The company was a manufacturer of chocolate — as opposed to the far more common chocolatiers, who make their products using chocolate acquired from wholesalers and manufacturers — the first American company founded in the past 50 years to make chocolate "from bean to bar". Scharffen Berger primarily produced chocolate bars, using small-batch processing and focusing on dark chocolate varieties with high cocoa solid content.
The company's origins lie with founders John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg. In 1989, Steinberg, a physician, was diagnosed with cancer and given a 50% chance of dying within ten years of the diagnosis. Steinberg promptly sold his practice and began exploring other career options. He read through a 600 page chocolate cookbook at the urging of a friend, which sparked Steinberg's interest in chocolate making. He began travelling to study the process of chocolate making. Steinberg toured the Bernachon chocolate company in Lyon, France, in 1993. He soon composed a letter in French asking Bernachon for an internship and was granted a brief two weeks with the small company.
Steinberg returned from his internship in France and soon ran into John Scharffenberger, his former patient and neighbor. Scharffenberger, a winemaker and businessman, was selling his winery, Scharffenberger Cellars, and was exploring potential new business opportunities. Steinberg offered Scharffenberger a piece of French chocolate which he happened to have in his pocket. "Robert had this chunk of chocolate in his pocket that I think he'd been carrying for months. But it tasted better than anything I'd ever had," Scharffenberger later recalled in a 1998 interview with People Magazine.
Scharffenberger and Steinberg soon partnered together to begin making chocolate. They began creating their first experimental batches of chocolate in Steinberg's own home kitchen using over 30 varieties of cacao beans. Their basic chocolate making instruments included a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder and a hair dryer to keep the chocolate viscous.
They decided to name their new company Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker because Scharffenberger's name was already a known brand in the marketplace due to his winemaking.
The company selected its cacao beans from specific growers around the world and then performed every step to transform those beans into chocolate bars itself: from roasting, to conching, to tempering and molding. Scharffen Berger was the first American chocolate maker to prominently feature a chocolate bar's cacao content on the label, the higher the number the darker and more bitter the chocolate bar. Cacao content on labels is now common in the industry.
On July 25, 2005, Scharffen Berger announced that it was being bought by The Hershey Company On 2005 August 15, Hershey announced the completion of the acquisition. Hershey purchased Scharffen Berger for about two times the company's annual revenue, which was approximately $10 million a year at the time of the 2005 acquisition. The same year Hershey also bought another San Francisco company, Joseph Schmidt Confections, and combined the two smaller companies into a wholly owned subsidiary, Artisan Confections Company.
Hershey subsequently began manufacturing the Scharffen Berger and Joseph Schmidt products in a factory in Robinson, Illinois. In early 2009 Hershey announced plans to close both Bay Area factories, lay off approximately 150 local employees, and transfer remaining production to Illinois.
Scharffen Berger founder Robert Steinberg died on September 17, 2008, in San Francisco, California.
Scharffen Berger Chocolates are made from imported beans from a range of cacao-growing countries and regions, including Venezuela, Ghana, Madagascar, the Caribbean, and Indonesia. Each bean variety is individually roasted and mélanged in small batches, then blended with large-crystal cane sugar and whole bean Tahitian and Bourbon vanillas before being conched into liquid chocolate. Manufacturing takes about 40 hours.