Local artisan chocolate pioneer, Scharffen Berger was started in 1997 by Dr. Robert Steinberg, who left medicine to pursue an interest in fine foods, and wine maker John Scharffenberger. They were the first bean-to-bar chocolate maker in the US.
Steinberg had interned at Bernachon, a famous chocolate maker in Lyon, France. When he teamed up with Scharffenberger, they merged the domains of chocolate and winemaking.
Ground-breaking chocolate makers
Like winemakers, they looked at their source materials, cocoa beans, in terms of varietals and terroir — the idea that geography, climate and soil impart different flavors in the crops. They also introduced wine industry practices of tastings and transparency, allowing people to see the process of making the product.
They were the first to put cacao percentages on their packages. Before that, it was essentially a trade secret. You had no idea how dark a dark chocolate was or how much cacao was in a milk chocolate.
They were also possibly the first to sell chocolate direct to the public at farmers markets. With inspiration from wine tasting, they gave out free samples at the markets, and found that people would be willing to pay more for premium chocolate when they could taste the difference.
Scharffen Berger’s success with single-origins even influenced original SF chocolate maker Guittard to start producing single-origin chocolate as well.
Scharffen Berger also influenced us CBTB-ers — we hatched our blog while sipping hot chocolate at their Café Cacao, which was adjacent to their Berkeley factory. And although we didn’t know it at the time, the large antique chocolate advertising posters that adorned the cafe walls belonged to Alice Medrich, the first American artisan chocolatier, who was friends with the owners and served on the board of Scharffen Berger.
In 2005, chocolate giant Hersheys decided they wanted a piece of the growing luxury chocolate market. They bought Joseph Schmidt Confections, another SFBA chocolate pioneer, and Scharffen Berger, and in 2009, they closed the Bay Area locations.
In 2020 Scharffen Berger went back to private ownership and is currently headquartered in Ashland, OR.