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

The milk chocolate Wien Vienna Lager Caramel had milk chocolate colored caramel inside and smelled strongly of milk chocolate. I didn’t taste lager or caramel really. It was more a milk chocolate overload, with a possible hint of savory hops at the end. I rated it 3 stars. It received Gold for Most Unique, and was rated 3.5 stars.

Chocolate optional competition

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Not to worry: There was still plenty of chocolate to judge

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The 2021 Top Luxury Caramels Awards competition sponsored by TasteTV had a lot of excellent entries. And I surprised myself with how many of the entries I rated 4 or 5 stars had no chocolate in them. I’m not much of a candy person if there is no chocolate involved, but I do appreciate a fine caramel now.

As with all of my recent articles about judging, I am limiting myself to talking about entries that I rated 3 stars or higher. I will keep it on the positive side with caramels I can recommend — wherever they come from, and whether chocolate is included or not.

Strong start

I first encountered Kwoka Caramel, Bergen, NJ, last year when they submitted 2 unusual caramels: A Pistachio Sea Salt Caramel that was so full of nuts it smelled of pistachio and had an immediate pistachio flavor; and a Licorice Caramel that smelled like licorice and had a mild but distinct licorice flavor. They were both chewy soft, not too sweet, buttery caramels that I loved.

Kwoka caramels
Not fancy, just delicious

This year, they submitted more traditional flavors : A Sea Salt Caramel and a Mocha Caramel. They were a similar experience to last year’s submissions, if less adventurous.

Kwoka’s caramels are traditionally made firm but soft, slightly sticky caramel cut into wide rectangles and wrapped in clear wrappers. They are not chocolate coated, but I still recommend them highly.

The Mocha Caramel was 2 sided, one dark and one a medium colored caramel. It had an enticing coffee aroma and an immediate coffee flavor that lasted throughout the experience. It was smooth and chewy, with a buttery/coffee tasting combo as it melted.

Really delicious, I rated it a 5. It received Silver for Best Taste, Best Packaging, and Top Caramels; and Honorable Mentions for Best Exterior Design and Best Ingredient Combinations. It rated 4.5 stars.

Kwoka’s other entry, Sea Salt Caramel, was also excellent. It had a good strong caramel aroma with an immediate buttery taste, then a little salt. Like the Mocha Caramel it was smooth, chewy, and delicious. And it became more buttery and caramel tasting as it melted.

Another 5 in my book. It received Silver for Best Taste and an Honorable Mention for Top Caramels; and rated 4.5 stars.

You can purchase Kwoka caramels online — check their New Arrivals page for their unique flavors.

Range of flavor moods

Sweet Jules, Minnetonka, MN, was another straight-up caramel maker I first encountered at last year’s competition and loved. Last year, they submitted 3 pieces which I would categorize as plain (Fleur de Sel), a little flair (Jules of Paris — a chocolatey caramel), and out there (Farm Apple Spice, bursting with apple and molasses flavors). They were all well made traditional chewy caramels and delicious.

Sweet Jules caramels
Mild to wild caramels

They did a similar range this year with vanilla (the plain), espresso (a little flair), and an interpretation of a classic Southern dessert (out there). Again, I loved them all and rated them all 5s.

The Classic Vanilla Bean caramel smelled so good, with a sweet caramelized butter smell. It was a soft, smooth caramel with an excellent traditional buttery caramel flavor. It received Silver for Best Taste and an Honorable Mention for Top Caramels; and rated 4.5 stars.

The Cafe Italiano caramel added espresso to the vanilla caramel ingredients to give it a light coffee aroma. The espresso flavor was not bitter, and made for a less sweet and very enjoyable experience.  It received Honorable Mentions for Best Exterior Design, Best Taste, Best Packaging, and Most Unique. It rated 4.5 stars.

Their “out there” entry was a Bananas Foster caramel. Again it started from the vanilla caramel but added banana liqueur. It was great too with an immediate banana flavor plus a little boozy note for fun. It received Silver for Best Taste; Bronze for Top Caramels; and Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations and Most Unique. It rated 4 stars.

You can buy Sweet Jules caramels online or at their pastry shop in Minnetonka.

Nutty about nuts

Another strong caramel-no-chocolate contender both last year and this year was Sweet Nouveau Artisan ConfectionsChicago, IL. If you like chewy caramels with nuts, these are for you — both entrants this year features large visible pieces of nuts with good nuts flavors.

