Chocolate or Cacao is a major fascination for me, as one of the most exciting sensory pleasures in the world, chocolate can be a delightful journey for the taste buds. It is for this reason that many chocolate makers and tasters like to share their experiences and enjoyment of chocolate with new potential enthusiasts and with each other. With a wealth of chocolatiers and bean to bar producers out there we are spoilt for choice when it comes to quality cacao and in an industry that just keeps growing the choices are becoming seemingly endless. The idea of ‘eating them all’ may seem like an overwhelming and mountainous task to complete, but it is one that is highly enjoyable in the attempting.
I will be attempting to score each of the bars I taste, with each scoring consisting of a breakdown of the chocolate bar’s details, including information on the chocolate bar maker, the percentage of cacao used, the origin of the cacao and the genetic varietal of the beans. Followed by a short introduction and description, explaining some information about the chocolatier and a little about my own expectations for the chocolate bar. Before offering some of my personal opinion and impressions of the bar regarding taste and flavour. Then for the important part, the scoring.
Each bar will have the potential of scoring 100 points, broken down across 10 categories.
Appearance/Snap – 10
Aroma – 10
Melt/Mouthfeel – 10
Acidity – 10
Sweetness – 10
Flavour – 10
Length – 10
Finish – 10
Balance – 10
Overall – 10
Defects/Taints – (-5)
So the question begs, why have I chosen this system to score the chocolate bars and what am I looking for in terms of the criteria for each category? I am of the opinion that presently those dedicated to tasting chocolate tend to rely heavily on personal opinion and put a lot of weight in the flavour or taste category. It is for this reason that I have tried to develop a more systematic approach towards scoring a chocolate bar, one that can be replicated and repeated from person to person, one that is more objective than subjective. While we all have a subjective love of chocolate and personal preferences towards taste and quality, I feel it is important to give a more neutral examination of each bar for comparative means. I do appreciate that subjective experience and flavour tend to be at the heart of the consumer’s experience of chocolate bars and that is why I will be including some supplementary information regarding my own opinions of the bar being scored. From the perspective of the chocolate bar makers and farmers, in search of perfecting their chocolate bar craft and farming methods, I feel it is important to give due attention to the other important attributes of a bar such as balance or length.
I have, in constructing this system borrowed a lot from the coffee industry and their standards for cupping or assessing the quality of coffee, trying to create a system that is balanced, as well as one that takes into account all attributes of a chocolate bar. In coffee the grading systems from the SCAA and the Cup of Excellence need to be consistent and repeatable, so as to give accurate and objective scores to a coffee’s quality, this enables buyers to put trust in the quality of a coffee based upon its score. There they focus less intently on people’s primary experience, the taste or flavour and focus instead on all attributes of a coffee, helping to give a fuller account of the coffee’s overall quality. I feel this ethos could and should be applied to the chocolate industry, so as to give accurate, objective and representable scores to each chocolate bar for comparative means.
I am however, not a fully fledged chocolate professional, nor am I a qualified Q Grader, sommelier or sensory scholar and so for this reason my scores should be seen as an amateurs attempt to objectively quantify a chocolate bar and not some industry standard. There will be times where I do not accurately reflect the objective quality of a chocolate bar and I will where possible try to revisit bars as I gain further experience in tasting and assessing. It has also become clear to me from a history of eating fine chocolate bars, that identically packaged bars can have notable differences from batch to batch, from season to season and even in the care and handling of that particular bar. As with a cup of coffee, no two chocolate bars are ever really the same, for this reason a bar can only really be judged by your own personal experience with it.
To answer the question ‘what am I looking for in terms of criteria for each category?’ I have attempted to break down each category.
