Sam McManis

Discoveries: A $5 San Francisco chocolate tour rich in flavor

Chocolate that has been mixed in a melanger is poured into a container at Dandelion.
Chocolate that has been mixed in a melanger is poured into a container at Dandelion. The San Francisco Chronicle

Overcome as I was by a delightful cloud of confectionery vapors and transfixed as I was by the sight of swirls of chocolatey goodness flowing lavalike in a vat called a melanger, I perhaps could have been forgiven for asking Dandelion Chocolate factory worker and tour guide Hannah Kram a stupid question. Monumentally stupid, in retrospect.

To wit: “Do you ever get sick of chocolate?”

In the few telling moments between question and answer, I could detect the slightest dent in her professional smile, the merest scrunch of her brow – tics that perhaps connoted the realization that she had a real boneheaded tourist in her midst. I shot a glance at the other visitors on this factory tour (three women in their 30s), seeking affirmation or at least some interest in my query, but got back only looks of puzzled vexation and a suppressed chuckle.

All four women must’ve been thinking, Tired of chocolate? Heresy!

At last, Kram seemed to find a way to answer that spared me further embarrassment as a chocolate neophyte.

“No,” she said, professional smile back and beaming. “Actually, my problem now is that I’ve developed a taste for really expensive chocolate. I mean, I still like a good Twix bar occasionally. But now, when I go shopping, I’ll always pick out that $12 bar. It can be a problem.”

Chocolate lovers are, truly, a breed apart

Though dense as a chocolate brick, I finally got it: If you’re going to work in a chocolate factory, or take the time and pay the nominal fee ($5) for a 45-minute tour at the most prestigious craft (or artisan, or small-batch; choose your preferred hipster term) chocolate business in a city that loves cacao almost as much as coffee beans, then you will be dwelling among the true connoisseurs, those who turn up their olfactory-stimulated noses at something so déclassé as an emulsified-to-death Hershey bar.

Chocolate lovers are, truly, a breed apart. Their fanaticism stems from more than just your run-of-the-mill sugar high, or the fluttering of neurotransmitters that bathe the prefrontal cortex in serotonin. Rather, it almost becomes something sacred, communal, religious in an nondenominational way.

 

They talk of “mouthfeel” as if it were something, well, frankly, intimate. Roast profiles are discussed and dissected with the seriousness and exactitude of a chemist. Nibs, the pure manna inside the shell, are crunched with a junkie’s consuming zeal, no need for cane sugar to leaven the taste – and certainly not the soy lecithin, milk powder, cocoa butter and other emulsifiers that mass chocolate manufacturers use to bastardize the bar.

Soon as I stepped into Dandelion’s factory-cum-cafe, in the most gentrified sector of gentrified Valencia Street in the Mission District, I knew I was in a place where some serious chocolate jonesing was taking place. The aroma embraced and swaddled me within seconds.

I looked to my left, where a man was hunched over a table sipping hot chocolate as if nursing a fine liqueur. I looked to my right, where a woman bit into a dark chocolate tart, her face a rictus of unalloyed pleasure. I looked straight ahead, where a hardcore dude was buying a sack of nibs, pure and uncut.

I found Kram, who corralled the rest of the tourgoers amid the 20 or so people sipping, munching, sucking on and ingesting chocolate in every way short of intravenous injection.

The great thing about the tour – or, rather, the first great thing – is that it’s kept small (no more than eight) because Dandelion’s entire space is only about 3,000 square feet (though the owners last year purchased a second factory in the city where the bars now are wrapped and shipped.) This lends an intimacy to the 45-minute “bean-to-bar” spiel – and also provides you with a better chance of copping free samples.

Kram must have known her crowd because, after making us don unbecoming hairnets, she didn’t waste too long on the Dandelion “origin” story. Let me try to dispense with it in two sentences:

Silicon Valley techies Cameron Ring and Todd Masonis made a bundle when they sold their business around 2010 and, with money and time on their hands, started making craft chocolate, using artisanal beans from Central and South America, in a friend’s garage.

