How to choose chocolate for a chocolate tasting party

Posted on November 16th, 2016

Eagranie Yuh curated craft chocolate box for Choco RushOne of the best parts of a chocolate tasting is choosing the chocolates—which makers, which bars, what order? Clearly, there are a lot of variables, chief among them what’s available in your area. It’s also important to think about who will be at the tasting. Are they dark chocolate connoisseurs or milk chocolate lovers? Do they love inclusion bars (that is, bars with stuff in them) or are they purists?

One of my most popular classes is Chocolate 101, which is aimed at people with little to no experience in tasting chocolate. So, I choose chocolates with two objectives in mind. First, I want to highlight different approaches to chocolate making and provide context for what’s happening in craft chocolate. Hopefully, I can also bust a few chocolate myths along the way (more on this below). Second, I want each person at the tasting to find at least one bar that they really enjoy, and to feel confident in their choice. This may sound odd—who goes to a chocolate tasting and doesn’t enjoy the chocolate?—but many people lack confidence in their palates, and my hope is that they leave my class a little braver.

Partnering with Choco Rush

Over the past few years, the number of chocolate subscription box services and online stores has multiplied. I love it because not everyone lives near a specialty chocolate retailer—and who doesn’t like receiving a box of chocolate every month? And so, I’ve partnered with the folks at Chocorush this holiday season. With their help, I’ve curated bars from some of my favourite makers.

On the Chocorush blog, I wrote a bit about each of the makers and bars and what to expect from each. To complement that, I wanted to talk about why this flight works, and some of the things to look for as you taste these bars as a group.

The big picture

Here are some guiding principles for constructing a chocolate flight.

Number. There are six bars in the collection, which is an ideal number for chocolate tasting. I usually advise people to taste five to seven bars, which is enough to understand the general lay of the land—how each individual chocolate fits in—without being overwhelming.

Geography. I wanted to highlight the geographic diversity in craft chocolate making, so several countries are represented: Canada (of course), France, Vietnam, and the USA. It skews heavily toward the USA, partly because of the explosion of craft chocolate stateside, and also because that’s where Chocorush is based.

Diversity. As a general-interest box, I wanted to include a variety of kinds of chocolate, including dark, milk, and inclusions. (We had white chocolate on the longlist, but it didn’t make the cut.) The takeaway? All kinds of chocolate are fair game—milk chocolate doesn’t have to be sickly sweet, and chocolate with stuff in it is just as elegant as plain bars. Among the dark chocolate, I included a few single origins and a blend, because neither is inherently better than the other.

The bars

Next, let’s look at how each of the bars fits into the bigger picture.

Fruition Hispaniola 68%Fruition Chocolate (USA) Hispaniola 68%
The first bar of a tasting is the trickiest because people’s palates aren’t primed yet. Of the bars in this group, Fruition’s Hispaniola is the best suited: reasonably assertive with plenty of nuance. Made with cacao from the Dominican Republic, it has a nice balance of fruity, spicy and earthy notes, and the relatively low percentage makes it nice and accessible.

What to look for: This bar includes added cocoa butter and vanilla, which is anathema to the purist approach that is more common among American craft chocolate makers. The result is a bar with an easy melt and nice depth of flavour without being overwhelmingly vanilla-y. It goes to show that there’s nothing inherently better about two-ingredient chocolate—and as this Fruition bar shows, a bit of cocoa butter and vanilla aren’t necessarily bad.

Askinosie Davao Philippines 77%Askinosie (USA) Davao 77%
I really like using this bar in tastings. First, it’s an excuse to introduce people to Askinosie, its sourcing practices and the back story of Shawn Askinosie transitioning from a legal career to chocolate making. Second, it’s one of the few (only?) bars using cacao from the Philippines. Third, it’s delicious. But even more, I love the look on people’s faces when they taste a bar that’s labelled 77%—they expect big, aggressive flavours, but instead are treated to delicate caramelly notes.

What to look for: This bar is far milder than its high-octane percentage might imply, showing that percentage only tells you so much about a bar. And frankly, it doesn’t tell you much.* Another twist on this bar is to use it in a blind tasting and have people guess its percentage; most people guess much lower than it is.

soma_-_dual_origins_little_big_man_grandeSoma (Canada) Little Big Man 70%
It’s hard to explain how much I love Soma Chocolatemaker, or how proud I am that they’re Canadian. Instead, I present Little Big Man, made from a blend of Madagascan and Ecuadorian beans, as proof of chocolate maker David Castellan’s talent, and that a good chocolate blend is every bit as good as a single origin. As far as its position in the chocolate lineup, Little Big Man also has enough oomph to provide a nice foil for the milder Askinosie Davao that precedes it, and to ease the transition into the more pronounced Marou Ben Tre that follows.

