Pier 17: The Embarcadero @ Green Street
San Francisco, CA 94111
Monday to Friday 9 am – 5 pm
Saturday and Sunday 10 am – 5 pm
Tours: Every day at 10:30 am and 2 pm
If you walk down to Pier 17 on the Embarcadero you won’t be able to miss TCHO, right next to a tug boat rental company. You would never know that this building is the home of innovation on several fronts. Founded by Timothy Childs, a former NASA employee on the shuttle program, literally a rocket scientist who turned to chocolate making, and Karl Bittong, a chocolate industry veteran who has been constructing chocolate factories for the last 42 years, TCHO was set up to succeed from the beginning. They sweetened the deal by bringing in the c0-founders of Wired Magazine, Jane Metcalf, as President and Louis Rossetto, as CEO. For anyone who has written a business plan, this is a management dream team. TCHO is the beginning of a socially conscious chocolate revolution that synthesizes the art and science of chocolate making while still maintaining environmental and human ideals by qualifying as a fair trade organic product by third party certifiers such as California Certfied Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Fair Trade USA. We can only hope that their practices will cause a ripple effect throughout the industry.
TCHO is a self proclaimed flavor based chocolate company. While the popular trend right now is to focus on the origin of the cacao beans, TCHO has chosen to focus on the primary flavors cacao beans are known to produce. They locate beans that manifest the chosen characteristic, such as chocolatey, citrus, fruity, or nutty and then develop the chocolate making process to maximize their flavor potential. Flavor notes are connected to the regions from which they come, so they usually have a pretty good idea where to start when they begin development.
One of the characteristics that makes TCHO so different from other chocolate making companies, is their scientific approach to the entire chocolate making process from pod to bar. TCHO has worked with farmers to innovate the fermentation and drying process by working with farmers to create a three tiered fermentation system, allowing for thorough fermentation and a mellowing of the cacao bean, and drying beds where beans are exposed to the air on all sides, releasing gases that would otherwise create a harsh or bitter flavor. Also, they have built flavor labs on location at the farms so that farmers can taste what type of product their beans are going to create.
Right now “chocolatey” is from Ghana, “citrus” from Madagascar, “fruity” is from Peru, and “nutty” from Ecuador. The jury is still out on my favorite.
TCHO has also produced a flavor wheel and they are in the process of developing “floral” and “earthy” chocolates. There are also several milk chocolates that are in the beta phase due to demand. They have also developed a line of baking chocolates because chefs and bakers were coming to TCHO asking if they could create a high quality baking chocolate so they could buy within the United States instead of having rely on Europe. I got some. I will report back on my findings.
The tour guide, Tyler, told us that two of the indicators of a well tempered chocolate, thus having a wonderful mouth-feel and well balanced flavor, is the shine and snap of the chocolate when you break it.
I took the factory tour on Saturday. The first part of the tour was a very engaging presentation by Tyler. With the aid of a slide show you learn about the history of chocolate from its origin in the Amazon Basin to the process of fertilization of the cacao flowers performed by a midge, a tiny winged insect. A dried cacao pod is passed around as well as some beans. You get to see them up close. I like the tactile aspect of it. The most interesting thing I learned about the growing process, is that the cacao pods begin to glow when they are ready to be picked. I’m not joking. It really happens.
The factory itself was not in production so it was a bit of a different experience than it may have been. Tyler said that it is usually extremely loud with all of the machinery going. We had the added benefit of being able to hear a description of what the machines do, while seeing them. The factory was actually moved over to San Francisco piece by piece and reassembled at Pier 17.
You are not allowed to take pictures on the tour so I snagged a few of TCHO’s so I could give everyone an idea of what the factory looks like inside. You have to wear hairnets and beardnets, when applicable, even when the factory is not in production. They are extremely serious about maintaining cleanliness. My favorite part came at the end when we got to taste the chocolate! If you want to, you can talk about the different flavors you tasted. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy. It is always interesting to hear what other people are experiencing. I recommend you try the hot chocolate. It’s amazing. Get one.
P.S. Bonus innovation. They developed an Iphone app so you can run the factory remotely from your Iphone!