Sweet Nouveau caramels
Somebody who understands the correct proportion of nuts to caramel

Their Bourbon Maple Pecan caramel, which they also submitted last year, featured pecan halves in their traditional firm, chewy caramel. And they don’t skimp on the rest of the named ingredients: I could smell the maple and bourbon before I tasted them.

This was a not too sweet caramel with a good balance of bourbon maple pecan and buttery caramel flavors with a dash of salt. It had a soft pecan crunch throughout, and the flavors lingered. I rated it 5 stars. It received Gold for Best Taste and Top Caramels; Silver for Best Ingredient Combinations. It was rated 4.5 stars.

The Smoked Honey Walnut caramel had good sized walnut pieces, a strong hit of salt and a good caramel flavor, but the honey made it too sweet for me.  I still liked the flavor and rated it 3 stars. It received Silver for Best Taste; and Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations and Top Caramels. It was rated 4 stars.

Sweet Nouveau Artisan Confections caramels and chocolate treats are available online and at various events around Chicago. Check their website for more information.

Old fashioned caramel

The last naked caramel entries I thought above average were from Grandpa Frank’s CandyWheaton, IL. These little caramel squares were slightly sticky, and as the name implies, they were a taste of nostalgia. Not just traditional, they evoked memories of department store caramels.

Grandpa Franks Pecan caramel
Grandpa Frank’s  mild Pecan Caramel

I liked their 2 nutty entries best: Pecan Caramel and Bourbon Pecan Caramel. They were smooth, buttery, and soft with a little texture from the soft nuts.

The Pecan Caramel had visible bits of pecans, but were not extremely nutty. It started more buttery and got nuttier as it melted. I rated it 4 stars. It received Bronze for Best Taste, and rated 4 stars.

The Bourbon Pecan Caramel had a boozy, sweet, distinct bourbon flavor that lingered. The pecans were too understated; more a noticeable texture than a flavor.

Grandpa Franks Coffee Bean
Real coffee bean adds a cute, but hard, touch

I prefer the bigger pieces like Sweet Nouveau uses. Still I rated it 3 stars. It received Bronze for Best Taste and an Honorable Mention for Best Ingredient Combinations; and rated 4 stars.

Their third entry, Coffee Caramel, was cute with a whole coffee bean perched on top. It was a darker caramel with a strong coffee aroma. It was a good caramel with good coffee taste but the bean was a hard distraction. Cute, but it would be a better experience without it. I rated it 3 stars. It received Honorable Mention for Best Taste, and rated 3.5 stars.

Grandpa Frank’s caramels are available online.

And now for something completely different

Brigadeiro Sprinkles
Coronavirus model or candy?

New competitor and our first SFBA entrant, Brigadeiro SprinklesSan Francisco, submitted their unusual looking Fleur de Sel Caramel brigadeiro. Brigadeiros are a Brazilian confection, traditionally made with condensed milk and cocoa powder, and rolled in chocolate sprinkles. For this one, Brigadeiro Sprinkles substituted caramel for the cocoa and caramel coated crispy rice pearls for the sprinkles.

The result was something that looked like a blonde coronavirus model and tasted kinda like Dulce de Leche. The round rice crisps taste very milky, and they were attached to a thin sugary shell surrounding soft smooth light colored caramel. The condensed milk taste was noticeable, and the whole piece was very sweet — but I have noticed those 2 aspects of brigadeiros every time I have tried them.

I liked, not loved, the Fleur de Sel Caramel brigadeiro. It was too sweet for that, but I did like it and rated it 3 stars. It received Silver for Best Exterior Design; Bronze for Best Packaging; and an Honorable Mention for Most Unique. It was rated 3.5 stars.

Brigadeiro Sprinkles has an online store where you can buy pre-made collections or request specific flavors.

Now on to the chocolate portion of our review:

Tea & chocolate

London Fog caramel
London Fog caramel

The entry by new competitor, Urge Chocolates, British Colombia, was the first chocolate covered entry I tried this year, and it was another winner. Their London Fog Caramels were dark chocolate squares sprinkled with sea salt. Inside was a solid caramel infused with Earl Grey tea.

They did it right: Nice light Earl Grey flavor, and not too salty. Just little hits of salt amid a reasonable amount of citrusy Earl Grey in a firm chewy caramel, wrapped in good chocolate. Another 5 from me, it received Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations, Best Taste, and Most Unique; and rated 4 stars.

Urge Chocolates has an online shop where you can buy their caramels, truffles, chocolate bars, and other treats.

Star turns

Veteran competitor, Panache ChocolatierLeawood, KS, surprised me this time with 2 less sweet entries. (“Too sweet” is my usual complaint about their otherwise excellent chocolates.) I was impressed with both.

