Raising the bar: 18th annual Chocolate Festival this weekend

A chocolate machine in action at the Scharffen Berger facility in Ashland. Drew Fleming photo
March 4, 2022

Ashland’s Branson’s Chocolate, Scharffen Berger featured at Ashland Hills Hotel

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

The 18th annual Oregon Chocolate Festival is back in person this weekend for the first time since March 2020. The weekend full of decadent treats and fun activities for all ages kicks off today with Ashland Gallery Association’s First Friday Art Walk downtown and the Chocolate Maker’s Wine Dinner at Ashland Springs Hotel, 212 E. Main St.

Three dozen vendors will offer their wares Saturday and Sunday at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites, 2525 Ashland St. Karolina Lavagnino, director of sales and marketing at Neuman Hotel Group and organizer and founder of the Chocolate Festival, will welcome vendors and judges in-person this year, including Ashland chocolatiers Branson’s Chocolate and Scharffen Berger. Tickets will be available at the door. 

“We were the last big event in the state prior to the shutdown and we are kind of the first big event that is happening in 2022,” Lavagnino told Ashland.news.

Lavagnino anticipates the economic impact of the festival to be significant, especially since the month of March would otherwise be slower since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will start up in April this year instead of in March as it did in pre-COVID-19 times.

“We have people coming from Washington, California, Utah — We have sold over 100 overnight packages,” she said, noting many will dine at local restaurants and frequent local businesses.

A full list of events are planned starting Friday, and continuing at 11 a.m. Saturday and on Sunday, though the public is encouraged to frequent establishments outside of the festival, such as Vida Bakery in downtown, which sells gluten-free baked goods and chocolate treats.

Events include a chocolate-themed martini demonstration on Saturday and Sunday by mixologist Amber Shannon of Luna Cafe, as well as a chocolate fondant demo by pastry chef Sarah Pineda of Alchemy Restaurant.

A “Cacao as Medicine” session will be held at Elder Apothecary Saturday and Sunday.

ScienceWorks will be on hand outside Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites with activities with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) twist for youth. Check out “Hydrophobic hot cocoa” and “Candy core sampling” from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

“I am thrilled that there will be activities for kids that are chocolate theme-oriented,” Lavagnino said.

Lavagnino also encourages families to go to Tree House Books, 15 N. Main St., in the Ashland Plaza, where children can participate in a chocolate gnome hunt.

“There will be just lots of fun things all over town that kids and adults can enjoy,” she said.

Lavagnino also said attendees should check out Vida Bakery, 149 N. Pioneer St., which has gluten-free baked goods.

Masks will be required for vendors and attendees unless actively eating or drinking, but vaccinations and COVID-19 tests are not required for entry.

  • Scharffen Berger Chief Financial Officer Chris Spirko shows off the chocolate factory. Drew Fleming photo

Craft chocolate: ‘It’s like a fine wine’

This will be the first in-person Chocolate Festival that Scharffen Berger will participate in in-person. The company will serve as lead sponsor of the Chocolate Makers Wine Dinner on Friday night and participate in judging the chocolate contest.

Chris Spirko, chief financial officer of Scharffen Berger, said the company had some of its chocolate bars in giveaways as part of last year’s virtual festival.

This year, the company is excited to have an in-person booth as well as chocolate bars available at the Art Walk on Friday evening.

“Karolina and her team do such a great job of putting this together and we’re proud to be part of it, in person,” Spirko said. “We’re trying to grow and be supportive and give back to the community as well. We’re trying to be as active as we can with the Ashland/southern Oregon community.”

Company was owned by Hershey

Scharffen Berger is a 25-year-old “bean to bar” chocolate company started in Berkeley, California that’s now the only such company in Oregon, according to Spirko. The factory facilities are located on Benson Way, the site of the former Dagoba facility, off Crowson Road just west of Interstate 5.

“It’s definitely premium chocolate we make here,” he said.

Hershey bought Ashland chocolate company Dagoba and Scharffen Berger 14 years ago and formed a new artisan confection division at Hershey’s, Spirko said.

As Scharffen Berger rebrands itself, Spirko is asking, “what could the company have been if it hadn’t sold to Hershey”?”

He’s hoping to raise the bar higher and return Scharffen Berger to its glory days.

“They were the first bean-to-bar company in America,” Spirko said of Scharffen Berger. “(Former Scharffen Berger owners) Robert (Steinberg) and John (Scharffenberger) really revolutionized the artisan chocolate business.”

After a couple years, the owners put the division back on the market, and in June 2020, Spirko said, his Milwaukie, Wisconsin-based investment group bought the Dagoba and Scharffen Berger brand and the associated equipment.

“That’s why we’re located here,” Spirko said, of the former Dagoba facility. “We purchased all of the equipment that’s here. 

“We also purchased the bean-to-bar chocolate making equipment from Hershey,” he added. “Most chocolate companies don’t make their own chocolate.”

They buy it from large, industrial chocolate companies. Not so at Scharffen Berger.

“Bean-to-bar is what we do here,” Spirko said. “We bring the beans in, we source them from all around the world.”

That includes beans from Peru, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Tanzania and Ghana.

Spirko said recently he and the company’s master chocolate maker plan to travel to the Caribbean Islands to source beans from Trinidad and Grenada this spring.

“We’re looking at other places right around the southern Caribbean and northern South America to source our beans,” he said.

  • Chris Spirko takes chocolate samples off a line at the Scharffen Berger facility in Ashland. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

Scharffen Berger aims to form long-term partnerships

Spirko said beyond broadening the sourcing for the beans, he wants to support the communities where the beans are bought.

