Everyone can taste chocolate. But by utilizing a few tips and tricks, you can turn tasting chocolate into an amazing chocolate experience. The pleasure of chocolate tasting has been enhanced by the growth of bean to bar chocolatiers. Many of these chocolatiers focus on the terroir of the cacao bean – the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to the cacao bean by the environment in which it is produced. Factors affecting the cacao bean’s terroir will include the soil, topography and climate. Sampling different chocolates allows you to discover the terroir of that chocolate and enjoy the unique tastes of the cacao beans used to make that particular type of bar. So how do you taste chocolate like a savant?
Start with Good Chocolate
So where can you find good chocolate to sample? You can check www.chocolatesavant.com and review the chocolatiers profiled on the website. You can then purchase bars directly from the chocolatier. You can also browse the single-origin chocolate bars offered on www.caputos.com. Caputo’s offers bars from around the world. Warning – you can spend hours on this website because of the variety of specialty foods they offer. Another great place to find single-origin chocolate is at www.dandelionchocolate.com. All of their bars are posted on the website and you can read the labels, which tell you where the cacao was grown, the year, the percentage of cacao and the tasting notes found in the bar. One of my personal favorites from Dandelion is the 70% Bén Tre bar from Vietnam with notes of candied ginger, molasses and apple cider.
Personally, I like chocolate that is made from two basic ingredients – cacao beans and cane sugar. You may not like every chocolate bar that you taste. But if you sample enough chocolate, you will find chocolate bars that taste amazing. Tasting different types of chocolate is one of my favorite chocolate experiences.
When to Taste
According to the “chocolate experts,” the best time to taste chocolate is in the morning, after your palate has had a chance to rest and revive from the previous day. For most people, this would be in the late morning several hours after breakfast. Personally, I am not ready for an intense chocolate experience first thing in the morning. I enjoy chocolate as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up or an early evening treat. Also, most group chocolate tastings will not occur in the morning. Have fun and experiment with the same chocolate. Is the taste different in the late morning as compared to early evening?
Keep Your Chocolate Cool
So you have your chocolate bars in hand. Now what? You need to think about storage of your chocolate. The experts say do not store your chocolate in the refrigerator. I live in Arizona so in the summer I have no choice. The experts like to store chocolate in a cool, dry and dark place between 63 and 68 degrees. You could use your basement or the back of your pantry or place it in a box on a windowsill, out of the sunlight. You can seal chocolate in an airtight container to protect its flavor. Before tasting, let the chocolate come to room temperature, preferably 72 degrees.
It is easier to experience the various flavor nuances in chocolate by comparing different chocolates to one another. Four to six is a good number, but even two will work. Remember that you will not be eating more than ½ an ounce of each type of chocolate during a tasting so you can share your extra with friends or save it for later.
I also suggest cleansing your palate after each tasting so it will be easier to differentiate among the flavors in each type of chocolate. Some simple palate cleansers include cool plain water with lemon or lime slices, cool carbonated water with or without lemon or lime slices or warm green matcha tea.
Read the Outer Wrapper
Once you have the chocolate bar, enjoy the beauty of the outer wrapper. Many are works of art. I use the reverse side of the outer wrapper to keep notes of my chocolate tasting experience. I then put that wrapper in a plastic cover and place it in a notebook. The notebook is my personal reference guide as well as an art collection.
Now read the outer wrapper. What ingredients does the chocolate maker use? Where were the cacao beans grown? Is the bar single origin? Chocolate made from cacao beans grown in India will taste much different from a bar made from beans grown in Costa Rica or Madagascar. What is the percentage of chocolate in the bar? Also check the expiration date on the wrapper. Fresh chocolate is the best chocolate. However, just because the chocolate bar is past its expiration date does not mean the chocolate is bad. It simply means that the flavor may not be as good had the bar been eaten prior to the expiration date.
Remove the Bar from the Inner Wrapper
Next, remove the bar from the inner wrapper. Take a moment to look at the bar. What is its color? Is it a bright reddish-brown or a much darker and deeper brown? The color can tell you about the roast and the milk content. The color is also influenced by the type of cacao beans used. Is the bar shiny or does it have white spots or funny-looking streaks? White spots or streaks can indicate blooming, where the chocolate has melted and then reformed to create fat and/or sugar separation. You can still eat the chocolate, but the separation may affect the taste.
Once you have removed the bar from the inner wrapper, break off a piece. Did you hear a nice crisp snap? Quality dark chocolate will have a clean, sharp, snapping sound. Milk chocolate will have a slightly softer snap due to the milk content. The lack of a crisp snap may indicate that the chocolate was poorly tempered or that the chocolate is too warm.
