Staff Writer Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the senior content writer and operations manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests o…See full bio
Sampling molten chocolate straight from the melanger feels like something out of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory—no golden ticket required. While experiencing Dandelion Chocolate’s small-batch process isn’t what you’d expect from the San Francisco Mission District, it might be the thing that’s been missing from your Bay Area adventures. Here’s an inside look at the artisanal chocolate maker.
Dandelion Chocolate crafts high-quality, single-origin chocolate in the heart of the Mission District, managing every stage of the process from bean to bar. Working directly with individual farms, Dandelion sources its own beans and ensures they comply with the chocolate factory’s exacting standards. Before ending up at the San Francisco chocolate factory, the beans go through an extensive process.
Cacao trees must grow for approximately five years before bearing pods. Once ripe, the fruit is removed from the cacao pods, the beans are separated from the white mucilage that surrounds them, and the beans are left to ferment. Though it may seem strange that chocolate beans are fermented, it is a vital process that aids the flavor development, which will ultimately be expressed in the chocolate bars. After about six days of fermentation, the beans are spread out and left to dry and dehydrate. Once dry, the beans are bagged and sent to Dandelion Chocolate via the Port of Oakland.
To learn more about the intricate chocolate-making process, I took the Dandelion Chocolate factory tour. This is what it’s like.
Getting to the Mission District from the East Bay is always an adventure. Known for its amazing collection of Mexican cuisine and vibrant, historic murals (and its astounding lack of public parking), this neighborhood is a culturally rich destination, but the journey there takes about an hour—as long as the Dandelion Chocolate tour itself. To my delight, the BART ride to the Mission is relatively uneventful, because everyone is following the Bay Area’s unspoken rules of BART etiquette.
As we get closer to the Dandelion Chocolate factory on 16th Street, my excitement begins to grow; Dandelion is one of my favorite chocolate makers in California (and my personal favorite from the Bay Area chocolate taste test), so for me, it doesn’t get much better than an up-close-and-personal look at the chocolate-making process. The brisk, 10-minute walk from the BART station feels somewhat like an eternity, but the beautiful factory finally emerges on the left, with red brick walls and large glass windows, standing in stark contrast to the outside world and bringing hope to this seemingly run-down area of the city.
A dozen or more people sit at the counter and gaze out the windows, while several others order hot chocolate and browse the collection of chocolate lining the shelves. After checking in, we wait nearby for the chocolate factory tour to begin. Soon, a smiling lady with vibrant pink hair pops out from the adjacent room, ready to lead us on an hour-long chocolate excursion.
Our guide mentions that she’s been with the company for six years (over half of Dandelion Chocolate’s lifespan) and cracks open a cacao pod to let us taste the slimy fruit surrounding the beans. As fond of chocolate as I am, I can’t say I’m a fan. She explains that about 50 beans are inside a single pod; that the beans are purple, white, or yellow, depending on which type of cacao pod it is; and that they get their brown color from the roasting process.
The beans are brought to the factory when they’re needed, often after a stint in cold storage so no mold or moths feast on the cocoa. The giant burlap sacks get set in the “Beans” room and are then ready for sorting. This process was once done by hand—and still is with smaller batches—but for large productions, the team uses complex machinery to weed out beans that are too big or small and to eliminate any objects that may have made it into the sacks (such as rocks, shells, and pieces of burlap).
To avoid contamination, the sorting machines send the beans through enclosed tubes to the chocolate roasters, which look akin to coffee roasters. Several temperatures and times are tested for each new batch of beans, all of which kill off potential hazards. Since the terroir (affected by soil nutrients and weather conditions) can drastically alter the flavor profiles of each harvest, each year’s new batch is tested as if it’s the first of its kind. Once nailed down, the large roaster rotates the beans in a drum until they have the desired nuances; lighter roasts lead to more floral and citrusy notes, while darker roasts provide nutty, charred, and chocolaty flavors.
From here, the beans go into another machine that crushes them and separates the nibs from the surrounding husk; after the bean is smashed, the nibs are heavier than the surrounding fibrous shell, making it easy to separate the two with fans. Once separated, the cocoa closely resembles what you might find in a store (though the nibs are close to a chunky peanut butter consistency by the time they move on to the next step). The cocoa is placed into a melanger, a spinning metal container with stones on the bottom and on either side to create friction. This friction turns the nibs into the smooth consistency we expect from chocolate bars and also airates the cocoa, allowing it to offgas—making this room smell incredible. The melangers run for a few hours before sugar is added. (Sugar is the only ingredient in Dandelion’s chocolates aside from cacao.) Afterward, they continue running for days on end, mixing the two ingredients and making the concoction smooth.
Here, our guide lets us sample three chocolate bars from three different countries, noting the flavors of each one. Though they all contain the same percentage of cacao, the bars taste entirely different based on the terroir of the cocoa farm that supplied the beans. We then try the melted chocolate from a mini-melanger. Needless to say, this is the best part of the entire tour; the chocolate has notes of butter and sourdough bread that make me want to eat the whole vat.
Still reeling from the decadence of gooey chocolate, we learn about the lengthy tempering process and how the assembled bars are cooled before being packaged. Given that Dandelion is a fairly small artisan chocolate company, it’s hard to imagine that every bar is still hand-foiled. But no machine has been able to skillfully master the art of foil folding so far—plus, the foil is reusable, keeps air away from the chocolate, and seals well, so Dandelion is reluctant to change its ways. After getting wrapped in foil, the bars are sent across the street to get papered and labeled before hitting the shelves.
Savoring a piece of chocolate, it’s easy to ignore all of the steps that go into making the perfect small-batch, single-origin bar, but knowing makes you appreciate each bite that much more. So instead of waiting to find a golden ticket, book a tour to the Dandelion Chocolate factory and immerse yourself in the wonderful world of artisanal chocolate.
Have you taken the tour? Let us know what you thought in the comments below.
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