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Main Tasting Bars
At a recent conference we spent a week running various chocolate tastings on the side. I will not name the conference to protect the guilty. We tasted various chocolate (solid bars) and chocolates (filled or flavored chocolate candy). I'm going to jump right in and talk about my favorite dark chocolate tasting idea. Afterwards I will wander through some of the other ideas we covered.
The Guittard chocolate company has started a premium line of chocolate called E. Guittard. There is a four-bar series in the line featuring 65% cacao content bars from four different countries. All are manufactured the same way, leaving the only variance in the individual flavors. These flavors do not define the countries, but do allow for a tasting that shows a variety of flavor experiences possible within a chocolate bar. It is also a great introduction to a tasting method that allows you to more fully experience chocolate.
The four bars are (Clicking on the image leads to a larger picture. In some browsers you have to click on the picture again to see it full size.):
I have omitted specific tasting notes because I find that people experience such a wide range of tastes that the method is more important than the notes. This chocolate comes in 2 ounce bars, and a tasting kit. This tasting kit features 16 - 10 gram bars, with four of each flavor, along with a pocket-sized tasting booklet. It is great for a small tasting group. Each person can have their own bars and wrappers. You can buy this kit from the Guittard online store, or at chocosphere.com.
- Ambanja - Madagascar - Purple - No idea how it is pronounced (Ha? Ja?). This is my favorite bar and frequently draws the most praise in my experience.
- Quevedo - Ecaudor - Bluish-Green
- Sur Del Lago - Venezuela - Red - The one I prefer the least in the group, but wins praise from fans of the "darker stuff." It is good to experience the contrast between the bars and to understand the range of tastes people have and the range of flavors that are possible.
- Chucuri - Colombia - Green.
The method I have learned for tasting chocolate came from the book The Chocolate Connoisseur, by Chloe Doutre-Roussel. Click on the pink image nearby to read more about it at Amazon.com. I follow the steps below. It is a good way to start. You will develop your own tactics based on what matters most to you.
For tasting purposes the best time is when your palate is free from other influences. For example, eating a bowl of spicy chili before tasting may change your experience. There is one chocolate I like where my first taste experience is a coffee note. However when I taste it at Starbucks I get a strong hint of peanut butter. [As you may know, most of what we taste are actually what we smell since there are only 4 or 5 basic tastes.}] At home I like Chloe's idea of tasting first thing in the morning. At the conference we tasted in the early evening. It was long after lunch, but before starting in on the evening's drinks and food. The simplest thing I know of cleanse your palate between tastes is water.
- Sight - Yes the look of the wrapper matters. Some packages are marketed extremely well. Some packages look even better than the chocolate inside. Some plain wrappers hide great chocolate.
- Smell - One of my favorite moments is the aroma when you first open the wrapper. All that flavor has been wrapped up just waiting to jump up your nose. It's hard to do with a group, but it works well by yourself.
- Sight - Again. What color is the chocolate? If you have never noticed before, it is fun to experience the range of colors from dark black to a rich mahogany (reddish-brown). Good, properly-prepared and stored chocolate, also has a nice shiny gloss to it. I hope to write an essay soon about bloom, the greyish appearance chocolate gets when it has had storage problems. I will link here when I do.
- Snap - When you break off a piece of dark chocolate there should be a very distinct snapping sound. Even very thin bars will have this sound. It is not important to the actual tasting, but it helps to notice.
- Aroma - Again. Most of the flavor notes come from smells. You can release more flavor by rubbing the chocolate between your fingers to warm it up before taking a whiff.
- Taste - My favorite way to taste is to take a small bite of chocolate. I then chew that bite a couple of times to create several smaller pieces in my mouth. I then lean back and let the chocolate slowly melt on my tongue. As it melts there should be a series of taste experiences. I usually get an initial taste that strikes me. That is followed by the flavor notes the middle of the chocolate tune. This can be short, or linger gracefully. After the chocolate has fully melted you should experience some sort of finish. This is often either bitter, or astringent (drying). In some of the greater bars the finish is a lingering chocolate taste.
