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Candice Alstrom
(Massachusetts, U.S.A)
20N 20S
Beer Advocate
Twitter: @ChocoAdvocate

1. When did you start reviewing/studying plain fine dark chocolate and what is it about chocolate that gives you the passion to make it such a big part of your life?

I began reviewing it from another blog that was writing with a hodge podge of beer and food posts. I created it as a place to explore and experiment with pairings and cooking with beer. Also, keep track of beer dinners I had organized and hosted around Boston with my husband's website BeerAdvocate.com. Beer was my day job and where I learned to hone in my palate and understand tasting better.

I learned about finer quality chocolate by working at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Ma. I worked in the bakery and sweets area of the shop because that's where the beer rack was and I began selling beer and chocolate combinations. The chocolate helped ease women shoppers into exploring the craft beer boom in America. Formaggio Kitchen would receive large shipments of Venchi Italian chocolate and from there I tasted their 85% dark bar and was amazed by the smooth edges on the chocolate and control of the acidity. For a while I found a lot of dark chocolate unbalanced and not a joy to eat. But I didn't know why at the time. From there I wanted to learn more than just eat it. Formaggio had the classics like Valrhona, Pralus, Askinosie, Venchi, Cote D'Or, and others. Today there is so much going on in the world of chocolate and Formaggio is keeping good tabs on the new and great brands on the
market. Lot's of American brands to be proud of. For awhile there you'd have to scour the globe and find rare and obscure villages who happened to making great chocolate. Now it's in our own back yards.

A year or two later after leaving Formaggio Kitchen, I decided to track my progress from tastings I had done. BeerAdvocate is the world's largest user based website for people to review beer and discuss it, so I decided to build off that in my own place for chocolate reviews. It's still very small and only my own reviews.

2.  Do you have a standard review process that you follow and can you share it here? What makes your reviews different compared to other reviews you have seen? 

I take a while to do a review. I try to capture every nuance I can. I am still an amateur and there is still a lot I do not know. But I try to give each bar as much time and respect as I can. I created a review system as basic as I could so that anyone could follow what I was doing. I based my grading scale on 5 areas for review and gave it a number system based on simple high school grading. It's all subjective grading which is another point I try to drive home. My taste is different from your taste and the reviews are strictly from my palate and perspective. I also try to be as honest about the conditions in which I am tasting. If I sat on a bar of chocolate longer than 3 months I indicate that in my reviews. A lot of times, I take detailed notes on bars and don't blog it right away. I will indicate that as an archived review. Transparency is key for me and helps the chocolate makers understand exactly what the circumstances are for my reviews. But generally, I open the bar of chocolate and begin to review it right then and there.

3.  When reviewing chocolate, how do you rank the different aspects in order of  importance. 

Some people use weighted aspects in their reviews. For pure fairness, I rank them all equally. I will say in my notes of the review that if it had a sloppy appearance, it's why it has a lower ranking but if it tasted good, to not let that distract you from buying the chocolate. To me it's all important. If a bar has a messy appearance, maybe the makers need to focus on shipping conditions, the stores that handle their products, so that they can ensure top quality. A good example was from reviewing a filled bar from Xocolatl de David. The caramel bacon bar was ashy and budging from the salt and gooey caramel. This s a problem from stacking the bars standing up and of course the salt drying it a touch. He is working on that issue but it's one I need people to ignore. Ignore the temporary issue of how it looks and eat the bar because it was one the most awesome filled bars I have ever had. Salt, caramel, bacon, Ecuador dark chocolate. It was amazing. I still reviewed with the same standards and took the points off the appearance, but I made big emphasis on just skipping that part and jump right into eating it.

I think it's important to disclose your preferences too. I have friends who are into chocolate that do not like smoked Papua New Guinea beans. They list that or discuss that as a defect. I disagree that it's a defect. It's just not to their preference. When I am not a fan of a particular region or flavor point, I make a note of that to be open and then I try to be as fair as I possibly can in reviewing. You got to keep it real. Real can sometimes be drama. I try my best not to be a drama queen about issues I don't like, people I don't like, or flavors. But to be honest and real that will come out in my reviews sometimes. But I would rather people know exactly where I am coming from as best as I can describe it versus downplaying something just to appear professional. Truth is important to me, even if it brings out the drama at times. It helps that I write exactly like I talk. The stream coming out of my thought process goes right to paper or keyboard. You can pretty much hear me while reading me.

I also like to tell people in my reviews what I think certain chocolates are good for. Some are good for eating and taking you to another place after a stressful day. Some are good for melting down and drinking in hot chocolate, some are good for baking with. Chocolate is not unlike beer. Unless it's just really bad quality, there is a time and a place for everything. I have even melted down scraps that have gone past the point of shelf live and eating and melted it down for chocolate face masks. You can do a lot with chocolate.

4.  What is your ideal ingredient list and what do you consider acceptable when you are referring to fine plain dark chocolate?

