I don’t read reviews of bars that I’m planning to taste until after I’ve tasted it myself. I don’t want to influence my own experience of the chocolate. In addition to not reading other reviews before I’ve tasted a bar, I also try to avoid bias or preconceptions, by not reading tasting notes on the package or the ingredient list. Whatever preconceptions I may have about a chocolate maker, I taste each bar on its own merits. The “same bar” can taste different from harvest to harvest so I always give the manufacturer the benefit of the doubt. Even when a maker has a particular profile, I try not to anticipate those flavors in the bar I’m tasting.
My ideal ingredient list is cacao beans and sugar. I believe that salt and vanilla are flavorings and consider any bar with either to be a flavored bar. Cane sugar alternatives are also flavorings. I think the flavors that are produced can be interesting, but I wouldn’t consider those bars to be plain dark chocolate (or even plain milk chocolate) once they’re added. Cocoa butter substitutes don’t belong in fine chocolate, but I don’t object to mass market chocolate makers using them.
I think any aspect can have the biggest impact. If the beans are grown perfectly, but overroasted, then it’s the roasting that has the biggest impact. If the beans are grown perfectly, the bar is processed perfectly, but the wrapper imparts flavor, then it’s the wrapping that has the biggest impact. The entire process is so delicate that any one misstep can overcome every other step. That said, no matter how perfect the process is, a bad bean can’t be overcome.
Aside from the difficulty of standardizing terms, if I were standardizing fine chocolate labels, I would have percentage, with the fat percentage listed as a separate number, origin, bean type (by percentage for blends with a minimum amount required for a bean type to be listed), bean grade, ingredients, company name, and chocolate maker’s name (for companies that don’t make their own bars – I’d like to know who processed the beans). The other examples listed would be interesting information, but not crucial.
There are a number of chocolate people that I admire for what they do with and/or know about chocolate, including Damian Allsop, Rob Anderson, Stephane Bonnat, Brady Brelinski, Martin Christy, Clay Gordon, Santiago Peralta, Maricel Presilla, Chloe Doutre Roussel, Paul A. Young, and many, many more.
Chocolate makers who source their own beans, but depend on an established factory to convert the beans to chocolate may be playing it safe, but they usually produce good chocolate. It’s important that chocolate makers understand their strengths and weaknesses and it’s interesting to see who they choose to process their beans.
At this moment, my top five favorite chocolate makers/brands are: Amadei, Domori, Felchlin, Pacari, Fresco
My top five bars (off the top of my head) are: 2006 Felchlin Cru Sauvage, Domori Chuao, Patric Signature 70%, Rogue Piura, Amadei Porcelana