What to look for: Little Big Man is a great example of a kickass blend. Single-origin bars dominate the marketplace, and many tasters gravitate toward them as being a purer kind of experience. But single-origin bars aren’t automatically better than blends; in fact, because creating a good blend means working with more variables, many chocolate makers say that making a good blended bar is more difficult than a single-origin bar. (Think of whisky: a good blend is far superior to a clumsy single malt any day.)

Marou Ben Tre 78%Marou (Vietnam) Ben Tre 78%
Vietnam-based Marou is a fascinating case study for craft chocolate. First, there’s the exploration of different cacao-growing regions of Vietnam, which many people may not think of as a hotbed of raw material. Second, the packaging is gorgeous and inspired by Vietnamese textiles. Third, as a story from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania <http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/from-bean-to-bar-expatriates-in-vietnam-taste-sweet-success/> explains, Vietnam is generally associated with cheap goods and labour—the idea of making a premium product in such an environment is a bit unexpected (and probably good for the bottom line, frankly).

What to look for: On paper, this bar has a lot in common with Askinosie Davao: similar percentages, and made with cacao from southeast Asia. But upon tasting, it’s pretty clear that they’re worlds apart. Normally I would put these two bars back to back, but it would be pretty jarring to go directly from Davao to Ben Tre. I think it’s an easier transition to go from Little Big Man to Ben Tre. That said, before you dip into the world of salted chocolate, I suggest revisiting the Davao to see how it compares to Ben Tre.

Dick Taylor Fleur de SelDick Taylor (USA) Fleur de Sel
Consider this a bridging bar, keeping us in the world of dark chocolate but adding an inclusion (in this case, sea salt) to the mix. With this bar, the kids at Dick Taylor pay homage to Guatemala, in both cacao beans and salt. Generally, I put inclusions toward the end of a tasting—and if there are several, taste the bolder flavours (coffee, chilis) toward the end so as to not blow out people’s palates. In this case, it makes sense to put the dark salted bar at the end of the plain dark bars, but before milk chocolate.

What to look for: You can play with this one: put the salt side down for a more intense experience, or salt side up for more subtlety. Either way, notice how the salt accentuates the chocolate without overpowering it, and you can still appreciate the chocolate—that’s the mark of a good inclusion bar.

Pralus MelissaPralus (France) Melissa 45%
Where FDA regulations call for milk chocolate to include a minimum of 10% (!) cacao, this one has 45% and is considered a dark milk chocolate.** Pralus is about as far away from the American craft chocolate approach as you can get, typically using dark, heavy roasts on its beans and adding a generous amount of cocoa butter. Melissa tends to be a crowd-pleaser, appeasing milk chocolate lovers who want to love dark, and swaying dark chocolate lovers who tend to turn up their noses at milk chocolate.

What to look for: Compared to most milk chocolate, this lacks the sharp sweetness that often prickles the back of the throat, and the milk powder is of high quality so you don’t end up with a sour milk coating on your tongue. This will definitely taste sweeter against the dark chocolates that came earlier in the tasting, but hopefully not cloyingly so. Made in typical French style, this bar is extremely melty—some might say too melty, but that’s a matter of preference.

A final note (and all those asterisks)

Finally, once you’ve tasted the chocolates in a flight, feel free to dip in and out. The order in which you taste things will affect your perception, so feel free to mix things up and see if you can discover new flavour notes that weren’t apparent on first taste.

In particular, milk chocolate, with its added sugar, tends to affect the palate, so it can be interesting to go back to the dark chocolates and see if your perception changes. In particular, see if the Fruition tastes quite as fruity, if the Askinosie seems as mild, if the nuances of Soma are still discernible, if the Ben Tre seems more or less “dark,” and if the Dick Taylor seems more or less salty.

 

* The percentage of a bar tells you roughly how sweet it will be. In the simplest case, a good-quality 70% bar contains 70% stuff from the cacao bean and 30% sugar. So if you had a 100 gram bar, it would contain 70 grams of processed cacao beans and 30 grams of sugar. In other words, the percentage tells you nothing about where the cacao came from, how it tastes, or how much you’ll like it. (This is a vast oversimplification and I go into more detail in The Chocolate Tasting Kit.)

** A good-quality bar of milk chocolate will contain cacao, milk powder and sugar, and maybe added cocoa butter or vanilla. A dark milk chocolate bar contains more cacao—typically 40% and above—and less sugar than mass market products. The result is the best of both worlds with the flavour of a dark chocolate bar and the creamy melt of a milk chocolate bar.

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