With over 600 flavour compounds in chocolate, at the point of tasting, chocolate could be more complex than coffee. At the end of the day though, tasting is all about enjoyment not complexity and chocolate is without a doubt, a serious source of enjoyment. Much like coffee, the best chocolate comes from sourcing quality single origin beans with great flavour profiles. It is when we put these beans in the hands of master chocolatiers that the magic happens and from the bean sprouts the glorious chocolate bar.The chocolatier’s skills are tested along all the points of production, from winnowing to roasting, from grinding to refining and finally conching in order to create a great bar. Lest we not forget the farmer’s skill required to produce a great bean to export in the first place. Once the bar has been produced, it can be sealed, preferably in wax paper or foil to keep all the wonderful flavours locked in and wrapped in the chocolatier’s distinctive paper.
Chocolate to begin with is much like the LP records of old, with a good quantity of the artistry coming in the form of the packaging. The box or wrapper, the colours and pictures, even the text with all its wonderful verbiage, all providing the anticipation for the Chocolate held inside. Much like the ridges in the vinyl of an old LP, we find pleasure running our fingers over the intricate moulding, appreciating the craft and design of the chocolatier. Reminding us of that childlike excitement we felt opening a bar of chocolate just like Charlie and his bar of Willy Wonka’s. The ceremony itself is exciting enough, without even giving thought to the fact that you are about to taste the wonderful chocolate.
I have written before about preparing for a tasting in terms of using palate cleansers and being aware of how your olfactory senses perform in relation to coffee and so I won’t repeat myself here. It is important to note that, while I often taste coffees amongst the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop, sat amongst the fragrant aromas of freshly ground coffee and sumptuous cakes, I prefer to taste chocolate in an environment devoid of excess stimulus. With Chocolate I like to devote myself solely to the bar indulging in its individual perfection.
With that in mind it’s time to grab a chocolate bar and make sure it’s up to room temperature before beginning the unwrapping ritual. It’s time to begin the tasting process with our eyes.
A chocolate bar’s appearance can be broken down into 2 areas
Colour: Chocolate ranges from the deepest darkest black all the way through earthy mud tones to some of the reddest autumnal browns. These colours help to give an impression of the roast of the bean, the darker the colour, the darker the roast.
Tempering/Molding: Tempering chocolate is what gives it its shine and snap. Tempering involves heating and cooling the chocolate slowly to exact temperatures, usually around 30-32C, so as to prevent the cocoa butter crystallising unevenly. Improperly tempered or molded chocolate tends to have a less appealing matte surface, often covered with white blemishes called bloom.
Now that you have observed the chocolate, snap off a sizeable piece, if the chocolate has been properly tempered you should get a distinct snap and it should leave a smooth edge at the break. If it breaks with a thud then it either, hasn’t been tempered properly or your chocolate is too warm. Here while resisting the urge to put the chocolate in your mouth you can note the aroma of the chocolate.
With smelling or tasting it’s often best to have a taster’s wheel with you to help you express the qualities you are picking up on. You can get dedicated chocolate tasting wheels but often an internet search for a coffee taster’s wheel will be adequate for describing the taste and aroma of chocolate. Here it will help you to denote
The roast: Darker roasts will exhibit similarities to dark woods, dark chocolate, tobacco and general earthy notes. Lighter roasts tend to give off fruity and floral aromas.
The aroma characters: The aromas you’re experiencing can be wild and varied. Chocolate can exhibit the aromatic qualities of anything from allspice to orange blossom, from red berries to lemon peel and anything and everything in between.
Here is the bit you’ve been eagerly anticipating, the most important part of the tasting process, tasting the chocolate. Place the piece of chocolate in your mouth, avoiding the urge to chew and allow the chocolate to melt, slowly releasing all of its wonderful flavours. This allows the chocolate to coat the mouth and gives a better profile to the flavours as well as developing a more enjoyable mouthfeel.
Thankfully tasters of years gone by have helped to develop tasting charts to give you clues and indications as to the flavours you might be tasting and how to classify them. A good tasting chart can be found by using an internet search for coffee taster’s wheel. This will help you to denote
Roast: Different chocolate makers roast their chocolate to different levels, roasts tend to underpin a chocolate bar giving it darker or lighter qualities. Darker roasts tend to exhibit nuttier bitter notes, while lighter roasts tend to allow any floral or delicate spice notes through.
The place it lands in the mouth: You’ll notice that the roast and acidity land in specific places in the mouth, it can be useful to note where these sensations are experienced.
Beginning/Middle/Finish: Over time as the chocolate melts and the flavour compounds break down in your mouth, the flavours change and develop. Try to pick up on the dominant flavours that first become apparent and how the chocolate tastes at the finish.
Acidity: Does the chocolate bar have a bright acidity, is this a berry like acidity or a grapefruit like acidity. Acidity can be an enjoyable part of a chocolate bar just like the enjoyable acidity of biting into an apple.
Flavour characters: Here is where your flavour wheel comes in handy. Flavours come in 1of5 categories sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami. These can be anything from fruits to nuts or even vegetable flavours. Try to pick out the distinct flavours along with some of the subtler notes and try to pick out the finish. Does your chocolate taste like roasted hazelnuts or more like rum soaked raisins. Here’s a chance to get creative, describing the flavours your picking up.
Sweetness: Unless you are eating a 100% bar it’s likely that the bar you’re tasting is going to be made with sugar, even then chocolate has a sweetness all of its own. Even bitter chocolate bars will have a sweet element to them. Try to note the type of sweetness coming through, be it rich toffees or light caramels.
Length: Flavours have differing lengths like notes in a symphony, some are short and sharp and others extend for an age. Can you still taste the flavour of the chocolate bar an hour later or does it have a clean finish.
Balance: The best chocolate bars aren’t overly bitter nor are they all sugar and sweetness. The best chocolate bars have roasts, acidity, flavours and a sweetness that complement each other like a group of longtime friends.
Mouthfeel/Texture: As well as the taste experience, you’ll be receiving a more tactile experience in terms of mouthfeel. This has a lot to do with how the chocolate feels in your mouth and its texture. The texture of a chocolate can change its experience radically. This has a lot to do with the production process. Its all well and good having great beans with great flavour profiles but the chocolate must be skillfully worked in order to produce a chocolate that feels great in the mouth. Any grittiness, astringency or uneven texture here is likely the result of not conching or refining the chocolate for long enough. With coffee the drink is extracted from the grounds, however with chocolate the bean is an integral part of the bar and so must be prepared appropriately. If the chocolate has been prepared well you can expect to describe the mouthfeel as being rich, creamy, silky or velvety.
Chocolatier’s Notes: Most chocolatiers will include tasting notes either on the packaging or you can head to their website and check out the chocolate in their online store. Once you’ve finished tasting the chocolate, go see what the chocolatiers have to say and see if their notes match yours. This can help to improve your tasting skills and also helps to catch anything you might have missed. Chocolatiers taste lots of chocolate and they’re passionate about it too, so they’re pretty on the money when it comes to flavour profiles.
Remember all chocolate bars taste different, even the ones that come in the exact same packaging can have subtle differences. So don’t be afraid to be honest.
So now you know how to taste chocolate like a professional and how to describe what you’re experiencing to others. Grab yourself a notepad and a pen and start writing down your descriptions of the chocolate you’re tasting. Maybe invite your friends over for a chocolate tasting too and share the joy.