Expert Interview: Master Chocolate Maker Ray Major of Scharffen Berger

Master Chocolate Maker - that's quite a title! How does one become a Master Chocolate Maker, and what do you do if you work all day in a chocolate factory that turns out high-quality chocolate?

Read on to find out more about Ray Major, the Master Chocolate Maker at Scharffen Berger. Find out what a master chocolate maker does, his tips on pairing chocolate with wine and liquor, why he thinks that Scharffen Berger's milk chocolate is the best in the world and why, in 31 years of chocolate-making across 4 continents, he feels that he has his dream job at last.

How did you become a Master Chocolate Maker? How in the world does a career path like that happen?
Usually by accident! I began my career in chocolate in 1977 - I was fresh out of college and looking for a job. We were in a recession but a headhunter got my resume and said he had a job for a laboratory technician in a cocoa powder company. I got the job and I've been doing various things, always with chocolate, ever since.

I started out doing research and development with Dutch process cocoas and black powder cocoa. I've went to work for Cadbury, in a factory that was beans to chocolate. And from there I went to work for Barry/Callebaut where I was the research and development director in the United States. Then I became chief chocolate maker for Hersheys. I worked in France, the United States, Brazil - I've made chocolate on four continents for 31 years.

Then this opportunity came to work for Artisan Confections, a very special division of Hershey, and I took it because it was a job of dreams. And that's how I became a chocolate maker.

Wow! So what makes this a dream job for you?
Scharffen Berger is an opportunity to make the absolute best. No holds barred. This job allows us to go out and find the absolute best cocoa beans that you can find anywhere in the world, sometimes thousands and thousands of dollars over the market price, and take these fabulous beans and convert them into a chocolate.

In 31 years of working, I've never had this degree of freedom to actually pursue the best. It's really a pleasure. Not that Hershey isn't making excellent chocolate, but the world's flavor beans would be used up by their factories in a few weeks. This little niche of a world of fine chocolate is a wonderful place to be.

About how long does it take for cacao to go from bean to bar at SB?
Well, it depends on the product. Some of our blends are more complicated than others. Usually it takes us a day to roast the beans and a day to mix them with sugar and go through the process to make them into chocolate. So about two or three days to make a fine chocolate and turn them from bean to bar.

We are really interested in how the regions of origin affect the chocolate's taste. What regions of the world do your beans come from, and why? What flavor profiles are you looking for?
Well, if you look in my office I have my walls decorated with maps. I probably have maps of all of the countries around the world that have the right conditions for growing cocoa. The classic Scharffen Berger flavor is one of high fruitiness. There's a lot of raspberry, black cherry, figs - these really fruity even winey notes. And those beans - if you look at the Caribbean and draw an arc around the Antilles Islands and down through Central America, that's an area we really depend on. We also may be the largest user of cocoa from Madagascar. We've lately been exploring Indonesia and Southeast Asia - some classics there, Java, Sulawesi, and Papua New Guinea.

But if you trace your finger along the equator, most of the regions that grow cocoa, we are doing at least a little business there.

Crops and flavors vary with every season - how do you keep that flavor? Are you always tweaking blends?
Scharffen Berger is typically working with a blend of fine cocoas. Our 70% chocolate has nine different types of flavor beans. If you have nine different types of beans in there, that blend is fairly resistant to change. It balances out. If you're working with single origins, you're very much the prisoner of the cocoa. If you don't get a good crop it really shows.

We also buy cocoa against a sample. We work with farmers and they send us a sample of their first harvest crop. We will actually roast those beans in our pilot laboratory here. We grind it and taste it and we have a trained panel. We always do a pre-shipment test to make sure it has the flavor we're looking for. It's like wine - the grapes are different every year and the wine is different every year. You have to a certain extent work with what nature gives you.

It's interesting how the regions of coffee and cacao overlap. Do the plantations that grow cacao also grow coffee?
Typically robusta coffee grows in the same place as cocoa. You'll find robusta in many of the same places as cocoa. The best arabica coffee, on the other hand, likes a hot day and cold night. Cocoa doesn't like a cold night. So you'll see an overlap between robusta and cocoa, but arabica less so.

We're curious about your pairing recommendations and tips - whether it's coffee, or wine.
Every person has their own preference. But if you take for example our 82% which is a very strong flavor chocolate - very fruity, a lot of black currants, cherry notes, but not much sugar - I like to eat that with a port wine. Any type of port wine that has in itself sweetness. I think they balance each other very well.

I confess I'm not a wine expert, but I think the 70% and the 62% go better with a tannic wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, more fruity. California wines are so fruity now themselves. You know, Merlot, something fruity, or a Chilean wine.

Milk chocolate, that's the one for a dessert wine or an ice wine. But I'm not a wine specialist - if I had my druthers I'd eat milk chocolate with a cup of coffee. That's the best thing in the world for me.

The other thing that goes well with chocolate is Scotch whisky - it's really quite excellent. We do pairings and tastings that do very well.

We are not usually big fans of milk chocolate, but yours is incredible. Why?
You know why? It's I think honestly the best milk chocolate sold in the United States and I would say the world as well. One of the really special things about our milk chocolate is it's only 30% sugar. 41% cacao, 30% sugar, and the rest is milk. Most milk chocolates are between 45 and 55% sugar.

So it's not very sweet, but it's not bitter. You're really tasting the cacao and the milk powder. And actually there's this kind of cleansing bitterness as the chocolate finishes that doesn't make you feel like you've sinned! It makes you feel great. We now have a milk chocolate with sea salt and almonds.

If you were going to have chocolate in a baked good, what would you want?
This goes back to when you're a little kid, right? The absolute best in my opinion - double chocolate brownie. Not a light cakey brownie, but a dense doughy brownie with a chocolate icing on top. For baking that's my absolute favorite!

Overall, there's a lot of chocolate and chocolate bars at the high end - a lot of pretty wrappers. But if I can say it, I believe Scharffen Berger is the real McCoy. We are working with growers, tasting like wine-tasters, working to get the fermentation and roasting just right. We are an authentic chocolate company. We are what we are. Sometimes these days that is difficult to discern, but we are.

We had to go get out a bar of Scharffen Berger immediately following this! Thank you so much Ray!