Appearance/Snap Criteria: Colour, Texture, Moulding, Tempering/Shine, Snap, Quality
Here I will be borrowing and incorporating a lot from the Chocolate Codex, who have done a great job in categorising colour (or color), texture and snap into a simple and beautifully rendered 10 scale grading system. You can view their work over on their highly attractive website www.chocolatecodex.com. I feel it would be difficult to improve upon their standards in this field and with their permission I will be using their system to give greater clarity to the marks attained for each of the bars scored in this field. I will also be providing additional details in terms of quality with respect to moulding, tempering and shine, while I appreciate some of these attributes appear to be highly aesthetic, they also have a strong influence on the mouthfeel of the bar and reflect significantly on the production methods used in the manufacturing and processing of the bar. Where I will be inclined to show some leniency here is on the age of the bar, as the manufacturer cannot be held accountable for how long it has been since they produced the bar.
Aroma Criteria: Aroma Wheel, Intensity + Quality, Character, Distinctiveness, Complexity, Depth, Honesty
Here I feel it is worth noting the intensity of the aroma, although intensity is not necessarily an indicator of quality, with a fine subtle aroma being preferable to a strong unpleasant one, it is an appreciable factor of the bar and is worth recording if only for reference. I will be scoring intensity for the criteria out of 10. I will also be using various aroma wheels to note and record the types of aromas experienced with each bar, noting that some categories of aromas are considered negative and some positive, before constructing a quantitive score based upon the quality of the aromas. This score will be based upon the expression of the chocolate bars aromas and the degree to which they are pleasurable, focusing on whether the aromas are simple or complex, whether the aromas are hollow or whether they express depth. It will also focus on the distinctiveness of the aromas and whether there is a display of character or honesty in the aromas.
Melt/Mouthfeel Criteria: Length, Evenness / Texture + Textural Quality, Viscosity, Density, Weight
Here I’ll be focussing on the more tangible and textural qualities of the bar, starting with the melt, noting the length of the melt and whether the degree of melt remains consistent. I will then be focussing on the mouthfeel of the chocolate paying attention to the viscosity, the density and the weight of the chocolate in the mouth as it melts and attributing this to positive or negative correlations of style, such as smooth or gritty. In a more liberally descriptive sense, I will be looking for the fullness of the mouthfeel, whether the melt and mouthfeel has a rounded quality and the level of richness in the mouthfeel. Bars struggling in this area are likely to have an astringency and leave a drying sensation in the mouth, have a rough texture or be weak in terms of their textural presence.
Acidity Criteria: Intensity + Quality, Brightness, Origin
Here I will be trying to isolate the aspects of the bar that relate to its acidity, noting first the intensity of the acidity. I will be trying to match the acidity to elements of the flavour wheel, but I will also be looking for the qualities of the acidity, focussing on whether the acidity has a brightening or lifting effect on the chocolate. I will also be looking for refined or rounded qualities in the acidity and most importantly whether the acidity works in balance with the other elements of the chocolate. Bars struggling in the area are likely to be overly sharp, acetic or sour. It is also worth understanding that some bars will have very little acidity due to their origin, where this is the case this should be taken into account in terms of scoring.
Sweetness Criteria: Flavour Wheel, Intensity + Quality, Development
Here I will be looking past the sugar content of the bar to look at the nature and quality of the sweetness inherent in the chocolate. First noting the intensity of the sweetness before moving on to match up the sweetness to aspects of the flavour wheel such as caramel or toffee. I will be looking to assess whether the sweetness of the bar helps to accentuate the other flavours in the bar, that it is in harmony with the other elements, or whether it comes to dominate the other aspects of the bar. I will also be looking at whether the sweetness is pleasurable and refined, whether it exhibits complex honey notes or whether it exhibits synthetic style sweetness or candy like qualities. It is also important to assess sweetness to make sure that the cacao has been developed, either through roasting or conching, here the processing will have an effect on the natural sweetness in the cacao bean, helping to develop and release the natural sugars in the cacao. Bars that are underdeveloped will display green or vegetal type flavours, whereas those that have been developed will display a sweetness comparable to ripe fruit or have a roundedness to their sweetness.
