I first became interested in chocolate around 2005 when I tried three bars that peaked my interest: Cadbury Old Jamaica Rum 'N' Raisins, Chocolat Elot (Girard), and Scharffen Berger Dark Milk. At that time, my only experience with dark chocolate was in a See's Candies assortment box. I thought dark chocolate was barely edible. The Cadbury Old Jamaica
Rum Raisin bar had an interesting combination of tastes (although today I would consider it too sweet). The Chocolat Elot (Girard) bar had a different consistency due to sugar crystals and lack of milk - it had a nice snap. And, the Scharffen Berger Dark Milk bar was a very flavorful bar that started me to the path to the dark side of chocolate.
Around that time, I was actively building my square dance web site, www.ceder.net, and on a whim, I added an on-line chocolate bar database, and embarked on a journey to discover the world's best chocolate bar. Rather quickly, my tastes changed to prefer the premium, unadulterated, dark chocolate bars. I found that as I graduated to better and darker chocolate, less of it was required to satisfy me. A couple of pieces of a dark chocolate bar would suffice where previously I would have eaten one or two full candy bars. Nowadays, I wouldn't even dream of eating a Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar – I have no desire whatsoever. As of August 2012, we've tasted and rated well over 1000 unique chocolate bars, with many more on the horizon. Each bar is documented on our web site with a picture, ingredient list, purchase information, comments and a rating from both myself and my wife Debbie. We've saved at least one wrapper from each bar, to someday be donated to a wrapper collector.
We do not follow a strict process when reviewing chocolate, nor do we have blind tastings. Our process is simple: Each week, I select 4 bars with similar characteristics, selected primarily by origin, then by percent cacao. When tasting an adulterated bar (i.e., with milk, mint, or other additive), then I try to make sure that all four bars for the week's tasting are adulterated bars. In general, however, we avoid such bars. We have no desire, for example, to try a bar with bacon in it. Although I love eating mole at a Mexican restaurant, I loathe chile in my chocolate bars.
We prefer bars that are single source origin, in the 70 to 75 percent cacao range.
Bars are rated on a scale of 1 (intolerable) to 10 (stupendous), simply based on how well we like the bar. Occasionally there’s a bar that is so bad that I have to throw the rest away. Bars rated 1 to 2 are usually given away after the tasting; bars rated 3 to 4 are just barely edible; bars rated 5 to 6 are average to good; bars rated 7 to 8 are very good to excellent, and I don't hesitate to buy them for recreational snacking whenever I encounter them. To be rated a 9 or 10, the bar must be outstanding. A 10 is reserved only for those bars that are most exceptional, usually in terms of outstanding flavor. I'd go out of my way to obtain a bar rated 9 or 10.
Our database has a flag for 'Love at First Bite', which is reserved for bars that are unique in some manner (such as taste, texture, or additional ingredient) that we immediately recognize upon the initial tasting as being something special. For example, the Dolfin "Lavande Fine De Haute-Provence" bar falls into this category because I actually like lavender in chocolate and the bar contains bits and pieces of the herb. The Rogue "Jamaica" bar falls into the 'Love at First Bite' category for exceptional aroma and taste.
When tasting a bar, I proceed as follows: ... First I cleanse my palate by taking a few drinks of bottled water. I unwrap a bit of the wrapper, and bring the bar up to my nose for a close sniff. I break off a small piece, and examine it for bloom and texture. I then place the piece in my mouth and let it start to dissolve while discerning the taste. After about a minute, I usually chew up the remainder of the piece, for a big flavor burst, then let the chocolate completely dissolve. Then I wait for at least five minutes or more, to experience any aftertastes. Upon completion of this process, I gather my thoughts and make a rating determination. If there are more chocolates to be tasted, I'll cleanse my palate, wait a few minutes, and then proceed with tasting the next piece. If I didn't get a nice assessment of the chocolate, I’ll do a second tasting of the same bar.
As there's no blind tasting, I suppose there is a chance I'd be more biased when tasting, say an Amedei Chuao bar, over some other random bar.
