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Lowe (North Carolina, U.S.A)
Reviews: ChocoFiles
Twitter: @Chocofiles
Founding Member of the Chocolate Reviewers' Guild

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?

In 2007 as I looked at the bars in the chocolate section of our local World Market I asked myself, “I wonder which of these is the best chocolate?” That seemingly benign query was the first step in my chocolate adventures. I tasted all they had and I soon learned that there is a parallel world of fine chocolate that I never even knew existed. So I began exploring and I found the chocolate review website seventypercent.com and the social network “The Chocolate Life” and I began to try more and more bars. I started to learn as much as I could about the multifaceted world of chocolate, cacao, origins, bean-to-bar and so on. After I tasted even more bars I created a database and a rating system to keep track of my discoveries.

I get great joy from learning about God’s creation, so chocolate has given me a wide field to experience this joy of discovery. I’m also wired to master whatever I’m interested in, so that has led me to seek out and devour as much great chocolate as I can. I’m on a quest to find exceptional dark chocolate, so whenever I find a superior bar it brings great satisfaction as I savor it. Of course, it also helps that chocolate contains theobromine and PEAs that enhance your mood! The more I learn the more I want to share my discoveries with other people so that they too can experience the same pleasure. It makes me happy to help others discover the joy of fine chocolate.

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 was trained as an engineer, so I apply many of the techniques of science experiments to my reviews. There are many variables that in the review process, so I have sought to standardize as many of those variables as possible. That standardization allows for the most meaningful comparison of each characteristic and then of bars as a whole. Here are some of the elements in the process that I have sought to standardize:

* Time of day- I have found that my palate is the freshest in the morning, so I begin each day by rinsing my mouth with some room temperature water. (Room temperature works best to standardize the taste buds. If the water is too cold the taste buds don’t register flavors as well and if it’s too hot they might get burnt.) Before I eat anything else the first thing that I taste is chocolate.

Occasionally I will do another tasting in the middle of the day, but when I do I make sure that I haven’t eaten anything for several hours so that my palate is a clear as possible. I don’t review more than one chocolate in the same time interval. In my experience the second chocolate will never get a fair hearing because the palate has become at least slightly dulled.

* Environment- I sit in a quiet place where I can really focus with no other distractions. I often close my eyes to concentrate as much as possible on the flavors.

* Temperature- this may be the most underrated factor by most reviewers but the temperature of the chocolate has a huge effect on the experience. If the chocolate is too cold then the mouthfeel is too hard and the flavors release too slowly on the palate. If the chocolate is too warm then the flavors release too quickly and the mouthfeel is too soft, sometimes even cloying. So in warm weather I try to only review chocolate that has been kept in a cool
dark place. In colder weather I first put the chocolate in my pocket to warm it up.

* Sample size- I try to eat 6-8 grams at a time because keeping a standard amount creates approximately the same amount of flavor release. It the piece is too small then there is not enough flavor.

* Aroma- I first rub the piece to release more aroma, then I usually hold my left hand over the top of my nose to block out other smells. I also take a few breaths with my mouth open to allow the aromas to
completely circulate through the mouth, nasal cavity, and nose. This small act greatly intensifies the aromas experienced.

* Flavor and aroma descriptors- I combined a number of different tasting wheels and lists to make a list of descriptors that has broad categories and specific examples. It is quite tricky to translate aromas and tastes into other more familiar items and then to hope that other people understand them in the same way that you do.

* Notes- in order to remember as much as possible I created a database, and I take notes on 10 factors (that are described in the next question).

* Ratings: for the final step I give ratings. I do not attempt to avoid bias; instead I acknowledge that my ratings are subjective. My ratings are simply a measure of my personal enjoyment of a chocolate bar, so they based solely on what I enjoy, according to my experience and my personal preferences. Tasting chocolate is an aesthetic experience, so a great deal of subjective preferences and experiences will always be involved with it. My enjoyment Ratings are NOT intended to be an objective rating of the quality of a given chocolate. There will probably be a general correlation between quality and my preferences, but I believe that it is an impossible quest to look for a chocolate that can be objectively quantified as “The Best”. Instead, my much more achievable aim is to find “My Favorites”.

