Tasting Chocolate Like a Pro
Last year, I signed up for the Level 1&2 Certificate in Chocolate Tasting from the International Institute of Cacao & Chocolate Tasting (IICCT) and I embarked on an amazing journey - the one of tasting chocolate. It is not because I am a chocolate maker that I am an expert in tasting chocolate! Although my experience working with chocolate helped, I had to sharpen my senses to be able to tell the different flavours of cacao. This article is an attempt to share with you what I learned (in a concise and probably simplified way) about how to taste chocolate.
Let's be honest, there is nothing wrong with inhaling a whole bar of chocolate in a minute, Amit does it all the time. But there is a way to TASTE chocolate, not just eating it.
If you are doubtful, try eating a piece of chocolate in 7 second compared to taking the time to taste it. The chocolate may be exactly the same - the experience is completely different.
Why is that? it has to do with how we perceive the flavours found in the chocolate and how chocolate melts in your mouth. The quick answer is: the cacao butter conveys the flavour of the chocolate and so by eating it too quickly, you miss some flavours of the chocolate, especially the more delicate ones as the butter doesn't have time to melt. Our nose is a key actor in tasting any food and by eating slowly and mindfully, we also have more opportunities to take breathes and so, to comprehend the flavour to a deeper and more nuanced level.
No need to be a chocolate snob to learn how to taste chocolate properly! Of course your Cadbury and other commercial chocolates will be less interesting to taste than a craft or bean-to-bar chocolate where the terroir and flavour notes come through.
Yes you read well, "notes and terroir", the exact same language used in wine! This is because chocolate and wine are very similar in that both products are the result of carefully selected and grown plant varietals, mindful and minimal production processes to highlight the natural flavours of the grapes/cacao. The soil and environment where the plant grows play a huge factor in the taste of the final product, in both wine and chocolate. Cacao growing in different countries - regions- farms will have different flavour profiles, similar to wines from different regions or Chateaux. In fact, cacao has even more flavour compound versatility than wine!
So how do you taste chocolate?
Look at the aspect of the chocolate - is it shiny, uniform in colour and present no defects (streaks of colours or dull appearance)? Do you know the white-ish, dull, powdery appearance that store-bought chocolate sometimes has? it is actually totally fine to eat - the cacao butter simply migrated to the surface (a tempering issue, for information about tempering, see this article), but the tasting experience might be different as the cacao butter will probably melt unevenly and so convey flavour differently.
Smell the chocolate - I know it might sound strange but as mentioned above, our nose plays a vital role in tasting flavours and so we can already pick up some of the aromas found in chocolate through our nose. Can you pick up some spicy/acidic or floral nose? Can you relate any smells to any in your your life experience? maybe you recognise the smell of freshly cut grass or your grandma's apricot tart.
Taste the chocolate (finally) - the way to taste chocolate is to let it melt on the tongue. The cacao butter will start melting and releasing flavours. You are looking for a few things there:
The texture: is it smooth? or grainy? is it overall enjoyable?
The mouthfeel: is the chocolate dry? or too buttery?
The flavours: any dominant flavour? is it flat in flavour or all over the place?
A good chocolate has a flavour journey - that means a beginning, middle and end, with hopefully a long aftertaste. The notes will come one after the other, some stronger and longer-lasting than other, some more subtle that you might only pick up the second time you taste the chocolate. A lasting aftertaste is also a characteristic of a good chocolate.
When tasting the chocolate we try to identify it's flavour notes. A good way to look at this is to use the flavour wheel developed by the IICCT.
The flavour map is used as a guidance in tasting. Cacao from different regions typically have different flavour profiles. It is not uncommon for cacao from Latin America to be on the fruity and floral side, while cacao from Africa is generally closer to the chocolatey, cocoa powder and coffee notes. Vietnam tend to have a cacao that is more earthy and spicy.
Some common notes found in chocolates are: sour cherry, prune, banana, honey, almond and cinnamon, but of course, we each tasting a little differently and so there are no right or wrong answers!
Next time you pick up a bar of craft chocolate - look at the packaging for any indication of flavour notes and see if you agree with what is written!