Panache Marnier Mule
Panache’s Marnier Mule

The Marnier Mule caramel was a square of dark chocolate with a light colored semi-firm caramel inside. It was described as buttery caramel soaked in Grand Marnier, flavored with grated ginger, coated with dark chocolate, and topped with grated lime and orange peel.

It smells chocolatey and had a slightly sugary grainy texture. Chocolate was the first flavor, slightly citrus, then ginger came in and was the dominant note. But it was more of a ginger snaps flavor — dominant but not aggressive. It didn’t taste boozy at all. If not for the description, I wouldn’t have known it had alcohol in it.

I rated it 4 stars. It received Silver for Best Ingredient Combinations and Most Unique;  and an Honorable Mention for Best Taste. It rated 4 stars.

Panache spiced pecan
Panache’s Spiced Pecan

Panache’s Spiced Pecan Caramel was even better. First, it was an attractive chocolate covered disc with lines of chocolate dragged across half the disc, then that half was topped with spices and pecan bits.

Described as a combination of buttery caramel and spicy pecans, it was a semi-firm caramel full of pecans and some orange tinges from spices. It had the same slightly grainy texture as the Marnier Mule with good pecan and chocolate flavors, then a little heat, which continued to build but didn’t dominate. I could still taste the pecans. And at the end, the chocolate pecan flavor lingered along with a pinch of heat.

I rated it 5 stars. It received Silver for Best Exterior Design and Best Taste; and Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations. It rated 4 stars.

Panache Chocolatier’s website is still under construction, so you have to call or visit them in person if you want to order something.

Curvey caramel squares

Another veteran competitor, Phillip Ashley ChocolatesMemphis, TN, submitted a 3-piece set of his Luxury Gemstone Caramels. Made with his signature twisted and sloped cube molds and hand painted, these liquid caramel filled dark chocolates were very pretty and ultimately tasty. But they were missing a menu, so I was a little disappointed because I couldn’t always tell what I was experiencing.

Phillip Ashley Bananas Foster
Phillip Ashley’s Bananas Foster

My fav of the 3 was a Bananas Foster piece, as far as I could tell. It tasted of banana and booze, but it also had another fruity taste that I couldn’t identify so it wasn’t a simple piece but very enjoyable. It was very chocolatey and not too sweet, which impressed me since the dessert is usually very sweet.

The other 2 pieces were fruity and buttery, and one was definitely apple with an initial smoky hit — maybe from smoked sea salt?

I rated the set 4 stars. It received Gold for Best Exterior Design and Best Packaging; Bronze for Best Taste; and Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations and Top Caramels. It rated 4.5 stars.

Phillip Ashley Chocolates are available online, at special events, or by appointment at his kitchen in Memphis.

Cloud caramels

Veteran competitor, Banyan Tree ChocolateSarasota, FL, submitted 2 beautiful chocolate caramels, as usual, but used an unusual term — at least to me — in describing them.

St Augustine Bourbon Caramel
St. Augustine Bourbon Caramel mentions cloud caramel, but the ingredients list suggests otherwise

Both the St. Augustine Bourbon Caramel and the Raspberry-Scotch Cloud Caramel used the term cloud caramel in their name/description. All I could find when googling that made sense to me was Starbucks cloud caramel drinks that used powered egg whites to make the drinks foamy. But egg whites were not listed in the ingredients for either piece, and they seemed like straight up liquid caramels in dark chocolate shells, so I might be wrong on the meaning.

At any rate both pieces were attractive and well made, with proper thin shells, good chocolate and quality ingredients.

I preferred the St. Augustine Bourbon Caramel over the Raspberry-Scotch Cloud Caramel, if only because I preferred the sweet bourbon over the smoky scotch. I rated it 5 stars. It received Gold for Best Taste; Silver for Best Ingredient Combinations; Bronze for Top Caramels; and Honorable Mention for Best Exterior Design. It was rated 4 stars.

Banyan Tree Raspberry Scotch
Banyan Tree’s Raspberry Scotch Cloud Caramel

Raspberry-Scotch Cloud Caramel was an eye-catching  oblong with pointed ends, painted red with a thin gold line on half of the top edge, and a transfer of Banyan Tree’s logo on the bottom. It was described as raspberry caramel infused with 10 year old single malt scotch in a dark shell.

It was distinctive, but not a flavor I love. The raspberry faded and left the smoky chocolate taste. Maybe Scotch lovers will appreciate it more. I didn’t hate it and rated it 3 stars. It received Bronze for Best Exterior Design and Best Taste; and an Honorable Mention for Most Unique. It rated 3.5 stars.