I rate on the curve by comparing a bar to every other bar that I have reviewed. I use a scale from 0 to 10 where 5 is average. When assessing a chocolate I start at the baseline of 5, and then I determine how high or how low the rating should be from there. I utilize the entire range of values, so anything above 9 is among my Top Favorites, 5 is average, and anything below 1 is among my most disliked. Keep in mind, too, that since chocolate is an agricultural product bars may change, so these ratings are only for a specific vintage of bar at a specific point in time.

Class Rating: I give each bar 2 ratings-- a Class rating and an Overall rating. My Class rating is one difference in my ratings from those of other reviewers. I’ve separated chocolates by “Class” because there are so many different kinds of flavors that are very different from each other. For example, White chocolate and Spicy dark chocolate are so different from dark 70% chocolate that I don’t think that they can be meaningfully compared. Even 55% chocolate is so different from 99% that they are very hard to compare. The purpose of the Class Rating is to be able to compare chocolate in a similar category, so that when I’m in a mood for a certain flavor I’ll know what I like most in that class. For each Class the highest rating is 10, even if that particular class is not one of my favorites. As an example, I don’t really care for nibs, but within the Nibs Class there is a bar with a Class rating of 10, even though the Overall Rating is only 4. I interpret this to mean, “If I wanted a nibs bar I’d choose the 10, but overall I enjoy nibs below average, so I usually won’t choose a nibs bar anyway.” The Classes include Dark in 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 100%, Cherry, Coffee, Ginger, Mint, Lemon, Milk chocolate, Nibs, Nuts, Orange, Other, Pepper & Salt, Spices, Spicy.

Overall Rating: Then I also give an Overall rating that is based on my preferences, rated on the curve, and compared to ALL chocolate that I’ve tasted. This rating generally follows my hierarchy of preferences from the various “Classes”. For example, I prefer bars in the range of 70-78%, so the best of those bars have my highest Overall ratings.

Quality Grade: The quality of a chocolate bar is very difficult to quantify, and there will always be an inescapable element of subjective bias in doing so. However, after reviewing over 650 chocolate bars I think that I can generally determine the quality of a chocolate bar. In the broadest terms there are 3 categories: Good, Average, Bad, although there is a gray area between each category. I have expanded on those categories a bit by using a school style grading system that uses five grades of A, B, C, D, F. The grading scale starts with C being Average and goes up or down from there. Because of subjectivity and the many challenges to rating quality I think that it is too difficult to be more precise than this.

Putting it all together, after I have done each step, and slowly pondered each element, it usually takes me about 4-7 days to review one bar. The final step is to post my review notes to the ChocoFiles website.

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

For my ratings I believe that some factors are definitely more important than others. For me, flavor is by far the most important, with aroma a close second, since flavor and aroma are so inextricably connected. Next, mouthfeel is also very important. By contrast, although I note snap, melt, and touch, these factors are very low in importance to me.

When I began rating chocolate I studied the seventypercent.com rating system and I modified my system from that. Here are the 10 factors that I include, along with their weight: (The total of all adds up to 100%.) Taste 50%, Aroma 10%, Mouthfeel 10%, Aftertaste 8%, Opinion 7%, Appearance 6%, Melt 3%, Ingredients 3%, Snap 2%, Touch 1%. As you can see, taste and aroma together count for 60% while the combined total of the last 5 factors--appearance, melt, ingredients, snap, and touch-- only account for 15% of the total score.

The scores from all of the characteristics are added together to get the Total Score. The Score is on a 0-100 scale. A key point to be aware of, though, is that the score does not generate my rating, but instead it only informs my rating. To give a rating I take the score into account, but I give my ratings by comparing each chocolate to the ratings of all of the other chocolates that I have reviewed.

