Getting the Most from the Experience
To Begin With
Chocolate tasting should be about the experience and not solely about the consumption of chocolate. It should engage all the senses (sight, sound, smell, feel and finally taste) and can be appreciated by almost any person regardless of age, social standing or gender. It does not take extensive knowledge to develop an appreciation for the many fine and varied chocolates available today but for those who are curious, there is a never-ending spring of information available to better enable you to appreciate the history, science and art that is chocolate.
Please understand that there is no right or wrong when it comes to chocolate — there is just your opinion and preference based on your individual taste and predisposition. What you will ultimately want to develop as you go through the chocolate tasting process is a fuller awareness of the spectrum of, and differences between, the multitude of quality chocolates available to you in today’s marketplace. Many people, particularly Americans, are of the opinion that chocolate is a pleasant but somewhat homogenous product. This perception is changing as consumers become increasingly familiar with the products offered in the world market place. The reality is that chocolate, like wine, covers the spectrum of flavors with each having a unique personality. Regardless of your personal level of exposure to chocolate, we hope you will enjoy most of the selections provided but more importantly that you experience them all and broaden your familiarity with some of the more prominent chocolate makers represented by these selections.
NOTE -You may want to have the following available for your adventure:
- First, something to “reset” your taste buds between samplings. Unsalted crackers, ladyfingers, angel food cake, watermelon, strawberries and fruit sorbets and sherbets all make excellent palate cleansers. Pick something that you enjoy and then just a nibble or taste will do the job each time.
- Second, you may want a beverage of some kind. Your choice might be as simple as sparkling or purified water or you may want to pair the chocolate tasting with wine selections (see Pairing Chocolate with Wine.) Again, let your personal taste be your guide.
- Remember to leave the chocolate kit at room temperature prior to tasting. The more subtle flavors will otherwise be muted.
Time to Taste Chocolate
Once everyone participating is comfortable:
Observe the Color: After unwrapping the first chocolate sample take a moment to note the texture and color. The color range of chocolate can be from the deepest brown to an auburn tint. Any well-tempered chocolate will have a high shine and dark chocolate will have a greater sheen than milk chocolate. All chocolate should be free of “bloom” (white splotches caused by the separation of cocoa butter crystals.) A good quality white chocolate will be a deep yellow color due to the high cocoa butter content.
Listen to the Sound: Break the chocolate into roughly dime size pieces, watching as it breaks. Chocolate with high cacao content will break cleanly and with a distinct crisp sound. Chocolate of lower quality (with a lower cacao content) tends to be soft and will not crisply break.
Feel: Hold the piece of chocolate between your fingers and note that the chocolate will begin to melt within a few seconds. Chocolate that has the proper cocoa butter content will melt at or near body temperature.
Inhale the Aroma: Take a brief moment to close your eyes and smell the chocolate. As you know, appreciation of many things in life such as baking cookies, good wine, a fine cigar is enhanced by the scent. In fact 75% of what we perceive as taste is actually derived from our olfactory perceptions. Considering the aroma just prior to tasting will allow your brain to more accurately identify the subtle qualities of the chocolate (when you smell you are actually inhaling particles.) There are over 600 natural aromas associated with chocolate. Taking a moment to appreciate the smell will, in effect, get your taste buds prepared for the experience to come.
Tasting the Chocolate: Here is the part you have been waiting for!
How: Place a small amount of chocolate (about the size of a dime) in the middle of your tongue. Close your mouth and wait for the chocolate to begin melting. Now lift your tongue to the roof of your mouth and swirl the chocolate all around. It may be difficult, but resist chewing until the chocolate melts. You will have a chance to observe the following sensations:
What to look for:
- As soon as the chocolate begins melting on your tongue you will get the early “notes” of flavor. These “notes” are the blending of all the different compounds in the chocolate (some “notes” can be described as fruity, buttery, nutty, vanilla highlights, clean, etc.). Your first impression should not be that of sugary sweetness but rather a nice balance between sweet and bitter. Any flavoring added to the chocolate should be subtle and not artificial tasting.
- Observe the texture of the chocolate (i.e. Is it smooth or gritty?)
- The “finish” as it is referred to in wine tasting, is actually the aftertaste you will experience. A good chocolate should have a pleasant finish with no hint of a chemical element.
- Consider your overall impression of that particular chocolate immediately after tasting. It is a good idea to note your impressions in writing as you go along so you can recall which you had a particular affinity for. (It can be frustrating when you remember you really enjoyed a particular chocolate but can not recall which it was.) Remember that during your tasting experience you will encounter a variety of distinctive tastes. Some you will like (hopefully most); others you may not enjoy as much (or at all.) Try very hard to keep an open mind as you taste each. Even if you dislike a particular selection you will have gained an awareness of that particular offering; something you did not have before the tasting. Remember the overriding purpose of chocolate tasting is to expand your exposure; the idea is to explore, thereby defining your personal preferences.
- Finally, discuss your impressions and opinions with others in the group. The range of reactions to one chocolate can be very surprising.
A Side Note About Taste:
Your tongue has thousands of tiny taste buds that allow you to recognize the four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Taste buds located near the front of your tongue are for salty and sweet; those for sour line the sides of your tongue; the bitter are found at the very back of the tongue. Surprisingly, the center area on the top of the tongue has very few taste buds. The reason you move the chocolate around in your mouth is to hit each of these areas. Taste experience also depends on age, gender and genetic make-up based on recent research.
Prepare for the Next Selection: Cleanse your palate by eating a small amount of sorbet, cracker and/or taking a sip of water while you take a moment to discuss the last selection tasted. You may be surprised at the strong preference a person may have for one chocolate over another even though both have similar cacao content. Many times the geographical region the cacao was grown in will give that bean a very different flavor from another bean. Just like coffee beans, the soil and surrounding crops can result in differences in beans produced by similar trees.
Understanding the Differences between Chocolates
Cacao content: Cards provided in the Chocolate Tasting Kit will identify the manufacturer for each sample and provide the cacao content as a percentage. This percentage represents the amount of cacao solids used in the production of that chocolate. The higher the percentage of cacao, the darker the chocolate and conversely, the lower the number, the sweeter the chocolate. The percentage can range from a very dark chocolate at 85% down to 35% for a milk chocolate. It is interesting to note that there is no chocolate in “white chocolate” — only the cocoa butter (natural fat from the cocoa bean) is used in the manufacture of white chocolate. Some manufactures will leave “nibs” of chocolate in the finished product giving it something of a rougher mouth feel. American tastes have historically run to the lower percentage milk chocolates while Europeans have shown an inclination towards darker chocolate. Studies suggest this difference in preferences may be changing today as more and more Americans are becoming familiar with the higher cacao products.
There is an endless number of flavorings that can be added to chocolate during the manufacturing process. A few of these include orange, ginger, almond, vanilla, coffee, green tea, chili or pepper. Filled chocolates are different from flavored chocolates. Flavored chocolates have the flavorings added directly to the chocolate during the manufacturing process, as opposed to a flavored filling (e.g. ganache, fondant, etc.) However, to experience the natural flavor of the chocolate itself (separate from the additives and fillings,) you should start with pure chocolate bars. The ingredients in these will be limited to cacao, cocoa butter, sugar, milk products and natural flavorings.