Flavour Criteria: Flavour Wheel, Intensity + Quality, Type, Character, Distinctiveness, Complexity, Depth, Honesty
Here I will be looking for the character that comes from the honest expression of a bars terroir. First noting the intensity of the flavours before moving on to look at the type of flavour exhibited, be that sweet, sour, bitter, salty or pungent. I will then be referencing flavour wheels to note the particular distinguishable flavours present in the bar, before assessing them in terms of quality. Here I will be assessing the level of depth and complexity in the flavour, alongside the distinctiveness or honesty of the flavour, these attributes will help to define the quality of the flavours being experienced, helping to further define what makes the flavour pleasurable or refined.
Length Criteria: Length of Flavours, Depth, Distance, Fullness, Lingering
Length is an important factor in a chocolate bar, great tasting bars that are short in length can leave you feeling unsatisfied, so here I will be looking at the longevity of the flavours that develop across the melt. Whether they are gone as quickly as they appear or whether they linger for an age after the chocolate is finished. I will also be looking at the level of fullness of flavour over the period of the length and the degree of depth to the lingering flavours. Here bars that struggle will be short in length with their flavours evaporating quickly or bars where the length of their flavours are only hollow reminders of their first taste. Those that are long and full in their flavour with their brightest attributes lingering for an age on the tongue are what will do well here.
Finish Criteria: Intensity + Quality
Finish is what you are left with once the bar or the piece of chocolate is nearing its end, those last notes of flavours that stay with you after the bar is finished. It is important that a bar finish well and leave you with the pleasant reminders of the enjoyable experience you’ve just had. Here I will be looking at which flavours stay until the end or appear as the last notes of the bar, I will also be looking at how strong or intense the finish is. Those bars that do well here will either have a clean finish, where the bar ends with a clean dissipation and leaves your mouth refreshingly or ones that are pleasantly lingering, leaving only the high or pleasant notes to stay with you long after the bar is finished. Those that struggle here will either be unbalanced on mute in the finish or worse they will be astringent, leaving a drying sensation in the mouth with only the bitter and metallic notes left long after the bar has finished.
Balance Criteria: Interaction, Complexity, Harmony, Consistency, Structure, Compatibility
While assessing the previous criteria above we will have only taken side glances at balance in terms of how those criteria interplay with each other, here I will be looking at the balance of the overall bar. Looking at the consistency of quality over the length of the bar, as well as taking a look at how compatible all the differing criteria are and how well they fall into harmony with each other. I will also be taking a look here at the structure of the bar, the backbone that holds the bar together, looking for a firm base for the other characteristics of the bar to sit on.
Overall Criteria: Balance, Development, Complexity, Dimension, Uniformity
Not designed to redress or rebalance a score, the overall criteria is designed to look at the development of the bar, its complexity and its dimension. While some of these terms seem abstract in the sense of tasting, they are important in their nature as the more intangible aspects of quality for those bars that are truly great. They are the extra levels of a truly developed bar and display balance in complexity and dimension in flavour, uniformity in structure and expression and are the call signs of experienced chocolatiership. These characteristics display knowledge of the beans and knowledge of the production processes, knowledge that takes the beans to their full development and in doing so, fully express the qualities and complexities of the beans terroir.
Defects/Taints Criteria: Over fermentation soft/hard, Mould, High Astringency, Smokiness
While this is a rarity for fine, specialty or craft chocolate bars, no bar is exempt from examination of defects and taints. While some cacao beans have elements of smokiness in their flavour characteristics, those where there is an overabundance or a dominance of smokiness are likely to be displaying defects from the drying process, with this obscuring both the natural genetics and terroir of the beans. High astringencies often come from either poor genetics or improper growing, usually those beans that are rushed and sun grown, these underdeveloped beans can be highly bitter and astringent. While acidity can be a great characteristic in a bar, some acidity can be a product of over fermentation, this masks the natural flavour of the bar and is likely to be acetic or sour and a sign of processing defects. While rare, just like all perishable products cacao beans are also subject to mould cultures that can ruin a chocolate bar, these rarely make it to the consumer but unusual funky flavours or rotten flavours are a sure sign that the chocolate has been compromised by mould.