If life is like a box of chocolates and to eat bitter is a valued trait in China, a new candy factory tour in Shanghai may have a sweet future.
Pitched as a museum, the Zotter Chocolate Theater recently launched sampling tours through its Shanghai factory that are probably better understood as a trip to confectionary fantasyland.
The tasting tour begins, as chocolate does, with cocoa beans so bitter they stiffen the jaw. Uncountable sampling spoons and over an hour later, the experience wraps up where chocolate infused with raspberries, raisins and rice has given way to more than 230 chocolate-flavored items, even tasting of whiskey and bacon.
Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur is a family-run Austrian chocolatier that boasts anything but the typical story peddled by a European luxury purveyor. Instead of fabled roots, for instance in a cobblestoned Vienna boutique from the 18-somethings, 53-year-old Josef Zotter launched his venture about 15 years ago in a former cowshed lent by his parents after he had gone bankrupt.
Fast-forward and Zotter’s Austrian theater is among the country’s busiest tourist spots. A growing export market to China was the inspiration to bring the concept to Shanghai, where it opened in May managed by the founder’s 26-year-old daughter, Julia, whose previous China experience was limited to a high-school exchange-student program.
Before the 1980s, chocolate was hardly known in China, says Lawrence L. Allen, author of the China-focused book “Chocolate Fortunes” . But today, Mr. Allen says, “I don’t think there’s a company out there that isn’t trying to test the China market.”
Chocolate sales in China of about $2.43 billion 2013 represent 58% growth from 2009, according to market-research firm Euromonitor International.
Mr. Allen says the minority of Chinese who are familiar with chocolate prefer a “smoother liquidy feel in the mouth.” Not disagreeing, Ms. Zotter points out, “people here are more open-minded. The cheese chocolate is already sold out.”
Instead of lusciousness, Zotter touts irreverence: Visitors in Shanghai are greeted by a statue of a girl in a mini-skirt sticking out her tongue and one of a boy with his zipper down being naughtier still. The founder’s photo occupies an inside wall, his face smeared with dark chocolate and his feet wearing shoes that don’t match.
The 180 yuan (nearly $30) tour begins with a film that explains the chocolate production process and shows Mr. Zotter trekking into steamy Central American jungles to check on his suppliers.
Then, a bit of insight into why the first Europeans to set foot in that region had no idea what to do with cocoa: Few visitors take a second bite of the roasted beans on offer. But many linger for sniffs of vanilla and other basic ingredients. They then dip into the vegan chocolate flavored with hazelnut, coconut, and – apparently popular in China – rice, blends neither very chocolaty nor too bland.
Next, a thick black sauce of melted chocolate with purities between 50% and full-on 100% cascades down between 10 silver spoons in specially made fountain machines labeled “dark mountain milk.” Unsweetened chocolate, soy-flavored and coffee-seasoned varieties follow, all dripped warm from fountains.
Soon, visitors are inventing new blends, oozing declarations like “sooo excellent!”
They head up the Stairway to Heaven toward dozens of colorfully wrapped Zotter’s bars, which are served cafeteria-style from guillotine-like contraptions that slice bits of milk, dark and unsweetened chocolate. Everything is infused with something: caramelized peanuts, soy, guarana, coffee, sheep’s milk, goji berries, blueberries, pineapple and chilies.
Zotter’s Labooko Nicaragua 50% recently won it top honors among milk chocolates from a renowned German tester. Another boasts beans from Belize that cost $5,000 per ton. Chocolate offered on the tour is shaped into light bulbs and nipples. Overhead, conveyors deliver bars to stir into warm glasses of milk. Tug on a pink device modeled on a cow’s udder and out oozes chocolate that tastes mostly of Scottish Lowlands Whisky.
In the movie “Willy Wonka,” the kids get excited over prospects that candy could taste of tomato soup, roast beef, potato and blueberry pie.
But in real life, bacon chocolate may be one reminder too many that Zotter’s sits on the bank of a Shanghai river that last year featured thousands of dead floating pigs. Ms. Zotter says her local staff voted the flavor tops in a recent blind taste-test, possibly for “this smoky kind of flavor.”
Zotter’s Chocolate Theater is located at the Shanghai Fashion Center, No. 2866 Yang Shu Pu Lu, Building 9, and is open from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. For more information, call +86 (0)21 60161630