I've always preferred chocolate over other sweets, almost to the exclusion of other desserts and confections. For most of my life, I enjoyed mainstream chocolate such as Lindt and Côte D'Or. It wasn't until 2009 that I was exposed to artisan chocolate, and that completely changed my perspective on what chocolate could be. In comparison, my previous favorites were merely good. There were great chocolates out there, and I wanted to experience all of them! I began with the chocolate I could get locally (which turned out to be quite a lot, thanks to Chocolopolis, an amazing local Seattle chocolate store), and then spread to ordering online and contacting chocolate makers directly. I created a spreadsheet, enlisted my friend Lindy to review chocolate bars with me, and started blogging about each chocolate bar we tasted.
Great questions. Before beginning formal reviews, I spent several weeks identifying the qualities of chocolate that other reviewers were using, thought about what additional information I would want, and put together a spreadsheet in which to capture the data. Over time we discovered that some of our quality dimensions weren't distributing well (such as length), so we re-scaled them to better distribute the results. Also, we found our initial overall rating scheme of one to four stars was too general, and after soliciting feedback from several other chocolate experts, we revised it to a scale from 0 to 10 with 0.5 increments. The data we track include: chocolate maker, bar name, region where cacao was grown (if not a blend), specific plantation (if any), the "type" of cacao (Criollo, Trinitario, Forastero -- please see my answer to #6 for more about this), year the chocolate was made, best before date, size of the bar, cocoa solids %, added fat (if any), added sweetener (if any), added emulsifier (if any), added flavoring (if any), other ingredients (if any), list price, color (using PANTONE), texture (smoothness, sheen, scoring, bubbling, etc.), aroma, snap, taste, melt, length, and finish.
We photograph the wrapper ahead of time. At our initial evaluation session, we begin by photographing the chocolate bar. After examining the appearance, texture, and snap, we then make two or three passes and take notes on the aroma, taste, melt, length, and finish in that first session. We might taste multiple bars in an initial evaluation session, using bread and water to clear our palates between passes and bars. To help ensure consistent data by hopefully eliminating situational effects (for example, anything we might have recently eaten), I evaluate the chocolate again on at least one other occasion before posting our results. I like to do that session in the morning a few hours after brushing my teeth without toothpaste and not having consumed anything other than water. At some point, we edit the photos, cropping and adjusting the color to make them as close as we can to actual wrapper and bar appearance (Lindy is much better at this than I am, so the good photos are usually hers). While writing the review for the blog, I make a final pass with the chocolate to confirm our earlier results. Finally, I search the web to find the lowest prices for purchasing that chocolate bar online, and include links to those for each shipping area (typically one for North America and one for Europe). Overall, it probably takes about 3 to 4 hours for each review.
When we first began reviewing chocolate, it was easy to avoid preconceptions, as we didn’t know what to anticipate. It now takes a little conscious effort to be completely open to fully experiencing each chocolate, and not, for example, to anticipate certain flavors from single origin chocolates based on typical regional characteristics. We try very hard to evaluate each chocolate independently on its own merit.
For us, taste is definitely the most important, but we don’t assign specific weights to each characteristic. We have ranges where possible to rate relative qualities (such as for melt and length), as described on our Tasting Reference page, but many of the criteria are subjective. The final rating we give to chocolate bar is an overall combination based on flavor, melt, aroma, finish, length, appearance, and snap. We explicitly exclude non-experiential factors such as price, ingredients, origin, maker, cocoa solids, etc. from our rating.
For me (Richard), ideal ingredients are simply cacao for 100% chocolates plus added sweetener for lower percentages. One Golden Ticket reviews any dark chocolate with ingredients that include cacao beans, sweetener, cocoa butter, emulsifier, and/or minimal flavoring. Salt is potentially acceptable, but if the chocolate tastes salty from the added salt, we would consider that a flavored chocolate and not review it on our site. The few bars I’ve tasted with alternative added fats were not good, so we haven’t yet found any chocolate using added fat other than cocoa butter worth reviewing. Most of the best chocolate makers do not use an emulsifier, but among those that do, soy lecithin is standard. As for alternative sweeteners, we have found a few that worked fairly well in quality chocolate, including agave, beet, coconut, and honey.
There are many factors in the chain that can impact chocolate quality, including genetics, weather, farming, harvesting, fermentation, drying, sorting, roasting, milling, ingredients, conching, tempering, storage, and aging. Roasting probably has the biggest impact on flavor, but the others do as well. Note that raw chocolates are not roasted. They are kept at temperatures below 120°F throughout processing. Genetics provide the base from which all the flavors begin. Weather, farming, and harvesting techniques impact cacao as with any other agricultural crop. Fermentation develops and alters flavors of the beans. Improper drying can harm flavor. Sorting out bad beans is important to optimize flavor. Roasting brings out flavors in the cacao. Milling greatly impacts the texture. Other ingredients obviously affect the final flavor and texture. Conching alters the texture and flavor as well. Tempering helps determine melt. Improper storage and aging both alter flavor.
With plantation and single-origin chocolate using one cacao variety, I would love to have accurate cacao genetics identified (one of the 11 known genetic clusters rather than Criollo, Trinitario, or Forastero), but that would likely be too expensive to determine. I would be personally interested in details regarding fermentation, drying, roasting, and conching attributes, but the latter two in particular are generally considered trade secrets by most chocolate makers. Realistically, I’d like to see standardized labels include plantation origin (for single plantation chocolates), regional origin (including specifics multiple origins for blends) and harvest date(s), portion of the chocolate making cycle for which the chocolate maker takes responsibility (e.g., tree to bar, fermentation to bar, bean to bar, liquor to bar), ingredients, production date, and best before date. If the chocolate contains any added cocoa butter, the source of that cocoa butter should also be identified (origin(s) and harvest date(s)). Most chocolate makers who include added cocoa butter purchase it made from low-quality cacao.
For me, there isn’t one person above the others. I admire the passion and commitment of the small craft chocolate makers who continually improve their own chocolate and now make some of the best chocolate available. Those makers realize the impact of fermentation and drying, and they are often involved in those earlier stages. I’ve also been impressed by the new chocolate makers entering the field, as well as by their chocolate, which is nearly always better than mainstream brands and sometimes better than the big fine chocolate brands.
There are some chocolate makers who carefully oversee the chocolate making process with some or all of the production cycle being subcontracted, and I find these potentially interesting as well. Some quality makers in this category include Åkesson's, Idilio, and Original Beans.
That question is more difficult that you’d think to answer, as there are many makers of excellent chocolate. I’ll just go for it, in no particular order. Colin Gasko at Rogue crafts excellent chocolate even though the appearance of his slab bars lacks some appeal relative to other fine chocolate makers. Another consistently superb maker is Art Pollard at Amano. I haven’t yet tasted all of the Domori chocolates, but the subset I’ve tried has been great. Amedei makes a wide variety of mostly excellent chocolate. Michel Cluizel. Alan McClure at Patric. Shawn Askinosie. Oops, that’s seven. I was afraid that would happen. As for individual bars, Lindy and I each maintain a list of our favorite chocolate bars on One Golden Ticket.
I’m interested in tasting and comparing chocolate differing primarily by genetics. I’d like to have Art Pollard of Amano and Colin Gasko of Rogue find a source for quality cacao for each of 11 known genetic clusters and craft two bars of chocolate: a 100% bar and one made with only added cane sugar. I trust them to experiment and discover the best chocolate making process for each batch of cacao.