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Packaging Study

George Gensler
(New York, U.S.A)
International Chocolate Awards Grand Jury
Twitter: @chocophilenyc
Founding Member of Manhattan Chocolate Society

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

I started getting serious about reviewing/studying fine plain dark chocolate about 6 years ago.  Before that, I tasted chocolate and tried to find new and interesting chocolate bars, but didn’t take notes.  When I found something I liked, I bought it for myself and friends.  Chocolate has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Growing up, we ate chocolate with most meals (still do).  We lived overseas and had access to many different types of chocolate.  When I discovered fine chocolate, there was no turning back.

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? (eg. How long do you spend on a single chocolate review? How do you avoid bias or preconceptions in your reviews? )

When reviewing chocolate, I usually try the chocolate several times and at different times of the day.  The first taste is to get a general overall idea about the chocolate.  A day or so later, I do a more formal review, reviewing the package, the aroma, appearance, texture, and taste of the chocolate.  I use hot water to clear my palate between bites and take notes throughout the tasting.  This second part of the process can take several hours and about 4 squares of the chocolate, more, though, if it’s a particularly complex chocolate.  Several days later, I retaste the chocolate with my written review in front of me, making updates, if necessary.  The total amount of time spent on a bar varies, but probably ranges from 2-4 hours all told.

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.

3.  When reviewing chocolate, how do you rank the different aspects in order of importance?  (eg. Flavor, aroma, aftertaste, texture, your overall opinion or some other variable.)

Flavor is the most important aspect.  For me, the best chocolates are complex in flavor (more bang for the buck?).  If a chocolate has a simple profile, it has to be very well made so that the single flavor shines.  I consider aftertaste to be part of the flavor, but the length becomes more significant the better or worse the aftertaste is.  Texture comes next.  I like my chocolate to have a good solid bite – not necessarily brittle, but with a good snap to it.  Appearance and aroma are close, but appearance edges out aroma.  They’re important, but not crucial, but I do admire a well-made bar.
4.  What is your ideal ingredient list and what do you consider acceptable when you are referring to fine plain dark chocolate?

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.
5.  What aspects in the chain of chocolate making (starting with growing and ending with wrapping) do you think have the biggest impact on flavor?

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

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

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.

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?

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.
9.  Who are your top five favorite chocolate makers/brands?  (If for whatever reason you prefer to list five individual bars that would be just as interesting.)

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

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?   (This could be a single bar or whole product line. Could be blends, single origins, and anything you come up with for specifics in growing, post harvesting, and chocolate making processes that you can imagine.) 

I think it would be interesting to see what Pacari could make with Sur del Lago beans and what Rogue could do with Porcelana.