He will be looking at the conditions on cacao farms, and checking to ensure that employees are being paid fairly for their labor.

“We want to go really investigate who it is we’re working with and how we partner with them,” he said. “What we’re trying to do to give back to those communities is we’re looking to support regenerative agriculture.”

In those areas, the cacao crop can last for 25 years, Spirko said, but other crops can only last for five years, after which time, the ground isn’t good for farming. 

“So we’re going to work with some different companies … to help rebuild some of the rainforests and the tropical areas to give back to these communities,” he said.

It’s easy to see Spirko enjoys the process and the outcome of chocolate making.

“It’s so much fun,” he said.

In the craft chocolate making process, Spirko said the raw beans are brought to the Ashland facility, roasted to the preferred temperature and flavor, and ground. 

“What makes Scharffen Berger unique is how we blend five different beans into our bars,” Spirko said.

The chocolate is made, shipped across the street to its other facility, and packaged onsite.

“So it’s true bean-to-bar, and that’s where we can control the flavor,” Spirko said. 

“It’s like a fine wine,” he added, of the craft chocolate-making process.

True bean-to-bar’

The company is still in a “start-up” phase, according to Spirko, as Hershey didn’t prioritize the division.

“The business went from a $10 million business when Scharffen Berger sold it to them (Hershey’s) to roughly a $2 million business when we purchased it,” Spirko said. “Now, what we need to bring back is the old legacy of what Scharffen Berger was pre-Hershey and get that back into the stores.”

Spirko said there was an amazing Scharffen Berger following and he believes Hershey didn’t invest enough in the company. 

“One thing that Hershey did well was they never sacrificed the quality of the beans,” Spirko said. “That’s what’s kept us on the shelves right now.”

Spirko said the Dagoba brand is still owned by his investment company, and there’s a possibility to bring it “back to life.” He’s also open to producing more flavors of bars, such as mocha or sea salt.

“We want to get the business operating under Scharffen Berger and then if we want to do the more unique items that we used to do in the past, we can do that,” he said. “But we are trying to keep the legacy of a dairy-free facility, a nut-free facility.”

Spirko said that’s an important component for the 65% of the company’s clientele, which is for bakers. 

“We’re looking to partner with bakers,” he said.

Spirko said the company already partners with Lark’s and Belle Fiore, and is looking to partner with other wineries in the Rogue Valley.

The other component of the company is artisan chocolate bars, which sell for $9 per bar. The signature bar is the blue 70% dark chocolate bar, Spirko said. Scharffen Berger also has a 41%, 62%, 71%, and a 99% cacao chocolate bar, the last of which Spirko said is 100% for baking.

The cost is attributed to the high price of the cacao beans the company buys.

“We are the first people to put the percent of cacao on bars, in the U.S., and that’s what separates us from everyone else,” Spirko said. “It is a very good, high quality product. We’re only going to make it better as we go and source new beans that Hershey never sought out.”

Chocolate is happiness you can eat.

— Ursula Kohaupt

Ashland chocolatier Branson’s returns to festival

Ashland chocolatier Deena Branson, owner of Branson’s Chocolate, has been preparing to showcase treats at the Chocolate Festival, but mum’s the word about her surprise confection.

Branson will be entering it into the chocolate bar contest, but word on the street is that it’s tasty.

“It is a blind competition,” Branson said. “It’s something that we have never done before.

“And it is a collaboration of everybody that’s here. The employees have a say in testing and tasting and everything.”

The chocolate is available at Branson’s Chocolates, 1662 Siskiyou Blvd.

A 1992 graduate of Ashland High School, she is largely a self-taught chocolatier. She worked for the former Ashland Fudge, Co., and has attended classes online.

“I was born and raised here in Ashland and I’m the only chocolate company in Ashland that is locally owned and locally made,” Branson said.

  • Owner Deena Branson at Branson’s Chocolate in Ashland. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth

Branson said her company works well with other chocolate companies in the Rogue Valley, such as Scharffen Berger, and that she has toured the facility.

She also has shared chocolate molds with Lillie Bell Farms, in Central Point, which will also be entering chocolate into the contest, according to Lavagnino. Branson’s just as quick to suggest Lillie Belle if you want chocolates she doesn’t make.

“If someone wants a ghost pepper with chocolate or bacon with chocolate, I’ll send them to Lillie Belle, because those are two things that I will not do,” Branson said. “My husband’s allergic to pork, food allergies are a big thing for me, so I don’t bring bacon into the facility.”

The display cases at Branson’s Chocolate are filled with delectable treats, including 14 different types of truffles, 13 cream flavors and more than 30 different kinds of chocolate bars. The variety can be wonderfully overwhelming for first-time customers, according to Branson.

She also makes sugar-free and vegan chocolates, as well as chocolates of almost every variety. And she’s always open to trying to create new products, as well as products for holidays such as Easter.

She ships chocolate all over the country and into Canada, as well as to nine “Made in Oregon” stores. But while her chocolates are shipped out of the area, she enjoys it when it’s able to be enjoyed right here, in her hometown.

“The Chocolate Festival actually brings people up from the San Francisco area,” Branson said, “and down from Portland. It draws people from everywhere and even from Klamath Falls, people come over for the weekend. It’s a huge thing.”

She started making chocolate bars specifically for the Neuman Hotel Group (owners of Ashland Springs Hotel, Lithia Springs Resort and Wine Garden, and Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites) and the Chocolate Festival.

“I want this event to stay,” Branson said.

Tickets are $20 per person at the door and children 8 and under are free. The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, in addition to events around town.

To learn more about the festival and see a detailed list of events and times, go online to oregonchocolatefestival.com.

Email Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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