At the end of September 2023, artisan chocolatier Michael’s Chocolates celebrated their 2nd anniversary with a special in-store event that included deals on chocolate purchases and lots of free samples. I also got to catch up with store namesake Michael Benner who has been having a very busy 2 years since opening his first brick and mortar location.
The store is open 6 days a week and they make most of their chocolate treats in-house. So while the front of the shop can have a serene feel, behind the scenes there is usually someone infusing ganaches, enrobing a surprising assortment of treats, molding bars, packaging finished items, and now even baking cookies.
On top of that, you can order hot chocolate, coffee drinks, and gelato to enjoy in the space or take with you along with whatever goodies you purchased for later.
As if keeping a chocolate business up and going wasn’t enough, they also are one of the chocolatiers Dandelion Chocolate selected to fill their amazing Advent calendars. So when I visited they were jamming on making 1000’s of bonbons for this year’s calendar. And preparing for the Fall Holiday Chocolate Salon. Whew! Did I cover everything? Probably not. Yet even with all of that going on Michael was his usual personable self throwing a party and chatting with us attendees.
I roamed around the store a bit snapping pix and noticed that in addition to their own chocolate they carry some SFBA producers of chocolate and other food items. Local chocolate they carry are Marich, Rainy Day, Raphio, and 9th & Larkin. Non-chocolate items in The Friends’ Corner include oils and vinegars from Olive This Olive That and alfajores (sandwich butter cookies) by Destino of San Francisco. Their gelato comes from Berkeley based Alamare Italian Gelato and their coffee is from Alameda’s Signal Coffee Roasters.
Michael told me that he plans to expand on The Friends’ Corner. “When I started I wanted to fill all the shelves myself but that’s ridiculous,” he said. “I can’t do it all myself.”
He plans to include more gifty stuff. New items he will be carrying include caramels by local Kindred Caramels, 3 flavors of Oregon based Holm Made Toffee (which we are familiar with from TasteTV competitions and can recommend), and local Fabula Tea’s high end teas.
Expanded product line
He won’t stop with filling The Friends’ Corner, he plans to expand his own offerings with more inclusion bars plus a whole craft section. He will also be doing more enrobed chocolate — currently they enrobe ginger, orange peels, marshmallows, Red Vines, gummy bears, and Oreos. Whaaa?!
“Some things I never ever thought I would do — like chocolate covered Oreos which Michael Mischer [previous chocolatier in this location] used to do,” Michael explained. “A woman came in asking for chocolate covered Oreos. ‘Aren’t you Michael?’ ‘Yeah, but that was the other Michael.’ I was like ‘I’m a fancy chocolatier’ but then I tried them in good couverture and they’re delish. So we carry them now.”
And Red Vines? “We’re playing with the enrober,” Michael said. “One day I came in to find — ‘Are those Red Vines? Why are they brown?’ My production manager likes Red Vines and always has some nearby. So he put them through the enrober. We used top quality chocolate — this is Dandelion chocolate — and decided they were good enough to sell. We wanted to lighten things up.”
Another new product at Michael’s is mendiants — those chocolate discs sprinkled with various goodies. Michael pointed out that they are doing small mendiants made with 62% dark chocolate that they top with toasted pistachios and pecans, orange peel, and dried sour cherries.
I really liked these. The inclusions made me think of fruitcake — but like a really good version — covered in chocolate. It just said holiday to me.
I liked biting the orange part first to get an orange chocolate flavor going then biting the nut section for a crunchy chewy experience and finishing with the tart dried cherry. The orange was assertive and slightly bitter. The roasted pecan was crunchy with a hint of salt. The chewy pistachio was a milder flavor. The dried cherry had soft chew and a good tart cherry flavor. There was enough of each flavor to make for distinct experiences and they worked well together. Two thumbs up!
Variety of sources
Talking about the new mediants Michael said he’s playing with different couvertures for his chocolates. It’s still mostly Guittard and some Valrhona but he’s bringing in Felchlin, the Swiss chocolate maker, for some bars in white and milk chocolate.
And of course Dandelion Chocolate. He started experimenting with Dandelion single origins when he got the first Advent Calendar gig — all the chocolatiers use Dandelion chocolate for their submissions to the calendars. Then he did the Spirits & Craft Collection for Dandelion which is available year round at Dandelion and now at Michael’s. For this collection he uses Dandelion’s 70% Camino Verde which he described as a versatile fudgy chocolate.
He told me he’s also doing a collaboration with St. George Spirits, the Alameda based distillery that Michael sources a lot of the liqueurs for his bonbons from. He hit a hiccup with the Spirits & Crafts Collection when St. George stopped making their raspberry liqueur. They weren’t able to get a good supply of raspberries this year so they suspended production. Luckily he found Richmond CA’s Falcon Spirits Distillery’s raspberry liqueur that is less sweet and gives the chocolates “oomph.”