I don't rank the individual flavor components of chocolate. I like good flavor (e.g., Caribbean and northern South America are best; Madagascar is good but can sometimes be quite powerful). Aroma is an indicator of freshness and excellent flavor. If I detect an unpleasant aftertaste, I often downgrade the chocolate significantly (e.g., Vanillin). As for texture, I'd like the chocolate to 'snap' when I break it. If the chocolate is soft (Lillie Belle Farms excluded), I also downgrade it. Most 'health food' chocolate is way too soft. I also do not like over-roasted beans. The temperature when tasting chocolate is also important: when cold, flavors don't develop; when hot, chocolate can be soft and mushy but quite flavorful.
Yes, we’ve bought some Zotter bars, thinking they were unadulterated, tasted them and discovered the salt and said “What the heck is this salt doing in here?”. Salt is not acceptable.
My ideal ingredient list consists of cacao and cane sugar. Two ingredients, that's all. I will sometimes tolerate lecithin and/or vanilla. Scharffen Berger made good use of whole vanilla beans in their chocolate. However, I strongly believe that vanilla should rarely be used in a 'single source origin' bar. I want to taste the unique nuances of the chocolate. Any other ingredients in chocolate make me leery. We do not like salt or coffee in our chocolate at all.
I don't care if it’s some fancy "ancient Himalayan pink sea salt". It doesn't belong in my chocolate. Dolfin is one of few companies that successfully adds ingredients to chocolate. They start with good (not excellent) chocolate, and their combinations are tasty. Vegetable fats, coconut oil, and such are inexcusable additions to chocolate. Maple sugar, stevia are also not desirable, and tend to give an odd flavor or texture to the chocolate. I've emailed a few companies suggesting that, to improve their chocolate, they remove an ingredient (often salt or vanilla). If a bar contains salt, I taste the salt and not chocolate. If a bar contains vanilla, I usually surmise it’s there to mask the off-flavors of bad beans or bad processing. Single source origin bars should never contain salt or vanilla.
I do not like to have chocolate labeled as dark chocolate, when it's not. Lesser brands sometimes label their product as dark chocolate, meaning there's no milk in it. The label ‘dark chocolate’ has nothing to do with the percent cacao. To these brands, there are only two kinds of chocolate: with milk and without.
I'm a consumer, not a Chocolate Maker. I believe that growing locale, growing conditions, bean selection, bean care, roasting, and conching are all important. Packaging is also important. Wrapping in foil or air-tight plastic helps keep the chocolate from being exposed to airborne odors and oxidation. And, of course, chocolate should be stored at the proper temperature.
Package labels should include the bean origin and percent cacao. The 'organic' designation means nothing in terms of quality to me. Chocolates labeled as 'vegan' is a flag that I probably do not want to buy it - it's like labeling water as containing zero calories.
A pet peeve of mine is that I'd like labeling to contain the term 'cacao' instead of 'cocoa', which to me means alkalized cacao powder.
Unfortunately, I am unable to limit it to five favorites...
USA: Amano, Dandelion, Fresco, Lillie Belle Farms, Patric, and Rogue.
Scharffen Berger used to be in this list, but after the Hershey's acquisition they stopped producing their 'Limited Series' bars. I'm also impressed with David Bacco, Dick Taylor, and Woodblock.
Canada: Soma is the best, hands down!
UK: Hotel Chocolat.
Belgium: Pierre Marcolini.
Switzerland: Original Beans.
Ecuador: República Del Cacao.
France: Bonnat, Michel Cluizel, Pralus, and Valrhona.
Italy: Amedei, Domori.
As for individual bars, my all-time favorite bar was the Scharffen Berger Jamaica à l'ancienne, which melded stone-ground Jamaican cacao nibs, coarse cane sugar, and whole vanilla beans. We once took a factory tour of the Scharffen Berger facility in Berkeley, California. I specifically
asked the guide about the Jamaica à l'ancienne bar, and he said that the reason they only made it once was because it was too time intensive.
The Rogue Jamaica bar is another excellent bar from Jamaican beans.