We started putting significant effort and accurate ratings into chocolate around December 2005. It was some time before that when Vic was traveling that he purchased a bar from Cadbury that really caught his attention. Returning to the states, he was unable to locate that bar anywhere, and failed to remember where he purchased it abroad. I suggested that we start a database of chocolates we liked so that this wouldn’t happen again. We already had a large website with a number of databases for other items in our lives, so this wasn’t such an unusual idea for us. We travel a fair amount and we like to shop in local markets and experience local cuisines as part of that experience. Chocolate bars are small and easily transportable, and the chocolate keeps well. Once we started rating chocolate, it wasn’t long before we started developing a more refined taste as we encountered better quality chocolate. If you check out our ratings, take note of the years those ratings were made and you can see how our tastes changed over time.
Reviews take a lot of time and consideration – far more time than we have to spend, I’m afraid. In general, our process is the following: Vic takes 4-5 bars of similar composition (origin, percent cacao, region of production, flavored or plain, etc.) and rates them consecutively before giving them to me for my rating. Each bar is tasted and rated based on a 1-10 scale (10 being perfect). We don’t have the time to spend writing up the tasting experience and the flavors encountered. Most times, I am rating the bars at work and it takes me a bit of concentration just to experience the bar and make a 1-10 rating alone. If the finish is long, it takes quite a while before I’m ready to taste a second bar, and I may not even get 4 bars tasted and rated in a day. I envy people that have the time and talent to write up detailed reviews of chocolate.
For me, I’d rank those aspects like this: 1) my overall opinion, 2) flavor, 3) aftertaste, 4) texture, 5) aroma. Our ratings are basically our opinion, and my opinion is based mostly on flavor, which includes aftertaste. I may love the flavor of a bar, then the aftertaste comes in as chalky or tannic or bitter, which ruins it for me. Texture and aroma are less important to me. I’ve tasted very coarse textured bars and loved them because of the flavor. Scharffen Berger’s now defunct Jamaica à l'ancienne is one example of this. The texture was unrefined, but the flavor was unparalleled.
The ideal ingredient list is cacao and cane sugar, with added cocoa butter acceptable but unnecessary. Beyond that, and the label “fine plain” starts getting muddy. If you’re going to add fat, cocoa butter is the only acceptable type. Vegetable fat, butter oil or coconut oil are just wrong. For sugar types, cane is the best. We have tasted exactly two bars using maple sugar (both from Sacred Chocolate) and neither bar fared better than a 5, whereas the 17 bars we tasted using beet sugar (all by Endangered Species, and all including other flavor ingredients that may have affected the overall rating) had a more mixed review, but still fared lower, in general, than our favorite bars. I won’t even buy chocolate with Stevia in its ingredient list. Someone will have to give me a bar to try before I will. Salt? Whoever thought salt was a good idea to add to chocolate? I realize many people enjoy the taste. As a major ingredient, I find it completely distracting and unacceptable. As a trace ingredient, it tends to bring the rating of good bars down. Any bar that gets an 8 or above that has salt in it is an outstanding chocolate, in my opinion. Vanilla and lecithin have their place in moderation. Too much of either, and the “fine plain” dark chocolate starts to change character. Vic is particularly put off by too much vanilla and can even smell its effects before tasting it. I’m more tolerant. But don’t even talk to me about coffee! I can’t stand the smell or taste of it, and sometimes when the cacao beans have been over-roasted or the finish is reminiscent of coffee, I downgrade the chocolate accordingly. There’s precisely one chocolate bar in our database with coffee, and that’s solely because I bought it as a souvenir of my trip to the Galápagos. (I couldn’t resist!)
5. What aspects in the chain of chocolate making do you think have the biggest impact on flavor?
Every aspect of the process has some impact on the end flavor of the chocolate – even the type of material chosen to wrap it in. I think it would be really difficult to choose the aspect that has the biggest impact. Certainly the soil and weather conditions have a significant impact on the condition of the beans at harvest time, as does the amount of time fermenting and method of drying. This establishes the highest potential flavor of a bean. But a chocolate maker can choose to make a product comprised of one type of bean or a blend of many. Then we must think about the roasting and conching of those beans, which probably has a bigger impact in the flavor of the end product. Not being a chocolate maker myself (or even a chef), I admire those that have the expertise to fully develop the potential flavor in their products.
Oh, we’re dreaming here! How nice it would be to have such standards available for all products. My preference list would start with the basic requirements of percentage, origin, bean type, ingredients, vintage and/or birth date chocolate was made, and company name. Further, I’d love it if they would break down the percentage into how much is cacao mass and how much is cacao butter. Next on my dream list would include harvest date, bean grade, plantation/coop, altitude, coordinates, conching time, equipment used and flavor notes. If process and roasting description don’t endanger a chocolate maker’s recipe that would be nice, too. Unless a chocolate maker is involved in every stage of the process (and even if they are), it is unlikely that they will know the length of fermentation, let alone the number of times a batch of beans was turned during fermentation, and the weather conditions during fermentation could change the effect, as well. So, I don’t think I would find that information of use on the label, even if it included seasonal weather descriptions.
Steven deVries. We were fortunate enough to run across his products in 2007-08 and found them extraordinary. Here was a guy not much different from us (well, okay, financially much better off, maybe), someone who liked chocolate enough to try to make his own and did an outstanding job. His efforts seemed to help the artisan chocolate industry explode in the United States.
Wow. Limiting it to five is very hard. Our website lists all of the ones that we consider favorites, but I’ll list these: Amedei, Dandelion (a newcomer whose every product so far has been outstanding), Hotel Chocolat, Rogue, and Soma. To be on our favorites list, a chocolate maker must produce consistent quality in all products.
Not being a chocolate maker or chef, I hesitate to dictate to those with more experience in the industry. Plus, it seems like maybe there are already chocolate makers experimenting in so many different ways, that nothing I could come up with would be unique or different. If I were to come up with a product line tailored to my preferences, I would need to know a whole lot more than I do now about the factors that affect my tastes. That requires a lot of research and time. Tcho started doing nearly this when they began. They started off with a goal of a certain type of flavor, sent out micro-batches to “beta-tasters” for their opinions, and utilized their feedback to perfect the recipe they eventually settled on for each particular flavor. Fresco is producing bars in parallel with identical percentages and origins, but modifying the roast and conch factors so consumers can compare the different flavor potentials. I’d love to see deVries come back into production and continue what he started. I’d love to be able to taste chocolate from all the cacao-producing countries of the world at some point, in single origin products that enhance the natural flavor of the beans produced there. Coppeneur and Pralus have extraordinary lines already started that covers a large number of these in a consistently expert manner. Not knowing enough about the effects of blending, I wouldn’t dream of trying to ask for something particular when makers like Soma have been producing exceptional blends in their Black Science line for some time. In short, I’m happy to let the experts continue to satisfy their own discriminating palates. That seems to satisfy me quite well, too.