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

I prefer chocolate with only 2 ingredients: cacao and sugar. I think that this is the best way to allow the true flavor of the cacao to be most powerfully experienced. I don’t like any salt with chocolate, and I definitely will not eat a bar with cocoa butter substitutes. I don’t prefer any sweeteners other than cane sugar, not even brown sugar. I also find vanilla distracting since it covers over the cacao flavor, and I’d rather not have any soy lecithin because it dulls the taste.

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

Every step is important because if one step is done poorly then it lessens the quality of the bar. I’m not sure if any one step in the chain can be said to have the “biggest impact”. Obviously, the type of cacao beans and the terroir are crucial. Fermentation and drying must be done correctly too. Roasting has a huge impact on the chocolate, but then so does conching. Even aging will affect the chocolate. Some makers age their chocolate before tempering to allow as many flavors to develop as possible, while a few makers try to sell their chocolate as soon as it is made so that it is the freshest. Although wrapping does not directly affect the taste it does affect the overall experience. If a maker took two identical bars and wrapped one in a cheap unattractive way while the other was wrapped in an elegant high class manner I would probably enjoy the elegantly wrapped bar more because I was predisposed to like it before I even tasted the chocolate.

I suppose if I was pushed, though, I might say that beyond terroir roasting, fermentation, and conching are some of the factors that have the highest impact on the flavor.

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

Some information is non-negotiable-- country, regional name, cacao percentage, ingredients, weight.
Beyond the essentials, here is the information that I would like to know:

* Roast level (like Fresco)
* Conche time- the number of hours
* Fat content. (When the nutritional information is available this is listed in grams.)
* Bean type (when possible and feasible)
* Terroir. As specific as possible with any town and co-op information that is available (if known)
* Date the bar was made.
* Batch number (if available)
* Batch size
* Whether aged or not, and for how long.

Some additional information such as fermentation methods, plantation, and farmer information would be nice to be able to read more about to on a website. Many larger coffee roasters are able to provide this level of detail because there is economic incentive for them to gather it and write it up. I wonder, though, where small artisan chocolate makers would get the time to research and write all of this information? Artisan chocolate makers are already overworked and underpaid with a very labor intensive product. Added time means added wages and added expense or a decrease in the profit margin. I can live with less information if it keeps the costs down.

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

Brady Brelinski. He has been both a friend and a mentor in my chocolate education. Through his leadership in the Manhattan Chocolate Society Brady has attained both depth and breadth in his chocolate knowledge, and he has cultivated an extensive network of relationships with significant people in the chocolate world. Brady has been an invaluable source of information and advice, and I use his list of dark chocolate bars as my primary reference for finding new bars to review.
I would also like to mention a few other people that I admire:

* Colin Gasko of Rogue Chocolate. If I had to choose my Top Favorite chocolate maker it would be Rogue. Colin has a very high attention to quality that is built by a vast knowledge of the technical details of making great chocolate. Many of his bars are in my list of Top 10 Favorites, but every bar that he makes is high quality!

* Rob Anderson of Fresco. I absolutely love their approach to making series of bars but changing just one variable with each new iteration. I am so glad that they clearly document the characteristics of each bar so that the effect can be clearly compared.

* Shawn Askinosie of Askinosie Chocolate. I enjoy his chocolate, and he has many fine bars, but I especially respect how he lives out his faith, by improving the lives of cacao farmers in developing nations. I also appreciate his passion. He once said in a lecture that he only makes one tenth of the salary that he did as a lawyer, yet he still invests a great deal in the lives of cacao producers.

* Dan Rattigan of French Broad Chocolate. He already knows great chocolate, but as a new chocolate maker he has already nailed a world class chocolate with the Chulucanas 66% bar. I haven’t seen another chocolate maker master their craft this quickly; this is only their first year of production! I also admire Dan’s inventiveness in applying principles of physics and mechanics to create an ingenious solar powered roaster.

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?

There are only a few such companies of interest to me. I maintain a database of over 420 chocolate makers with the main focus on bean-to-bar makers. The companies that are not completely bean-to-bar I categorize as “Mixed” if they do some part of the process but not every step. Although they may produce some very good bars I have not yet experienced any “Mixed” companies that can compare to the best bean-to-bar companies. Almost all of my “Top Favorites” are bean-to-bar companies.

