I started reviewing seriously in about 1989, right after I got tired of the poor availability of good chocolate and had embarked upon a series of experiments to make it myself. After considerable work I did manage to produce a bar that I thought was up to my standards - and discovered that it meant a level of effort well beyond what I was interested in doing on a regular basis - so decided to focus on finding and reviewing the fine chocolates already available.
Definitely. I have a standard review process. As you may see from SeventyPercent.com for formal reviews there is a system in place which makes it easy to proceed through the technical parts of the review. A different but similar-in-concept system is used in competitions. For a "full formal" review I always schedule to do these right after climbing; this is when my taste sensitivity reaches a maximum. I try to use an ideal of 50 g for a sample; less and one doesn't capture all the notes in the length, more is just...more. Before actually eating I smell it for a good minute or more (with a possible time to allow outgassing if the chocolate was in a plastic wrap) I will start with the largest bite I can practicably make, and chew it quite completely without swallowing to get best chocolate distribution. This is critical because the initial taste conveys more of the flavour than every other stage, not that there shouldn't be other flavours but things you miss in the initial taste you'll *never* detect. Subsequent bites are slower and more thoughtful. I reserve the last bite to evaluate the texture, completely blanking out the flavour so that I can focus on the melt. I also always write up the tasting notes immediately, so that nothing is forgotten.
As for what's different from other reviews, the one part I consistently notice is in identifying distinctly those components that are part of the aroma from those that are part of the flavour. I notice quite a few reviews that note as flavours things that are actually aromas. In truth, the two are tightly coupled, so it's not quite as discrete as that, but I do think being clear on aroma versus flavour also permits clarity on potential for quality as opposed to actual quality.
Avoiding bias is hard for any judge, particularly with manufacturers that have a known reputation. I'm not sure I, or anyone else, is qualified to state that they are unbiassed; this is a characteristic that can really only be identified by an external third party. By yourself, you can't really conceal or randomise samples, the normal ways of eliminating bias. You can, however, identify bias over the long term of many chocolates tried, using statistical methods. That's not something that can be quickly explained but the gist of it is, by looking at various reviews, evaluations for a given brand or source that consistently stand out from the statistical "pattern" probably suggest an internal bias of some sort.
What is ideal depends to some extent on the source. Good chocolates will use some combination of the following 4:
but of these only the first is, technically, *necessary* and vanilla is completely optional. Cacao butter depends on the intrinsic amount in the bean and the sugar percentage, but generally, the more sugar, the higher the cacao butter you need to add, because a certain minimum fat content is needed to ensure good texture and obviously sugar dilutes the fat content, being itself fat-free. Zotter's use of salt is very much a borderline case. It's at the threshold of detectability, and the chocolate is good, but I still wonder whether he mightn't just as well do without. Certainly his intent isn't to create a salt bar.
I doubt you will find a serious chocolate person who isn't opposed to the use of vegetable fats other than cocoa butter; that UK manufacturers decided almost to impose this as permitted upon the rest of the EU caused a serious controversy at the time, and I think impoverishes the chocolate world. Lecithin used to be common, but ever since Michel Cluizel took the initiative, most fine chocolate manufacturers have started to come to the view that it shouldn't really be there. I personally wouldn't rule out a chocolate by virtue of its inclusion, but in the current era it suggests that the chocolatier may have other priorities in addition to fine chocolate flavour.
Each one should have cacao solids/sugar/cacao butter percentage listed as a 3-number figure. Date of manufacture and lot number are essential. Origin, bean type, and year of harvest *where known and documentable* ought to be listed but it must be understood that it's not common that the manufacturer will have definitive information on this. Nothing else is necessary and in fact everything else is likely to be either unreliable, proprietary, or irrelevant.
Gary Guittard. Here is a person who loves chocolate in ways that I think most of us can never fully appreciate. What's even better is, Guittard produces what is reliably the best chocolate in the USA, artisan manufacturers notwithstanding, and has mastered the art of operating a successful medium-scale business, without sacrificing chocolate quality or core values. And he's just a good human being. We could all take hints from him.
Mikkel Friis-Holm is the one who's been the most exciting. He's got some excellent and distinctive bars, produced for him by the equally excellent Bonnat, which yet retain the distinctive style of their creator, and he takes an active role in the creation process, guiding sourcing and process decisions, not simply providing a spec to a manufacturer and telling them to go off and make it.
I'll give you a list, but first let me make it ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that *my* list is not necessarily *your* list. It's a lie to say that there is a clear "rank order" amongst chocolatiers or bars. Many fine bars are utterly worthy of greatness, and to imagine that you can go into a shop and blindly "cherry-pick" based upon an almost arbitrary list created by someone else with particular tastes, no matter how "expert", is folly and does a disservice both to you and to the many interesting chocolatiers worldwide.
Michel Cluizel - star example: Los Ancones
Guittard - star example: Chucuri
Domori - star example: Porcelana
Amedei - star example: Chuao
Amano - star example: Montanya
I'd have to make it myself - there would be no other way of ensuring the level of process control I'd want. Then, I'd want to try to source the following, and possibly more, beans/origins:
Dominican Republic Trinitario
Papua New Guinea
I'm simplifying this picture radically because the first step would be to go and isolate specific plantations in each of these regions that produced the very finest cacao. Then I'd isolate the specific *trees* within these plantations that produced the best flavour. These would then be planted and investigated for disease resistance as well as flavour - not such that disease resistance would be allowed to trump flavour, but with an eye to finding those top-flavoured cacaos that also had a realistic chance in actual plantation conditions.
Then, I'd experiment with fermentation and drying techniques until I found that combination that produced the largest scope of possible high-quality flavour results. So far what I've been describing is the methodology that a company: Xoco, that must be considered the state-of-the-art in fine bean growing, is following.
Having arrived at my ultimate source beans, I'd then receive the finished sacks of beans, carefully separated by bean type and origin. Now, with the first few batches, I'd experiment with most conceivable combinations of process - roast, conche, grind, mix, you name it. I would also set up facilities for cocoa butter separation - critical if you want to have a chocolate whose cocoa butter comes from the same source as the beans themselves. This would also permit selling a limited amount of single-source cocoa powder. I'd find a series of process points that again, led to the optimum flavour development. I'd then produce both a limited number of single-source bars and a set of blends, both at various percentages - a "sweet", "bittersweet", "extra-bitter", and "unsweetened". There would likewise be corresponding milk bars (a similarly exhaustive search for milk would be in order). This part of the process is the methodology that most starting fine chocolate manufacturers adopt, more or less - Amano, Red Star, etc. etc.
You'll note that in spite of the neurotic level of obsession, almost all of what I've described is already being done. I've deliberately gone through the agonising level of detail to highlight the utter obsessiveness you have to have to succeed in the business - and to suggest that it is indeed rather probable that your "ideal" bar *is already being made*, in a way. But I also want to point out that your *exact* own personal ideal is something only you could make. Each manufacturer creates their own style which is their personal interpretation of the ideal. But have no illusions, you will *never* do any better yourself unless you are prepared to take on the same level of obsession, and probably dedicate 10 years of your life or more. So instead of trying to create the ultimate "bespoke" bar (which is probably a case of wishful thinking anyway), it might be more interesting to explore what bars the *real* obsessives: the manufacturers, are already making. Which is where I came into this game...