Sherol Nelson Embry Launches Chocolate Business Cocoa Case in Alameda
This former Crab Cove naturalist combines her interest in Bay Area history, the bay ecosystem and it’s important international port, and social justice issues. Yes, chocolate integrates all of that.
Photo of Sharon Nelson Embry by Lance Yamamoto
Sherol Nelson Embry first arrived in Alameda in 1991 to take a job as the supervising naturalist at Crab Cove Visitor Center. Embry loves the community and watching it transform from what she called a once sleepy, little military outpost to a now bustling, cosmopolitan city where she has raised her two sons. She loves how Alameda retains its Victorian history and character while embracing diversity, arts, and culture, the beauty of the shoreline, the city’s walkability and the many friends she and her husband have made over the years. And something else: She’s a chocolate connoisseur who wants to share the love.
So after retiring in 2016 after 26 years at Crab Cove, Embry got the idea to start a business called Cocoa Case — slang for curious chocolate lover — and did just that. Running the online business from her Alameda home, she reaches people as far away as Florida and Washington, though most of her loyal supporters are Alamedans. Embry recently had a table at the Rhythmix Culture Works Around the World event where attendees learned firsthand about where cacao is grown, made into chocolate, and how taste varies depending on origin and process.
What inspired you to create Cocoa Case?
The idea for Cocoa Case grew out of some chocolate tasting programs I developed while I worked at Crab Cove. The program combined my interest in Bay Area history, the bay ecosystem and it’s important international port, and social justice issues. Yes, chocolate integrates all of that. I wanted to expand on that program to connect delicious fair-trade, artisanal chocolate with other chocolate lovers. I got my business license and set up the website with my son’s help about six months ago, though I had already been doing the chocolate tasting programs as fundraisers for groups like the Golden Gate Audubon Society, the Oakland Zoo Docents, and the National Association for Interpretation. I have also hosted chocolate tasting classes for Alameda Recreation and Parks Department and Piedmont Adult School.
What’s the relationship of chocolate to all that?
Historically speaking, the Gold Rush brought chocolate makers here who thought they would make their fortune in the gold fields but ended up making a greater fortune selling chocolate. The bay’s ecosystem provided the perfect environment for chocolate-makers with its cool, foggy climate, while our international port brought goods such as cacao beans from around the world to our doorstep where skilled craftspeople turned raw materials into chocolate products. With regard to social justice, local companies like TCHO and Dandelion work to help the economy of small-scale farms: Farmers are paid a higher sum for their cacao, are taught to use technology and improved techniques provided by the chocolate maker to develop the best cacao possible, and farmers are able to pay their workers a better living wage and discourage slave and child labor — a long-standing and current problem in cacao growing countries, especially the Ivory Coast where the majority of large chocolate makers get their cacao. And because I value environmental sustainability, I use packaging that is reusable, biodegradable, or compostable.
What are the main features of Cocoa Case for customers?
People can choose three different options for a monthly subscription: the Rainbow Kit, Gift Kit, or Party Kit. With a tasting kit, customers receive curated chocolate bars, mostly single-origin, which means cacao grown in a single country or even a single farm, fermented, and dried onsite, then sent to the chocolate maker for roasting and finishing. This highlights the subtle flavor profiles attained from the terroir of the bean and the artistry of the maker. We feature a mix of smaller “bean-to-bar” artisans that are hard to find. A kit also includes the backstory about the makers and the farmers that grow the cacao. I also have wine pairing suggestions with each kit as chocolate and wine together can create all-new flavor sensations. Cocoa Case also offers local chocolate-tasting parties, which make great celebrations for wedding or baby showers, book groups, and family gatherings.
What happens at a chocolate tasting party?
Guests at a chocolate tasting party have a fun, relaxing time as I lead them through the global and local history of chocolate as well as comparisons of single-origin bars for flavor nuances based on the terroir of the cacao. There are plenty of samples for “gastronomic illustrations.” For example, Guittard Chocolate is celebrating their 150th anniversary in the Bay Area. Antoine Guittard came here from France during the Gold Rush but instead struck gold with his chocolate, as did another big Bay Area chocolate maker, Ghirardelli. Soon, we will be sampling a limited-release bar they’ve created for the anniversary that is a blend of the cacao from countries that Guittard had available to serve to the Gold Rush miners. We also sample the latest innovators, including TCHO and Dandelion Chocolate of San Francisco.
What is the best part about running your business?
I take people on a virtual trip around the world to the “Chocolate Lands” and help connect them to the small-batch chocolate makers who are doing the hard work of creating delicious chocolate from cacao grown in a sustainable, Fair Trade environment. What is fun for me is that I love introducing people to the many flavor variations chocolate can have just because of where it’s grown and how the maker applies their skills. It’s also a lot of fun to meet chocolate makers at chocolate festivals — San Francisco hosts several annual events — and bring them into my repertoire. Eating really good chocolate: Now that’s a real plus about this business.
Embry plans more tasting classes and partnerships with local wineries and will feature maker stories on her website. For information about upcoming events and classes, including a class at Piedmont Adult School on Feb. 6, visit CocoaCase.com.