Banyan Tree sells its caramels and chocolate treats online and at their café in Sarasota.

Crunchy caramel

Stellas Caramel Crunch
Stella’s understated Caramel Crunch bar

Our first encounter with Stella’s ConfectioneryOoostburg, WI, was in this year’s toffee competition. I liked their square bars that were liberally covered with big pieces of nuts on both the toffee and chocolate sides.

Their Caramel Crunch chocolate bar was a more understated affair with small crunchy toffee bits and liquid caramel covered in milk chocolate. The outside gave no clue to the inside; it was a square of milk chocolate embossed with their logo and subtly colored with gold luster dust.

The filled bar was good but a little too sweet for me. Still I rated it 4 stars. It received Bronze for Best Taste, and was rated 4 stars.

Stella’s chocolate treats are available online and at some retail locations. Check their website for more information.

Mystery domes

Marble and Steel caramels
Marble & Steel’s cabochon caramels

New competitor, Marble & Steel Craft ChocolatesFletcher, NC, submitted a single entry that was attractive and attractively packaged, but included zero information about the entry.

That’s OK because I learned a new term. When I described the piece as a bronze metallic dome, cacaopod called it a cabochon, which is a jewelry term for convex rounded gemstones. So from now on I may classy up my writing with this prettier sounding word.

Marble and Steel package
Marble & Steel’s simple, attractive packaging

The piece was a thin milk chocolate shell that contained semi-liquid caramel. It was buttery and not particularly sweet. It seemed almost savory with an overtone flavor that I couldn’t place.

I found out after judging that it was their Milk Chocolate Salted Caramel Bon Bon. I guess the savory overtone was the salt because the piece didn’t taste salty to me; the salt just intensified the buttery side and toned down the sweet.

I thought that overall it was a very good bonbon and rated it 4 stars. It received Bronze for Best Exterior Design and Best Taste. Rated 4.5 stars.

Marble & Steel Craft Chocolates are available online.

Dark caramels

SFBA chocolatier and first time entrant, Sonoma Chocolatiers, Sebastopol, submitted 3 entries. Their largest submission was a 6-piece sample of their gourmet caramels.

Sonoma Chocolatiers caramels
Sonoma Chocolatiers’ Gourmet Caramel collection sampler

Sonoma Chocolatiers makes all their confections with dark chocolate, and they have a large ever-changing selection of their chocolates at their shop. The selection they chose for the competition showed their range — from crowd pleasers to the esoteric. The chocolates were well made, and all contained semi-firm caramel that was not buttery tasting. Instead, it seems like the flavor infusions were more important.

Sonoma Chocolatiers Salty Dark Caramel
The nibs take it to the next level

My fav in the collection was the Salty Dark Chocolate caramel. It was a dark colored, smooth caramel. The shell was topped with nibs, which were a nice crunchy addition — I’m surprised more people don’t add nibs to their salted caramels.

The piece had the right amount of salt: A hit at first that slowly faded into the rich tasting chocolate which lingered.

I also liked the Hot Buttered Rum a lot. It smelled of rum, and the taste had apple overtones. It was a good chocolate and rum combo. There was a little heat that started slow then faded. It never got very hot; and there was a little numbing sensation afterwards, which was interesting.

The Honey Mint Sesame was an interesting piece: a Toblerone-like triangle with the ridge covered in sesame seeds. It smelled like mint and honey, and was a very minty, good chocolate, with the sesame coming at end when crunching the seeds. It had a lingering chocolate mint flavor.

The Black Forest was a tasty cherry chocolate with a tart cherry flavor. The Bourbon Pecan was cool looking with the “broken” top exposing big pieces of pecan. But the balance was off: Even with the visible nuts, it was too strongly bourbon with an immediate alcohol sting and not enough pecan flavor.

The only piece in the selection I disliked was the Honey Saffron. It had a savory metallic smell and was so bitter and ugh I had to spit it out. This is definitely one for adventurous souls or if you really like saffron. I disliked it on a chemical level.

Sonoma Chocolatiers Salted Caramel
Sonoma Chocolatiers Salted Caramel

Overall I rated the collection 3 stars. It received Gold for Most Unique; Silver for Best Exterior Design; and Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations and Best Taste. It was rated 4 stars.

Sonoma Chocolatiers also submitted a more traditional Salted Caramel (no nibs). It was a firm caramel square dipped in dark chocolate with sprinkling of sea salt on top.