Now smell the chocolate. The most intense smell will emanate from the area where the chocolate was broken apart. Does it smell sweet? Like cinnamon or vanilla? Does it smell like smoke or rubber? The chocolate will not always taste the way that it smells, but the smell can reveal what is going on in that chocolate bar. Smelling the chocolate is important because it primes your taste buds. Pay attention if the chocolate lacks aroma. This can indicate that the chocolate is stale, which can affect the taste.
The experts even have suggestions with respect to how you should hold the chocolate when you smell it. One suggestion is to hold the chocolate between your thumb and index finger and smell it. Others prefer to place the chocolate on a plate or napkin before smelling it – this is because the smells on your fingers might mask the aromas in the chocolate. Some go so far as to use tweezers to pick up the chocolate and enjoy the aroma.
Take a Bite
Some people chew the chocolate completely. Others just let it melt on the tongue. The preferred method is to chew the piece of chocolate once or twice and then stop. Close your eyes and let the chocolate melt on your tongue. Your mouth is the perfect temperature for chocolate to melt. Let the flavors unfold. Chew a few times to release even more flavors. What do you taste?
Does it taste sweet and fruity like blackberries, mango or ginger? Is it spicy like black pepper or cinnamon? Is there a savory element like bacon or blue cheese? The taste is totally subjective. There is no right or wrong. Every palate is different. The more tasting that you do, the more you will begin to recognize what tastes you typically experience and what tastes you like and do not like. With more experience, you will also taste different flavor notes at the beginning, middle and end of a piece of chocolate.
The Taste Experience
As you enjoy the taste experience, you should also consider the texture, the flavor and the finish of each chocolate and use these elements to determine what chocolate is your favorite.
Texture is the first thing you will notice when you taste the chocolate. Is the chocolate smooth and creamy? Is it waxy? Is it dry and chalky? Is it gritty? Texture, like flavor, is a personal preference. Even slightly gritty bars can have an intense chocolate flavor. Keep an open mind as texture can lead to a more meaningful chocolate experience.
Flavor is the second element of the tasting experience. Flavor will vary dramatically, depending on the source of the cacao beans used in the bar, the cacao content, the fermentation period, whether the beans were roasted, as well as a variety of other factors.
In their book, Making Chocolate, From Bean to Bar to S’More (Clarkson Potter Publishers, NY 2017), authors Todd Masonis, Greg D’Alesandre, Lisa Vega and Molly Gore prepared a list of the incredible flavors that can emanate from a chocolate bar. This list from the book is just a sample:
Fresh fruit: banana, cherry, pineapple, plum
Dried fruit: apricot, fig, prune, raisin, date
Nutty: almond, cashew, hazelnut, peanut, walnut
Chocolatey: baked brownies, chocolate cookies. fudge
Earthy: grass, hay, moss, mushroom, wood
Caramel: brown sugar, butterscotch, molasses, toffee
Dairy: butter, cream, sweet milk, yogurt
Floral: black tea, jasmine, rouibus, rose water
Spicy: allspice, anise, cinnamon, pepper, vanilla
Other: acidic, malty, smokey, savory, tart
What flavors do you taste and how do they change during the experience?
The third element of the chocolate tasting experience is the finish. How does the chocolate linger in your mouth? Do the flavors disappear quickly, or do they remain in your mouth for an extended period of time? Does the finish cause you to take another bite or do you want to move onto the next bar? Think about the end of the experience. Enjoying chocolate in this way will help you gain a deeper appreciation for chocolate and identify your favorites.
Chocolate tasting is a personal experience since each of us has a different palate. But one of the best aspects of chocolate tasting is the fact that the experience can be shared. Consider hosting a chocolate tasting party for friends and family. Try some wine and chocolate pairings or cheese and chocolate pairings to elevate the experience.
On a personal level, consider taking notes of your experience. Then you can remember what you tasted the week before. I keep my notes on the outer wrapper of the chocolate bar and then save the wrappers in a notebook.
Finally, do not get overwhelmed by the tasting experience. Do not think you have to conduct a scientific analysis every time you taste a new chocolate bar. I enjoy candied orange peel and candied ginger covered in dark chocolate. These are flavors I love. If you love milk chocolate, enjoy it. Not everyone likes dark chocolate. The best chocolate is the chocolate that you enjoy the most. Now go taste some chocolate and find your chocolate experience!