My first significant chocolate experience was as a little boy. When I visited my grandma’s house and I tried a slice from a loaf of “dark chocolate bread” she had made.
I was surprised, because it didn’t taste like chocolate, according to what I knew. Of course, I knew very little, because I had only experienced popular chocolate until that point.
So I was fascinated, because here was an extremely complex and novel taste that evolved like a never-ending story; along with a new nourishing, wholesome feeling when you ate it. Something else was significant too: It wasn’t very sweet. To top it off, there were three different textures. My first experience of a decent drinking chocolate was also at my grandma’s home. It was also prepared with little sugar. So these two chocolate experiences ignited my passion, interest and appreciation. They also opened my mind to understand that cocoa was a versatile ingredient, and that chocolate was a recipe. I would do things like make two cups of hot chocolate to compare, each with a different type of sugar.
Eventually the inevitable happened and my mother, who had trained at the Cordon Bleu, competed by making her own chocolate bread. Because I was repeatedly asked to give feedback, and thoroughly questioned, I had to take extra interest and consider what I was experiencing more deeply.
During my childhood and teens I lived in various countries. The family also spent long periods travelling around countries.
In a similar way to adults who move house and sample new local restaurants to decide which are the best, frequently changing location provided me with the opportunity to sample food that mattered to me. I wanted to know how good my favourite food could possibly taste. One food was international: different chocolates were to be found in all countries, so it was a good match between my passion and my circumstances. My parents encouraged this partly because it interested them, and mostly to keep me occupied and happy in our constantly changing environment.
As an adult I continued to travel and live abroad. I sampled chocolate and made notes for myself whenever the opportunity arose. I never considered that other people would do the same. I hadn’t heard of anyone writing chocolate tasting notes or reviews. But I had seen how enthusiastic people could get about wine. My mother was a member of the sommeliers, so I had accompanied her to wine tasting, shows and on visits to vineyards.
By the early nineties I was taking very detailed chocolate tasting notes for my own use. I had more time to think creatively and I had gained considerable experience at the high end of the publishing industry. For the first time I considered how this kind of information could be of interest to others, presented in a book. This inspired me to develop my method of recording tasting notes by considering their utility to other people. But I understood that the scale of the fine chocolate industry was so large that a professional guide book could only be produced by full-time professionals. I was also concerned about some other issues, including how many people might be interested in a guide book about the world’s best chocolates. It was over a decade later that I was able to address these issues, develop the idea, and work on the World Chocolate Awards guide book full time.
Yes, standardisation is necessary to obtain the most reliable results. I think that our evaluation process will be best explained by answering your subsequent questions in depth.
The World Chocolate Awards are completely impartial and independent. The World Chocolate Awards was founded because, for the fine chocolate industry, no mark of distinction or award conforms to these standards. Everything I am about to relate below is far from the norm. So we have something valuable, new and unique to offer our readers.
To ensure that we are impartial and independent, no one who works for the World Chocolate Awards can have worked for a chocolatier in any role. They must have never worked in public relations for, marketing for, or undertaken any kind of promotion of the chocolate industry. Neither can they be related to a chocolatier by family.
The World Chocolate Awards is also unique, impartial and independent because it does not accept payments from the chocolate industry. Also, we do not accept gifts of any kind that could be viewed as a substitute for payments. We do not accept free bars of chocolate or any other products that we evaluate.
Not only is the chocolate that we evaluate paid for, but we also avoid the possibility of chocolate bars being specifically produced or selected by a chocolatier to be judged. We ensure that we evaluate the same chocolate bars that the public buy.
The World Chocolate Awards has standards designed to avoid bias in many other ways: by storing chocolate correctly; ensuring a clean palate; consistent tasting conditions; consistent expectations; and by evaluating a chocolate on a number of occasions.
Evaluating a chocolate on more than one occasion allows for any possible variation in the taster’s ability to perceive flavour from day to day. It also allows the taster to become accustomed to new flavours with neither the excitement of novelty, nor the disappointment of unfamiliarity. It allows the taster to gain a sufficient understanding of a chocolate’s flavours before making a conclusive evaluation.
This method avoids the pressure and the impracticalities with the method commonly used in chocolate awards and competitions: tasting over a hundred chocolates in one day, tasting a very high number of different chocolates, each supplied in a very limited quantity, in a very limited time, in very unusual surroundings and circumstances.
The World Chocolate Awards evaluates chocolate in a completely different way: the more negative an aspect is, the more important it becomes.
The World Chocolate Awards evaluation method was designed objectively from scratch to reflect the realities of the experience of tasting chocolate. I believe that your question referred to the common method of ranking aspects of chocolate in order of importance, before adding them up to a total score. The World Chocolate Awards does not use this method because of three significant problems that it presents.
Firstly, there is no rational method to determine which aspect of a chocolate is of higher or lower importance than another, before tasting it. How is the reviewer able to determine which aspect of a chocolate is of more importance than another before they taste a chocolate?
Secondly, there is no rational method to determine what percentage of a grand total each aspect of a chocolate is worth, before tasting it. Someone who employs this system needs to be able to provide an explanation as to why they assigned, for example, 10% importance to aroma. How did they arrive at this figure? What were the factors that made it 10% and not 10.5% or 11%? I certainly can’t tell you how important the aroma, flavour, texture or aftertaste of a chocolate is until I have tasted it.
Finally, when using the common method that you referred to, the reviewer presents a score for a chocolate’s aroma, and also states that this score will count towards, say, 10% of a grand total. And the same is done for the texture, flavour, and so on. Then they are all added up neatly to arrive at a grand total score out of 100%. This method means that if a chocolate has the worse possible score in one aspect – let’s say its texture is rock solid - so it would score zero for texture, it would be possible for this uneatable, flawed chocolate to receive a score of up to 90%. But everyone knows that if only one element of the chocolate is very bad, it makes a bad chocolate bar.
