All Natural Chocolate Just in Time for Valentine’s

The conveyor belt at CocoaPlanet is only 41/2 inches wide, looking a bit like a toy as it glides past the glass walls of the factory on Broadway in downtown Sonoma. But chocolate production is serious business, as part of a state-of-the-art system that took factory owner Anne McKibben and a team of engineers nearly five years to perfect and install.

Besides, when your factory makes dainty chocolates, with the bonbons measuring only 21/4 inches in diameter in thin wafers, you don’t need a larger mechanism. The tubes that cross the ceiling are doll-like, too, leading from the stainless- steel tempering (melting) machine to deliver the liquid chocolate to the stainless-steel depositing machine. There, the molten candy spreads over metal die plates cut with tiny holes to introduce the chocolate’s big impact: little beads of citrus, peppermint and other fillings that McKibben calls “pearls of flavor.”

McKibben and her husband, Jeffrey, traveled far and wide to research chocolate-production equipment, eventually customizing a final prototype of their own invention. They applied for a patent when they realized how expertly it functioned. It may seem like a lot of fuss for a confection that lasts perhaps a few seconds in the mouth after the recyclable wrapping is peeled away, and McKibben agreed. Yet what else could be expected from a former Hewlett-Packard global marketing manager and self-described tech geek? The CocoaPlanet building, which opens to the public Feb. 1, retains not a hint of its former life as a printing shop. Stacked slate and stone add sophistication to the industrial corrugated-steel siding capped with a copper-seam roof and a curved pop-out that houses the tempering machine.

One-third of the 2,000-square-foot interior is a tasting room; the production process will be visible through glass walls shimmering beneath skylights. With the belts and tubes and a wall of colorful lights that dance, it’s impossible not to imagine a Willy Wonka experience, and indeed, a coupon for a complimentary tasting is labeled a “Golden Ticket.”

However, young Charlie Bucket would not know what to make of CocoaPlanet’s contemporary confections, which cater to modern tastes with their all-natural ingredients, premium Fair Trade-certified dark chocolate cacao from the Guittard Chocolate Co. in Burlingame, and recipes that are non-GMO-verified, gluten-free and vegan. Just like the walls in the factory, this chocolate is all about transparency: packaging touts that the 0.7-ounce nibbles each pack less than 100 calories, no more than 9 grams net carbs, and only 7 to 8 grams of sugar. The health benefits are significant, McKibben explained, as dark chocolate is a superfood, loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

If this is healthy eating, it’s certainly more delicious than kale and tofu. The secret is the pearls, suspended like little pockmarks in the chocolate so the candy looks a bit like a flattened golf ball. In fact, the pearls spread the flavor experience across the tongue, mingling with the rich chocolate for little explosions of salted caramel, vanilla espresso or truffle across the palate. The circle shape is cleverly thought out, too, since it’s the perfect size to fit in a coffee mug, awaiting a scalding bath of milk or water to make an impossibly rich hot-chocolate drink.

“I think enjoying should be all about the chocolate, not the filling,” McKibben explained. “Most filled chocolates are 60 to 80 percent filling, and we’re about 15 percent, so we’re not a one-dimensional sugar bomb. The tongue is a very complicated thing, and we deliver just a hint of flavor accent, not an overwhelming sensation.”

The small amount of filling means CocoaPlanet can afford to use superior-quality ingredients for its flavor spheres, McKibben said, noting that citrus are hand-zested, and some 96 percent of all ingredients are from the Bay Area.

Born in Paris to a French mother and an American father, McKibben loved chocolate from her earliest memories. In the late 1990s, she sold chocolate for other companies and online, and when her high-tech job took her to more than 40 countries, she became fascinated, exploring how every country seemed to have its own chocolate style.

“Chocolate is so fun, it’s not technical,” the Sonoma resident said, snapping a bit off a mandarin orange-dotted disk and popping it in her mouth. “I didn’t go for real training, but I followed the heart of chocolate, talked to many knowledgeable people, and practiced a lot.”

The light bulb went off when her mother was diagnosed as diabetic, and McKibben stepped in to help manage her diet.

“She used to eat carbs,” McKibben said. “But people forget that carbs turn into sugar in your body. Carrots have carbs, too, and almost half of their total carbs consist of sugar. My takeaway: A good diet can trade carrots for chocolate.”

So one night five years ago, while juggling the demands of two small children, McKibben began scribbling plans. Way ahead of today’s 3-D printing technology — and thanks to her Hewlett-Packard connections and a company in Holland that was able to take her file over the Internet — she created a 3-D model of her dream machinery.

“The printing manager told me, ‘I think you’re crazy, but it’s a really cool idea,’” she said with a laugh.

Working at a Los Angeles production facility, McKibben produced her first CocoaPlanet chocolates in 2012, selling them online and at upscale stores such as Sonoma Market, Whole Foods Market, Glen Ellen Village Market and Oliver’s Markets.

When the factory hums, the earthy, complex perfume of 64 percent cacao kisses the air, unfurling the more than 600 aroma and flavor compounds that were first identified in dark chocolate four years ago by Peter Schieberle, a food chemist at Munich Technical University and director of the German Research Center for Food Chemistry.

CocoaPlanet is capable of producing 50,000 disks a day and will have national distribution at some point. But for the sweetest treat of all, McKibben hopes that people will visit the factory, savor samples and relax in the spacious garden in back. For her big dreams, it’s surely a little piece of heaven.

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