BERGL, Austria — A cascade of pure chocolate shimmers down a curvaceous fountain inside a see-through cylinder at the Zotter Chocolate Factory in southeastern Austria. To release the dark-hued ambrosia from its confines, I tug hard on the polished stainless-steel knob at the fountain’s base. A thick stream of chocolate fills my small ceramic tasting spoon, obliterating the smiling face of factory founder Josef Zotter imprinted on the spoon’s bowl. The rich, earthy texture and slightly bitter taste of the unadulterated cocoa dollop conjure images of steamy cacao forests in some far-distant land.
After a few licks I am ready to move to another fountain. Next, I try mountain chocolate, followed by milk, white, and sheep’s milk. At the nougat chocolate fountain, I linger. The tantalizing blend of almonds and sweet chocolate excites my taste buds.
The fountain room is among the highlights of an all-you-can-eat chocolate-tasting odyssey through Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur GmbH, one of Europe’s premier family-run chocolatiers. Our 90-minute tour of the bean-to-bar production process stretches into three hours of chocolate indulgence and discovery.
Zotter, 52, who began his career as a cake baker and started dabbling in chocolates 20 years ago, opened his chocolate factory on his parents’ farm near Riegersburg, southeast of Graz, in 1999. The enterprise, operated with his wife, Ulrike, attracts 170,000 visitors annually.
Over the past decade, Zotter has revolutionized the once-staid milk and nut chocolate industry by incorporating flavorful, exotic ingredients from around the world into his chocolates. He also has popularized “hand-scooping” (layering and filling chocolates by hand) and introduced “trinkschokolade” (drinking chocolate), Mitzi Blue round chocolates, CHOCOshots, and Lollytops for children. At the factory’s Mi-Xing Bar, visitors can create their own concoctions in hundreds of combinations.
All Zotter chocolate products are organic, and the chocolate czar is a champion of Fair Trade and sustainable growing practices in developing economies. His delicacies have garnered many awards, including the 2011 Academy of Chocolate silver award for the best bean-to-bar milk chocolate and the 2006 Eurochocolate Award as the best European chocolate manufacturer.
The narrow country road leading to the Zotter Chocolate Factory meanders through rolling Austrian hills laced with vineyards and peach orchards. Bright banners emblazoned with the words “Schoko-Laden Theater” flap from poles outside the entrance. Our introduction begins with a short film showing Zotter riding a mule through the jungles of Nicaragua in search of perfect beans from the Theobroma cacao (“food of the gods”) tree. Cacao pods are harvested by hand, and the cocoa beans inside are removed, then fermented and dried before being shipped.
After the film ends, the fun begins. Armed with English-language audio handsets and our tasting spoons, we descend into the tasting room. Burlap bags of beans are stacked high in an adjacent storage room, waiting to be roasted, ground, conched (kneaded), and processed. The factory annually processes about 460 tons of raw cocoa from Central and South America, as well as Asia. From small bowls, we select and crack open roasted beans grown in different locales to taste the “nibs” inside. The next tasting area features receptacles containing ground chocolate powder with incremental amounts of sugar added.
After nibbling thin chocolate squares and sniffing containers of dried mint, rose petals, cumin, anise, and other condiments, we file into a long hallway lined with 24 stainless-steel sample-dispensing machines. Each contains a different slab of flavored chocolate, ranging from elderberry to caramel. With a swift flick of a lever, a small blade cuts a sliver to taste.
At the Mi-Xing Bar, small trinkschokolade bars, which dissolve in hot milk, circulate on a miniature Doppelmayr cable car. Cameroon-born bartender Charles Ngangue greets us. “I have something special for you,” he says and returns carrying three bars flavored with pumpkin, masala Indian, and East Asia green tea and whips up a glass of each.
We are nearly at the bursting point when we pass a waterwheel-style lift offering assorted chocolates. But we rally in a room filled with copper kettles containing marble-size chocolate snacks.
Our final stop is the gift shop. We select six packages of chocolate, then double our order. We know they won’t last long once we get home.