Some people like to chew their chocolate instead of waiting for it to melt. I personally cringe when I see this, but everybody has a personal preference. My argument for waiting for it to melt is as follows: Chocolate is basically an emulsion, with cocoa powder crystals (flavored) suspended in a cocoa butter matrix (unflavored). The cocoa butter in chocolate has several crystal forms (see the Technology page link on tempering for related information). Each form has a different melting point. Properly tempered chocolate has a crystal form that melts at about 93 degrees. Chocolate thus does not melt until it has warmed up for some time in your mouth. Only then are you experiencing the largest amount of flavors from the cocoa.
- Melt - After a bite or two I like to indulge the texture of the melt. Some are smooth and slow. Some are smooth and fast. Some are thick and slow. Sometimes, usually with cheaper chocolate, you find waxy or grainy melts. My favorite are the smooth, slow, long-lasting melts.
- Second bite - As your palate adapts to various tastes and experiences you are able to notice more flavors. The first time I experienced a raspberry note was on my third, small bite of a certain chocolate. This is one advantage of taking a small piece of chocolate and savoring it over several small bites.
This is all only a starting suggestion. You may find your own process, locations, or even combinations. I have tasted certain chocolate(s) with wine, good port, and single malt scotch (all to very interesting effect).
Skip to the sources links, or read on for more ideas.
Cocoa beans come in three main varieties, as listed below. One attendee brought two bars from Trader Joe's (also at Chocosphere). They were Unique Origins by Chocovic. (Unique Origins dominates the silver label. Chocovic is the company.) One was the Guaranda bar featuring Forastero Beans from Ecuador. The other was the Ocumare featuring Criollo beans from Venezuela. (The third bar in the line, representing Trinitario beans from Grenada, is called Guyave. Oddly enough I just found all three of them in Linens and Things.)
For more details and some really nice pictures, see the Guittard Varietals page. There are links for the three varieties of beans, as well as the major growing regions represented by their bars listed in the main section. The varietal bars you often see are made from a single bean, and often from a single region or estate. Most chocolate though is made from blending a variety of beans to produce a desired taste response (heavy chocolate taste, with subtle floral notes, for example, would be mostly forastero, with a small selection of criollo beans with floral notes).
- Forastero - The hardiest and most common of the beans. They account for about 90% of the world market. They are usually noted for their strong chocolate flavor.
- Criollo - The rarest bean, it is where you find the complex and subtle flavors in the higher end chocolates.
- Trinitario - A cross between the forastero and criollo beans.
Organic Dark Chocolate
If you prefer organic chocolate, or even if you just want to try something different, Dagoba Chocolates in Oregon produces a line similar to Guittard's. They have an Estate Grown series featuring mostly 68% dark bars and one 65% bar.
- Los Rios - 68% - Ecuador Arriba (Nacional) - This bar is being reformulated and is currently hard to find (fall 2006).
- Milagros - 68% - Peruvian Amazonia (A region, not a bean variety.)
- Pacuare - 68% - Costa Rican Trinitario
- Sambirano - 65% - Madagascar - Tastes very different from E. Guittard's Ambanja bar, which is also from Madagascar. This is a good intra-country tasting comparison.
The Great Stuff!
I always cringe when I see some rube inhale a whole $1.00 square of chocolate. If you can afford it, I understand it as an eating method, but I rarely share my chocolates again with people who eat like that. I figure if someone took the time to craft an exquisite chocolate, then I should take the time to exquisitely savor it. There are several premium bars I keep returning to. You may find your own favorites in time. I may find new favorites in time. For now, here is my list of current favorites.
These bars did not come out until the last days and evenings of the conference so I never really got any votes on favorites. All are great, and each in their own distinct way. The Valrhona bars run about $4.50. The Amedei bars run about $11.00 at chocospere. The prices are scary, but you can make one last several weeks ... if you try ... really hard ... and have lots of other chocolate around to distract you in emergencies.
- Valrhona Ampamakia 2005 - This bar, and the next two, are made from beans from a single vintage (year) from a single plantation. As of October 30, 2006 the 2006 bars have been released. They should eventually filter into the market. Ampamakia is from Madagascar and has the raspberry fruitiness I like from that region.
- Valrhona Palmira 2005 - Features criollo beans from the Lake Maricaibo region in Venezuela. I am still exploring this bar and the next, but I love both of them.
- Valrhona Gran Couva 2005 - Trinitarios from the Gran Couva Domaine (San Juan Estate) on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean.