It was good: smooth and not too sweet with an initial hit of salt that faded while the chocolate and buttery caramel come forward. Interestingly the salt returned, and all 3 tastes lingered. I rated it 3 stars. It received and Honorable Mention for Best Taste, and was rated 4 stars.

Sonoma Chocolatiers Dulce de Leche
Sonoma Chocolatiers’ Dulce de Leche

Their third entry, Dulce de Leche with Candied Almonds Dark Chocolate Truffle, was a square bonbon with a sloping top decorated with a yin yang symbol in luster dust.

It contained big pieces of almond in the dark chocolate ganache (big plus!), and tasted mostly of chocolate and almond. The Dulce de Leche seemed to add a sweet taste, but not really caramel. I liked it though, and rated it 4 stars. It received Bronze for Best Exterior Design and Best Taste; and Honorable Mentions for Best Ingredient Combinations and Most Unique. It rated 4 stars.

Sonoma Chocolatiers’ chocolates are available at their store, online, and at some retail locations, such as Oliver’s Market.

Dulce de Leche

Delysia caramels
Delysia’s Spiced Dulce de Leche

Another good Dulce de Leche entry came from competition veteran, Delysia ChocolatierAustin, TX.

Their Spiced Dulce de Leche Chocolate truffle added cardamom, cayenne, and cinnamon to a white ganache in a dark chocolate shell. I could smell the spices, maybe because the shells were not as thick as usual with Delysia bonbons. (Good job!)

While the piece was too sweet for me, I liked that it really tasted like Dulce de Leche, with the pleasant addition of cinnamon and heat at end. I rated it 4 stars. It received Silver for Best Taste; and Honorable Mentions for Best Exterior Design, Best Ingredient Combinations, and Best Packaging. It was rated 4 stars.

Delysia chocolates are currently only available online and for curbside pickup at their shop in Austin, while the shop is closed due to COVID.

Beer bonbons

Seleuss caramels
Seleušs’s range of chocolate covered caramels

Competition veteran, Seleušs ChocolatesSeattle, WA, submitted 3 chocolate covered caramels: One each of dark, milk, and white chocolate. The large caramel spheres looked hand dipped, and had thick hard shells around the soft caramel.

They surprised me in several ways: I liked the 2 beer flavored bonbons best (I don’t drink beer); I liked the white chocolate one; and I didn’t like the dark chocolate one.

The white chocolate Plzen Bohemian Pilsner Lager Caramel was very pretty with a sprinkling of granulated lemon peel. The yellow caramel inside gave an initial taste of lemon, then the white chocolate took over. A very mild lager appeared later with the lemon again. The lemon taste lingered. It was too sweet but not bad tasting, and I rated it 3 stars. It received Bronze for Most Unique, and was rated 3 stars.

Seleuss dark chocolate caramel
Cross section shows the double shell of milk inside dark chocolate

The milk chocolate Wien Vienna Lager Caramel had milk chocolate colored caramel inside and smelled strongly of milk chocolate. I didn’t taste lager or caramel really. It was more a milk chocolate overload, with a possible hint of savory hops at the end. I rated it 3 stars. It received Gold for Most Unique, and was rated 3.5 stars.

I didn’t much care for the dark chocolate Eden Apple Blossom Honey Caramel. It was kind of cool looking with a light colored caramel filling inside a milk chocolate shell inside a dark chocolate shell. But it was too sweet, and tasted like milk chocolate instead of dark or honey. I rated it 2 stars, but it did better in the competition. It received Honorable Mention for Most Unique, and was rated 3.5 stars.

Seleušs Chocolates are not currently available online, and their stores are closed due to COVID. Check their website for updates.

Not your plain vanilla

Petrova caramel
Tonka bean caramel

New competitor, Petrova Chocolates, Boston, MA, submitted one unlabeled entry. It was a pretty cabochon of milk chocolate with dark speckles, with a transfer of their logo on the bottom. The piece was well made with a thin shell encasing the liquid caramel.

The caramel smelled a little like apple and coconut; and the taste had apple overtones. I found out later it was a Tonka Bean Caramel. Since tonka bean is similar to vanilla bean, I don’t know where the apple and coconut came from, but it was a nice piece.

I rated it 3 stars. It received Bronze for Best Taste and Most Unique; and was rated 3.5 stars.

Petrova Chocolates are available online.

The real winners

As always, my picks don’t line up 100% with what the full judges panel thought. But overall I thought this was a strong competition with a lot of good entries from both new and veteran competitors. You can see the full list of winners on the 2021 luxury caramels awards page.

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