A Revolutionary in American Chocolate Dies


Steinberg, right, with Scharffenberger in the early days.

The New York Times reports today that Robert Steinberg, one of the founders of Berkeley's Scharffen Berger Chocolate, died Wednesday of lymphatic cancer at the age of 61.

I profiled Steinberg several years ago when I worked for the East Bay Express in Berkeley. The cancer wasn't just something he battled for close to two decades. It was also the reason American chocolate is where it is today. Theo, Dagoba, and all the artisanal bean-to-bar chocolate makers now joining the industry owe their existence to Steinberg.

The Times obit gives a good summary of Steinberg's background as a physician until his diagnosis. Too ill to maintain his practice, he embarked on a quest for some new creative pursuit -- drawing? writing? -- before throwing himself into studying chocolate. He pored over technical books, traveled to France to shadow an artisanal chocolate maker there, and bought ancient chocolate-making equipment from Europe to see if it would be possible to make chocolate from cacao beans, something only done on the largest of scales in America. (Artisanal chocolatiers like Fran's or Dilettante make their products using chocolate from large-scale French, Belgian, or American manufacturers.)

Eventually, Steinberg hooked up with John Scharffenberger, who'd sold his sparkling-wine business several years before and was looking for a new venture. Scharffenberger may have put up the capital and provided the flavor-blending and business expertise, but Steinberg provided the passion for chocolate.

Urbane, quick-witted, and a little cranky, Steinberg spent an afternoon teaching me about the importance of selecting the right beans. Scharffen Berger requires a constant supply of new beans from many countries -- and many, many small plantations -- to ensure the consistency of its blend. But the tricky thing with cacao beans is that tending the trees and picking the beans at their ripest is only the first step. The most critical part of the process for farmers is to ferment the beans on site right after they're picked -- in tropical conditions, with rudimentary equipment, and often no information from buyers about what they want in the finished product. The process is perilously easy to screw up, ruining the year's harvest.

Steinberg showed me his office, where he had sacks and sacks of samples of cacao beans. From one batch he picked 20 unroasted beans, then put them in a device that chopped them in half so he could inspect the insides. "Taste this one," he said, handing me a purplish-brown half. I put it in my mouth, and a mellow, nutty flavor emerged. It was nothing like chocolate, but I could pick up hints of deep, rich flavors.

"That's a well fermented bean," he said. "Now taste this one." He plucked out a slightly more greenish bean, and we each placed halves of it on our tongues: I was hit with overwhelming bitterness, almost metallic in its potency. I spit mine out, grimacing. The fermentation was too uneven: There was no way they'd be purchasing this batch.

Steinberg explained that Hershey's, Nestle, and other mass-market chocolate manufacturers add enough sugar and dried-milk powder to cover up the defects in commodity cacao. But when making high-end, high-cocoa-content chocolate as Scharffen Berger and now Theo do, it's impossible to cover up defects. As its business progressed, the company found itself traveling to the tropics and working with farmers to ensure a solid supply of good beans, paying prices above Fair Trade rates.

Unlike existing chocolate makers, who were secretive about their manufacturing processes, Steinberg and Scharffenberger were generous with their knowledge, rightly understanding that to develop a market in the United States for artisanal chocolate like theirs meant encouraging many small-scale chocolate makers to join them. Even when we spoke, five years ago, Steinberg said that he had outlasted his initial prognosis by many years. If chocolate was indeed responsible for extending his life by 15 years, perhaps it does justify its scientific name Theobroma cacao, "food of the gods."

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