. We had about fifteen people all together on the tour, but there was at least one group that didn't show up.
After milling about the gift shop for a few minutes, a staff member introduced herself and took our group outside to begin the tour. The first item for discussion was the building itself, which is made entirely of brick, with vaulted brick doorways and ceilings. This is an unusual building material in the bay area, which is an extremely active area, tectonically speaking. Brick doesn't do well at all in earthquakes. The building dates from 1906, the year of the famous San Francisco earthquake. It turns out the building, which was later retro-fitted, has a foundation dating to just before the earthquake, while the rest of the building was built just after the temblor. It's a beautiful building.
Next we went into a small classroom. Here we learned about where and how cacao trees grow and produce fruit. We also learned how the seeds of the fruit are harvested and processed to turn them into what we know as a cocoa bean, even though they're not beans at all. There were color photographs on the walls, and we also had some materials passed among the attendees. We got to handle and smell roasted and unroasted beans as well as part of the hull of a cacao fruit.
During the course of the discussion, we sampled three different types of Scharffen Berger chocolate as well as the "cocoa nibs." We started with a 41% "dark milk chocolate" and moved up to pieces of 60% and 78% cacao. Cocoa nibs are the hulled, roasted and broken centers of the cacao seeds. They are not sweet at all and will not melt when heated. I've enjoyed sprinkling these over ice cream and my aunt always asks me to bring her some when I visit her so that she can bake them into cookies and cakes. Eating them on their own is another thing altogether. Some people didn't eat their sample and ended up throwing it away.
The staff member explained that it is the cocoa nib that goes into making chocolate. She then went on to explain the several different machines in the factory that are used to process the nibs into liquid chocolate. She did this explaining in the classroom because the factory itself is usually too loud for normal conversation. A lot of the equipment is very old, some pieces dating from the 1920s. Scharffen Berger is apparently happy to use this old fashioned equipment because they still produce at a fairly small scale and so they don't need newer machinery that can produce more chocolate faster. We were allowed to ask questions at any time, and many people had questions on a wide range of chocolaty topics. They were all answered knowledgeably and in good humor.
When we'd covered all the topics, our guide passed out hairnets and suggested we take headphones on our way into the factory to protect our hearing. The factory smelled strongly of chocolate, a very pleasant sensation. Because we were visiting on a Sunday, not all of the machines were being used, but it was noisy enough with even just a few running. She told us we were welcome to come back any time and ask to see the other machines in motion. It was pretty neat to see some of the old roasting machines that had come over from Germany, the labels for the different gauge settings still in fancy German script. We spent only about ten or fifteen minutes going through the factory itself. It so happened that the employees had finally gotten a few fresh cacao fruits to examine for themselves. Just before returning to the gift shop, we saw two of the fruits in an office area, where the seeds and pulp were exposed. I was glad to have the opportunity to see one of these fruits with the uncured seeds. The seeds are white when they're inside the fruit!
Our tour ended up in the gift shop about an hour and twenty minutes after it began. Of course they stocked all the different types of Scharffen Berger chocolate, as well as several cosmetic products with cocoa butter in them, and lots of books having to do with chocolate, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I picked up a tube of the Chocolate Hazelnut Ganache for Lips and discovered a new addiction. There were other things as well, such as a few baking implements and some pretty belle epoque style posters for chocolate products. People seemed happy to browse and do a little shopping.
All together, I was glad I signed us up for the tour. I learned something about the cacao plant, and a little bit about how chocolate is produced too. It didn't cost me anything and didn't take up very much of my time. I'd highly recommend the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory tour to anyone looking for free activities in the Bay Area.
Visit scharffenberger.com to make a reservation for the free tour. You can also try the virtual tour on that website. Tours are available every day of the week, at several different times of day. There's a free parking lot for visitors to the factory. If it's important to you to see all of the machines running, be sure to visit on a weekday.
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