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San Francisco Company Launches Chocolate 2.0

TCHO's chocolate flavor wheel that tries to tap into the inherent flavors of a cacao bean. (TCHO)

It was 2003 when I said goodbye to technology writing and switched from digital bytes to far more tasty ones. So imagine my surprise when I stopped by chocolate company TCHO's booth at the Fancy Food Show and met their CEO, Louis Rossetto.

Rossetto (for those of you who were spared eight years of tech talk) is the founder of Wired Magazine and one of the visionaries of the digital age. But though he has switched fields, he hasn’t left tech behind entirely.

The bean-to-bar company employs plenty of tech tricks. Executives have developed iPhone applications to remotely control roasting times and temperatures at their production centers -- in Peru and Madagascar. TCHO (pronounced "cho") solicited online feedback from buyers on their first “beta” chocolate. And they’ve installed wireless weather stations so cacao farmers can understand how the climate affects fermentation and sensory labs so they can make their own chocolate at the source.

“So often, the farmers who sell beans never taste the final product,” Rossetto told me. He says that if farmers understand that the way they affect the final product, TCHO will end up with higher-quality, more consistent beans.

It’s a sexy story. And TCHO has received attention on the West Coast. (The San Francisco Chronicle wrote an excellent company profile in February.) But one of the company's most impressive efforts is actually awfully low-tech. It has introduced a simple flavor wheel, similar to a wine wheel, that helps chocolate lovers recognize and zone in on the cacao bean’s inherent flavors: chocolatey, fruity, nutty, citrus, earthy and floral.

If that doesn’t sound like a revelation, stop and think about it. Most chocolate companies market their bars as 65 percent cacao from Madagascar. Or 70 percent bars from Ghana. Fine. But do you really know what that means? And even if you do like one bar from Ghana, does that mean you’ll like another one?

TCHO is doing for chocolate lovers what wine retailer Best Cellars did for wine novices by simplifying vintages and varietals into basic taste categories (in Best Cellars' case, fizzy, fresh, juicy or big). Such taxonomy makes it easy for chocolate lovers to make more informed decisions.

So far, TCHO has launched bars that are chocolatey, nutty, fruity and citrus in flavor. I like their fruity bar. It’s bright with a round cherry flavor and a lot of acidity. I also loved the nutty bar, which was toasty with a slight bitter edge. Both are made with beans from Peru. Perhaps it's something in the water ...

No one who knows me will be surprised by my preferences. I would always choose fruit and nuts over chocolate. So it’s only natural I’d seek out fruit and nut flavors over chocolatey ones in a chocolate bar.

What do you think about TCHO’s tasting wheel? Which bar do you think you’d like best? You can find out by ordering them at the company Web site or by visiting one of their local retailers including Cowgirl Creamery, Arrowine, the Curious Grape, Cheesetique or Roots Market.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  June 30, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Shopping , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, chocolate  
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