There's a reason Willy Wonka holds such a revered spot in our collective imagination. Who wouldn't want to run a chocolate factory? The Aztecs made 2,000 pitchers of sacred chocolatl a day for the elite, and Emperor Montezuma drank little else. These days, whether it's a kiss or a truffle, chocolate remains one of the most craved substances civilization has to offer. And lately, more American entrepreneurs are making it better. The market research group Packaged Facts counted 187 American brands of upscale and gourmet chocolate in 2004--more than twice as many as in 2000.

We've rounded up a group of entrepreneurs whose confections rival those of their European peers. Predictably, most were professional chefs who decided that chocolate was more fun. But temptation also lured two bankers and one songwriter to the calling.

For the brave task of tasting these chocolates, we called on connoisseur Barry Swanson, who has spent more than 10 years researching the science behind sweets as a professor at Washington State University. Most of the chocolates he sampled were truffles, which have a brittle outer layer, called the couverture, with a high percentage of cocoa butter, and ganache (a creamier chocolate filling) in the center. "The higher the concentration of cocoa products you put in--cocoa and cocoa butter--the better the chocolate," he explains. The fresher, the better, which is why some of these companies insist on shipping two-day air or faster. "The ones with the freshest cocoa butter feel cool on the tongue," says Swanson. Here are some of the coolest chocolates (and chocolatiers) around.

  • B.T. McElrath Chocolatier

    When Brian McElrath was studying at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, he became enamored with fusion and chocolate. "You can make people happy with food," he says, "but with chocolate, it's amplified." McElrath and his wife, Christine, opened their Minneapolis chocolate factory in 1996 using a home equity loan. His truffles combine flavors such as Zinfandel with balsamic vinegar and lavender with pepper.

    Chocolate of note
    Passion fruit truffle

    The taster says
    "The couverture is smooth and crisp, and the white and dark chocolate with the acidic passion fruit mousse is delightful."

    $28.50 for a 15-piece assortment,
    btmcelrath.com

    "It's fabulous that people finally regard chocolate as something worth paying for. They finally don't believe we're so expensive."
    Fran Bigelow
    Fran's Chocolates
  • Fran's Chocolates

    When Fran's opened in Seattle in 1982, the market for high-priced artisan confections was minuscule. Founder Fran Bigelow initially sold pastries before introducing a line of truffles--now the company's top seller. Compared with many younger chocolatiers, with their assertive and surprising spices, the 62-year-old Bigelow prefers subtlety in her recipes.

    Chocolate of note
    Raspberry truffle

    The taster says
    "Fran's chocolates are tempered to be in the most stable crystalline phase, so they melt at body temperature. The couverture is brittle, crisp, and wonderfully rich."

    $24 for an 18-piece assortment,
    franschocolates.com

  • Vosges Haut Chocolat

    In her eclectic recipes, Katrina Markoff likes to mix bold flavors from international cultures--including curry, wasabi, chili powder, and balsamic vinegar. Markoff, who holds a B.A. in chemistry and a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, founded Vosges as a single Chicago boutique in 1998, and now oversees a $6.5 million business with four retail stores.

    Chocolate of note
    Black pearl truffle

    The taster says
    "The slightly spicy couverture tastes very fresh and cool and contrasts with a distinctive ginger and wasabi ganache."

    $37 for a 16-piece assortment,
    vosgeschocolate.com

  • Jacques Torres chocolate

    After 12 years as a high-brow pastry chef, Jacques Torres wanted to bring his confections to a larger audience. In 2000, he and some friends transformed a Brooklyn warehouse into a café and chocolate manufacturing plant. Today the Brooklyn location makes individual chocolates, while his new shop in Manhattan makes and sells treats such as bisque-thick hot chocolate flavored with chipotle chili peppers.

    Chocolate of note
    Fresh squeezed lemon truffle

    The taster says
    "This truffle smoothly spreads a perfectly balanced flavor of cool, fresh chocolate and lemon throughout your mouth."

    $26 for a 25-piece assortment,
    mrchocolate.com

  • Dagoba Organic Chocolate Co.

    Before founding Dagoba in 2001, Frederick Schilling was trying to make it as a songwriter. Then he tasted a high-grade European dark. At first, his father and his then-girlfriend helped out while he made bars by hand. Now Schilling's company, based in Ashland, Oreg., employs 30. He'll consider any flavor for his bars, as long as it's organic, kosher, and preferably fair trade certified.

    Chocolate of note
    Milagros single origin Peruvian bar

    The taster says
    "Dagoba bars are dense with a strong cocoa taste. This sweet, mild bar has a pleasant hint of tropical fruit flavors."

    $4 for a two-ounce bar,
    dagobachocolate.com

  • Recchiuti Confections

    Pastry chef Michael Recchiuti's business took off after he gave his chocolates to Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams as an 80th birthday gift. Soon after, Williams-Sonoma asked to carry them in its catalog. Today Recchiuti sells 50,000 pounds of chocolate a year from his San Francisco shop. About 10% of the orders still come from Williams-Sonoma.

    Chocolate of note
    Burnt caramel truffle

    The taster says
    "Recchiuti's couverture is smooth and cool with a hint of vanilla. The ganache's flavor is reminiscent of crème brûlée."

    $40 for a 16-piece assortment,
    recchiuti.com

    "I decided this was what savings are for--not just for retirement, but for creating the life you want."
    Joan Coukos
    Chocolat Moderne
  • Chocolat Moderne

    In 2000, Joan Coukos took a vacation to Brussels, where on a whim she bought some antique chocolate molds. Upon returning to New York City, she Googled "truffles" and began experimenting for kicks. When she lost her banking job in a corporate restructuring, she followed her chocolate fantasies. Chocolat Moderne's flavors tend toward the dark and sensuous: One dubbed Madame 'X'Tasy is a caramel infused with espresso and sea salt.

    Chocolate of note
    La Dolce grapefruit truffle

    The taster says
    "The citrus of the grapefruit is a delightful complement to a couverture with a cool melt and clean cocoa taste."

    $32 for a 15-piece assortment,
    chocolatmoderne.com

    "I thought it would be cool to incorporate the fruits, herbs, and cream the farmers here produce."
    John Doyle
    John & Kira's
  • John & Kira's

    Former banker John Doyle entered the business with the idea of mimicking the chocolate he tasted on a trip to Paris, but with local Philadelphia flavors. He and his then-girlfriend (now his wife), Kira, launched the company in 2002, and now sell about 15,000 pounds of truffles a year. John & Kira's draws on a local beekeeper for the lavender-honey truffle and hires nearby schools to grow the mint for the mint chocolate.

    Chocolate of note
    Drew Elementary garden mint truffle

    The taster says
    "It tastes like very fresh mint leaves, not mint oil. And it has a soft couverture."

    $26 for a 15-piece assortment,
    johnandkiras.com