A few companies are even more difficult to categorize because their chocolate is made to their specifications, but it is produced using the equipment of another bean-to-bar company. I categorize these as “Other”. Among these “Other” makers I have enjoyed the Christophe Morel Fortunato #4 2011 bar, and the Friis Holm Johe 2011 bar. These two companies are hard for me to find, but I would like to try more of their chocolate.

I also keep a list of bars that I’m searching because they have been highly recommended. Even though they are fondeurs (to my knowledge) I would like to taste the Chapon Columbie, and the Idilio Origins Porcelana and Chuao bars.

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

* Rogue- Colin Gasko makes consistently great chocolate with every bar he makes. You just can’t go wrong with a Rogue bar. I am also anxious to see how the bars from his new production method turn out. His bars are already of such high quality that he doesn’t have much room to get even better, but I have high hopes that he may indeed have found a way to do so.

* Fresco- I really like their systematic approach of changing one or two variables and documenting it for you. For example, I have been astounded to see the difference that changing only the conche time made to how much I enjoyed two different bars. Many of my “Top Favorite” bars are made by Fresco, so every time I try a new one I hope that it will also be a new “Top Favorite”. One of the inevitable downsides their approach is that I haven’t enjoyed some of the other bars quite as much as others because one variable was changed. But that’s where differences in taste come in too, so others probably still enjoyed those bars quite a bit.

* French Broad Chocolate- they are an up and coming new maker in Asheville NC that people should keep their eye on. The Chulucanas 66% bar shows what heights of quality that French Broad is already capable of achieving. Watch for more great chocolate from them!

* Askinosie- I like their plain dark bars, and I especially like the ethos of the company. They are using chocolate to improve the lives of many people in developing countries.

* DeVries- Steve DeVries made some great chocolate and I wish he would make more again. When DeVries stopped making chocolate it was a loss to the artisan chocolate world.

My Top Favorite bars (rated from 0 to 10):

* Amedei Chuao 2009. Rating = 10. (Sadly, in recent years Amedei has not maintained this same high quality.)
* Fresco 212 Dominican Republic 2011. Rating = 9.8
* Rogue Piura 2010. Rating = 9.8
* Coppeneur Java 2009. Rating = 9.8
* Rogue Silvestre 2012, batch 3. Rating = 9.7
* French Broad Chulucanas 66%, 2012. Rating = 9.6 (I generally prefer chocolate in the 70-77% range, but this Chulucanas bar recently became my new standard for a bar in the 60-69% range. If anyone wants to know what I like in a chocolate bar this is it!)

My resources to obtain artisan chocolate from Europe are rather limited, so there are quite a few new notable European artisan makers that I have only had limited experience with or that I have not yet been able to try at all. For example, I have had some of Duffy’s and I really liked it, but I don’t have a way to get more. I am also looking for more Friis Holm, Idilio Origins, and Pierre Marcolini.
 
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?
 
1) I would like to have my favorite makers each make a batch of bars, at the same percentage (75%), from the same lot of high quality beans. I would have Rogue, Fresco, French Broad Chocolate, and Soma all make bars from the same crop of “true Chuao”, feral Bolivian beniano, or Peruvian Piura beans. (The label “Chuao” has been so broadened and misused that I need clarify that these would be the “authentic” pedigree Chuao beans that are dried in the church courtyard in Chuao.) It would be really fun to compare the maker styles even more distinctly with bars made from the same beans!

2) With a magic wand here are some other things that I would also like to see happen:

* If I had a time machine I would get back the 2009 Amedei Chuao bar. This is my all time favorite bar! Sadly, my enjoyment of the current Amedei Chuao bars has significantly decreased.
* I would also like to taste the Rogue Piura bar again. The 2010 vintage bar was magical! (It is one of my Top 5 All Time Favorite bars; rated 9.8 out of 10!)
* I would like to see what Fresco could do with the feral beniano beans from Bolivia.
* I would like quality to always trump marketing.