How To Taste Chocolate

Most people don’t really taste chocolate they eat it. That’s fine if you’re buying a cheap bar of confectionary, but if you’ve spent a fiver or even a tenner on a bar of chocolate you’ll want to experience the most out of it. But how far do you want to go? Well, I’d say for most people wouldn’t want to go to the extreme of getting a pen and pad out whenever they unravel a bar of fine chocolate, but would want to allow themselves to open up the different flavours present in chocolate bars made with the different cocoa beans grown in different locations and produced in different ways.

The thing is that there are so many variables that go into making chocolate that they all affect the flavour. From how the beans are fermented, dried, roasted, how it’s conched and how long for and how it’s tempered. For some the goal is to try and pick out a few of those points, but most certainly the bean variety from just tasting.

Some bars I can tell exactly who made them from the tone of the flavours. Rabot Estate and Hotel Chocolat Saint Lucia chocolate has a very distinctive taste and so does the Original Hawaii Chocolate. The joy with tasting chocolate, however, is finding the hidden gem that you just didn’t expect. For example Chocolate Cafe make a fantastic dark chocolate bar.

One point to note when tasting fine chocolate for the first time is that you’ll start to experience flavours that you’re not expecting. Most mass-market chocolate uses the Forastero cocoa bean which tends to have less flavour. Furthermore the manufacturers look for a consistent flavour that would appeal to most people. Fine chocolate isn’t really interested in this massive appeal issue. Fine chocolate is meant as a luxury that offers a variety of flavours in the same bar – it’s about an experience.

Tasting chocolate is actually about all five of your senses. For me, tasting chocolate begins with seeing the bar on store shelf and how the packaging looks. If it comes across as interesting I’ll pick it up and investigate further. And if it’s intriguing I’ll buy.

When you get it home the other sense come into play too. How the bar feels in your hand as you’re about to unwrap it is important. Does it feel substantial or light? And then the process of unwrapping comes into play. Is the bar easy to open? Bars like Beschle don’t make it easy to get into, but that all serves to build up the excitement. And then when you remove the chocolate from the foil how it looks is important. Bars such as Amano, Amedei and others emboss their logos onto each square, whilst Beschle leave them plain – but as the chocolate finish is so smooth it works well.

And then you’re on to the snap. I love a good, crisp snap that just signifies to me that it’s a good bar. I don’t like dull snaps which, to my mind, signify that there’s too much oil in there and not enough cocoa content.

But the first indication of the quality of the chocolate and what is typically in-store is the aroma. I typically give chocolate that smells too sweet a miss at this point. Often people will smell fine dark chocolate and pick up some harsh acidic notes and that the bar will taste similarly sharp. But from my experience, chocolate never actually tastes as acidic as its aroma. Even the chocolate from Jamaica that I’ve tried has an incredibly sharp, acidic aroma but actually is a few notches down. It’s still acidic, but nothing as powerful of the aroma.

What I also love at this stage is that aroma can bring back so many memories. Often when I blog about chocolate I indicate to my readers of what the aroma has reminded me off. And it can be obscure things such as walking along the coast in Devon. And this is the main point of smelling chocolate before you put it in your mouth. Good quality chocolate should remind you of natural things in real world, even if its vinegar, sweaty feet, woodland walks, flowers, or whatever. Whereas poor quality chocolate in the past has reminded me of Play-dough and petrol.

The way I like to try chocolate might be different from most. I like to take a fairly large chunk, perhaps the size of a 50p piece and let it melt in my mouth. At this stage it gives off more aromas that pass from your mouth into your nose. These aromas will be different from the first ones you tried as the structure of the chocolate changes from the heat of your mouth and passes through the back of your mouth up to your nose.

A larger piece also gives me the opportunity to get a better feel of the texture. I like fine chocolate to occupy most of my mouth. I like it to move around into every nook and cranny. After I’ve exposed myself to the texture and got a good indication of the flavour I’ll try smaller pieces and just concentrate on how it tastes.