To put it another way, if I asked you to specify what factors would make your ideal restaurant, you could make a smart looking, mathematically sound list and make each aspect add up to 100%, with neat boxes around it all, but in practice, in reality, if you went to a restaurant and there was an unpleasant odour, that odour would begin to take precedence over how good the service was and how nice the food was. The stronger the odour became, the less the other aspects of the restaurant would justify you remaining there.
So, returning to chocolate, I say it is easy for us all to agree on the fact that if a chocolate’s aroma is terrible, the worst it is, the more important is becomes. The less anyone will care about its aftertaste or its texture. Things are all relative, as Einstein said. This is why the World Chocolate Awards has conceived a rational, understandable method that takes account of the realities of tasting chocolate.
The World Chocolate Awards defines “fine” chocolate as one made with fine ingredients, in other words without substituting ingredients for the sake of economy. An example of a substitution would be using vanillin, natural vanilla extract, or natural vanilla flavour, instead of vanilla.
“Plain” dark chocolate contains only cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar. If you add another ingredient, such as vanilla, salt, hazelnut, it is no longer plain: it becomes a “flavoured” dark chocolate.
But it’s important to recognise that flavoured chocolate is a recipe in which the added ingredients can be used in three very different ways, which I will describe below. The first way, which you alluded to, may be of higher interest to lovers of plain chocolate than the latter two.
1. “Chocolate seasoned with the added ingredient.” The added ingredient can be used as relatively unobtrusive seasoning, intended to enhance the original flavours of the chocolate. The chocolate remains prominent and the focus of the recipe.
2. “A fusion of chocolate with the added ingredient.” The chocolate and the added ingredient can be used in equal, or near equal, strengths to create a fusion, or an approximate fusion of flavours.
3. “The added ingredient seasoned with chocolate.” Chocolate can be used as a relatively unobtrusive seasoning, intended to enhance the flavour of the added ingredient, which is prominent and the focus of the recipe.
So in the World Chocolate Awards guide book we take care not to stereotype chocolates that have added ingredients. The way we present information enables the reader to immediately recognise the particular composition of each flavoured chocolate so that they can decide if it is of interest to them.
"What about cocoa butter substitutes such as vegetable fat or coconut oil?"
If used as a substitute, the above answer would apply. Substitutes are not acceptable.
Adding oil from a nut or vegetable in order to contribute a flavour to fine dark chocolate would make it a flavoured fine dark chocolate. An added flavour is, by definition, self-evident, and I would also expect to see its use reflected in the brand’s description of their chocolate.
"What about alternatives to cane sugar?"
The chocolate maker should decide on the best way to sweeten their chocolate.
Because cane sugar is the generally accepted sweetener in our culture then I would expect to see the use of a different sweetener reflected in the maker’s description of their chocolate. The World Chocolate Awards evaluates chocolate based on their taste and without prejudice regarding the type of sugar used. We then present the information in such a way that the reader can search and read the book on their own terms.
"Vanilla for sure, and lecithin somewhat can alter/add to the flavor. Should either be used at all?"
This should be left to the chocolate maker to decide.
The flavour of chocolate can be impacted negatively at any stage, so no stage is more important than another in that respect. Every link is important to make a good chain. To quote the old saying, a chain is only as good as its weakest link.
All ingredients, along with their percentages, would be displayed prominently on the front. The cacaofèvier (who transformed the beans into chocolate) would be also be stated.
All of the examples that you listed would be interesting to know, but I would not go as far as requiring them by law. After all, the priority for the chocolate maker should be producing great tasting chocolate and the priority for the public should be enjoying the taste of a piece of chocolate. Some cacaofèviers have less resources than others, and some may, for example, wish to keep their blends secret.
I admire all of those who produce the fine chocolate that we award with one, two or three stars. They are making the best tasting chocolate in the world, making it possible for people to have an incredible taste experience.
As you say, “made from bean to bar” does not indicate the quality of a chocolate. It is only a term to explain that a chocolate bar was made in-house, starting with the beans.
This term is used regardless of whether the cocoa butter used to make the chocolate was processed from the beans in-house, or by a third party.
The World Chocolate Awards evaluates chocolate that meets two criteria: first, it must be made without substitute ingredients; second, the chocolate must be unique to the brand who sells it.
Those two criteria being satisfied, the World Chocolate Awards is concerned with recognising the best tasting chocolate in the world: a chocolate is included or excluded based on its taste. To discriminate against a unique, fine chocolate because of the brand name on the packet is not something we find justifiable. There are numerous unique chocolates which are made by some of the world’s best cacaofèviers for another brand to sell.
Our approach is to present information to the reader, in a way that allows the reader to be as selective as they wish. So they can narrow down their reading to chocolate made from bean to bar, for example. We clearly identify for the reader when a brand is a cacaofèvier and when it is not.
We are very fortunate to have more than five top chocolate brands, or bars, in the world. But if I was to be marooned on a desert island with only five chocolate bars, they would certainly be selected from those that the World Chocolate Awards guide book has awarded three stars to. Which of those chocolates I select would depend entirely on how I am feeling at the time.
If I had a (very powerful) magic wand, I’d teleport all of the cacaofèviers whose chocolates have received three stars, the highest recognition in the World Chocolate Awards, along with all of their equipment, to one giant workshop. Then have them collaborate on a several blends and several single origin chocolates using any beans in the world that they desired. Imagine how exciting and interesting it would be to see such a spectacular event, as well as to taste the results!