I think it's all acceptable. If it delivers you the desired texture, flavor, or quality you are looking for, then why not? I am sick and tired of the chocolate snobs who disagree with anything you listed above. I have dealt with enough beer snobs and I won't put up with it in chocolate. Salt can be a little questionable in the fact that I have to decide if it's a flavored bar or not. A pinch of salt wouldn't do that but a salted bar with the explicit idea of making a salt bar would. Yes, I prefer a more simple bar of chocolate. The less enhancements the better. But not everyone is as skilled to make 2 ingredients come together so wonderfully. But it's certainly not a sin if you want to put lecithin in your chocolate. I will say I demand natural ingredients. I do not want GMO's in anything I eat. If you use lecithin, then it needs to be non-GMO's. I want more transparency on the ingredients used.

5.  What aspects in the chain of chocolate making  do you think have the biggest impact on flavor?

Roasting and packaging. Packaging in plastic helps seal in the flavors longer. Wrapped foil bars tend to lose much more aromas and possible flavors quicker.

6.  If you could standardize how fine chocolate is labeled, what information do you think should be included on every package? 

I think all bars need to include origin, ingredients, and whether or not they sourced from a bigger company. Example: Whole Food Tanzania bar says it's processed in Belgium. That means what exactly? After much digging and research, we find out it's sourced from Callebaut. Why not just say so? In collaboration with Callebaut, Whole Foods presents you with this rare bar. But that would mean they would have to disclose certain things about fair trade they don't want everyone to know about. Longer story there but to get to that information, the average person would not even come close to that. You can't just easily Google that.

I have to give Taza Chocolate the ultimate praise for how they disclose information about their bars. They put a simple barcode on the back of all bars. You type in that number on their website, and it's every single bit of information about the bean you could possible ask for. Your beans were picked by Jose in the Dominican Republic on these lines of latitude and longitude, at 11:30 am on Friday the 17th.... The weather had mild rains in the afternoon but otherwise it was a clear day when the beans were picked. I am exaggerating that last bit but I mean it's just incredible the details they give.

This also should include truffle makers and patissiers. William Curley uses Amedei. He is all about telling you that in his books and on his products. He believes it's the best in the world and wants you to know he is using fine Italian chocolate. Paul A. Young uses Amedei and Valrhona. A tiny shop in London called Melange will tell you openly that she uses Belcolade. It shouldn't be hidden or an industry trade secret which chocolate you use as your couverture.

7.  Is there a person in the chocolate world whom you especially admire?  Who and why?

My favorite people are Alan McClure, Art Pollard, and Shawn Askinosie. I have talked to all three of them and I admire them to no end how they are making their businesses thrive, the care and techniques they use, and their willingness to travel to the cocoa plantations to gain ultimate understanding of the beans they are using. They also talk to you and answer your questions without snobbery. Their willingness to talk about their products talk about all aspects of chocolate is wonderful for a novice such as myself. I have a lot of questions and a long way to go to get where they are in their knowledge of chocolate. They have no problem getting down with me.

Alan is especially awesome to me because he is, for all intents and purposes, a kid in this business and yet he has managed to make some of the best Madagascar bars in the world. He is working on new one off bars with beautifully balanced flavors such as sea salts, mint, and peanuts. Art Pollard has way of drawing out some of the most natural and gorgeous flavors on a bar of chocolate. The Dos Rio bar is by far and away my most favorite floral bar of chocolate. Shawn is on a crusade to not only produce the best bean-to-bars produced from America, but he is actively helping the farmers, and people from these bean regions.

I had the most difficulty with Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolatier. He is very temperamental and often hostile about asking question he deems beneath him or stupid. He doesn't appear to be enjoying what he is doing. It's turned me off of his brand. I find it really sad because he is the best chocolate maker the United States has to offer. Hands down his bars are extraordinary. But I can't talk to him about it or ask him anything in general without unnecessary attitude and I really lost interest in anything he is doing now because of that. I refuse to play that kiss ass game and I will not cater to that kind of attitude. These guys are my heroes for being able to make exquisite chocolate but business isn't just about the product you produce if people can't stand who you are. He has made my top ten lists two years in a row and probably will continue to do so, but not without that caveat that he is hard to deal with. At least in my opinion.

8.  “Bean to Bar” is often used as a quality indicator for fine chocolate even though there are many bean-to-bar makers with no real intuition or understanding for flavor or quality development.  Are there other models or examples of companies who are not fully bean to bar that interest you and why?

No Answer Provided

9.  Who are your top five favorite chocolate makers/brands?

Small Producers: Amano, Patric, Rogue, Xocolatl de David, Askinosie.
Big Producers: Amedei, Valrhona, Bonnat, Cluizel, and Scharffen Berger.
Up and coming: Dick Taylor, Marou, and Ritual.
 
10.  Magic wand question.  If you could order the production of any plain dark chocolate bar(s), what would you like to see made and who would make it for you?

Patric's Salty Signature Seventy. Probably the best salted bar of chocolate I have ever had. Dark Madagascar chocolate with blends of salt from the Meadow in NY. It's a near perfect bar of chocolate with the balance of salt and that fruity sweetness of Madagascar beans.