People liked it and, six years later, the company is ensconced as a Mission District must-stop and is selling bars to discriminating palates worldwide.

We look all over the world for really unique cacao with flavors that can stand up on their own.

Dandelion Chocolate tour guide Hannah Kram

Now, to the chocolate …

“Dark chocolate is experiencing the type of growth that the coffee industry enjoyed about 20 years ago,” Kram said. “People are becoming more interested in artisanal, small-batch, high-quality chocolate. The industry is rapidly growing. We do only cacao beans and sugar, all single-origin bars. …

“We believe cacao has a lot of unique flavors on their own, kind of like wine grapes. We look all over the world for really unique cacao with flavors that can stand up on their own with just sugar.”

Yeah, yeah. Great. Fascinating. But I was spying three plates of chocolate squares laid out on a table near the tempering machine. After what seemed like ages, but really was about two minutes, we were sampling chocolate from three countries – Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Madagascar. The three women I let sample before me each took just one square of each, so my plan to stuff squares in my coat pocket would’ve been churlish and childish.

Nobody said anything as we chewed and swirled the creamy squares in our mouths, and I swear it was so quiet I could hear the epiglottis of the woman next to me flap when she swallowed.

The Venezuelan offering, everyone agreed, was the “chocolatiest,” certainly the darkest, but I didn’t taste the “note of cinnamon” Kram suggested it held. We learned that the Dominican chocolate’s source was a farm near a bird sanctuary started by Peace Corps volunteers.

“When your palate is ready, try this one from the Dominican Republic,” she said.

She waited.

“Get a little fruit notes in that?” she asked. “I tend to get a little cherry cordial sort of flavor.”

Even I could pick up the tart, fruity flavor of our last offering, the Madagascaran wedge. What exact fruit, I couldn’t say. But Kram could.

“I pick up a raspberry flavor,” she said, to head nods all around. “The Madagascar one used to be more lemony last year; it’s more sugary lemon drop this time.”

What followed was a seminar on small-batch chocolate making: the harvesting, the shipping, the sorting in a cool, climate-controlled room, the roasting (using a converted coffee roaster), the shell-cracking to extract the nib, the grinding, melanging, tempering and finally the molding into 2-ounce squares of yumminess.

Fermentation almost solely determines the taste of chocolate

Great stuff.

Did you know that Dandelion workers go bean-by-bean, by hand, tossing too-flat shells or foreign materials (a marble, barbed wire, part of a shoe) that snuck in prior to bagging and shipping from the Americas? Did you also know that everyone who works for Dandelion, no matter if they are a roaster or accountant, serves as a taster?

And did you know, too, that fermentation on the farm almost solely determines the taste? (Kram: “I got a chance to try an under-fermented bean they brought back from Fiji; tasted just like a soy bean, not very exciting.”)

Lest we get strung out for another chocolate hit, Kram kept us well supplied. We each received an unroasted bean, taught to snap the shell open and extract the darkened nib. Not only did I crunch it, as advised, but I rubbed some nib dust into my gums for good measure. We also scored big time at the round tubs of swirling chocolate called the melanger, where, after sugar is added, the mixture churns for three days.

“I don’t usually do this, but since you’re a small group, I want you to taste from the (vats) that are spinning and refining (the chocolate),” Kram said. “One just started today and the other has been going for two days and two nights.”

Then she dipped long-handled spoons in first one vat, then the other and gave us samples. Even I, chocolate illiterate, could taste the graininess of the first batch and the creaminess of the latter.

Alas, no seconds. Not to fear, though: Kram gave each of us a gift card for a free hot chocolate. Why, I wondered, was she being so generous with the freebies, which must have cost Dandelion much more than the $5 tour price?

Then, it hit me: Of course, this is the “gateway” drug for hardcore chocolate addiction. My fellow tourgoers, I could see, were already hooked.

Dandelion Chocolate Factory Tour

Where: 740 Valencia St., San Francisco

Hours: Tour times: 6:10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Cafe hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.

Tour cost: $5

Information: dandelionchocolate.com

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