Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

salon crowd

Surviving a chocolate salon


Maximize the pleasure while minimizing the pain of sampling a warehouse full of high-quality chocolate.

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The SF Chocolate Salon is very hard to do in moderation. At this year’s salon, over 30 chocolate vendors offered tastes of various delectables they created. With some show-only specials, seasonal ingredients, experiments that may never get produced after the event, and many emerging vendors whose wares you cannot find in stores, it was hard to stop sampling even when my body was telling me to.

2011 San Francisco Chocolate Salon
The 2011 San Francisco Chocolate Salon was wall-to-wall with chocolate samples.

On top of all the temptation, this year I was a judge. While I won’t reveal here how I voted, I can describe my strategy for surviving a salon. While this might seem trivial, tickets to this event are not cheap, and since your body can only process so much high quality chocolate, having a plan increases your ability to not only survive, but to enhance your experience by avoiding unnecessary intake.

And if you are asked to be a judge, go for it! Free admission and VIP treatment: some chocolatiers will give you samples of chocolates they aren’t giving away to anybody else. In case you are a judge, having a chocolate survival strategy is even more important if you want to do a good job.

Planning is essential

Before stepping inside the SF Chocolate Salon, I’d worked out my strategy:

Step 1: From the salon’s exhibitor list, I eliminated all non-chocolates vendors, including all alcoholic drink and ice cream vendors.

Step 2: Since this site is dedicated to SFBA chocolatiers, I eliminated all non-SFBA chocolatiers. (Google helped me discern who was local.)

Step 3: I’ve attended a few local salons already so I’m familiar with many vendors’ wares. Some I don’t care for, so they got axed from my list.

Step 4: At this point, I was down to 16 vendors. For me, that is still too many to try in one event, so I split the list into a Have-To-Try list, which included all my favorites plus new vendors to the show, and an If-I-Can list for the rest.

Step 5: With my Have-To-Try list at 11 vendors, I went through the non-SFBA chocolatiers on the salon’s list to make a 3rd list of Not-Local-But-Interesting. If I could, I would sample their wares.

Relying on others

Neo Cocoa booth
If you want to sample a lot of chocolate, it helps when vendors keep the samples small. (Thanks Neo Cocoa!)

Eleven chocolate vendors might not seem like a lot to get through, but these are all high-quality operations, the kind that make truffles so satisfying, you only need one and you’re done. Even with small Salon-sized samples (thank you vendors for downsizing samples!), this presented a serious challenge.

Step 6: Lucky for me, I had a secret weapon: My 3 other CBTB chocolateers. With their help, I was able to get through my Have-To-Try and some of my other 2 lists. They helped me narrow my choices by pointing me to interesting samples, trying tastes I’m not wild about (like the milks) and steering me clear of non-starters.

Step 7: I took notes on what I was tasting, so I didn’t just vote for the last OMG I experienced.

Step 8: I brought my water bottle so I could clear my palate between samples. You do not want to go from the hot garlic-y Sriracha Flying Rooster (Socola) to the citrus-y Sadako matcha green tea with yuzu (Vice Chocolates ) without a sip or two to space them out.

Step 9: After a couple of hours, we’d visited all of my Have-To-Tries and broke for lunch. We talked about our impressions of the show and went over our notes to plan the rest of the day. I highly recommend taking a break. Salons can cause sensory overload, so if you stop in the middle, you can get re-focused on what vendors you still want to cover (plus you can get over any nausea from the sugar overload).

Step 10: We went back to any vendors we felt we needed more input from, visited vendors on my 2nd & 3rd level lists, and with whatever we had left, checked out any booth that looked interesting — on a list or not.

Taking care of business

After we left the show, it was time to fulfill my obligation and vote. We went over all of our choices for the different, somewhat confusing categories in the show. It helped to reach a consensus on what we thought was meant by Best Dark Chocolate vs. Best Dark Chocolate Bar before we narrowed our choices.

Even though I was the named judge in the group, it was really a CBTB group effort to cover every category. I didn’t have to guess at who to select in categories I didn’t try samples in (such as Best Milk Chocolate Bar) because other chocolateers had tried samples and had opinions.

Because the vendors at the show put out their best work for free (and pay for that privilege), I felt that it was important to take the judging seriously and make my best effort. For me, that meant having a plan and a team.

And eating an awful lot of awfully good chocolate. Thanks to Taste TV and all of the vendors for giving me the opportunity to experience some of the great chocolate available in SFBA.

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Published April 21, 2011