Taste the East Bay’s Chocolatocracy
Chocolate making is a sweet industry where lusciousness matters.
Photo courtesy of the manufacturers
Some regions are synonymous with certain foods: Quebec’s poutine. Wisconsin’s cheese. And Oakland’s chocolate. Berkeley’s, too.
From Bisou to Blue’s and beyond, from Défoncé’s cannabis confections to Flying Noir’s hand-painted bonbons, a dozen-plus East Bay outfits craft it. What a sweet industry.
When former Oakland City Councilmember Nancy Nadel launched the Oakland Chocolate Company in 2007, “there were no other bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Oakland.“
“I chose the name for my company because of the fierce and righteous love of our town that so many of us oldtimers — and newtimers — exhibit,” said Nadel, who drew upon dual art and engineering backgrounds to master aesthetics and equipment. Her acorn- and oak-leaf-shaped sweets honor the town’s titular tree.
“No one who works in chocolate started in chocolate,” said Kelly Herrick, who after 30 years in the software industry bought Barlovento Chocolates from its retiring owners in 2016.
“I’d always loved to cook and considered myself a skilled hobbyist,” said Herrick — who “traded my golf clubs for a hairnet” and who customers now watch using single-source Venezuelan chocolate to make bars, barks, truffles, and more behind a big window in Jack London Square.
In 2013, shortly after founding OCHO — whose name mashes “organic” into “chocolate” — Denis Ring and Scott Kucirek sought locations for a production facility.
“We were a day away from signing a lease in Benicia when we heard about a space on Adeline Street in Oakland,” Kucirek said. “We took a look at it and realized it was perfect for us. We loved the idea of putting our factory in West Oakland and contributing to the area’s renaissance.”
Equipment at OCHO’s 25,000- square-foot factory near Mandela Parkway now does everything from melting, tempering, and extruding chocolate to filling and packaging bars, which are sold nationwide in more than 15,000 stores.
Fueling the East Bay chocolatocracy is fandom — for locally, sustainably, independently, radically re-imagined food. For instance, Berkeley-based Endorfin Foods’ drinking chocolate is as unlike Nestlé’s Nesquik as single-origin ceremonial-grade unsweetened drinking chocolate sourced from Colombia’s indigenous Arhuacos people can be.
Barlovento’s Herrick updates and upgrades such old school standards as chocolate-covered cherries, coconut haystacks, honeycomb, and pecan-packed “turtles,” which, authentically turtle-shaped, are packaged in retro “ponds” sporting blue-foil “water“ and tiny faux trees.
OCHO’s coconut-, caramel/nut, and peppermint-cream bars also savvily, scrumptiously echo mass-market classics.
“One of my favorites was the Snickers bar,” remembered cofounder Denis Ring.
Merging old and new, too, are Coracao Chocolate’s chewy Berkeley Bars, layered with cashew-butter caramel and adaptogenic maca-and-lucuma nougat.
Like all Coracao products, they’re vegan, certified organic, and sweetened with coconut sugar — which, derived from coconut-palm-blossom sap, has a lower glycemic-index score and requires less water and soil nutrients to produce than cane sugar.
“So it’s more sustainable,” said cofounder Sean Jewell. “And the trace mineral content adds whole-food supplementation to the mineral-poor standard American diet.”
And, since coconut plants also produce fruit, “farmers get two commodities from one tree.”
He supports regenerative agriculture, by which “a farm is net-positive; it gives more back to the land than it removes. This is a delicate and nuanced process that involves mission-driven farmers with deep intuition and understanding of the nuances of healthy cacao. These are majority heirloom criollo varieties of cacao cultivated for flavor as opposed to yield size or disease robustness.“
For East Bay chocolate makers, entrepreneurship meets excellence via ethics.
“The culture of Oakland and Berkeley is unique in all the world — at least, the 12 countries and hundred-plus cities I have experienced,” Jewell said.
“Counterculture is the culture here. Hegemony is questioned more than it is adopted.”
Then where better to “create capital and consciousness” with tasty treats that “are the manifestations of that conundrum” by bringing “revenue back to farms and farmers, building healthier soil and creating oxygen” while “in return, customers get delicious peace of mind?”
Nadel said that when she selects cacao beans directly from a Jamaican farm, “I can be sure that the beans were fermented and dried properly and that the farmer doesn’t use chemicals on his soil. I also can see that the farmer is not using child slave labor — as is the case in some countries like the Ivory Coast and Ghana. ... Pretty appalling.”
She hadn’t known how chocolate was made before meeting cocoa farmers on a trip to Jamaica — where, thanks to government-run protocols, “the small farmer is left with no place to sell his beans. I made the decision to use only Jamaican cacao for my products to help the farmers get their fine-flavored chocolate better known.”
Along with award-winning Jamaican-jerk caramels and Blue Mountain coffee truffles, she crafts peace-symbol chocolate lollipops whose purchase aids Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, a nonprofit she cofounded that helps Oakland Unified School District students “improve their communication skills and use their words, rather than violence, to settle differences,” Nadel said.
But it all boils down — literally — to lusciousness. “Even the worst chocolate thing is better than the best corporate thing,” laughed Barlovento’s Herrick, whose choice add-ins range from Zinfandel to chile-de-arbol-spiked apricot purée.
“Trying out new things and perfecting a recipe makes my heart go pitty-pat.”
Where to Find Them
Oakland Chocolate Company: 510-545-2462, TheOaklandChocolateCo.com
Barlovento Chocolates: 510-238-8787, BarloventoChocolate.com
OCHO: 510-736-2465, OCHOCandy.com
Coracao Chocolate: 510-984-4848, CoracaoConfections.com