- Valrhona Chuao 2002 - Yes, you can still find a few of these bars at Chocosphere, featuring beans from the legendary Chuao region in Venezuela. I always taste a nice honey undertone.
- Amedei "9" - A beautiful bar, blended from nine different beans. A balanced chocolate taste from start to finish, and beyond.
- Amedei Chuao - This Italian company locked up the rights to the Chuao beans for now. A comparison of the two Chuao bars would show a wide variation in flavors between years, as well as differences in manufacturing style between companies.
We attempted one tasting with a milk chocolate comparison, but it did not work as well as I had hoped. It was hard to pick out flavor variations in the two chocolates I chose. In a chocolate technology class I learned the different ways of manufacturing milk chocolate. Two key ways lead to slightly different taste possibilities. We tasted the Whole Foods 365 milk chocolate bar and the lovely Chocolove 33% milk chocolate bar whose wrapper is shown in the image.
Milk chocolate can be made in a process in which sugar, milk powder, and chocolate liquor (the result of grinding cocoa beans) are mixed together. They can also be made by cooking milk, sugar, and chocolate liquor. (I hope to have a page for those processes under my Technology links. When I do I will replace these sentences.)The key result is that the first version might have milky tones, whereas the second one will have more caramel tones. Should you notice, and prefer, this in your milk chocolate tastings, this gives you a way to narrow your search down when looking at new milk chocolates. Just search the ingredient list for milk powder (milky) or milk (caramel).
The mere presence of this section will have many snobs clicking for the door. The legal definition of chocolate requires cocoa as an ingredient. White chocolate contains no cocoa, just milk, sugar, and cocoa butter (plus a little lecithin and vanilla). Nonetheless it does have the texture of chocolate, and is very good for making certain chocolates. As such, it does warrant a mention, and some tasting, as part of any good chocolate adventure. We tried the three bars shown in the wrapper. These three had the most variance in preferences, and there was no clear winner. (Lindt, Peruguina, and Bernard Callebaut) Price has not even proved to be a good predictor. The best I can say it try several and see which you like. If nothing else, white chocolate is great grated on a nice fudgy frosted chocolate cake!
- chocosphere.com - The best place I have found for chocolate, on the web or anywhere. All the chocolates mentioned on this page can be found there. WARNING: The site is still poorly designed. Every page looks the same at first. You have to scroll down to find the useful information. It is worth it though.
- Whole Foods Market - The last three of these stores I have visited have had chocolate in at least five different places in the store. They always seem to have at least one local chocolate item, which is why I visit them wherever I go, plus bulk chocolates, and some regular lines like Dagoba and Chocolove. Some are even starting to carry the Dagoba Estate Chocolates.
- Trader Joe's - If you have heard of them you know where one is. If not, you might want to check if there one in your area. Famous for all kinds of interesting chocolate concoctions (Pistachio Toffee, Chocolate Covered Figs), they also carry a variety of chocolate bars, including the Chocovic ones mentioned above.
- Guittard Chocolate Company - Maker of my favorite tasting kit, and a good source of information about chocolate in general. Click on the Learn tab on the home page for more information.
- Chocolove - Based in Boulder, CO, Timothy Moley has created a great variety of chocolate bars, flavored and straight. You can find almost the entire line in most Whole Foods, and many other national locations. Their 61% Organic Chocolate bar is one of my favorite eating bars. See the Boulder, CO cities page for more about Chocolove Bars.
- Dagoba Chocolate Company - The premier manufacturer of organic chocolate bars that I know of. They are also doing great things working with farmers in other countries helping them improve the quality of their growing practices.
- Cost Plus World Market - Everytime I go in here I find something else in the chocolate department. They do not have many of the fancy items in this essay, but they recently added some of the Chocolove Chocolatour bars (vintage-dated, single origin bars). They also have plenty of Lindt, regular Valrhona, Rittersport, and a host of other interesting companies and bars. This is a great place to go to fill out a simpler tasting collection. Both their milk and dark selections are quite extensive.
- Fog City News - San Francisco - This store gets a mention in case anybody in San Francisco reads this page. Located downtown, this is the only store I have found, so far, where you could walk in and actually find all of these bars on the shelf, and about 200 more. If there are similar stores elsewhere I would be glad to hear about them.