I use smaller pieces as it allows me to test the flavour many more times. You see, many fine chocolate bars offer flavours that change over the length of the melt. And this is the bit I love most about tasting chocolate as often you can pick up so many different flavours as the heat from your mouth melts it. Sometimes there seems to be about three or four “scenes” to the chocolate where you’re able to pick up on a variety of different notes. For some reason, caramel, if it appears, always seems to be last in a tasting – don’t ask me why. Perhaps it’s because the chocolate lasts longer at the front of my mouth – and that’s where the sweetness receptors on your tongue are present.

I tend to never use the word “bitter” to describe chocolate as this is a bit of a “cop out”. It describes too many flavour notes that it doesn’t really serve to convey anything. I prefer to look at scales of acidity. The acidity receptors are located on the side of your tongue but comes into play with so many bars of fine chocolate, even though those areas are quite small compared. One interesting aspect of the acidity of chocolate is that you can often pick up the comparative length of time the chocolate has been conched. Hotel Chocolate do a range of chocolate bars that they alter the conching time and let you taste the difference. Just from adding 20 or so hours can change bar made with the same ingredients massively.

The Michel Cluizel Noir Infini is a “bitter” bar of fine chocolate purely from the fact that it has 99% cocoa content with less milk content and less sugar. At that level it goes beyond acidity and into pure bitterness. For many they have a love of chocolate with Fleur de Sel or salted caramels, but I really don’t get it. I know that salt typically acts to “bring out” flavours. But I find that it often overpowers the chocolate. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to salt than others? The salt receptors on the tongue have a larger surface area to the other types so perhaps this is where the issue lies?

But what about describing the chocolate? What words do people use? Well there are over 170,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionaries, but we use a tiny fraction of those words. Similarly there’s a whole world of words that people can describe the flavour notes but people tend to only use bitter, sweet, salty, acidic. Even experts use a limited number of words. Often you’ll hear: “smoky”, “tobacco”, “red fruits”, “cherry”, “orange peel”, “caramel”, “earthy”, “tea”, “peppery”, “leather” and “jammy” – I prefer to close my eyes and think beyond these words. I prefer to go down the memory route and explain what comes to mind. Yes those notes may be applicable, but I think it’s important to be individualistic and convey something that people haven’t heard before.

But all this is pointless if you taste chocolate alongside drinking a glass of coke as the caramel notes will come to the fore. Or have an aromatic candle going as you might just describe the flavour as fruity or flowery. I prefer to have water with a slight dash of orange squash to cleanse the palate. I do sometimes have a mug of builders’ tea just to heat up the mouth a bit and see how that changes the chocolate.

Lee McCoy

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  • Hello Lee,
    I like this article and how you discribe your tastinghabits they are uninhibited for many chocoholics. For myself I find some resemblance in the way you work.
    I like to taste chocolate in the morning but I prefer to taste during the evening, let say from about 8PM till…
    I do have chocolate witch I do not like in the morning and witch I like in the evening and viceversa. Isn’t chocolate a self-willed delicious food!!!
    Geert

  • Bong Willy

    Hi Lee,

    It’s a real fun for me, knowing how others taste chocolate. After read yours, I want to try myself with your ‘large piece’ way, wondering if I’ve got the same aromas into my nose too. I’ve tried to open my mouth while I’m inhale and when the chocolate melts, but that’s not helping.

    Which one is best for you? Taste one kind of chocolate per session or compare with two or even more at once?

    About the salt, yes, my friend told me before, if the chocolate is too ‘bitter’, try using salt to eliminate it and expose the other flavor. Now I get it why it works like that (even though I’ve tried it and don’t like it, it sacrifice the chocolatey flavor and not helping me with expose the other flavors too).

    Oh, I forgot to tell you, Rogue Chocolatier’s bars are plain too, just plain without any line, so, we can cut them all the way we want to, I think. (Not taste my American bars yet, still looking for the best time when it’s real silent and the temperature still low for tasting; it’s means in the early morning 5PM *sigh)