The Spirits & Craft Collection has been updated with the Falcon Spirits Raspberry bonbon and a Hazelnut Espresso Crunch bonbon that uses St. George’s NOLA Coffee Liqueur and Dandelion’s 70% Camino Verde. With NOLA in the name you know this liqueur has chicory in it which presented a challenge to Michael who said, “Vegetal notes are not my thing.”
It turned out just fine — of course Michael wouldn’t release something if it didn’t meet his standards. The bonbon’s ganache uses cream infused with espresso and the coffee liqueur topped with a layer of candied hazelnuts and all enrobed in the Camino Verde couverture. With chocolate, espresso, and hazelnuts dominating, the coffee liqueur’s chicory was not noticeable as such. It supported the nutty coffee flavors of the piece.
Michael has a similar piece — Hazelnut Espresso — which uses the same espresso/coffee liqueur infused ganache this time in 72% couverture from Guittard and cacao nibs instead of candied hazelnuts. The taste was similar but the texture was different with the cacao nibs being chewy, not crunchy.
I got to compare bonbons partly because Michael was looking for feedback but also there were full-sized samples of different bonbons at the celebration. Now that’s a party!
The case was full of bonbons in lots of flavors — and Michael generously gave me some to sample — including new ones, experiments that may or may not make it into the case, and a discontinued one that I hope reappears someday.
The Citrus Burst was a riff on Michael’s award winning Lemon Burst bonbon. It used an orange based vodka with orange, grapefruit, and lime juice plus zest to flavor the white chocolate ganache in a dark chocolate shell that was airbrushed a warm orange color.
Even with all that citrus infusing the ganache it wasn’t strong tasting. A little bitter and definitely citrus but mildly so. The ganache was very smooth with a slight spiciness at the end but that could’ve been my taste buds getting confused by the citrus combo.
The piece I was most interested to try was the Root Beer Absinthe. The other Michael used to make a Root Beer Liquid Caramel bonbon in dark or milk chocolate that I loved. This one combines root beer and absinthe in dark chocolate. The combo makes sense because both root beer and absinthe have licorice overtones.
The fruity dark chocolate shell melted into licorice then root beer flavors in the super smooth ganache. The strong root beer flavor dominated but the more vegetal absinthe appeared at the finish. Root beer/chocolate flavors lingered. The combination is so good, I hope this becomes a regular in the collection.
As is often the case when talking with Michael I learned something new. He told me he was using Real Deal Root Beer Syrup from Burly Beverages in Sacramento and he mentioned they make shrubs in addition to soda syrups. So I asked him what shrubs are exactly. A friend gave me a bottle once and I had no idea what it was or what to do with it.
Michael explained that shrubs are syrups made with vinegar used by bartenders in cocktails. He said they were developed back in the day when getting fresh fruit juices wasn’t always possible so it was a way of preserving fruit flavors to use in cocktails.
The new Chili Ginger Mule bonbon was a spicy riff on a Moscow Mule Cocktail. It was an arresting bright green and was made with ginger vodka, ginger beer, and fresh ginger. It was flavored with 3 types of chili, cilantro, and lime but Michael felt it was too mild and planned to infuse the chilis next time. It was spicy but ginger spicy which was nice in itself but I look forward to trying the next iteration that captures Michael’s vision better.
I got to try a bonbon that wasn’t in the case yet — in fact it was one that Michael was preparing for the 2023 Top Luxury Caramel Awards competition. The Spiced Pear Old Fashioned Caramel had a dark chocolate shell surrounding a pear brandy and whiskey infused vanilla caramel spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice. Inside the chocolate it had an intense sweet pear flavor, the spices and alcohol flavors were secondary.
Finally I got to try the Coffee Brandy bonbon which was being discontinued — the bonbons in the case were the last of this chocolate which seems like a shame to me.
It had a very distinct brandy flavor with dried cherry notes — it wasn’t very coffee tasting at all, instead it was all about the brandy and chocolate combo. It was yummy.
Chocolate & spirits & wine, oh my!
You may have noticed that the bonbons I sampled at Michael’s had booze in them. With a background that includes 30 years as a sommelier that isn’t surprising. Even with so many of these alcohol based bonbons, don’t expect a boozy experience from Michael’s Chocolates. As Michael said, “I don’t do boozy for the sake of being boozy — not when Old Potrero costs $85 a bottle.”
(Old Potrero is the single malt whiskey Michael uses for his classic Old Potrero Rye Whiskey bonbons that you can buy individually at the shop or as part of the Spirits & Craft Collection or the Whiskey Lovers’ Collection. It’s from another SFBA maker, this time SF’s Hotaling & Co.)
