New Tree on the block
Cozy corner for chocolate opens in SF
Is sustainability important to you? If so, you’ll want to check out NewTree’s flagship café in downtown San Francisco. And if sustainability isn’t on your radar yet, you’ll still want to go to enjoy their tasty food, attractive space and healthy take on Belgian chocolate.
NewTree is a Belgian chocolate maker focused on sustainability that opened a U.S. office in Marin County in 2010. While their chocolate bars can be found from coast to coast in places like Whole Foods, this is their first company-owned café.
In addition to carrying their full line of bars (and providing samples!), the café is also where the company’s commitment to sustainability is on public display.
According to Udaiyan Jatar (UJ), NewTree’s sustainability and marketing consultant, not only is all the food served at the café locally sourced and organic, but “everything in the café is sustainably focused. There’s recycled paper on the ceiling, recycled pebbles in the floor, recycled crushed glass in the countertop, even Brazilian air plants that just require an occasional misting.
“This is NewTree’s first café. We wanted to create a hub for sustainably minded people,” said UJ. “You can walk in and feel ‘there’s no compromise in what I’m doing. It’s healthy for me’.”
NewTree’s approach to sustainability is very holistic. As you might expect with a stated focus on sustainability, their chocolate is all organic and fair trade, their to-go containers are compostable, and their packaging is printed with vegetable inks on recycled paper.
But that’s like Sustainability 101, and NewTree is on a PhD track. Like other concerned chocolatiers, they are careful where they get their cacao from. They buy their cacao from 4 cooperatives in the Dominican Republic and Peru, because for Benoît de Bruyn, company founder and head visionary, “Most important to me was the slavery issue in sourcing cacao. I want to shake the hand of my producers. In the Dominican Republic and Peru, I can meet the people; they are like wine growers here.”
In addition to developing strong relationships with their producers, they ship their cacao by boat instead of air. Plus for every bar they sell, they donate 1 euro cent to an indigenous community in the Amazon that is working to preserve the environment and traditional knowledge.
According to Benoît, “The company is carbon neutral. We have no impact on the planet, because we compensate for the CO2 impact.”
In addition to not impacting the planet, they aim to have only a positive impact on consumers. They removed all trans fats from their chocolates and reduced the sugar 20-35% without adding artificial sweeteners. Instead, Benoît said, “We added fiber, like agave fiber, and we put in plant extracts so you get the plant benefits from eating our chocolate.”
The added fiber means their bars have 5 times as much fiber as plain chocolate bars, and the plant extracts have been part of the chocolate bars since the company’s beginning in Belgium in 2001: “Lavender was the first [plant extract] bar I ever created,” explained Benoît, “Because I was in love with a small lavender producer in Provence, France. They were creating natural extracts by pressure only. I got so excited, I had to put lavender extract in chocolate.”
The interest in nutrition is another layer of their dedication to sustainability and played into the naming of the company (NewTree/nutrition). They want to sustain the life of the planet, but also the lives of us who live here now.
So portion sizes at the café are reasonable — no SuperSizeMe selections here. Sandwiches are on small rolls, hot chocolate is in small cups. But like good chocolate, the fresh organic food satisfies. You don’t need more.
But how’s it taste?
Some of us CBTB chocolateers have been sampling the goods, and we all agree: It’s very tasty. Lunch items, like the Belgian salad (shredded Brussels sprouts, Romaine lettuce, radish, feta cheese, cranberries and nuts dressed with pomegranate chocolate vinaigrette dressing) or the Brie and chocolate sandwich on a raisin roll, are a nice change of pace from more typical lunch fare. And the hot chocolate (get there early — it sells out!) is chocolately and thick like European hot chocolate. Desserts, whether they are dense dark chocolate like the Mi-Cuit (molten chocolate cake) or creamy milk chocolate like the lavender mousse, are winners too and not overly sweet.
And the bars? We haven’t made it through the whole range (there are around 15 flavors, some milk, some dark), but what we’ve tried have been uniformly good. Lime granola milk chocolate is a nice variation on the more common orange chocolate, and the granola adds an oat-y texture. The cinnamon milk chocolate has a taste that’s reminiscent of chai tea and a small-grit texture, which maybe comes from the cinnamon(?) and is not an unpleasant addition. The quinoa flax bar has a nice balance between the dark chocolate and the crunchy quinoa, a grown-up Nestlé Crunch. And the Speculoos is a dark chocolate bar full of bits of a traditional European spice cookie. It’s not as crunchy as the quinoa flax bar, and the cookie adds a caramelized taste to the chocolate. Other flavors I look forward to tasting are Thyme, Ginger and Superfruit (cranberries, pomegranate and papaya).
We like the chocolate because of the lower sugar profile and high cacao content, even in the milk chocolate: “Our dark bars are 66-67% cacao,” said Benoît, “And our milk is a strong milk chocolate with close to 50% cacao. We blend three kinds of beans — like in wine making, we are mixing to get a certain taste profile.”
One of the nice things about the café is that they carry the full line of NewTree products, some of which are new since May and some created expressly for the U.S. market. It’s conveniently located a couple of blocks from the Montgomery BART station, so it will be easy to check out what’s new and stock up whenever you’re downtown.
Building a better spread
One of their unique products is their chocolate spread (3 flavors: dark, orange & cherry). “In Europe, chocolate spreads are 50% oil. This is a disaster for your health,” said Benoît. “I wanted a mix of chocolate and milk, which was impossible because water in chocolate ruins it. So I developed a way to make an emulsion of chocolate and water. Our chocolate spread has no added oil. And what I really like is that in addition to using it as a spread, you can make hot chocolate with it, use it on pancakes and ice cream. Or melt it and dip fruit in it like fondue.”
As seems to be the case with most chocolatiers we meet, Benoît is one part artist, one part mad scientist. “Before, I was a bio-mechanical engineer. So I know the 700 components of this, but I don’t want to talk about them. It’s exciting to me, but not to you. In our process, we physically force the chocolate and water to mix. No chemicals are involved.”
Not surprisingly, he is in talks with other chocolate manufacturers who are interested in using his process to make their spreads healthier too.
NewTree seems to be a culmination of Benuît’s diverse interests: science, food, sustainability, nutrition and nature. Starting from a childhood interest in birds and bats, he became an expert on Belgian bats (“Bats are very intelligent animals that use the highest technology to locate themselves”). Adding an interest in science to his interest in nature got him into engineering. And interests in chocolate and social justice lead him to create the healthy, sustainable and tasty NewTree line.
A writer/designer, Nancy lives in Oakland with Ronnie, her husband of many years & fellow chocolate enthusiast.