Thanks to the recent boom in craft chocolate making, the world of chocolate tasting has become surprisingly rarefied. There are books, courses, online guides and even exam-based certificate classes (structured on the wine world's WSET program) to educate aficionados on the pleasurable art of tasting fine chocolate.
Some serious connoisseurs say it's imperative to taste chocolate in a sterile laboratory-like environment free of distractions and background noise. But where's the fun in that? According to two of the world's top experts, anyone can host a chocolate party and learn, alongside their guests, to taste the confection like a pro.
Chocolate tasting parties are becoming an increasingly popular phenomenon among the more sociable pleasure-seeking foodie set. The Chocolate Tasting Kit by Vancouver's Eagranie Yuh – an interactive guide to buying, tasting and appreciating fine chocolate that includes flashcards, tasting notepads and keepsake envelopes – offers tips on how to host parties with festive beverage pairings.
"Despite what you may have heard, chocolate and red wine don't play nicely together," she advises in the kit's 48-page booklet. "The sweetness of the chocolate amplifies the wine's tannins, making your mouth feel like a wrung-out dishcloth." Instead, opt for dark beers, fortified wines that are sweeter than the chocolate, low-acidic coffee, tea (Japanese matcha pairs wells with creamy milk chocolate) or whiskey. Yuh says you'll need a robustly intense, high-percentage chocolate to stand up to the latter's boozy backbone.
Read the fine print
The first step, according to Vancouver's Eagranie Yuh, a former chemist and pastry-chef-turned-chocolate-educator and author of The Chocolate Tasting Kit, is to line up a variety of fine chocolates. Milk chocolate should contain 30-per-cent cocoa solids and dark should have 60-per-cent cocoa solids – and nothing else besides extra cocoa butter, sugar and real vanilla.
Break the chocolate into uniform pieces approximately 5 grams each (the size of an almond), and be sure to have enough on hand for second or third tastes. Sticklers for presentation can achieve clean, square edges by cutting the bars with firm, downward pressure from a sharp chef's knife. Be swift with the blade action – if you hesitate, the chocolate will shatter into shards.
The rule of thumb is to serve them from bitter to sweet: so, dark first, then milk, then white. However, start with the sweetest of the plain dark chocolates – those with the lowest percentage of cacao – and work your way up to the strongest.
If tasting flavoured bars or bonbons, reserve them until the end, and put the more delicate flavours (fruits and flowers) ahead of bolder ones (coffee, chili, bacon). You might also want to throw in a few mass-market chocolates. Taste them at the beginning and again at the end to see if your perception of them changes.
Swish and repeat
Before the tasting begins, encourage guests to cleanse their palette with room-temperature water (cold water will numb the taste buds), then take a bite of a neutral-tasting bread, soda cracker or thin wedge of tart apple, and swish again. Repeat after each chocolate variety.
Soupy, swill-able, unseasoned polenta (about the same consistency as gruel) is the official palate cleanser for the International Chocolate Awards. Grand jury member Alex Rast, a research associate and designer of neural hardware systems at the University of Manchester, came up with the concept. He explains that water is less effective because the oils in chocolate are hydrophobic and bread is too solid an abrasive that fails to reach all the fatty chocolate particles that cling to the mouth.
Place the chocolate on a white place mat or plate and observe the colour. "The trained eye can tell a lot about a chocolate before even smelling or tasting it," says Martin Christy, the judging director for the International Chocolate Awards who developed a three-level curriculum for the Chocolate Certificate Tasting Courses.
Chocolate comes in a range of brown tints that often reveal its roasting method and cacao bean variety: dark brown/black (a high roast that is sometimes used, as in coffee, to mask defective or low-quality beans); light brown/burgundy (middle roast and/or trinitario hybrid cacao varieties commonly found in the Caribbean); and very pale brown (indicating white cacaos such as pure criollos, white nacional and the highly prized porcelana).
Note the texture and look for any unusual markings. Chocolate should be shiny, smooth and free of scratches, bubbles or swirling. A matte surface could indicate poor moulding. White marks (called sugar bloom) occur when chocolate hasn't been stored at a constant temperature. A yellow sheen (fat bloom) develops when chocolate has been stored for a long time and cocoa butter migrates to the surface.
Aroma is an important component in any type of tasting. "Humans are only able to detect the five recognized flavour qualities through our taste buds," says Christy. "But we can detect hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct compounds through smell."
In his certificate courses, students prime their nostrils by smelling samples of tobacco, cinnamon, raspberry jam, wood, molasses and other scents that represent key points on the chocolate flavour map.
To smell the chocolate fully, pinch a piece of it between your thumb and index finger to warm it. Hold it very close to your nose. Sniff and breathe several times. Smell for at least 30 seconds.
The flashcards in Yuh's Chocolate Tasting Kit offer a handy encyclopedia of scents that can help you narrow down the basic categories. Is that floral note lavender or rose? Is the herbal aroma mint, sage or basil?
Make a snap judgment
Place the chocolate between your front teeth and snap it in half. Well-tempered chocolate will be slightly flexible and make a definite clicking sound. In general, dark chocolate will be snappier than milk. Added flavour components will soften the snap.
Place the chocolate on your tongue and let it melt. "When we eat chocolate quickly, the cocoa butter doesn't have time to melt properly," Christy says. "When the fat doesn't melt, the flavour delivery period is very short. The chocolate will have only few, brief flavours and disappointing fast end. Worse still, tannins in the cacao will make the aftertaste very short, leaving your mouth dry with an unpleasant, waxy after-effect."
As the chocolate melts on your tongue, note its texture (fine chocolate should be smooth, although some rustic chocolate is intentionally grainy), meltiness (is it smooth and luxurious or gloomy and dry?) and length (is it long and lingering or does it simply melt and disappear with a clean finish?).
The flavours should open up slowly, revealing complex layers of aroma and taste. A chocolate that starts off musky and earthy could suddenly explode into sour citrus, then melt into plummy dark fruits and sweet raspberry.
"If you're eating mass-market chocolate, nine times out of 10, it won't make a difference if you eat it fast or slow," says Christy, explaining the rationale behind serious chocolate tasting.
"But when you eat fine chocolate, you will miss the nuances if you don't savour it. And if you're spending $10 on a chocolate bar, you should be pretty upset if you can't taste the difference."