He uses spirits and wines judiciously — often with other ingredients — to create multi-dimensional taste experiences that often include unexpected delights like the mild spiciness at the end of the Citrus Burst.
He also likes to do tasting events of chocolate and wine and spirits. In January he will be participating in an annual Zinfandel wine tasting that he does every year. This year 50 wineries will be participating and he plans to pair a Cassis bonbon with the wines.
We got into this discussion because I wanted to get his take on pairing chocolate with wine. He told me something surprising: He doesn’t recommend pairing wine with bars of chocolate. They are both high in tannins so it’s hard to balance these two. Instead he says to pair wine with truffles: “Truffles work better than bars because of the dairy — you have fat to carry the flavors.”
As is expected with a sommelier he has a lot of suggestions for what to pair with what. For example, he suggested pairing Cabernet Sauvignon and salted caramels. If you want to do a wine and chocolate tasting I think you can’t go wrong getting Michael’s recommendations for companion drinks while buying some bonbons at the shop.
While in the store I tried the house-baked chocolate chip and sea salt cookies which they helped DOUGH XX develop. DOUGH XX is an SFBA business started by Omar Mamoon, an entrepreneur and food writer for 7×7.com.
Michael told me they thought about making cookies from scratch at the store but they don’t want cross contamination — flour is a no-no but already mixed dough is okay. Michael liked how Omar was using all real ingredients — butter, flour, sea salt, Guittard chocolate — in his dough.
Another selling point for Michael was that there are no eggs in the dough. Instead DOUGH XX uses finely ground chia seeds. “No worries about salmonella,” Michael explained. “You can eat it raw.” And the chia seed dough gives the cookies a nice chew, balanced between a crispy cookie and a soft cookie.
Michael said Omar tried to make a vegan version but it had a strange taste: “Nobody wants fishy chocolate chip cookies.” Agreed. So while the cookies don’t have eggs in them they aren’t vegan.
In addition to straight up cookies, you can also get ice cream sandwiches made with the cookies and gelato they carry. “Gelato stretches the life of the cookies,” Michael said. “Chocolate chip cookies get stale so at the end of the day and I found that they have the perfect amount of stale-ness to sandwich a scoop of gelato and freeze hard — they’re like It’s It but with really good cookies and gelato.”
Bars of goodness
Another item with a longer shelf life at Michael’s are their bars/tablets. You can buy tablets online but if you go to the store you can maybe snag a limited edition bar or an experimental bar that Michael is testing to see what the feedback is before adding it to the main collection.
That’s how I first tried Michael’s Dark Chocolate with Crystalized Ginger Tablet. Making chocolate covered crystalized ginger he was left with a lot of ginger pieces that were too small to stand alone.
Michael uses certified organic ginger from China so the pieces were too precious to throw away. Instead he scattered a generous amount of candied ginger over the back of a 70% dark chocolate bar. And the ginger chocolate tablet was born. It did well enough to move from experiment to regular part of the collection.
The tablet has a very chocolatey taste balanced by a spicy hot ginger flavor. Michael also offers the chocolate covered ginger pieces so how to choose which one? If you want a more spicy ginger taste buy the pieces. If you want a more balanced chocolate/ginger combo get the tablet.
The same is true for the Peanut Butter Crunch bonbon vs. the tablet. The tablet is more chocolate, the bonbon is more peanut butter. They both have a delightful small crunch from feuillitine, a strong peanut butter aroma, and a good peanut butter taste in dark chocolate — there’s just more of it in the bonbon.
The Dark Chocolate Peppermint Tablet however has a distinct difference from the Organic Peppermint bonbon so my rule of thumb doesn’t always work.
They both have a refreshing peppermint flavor that plays above the very chocolatey/not bitter dark chocolate. And the flavors are balanced with a pleasant lingering mint chocolate aftertaste.
But the tablet has crushed peppermint candy added which gives it a stronger aroma and a more fun experience. As Cacaopod said, “Even before it got in my mouth it was tasty.”
The tablet’s crunchy texture is very satisfying to chew first and then let it melt. The bonbon is super smooth and melts easily. So I guess the choice is what texture do you feel like today?
More to look forward to
Now that winter is here maybe it’s time to indulge in Michael’s hot chocolate. The drinks are made to order using a 72% Guittard couverture and you can get yours made with oat milk or almond milk if you don’t want to drink dairy.
Michael told me that business has been good since opening the store. He said they were lucky getting the place because as a former chocolate shop the space was already built out so it was ready to go except for some tile work and hand sink partitions they added. He said even with no marketing, sales are great and the collaborations they are doing with Dandelion and others are still going strong.
Plus he said he plans to do more tasting events at the store and is getting organized to do classes(!) so if any of that sounds interesting to you I recommend signing up for their newsletter on their website and/or following their social media.
And be sure to stop by the store to enjoy everything on offer there yourself.