Chocolate Tasting 101
Want to increase your chocolate IQ? Local Bay Area chocolate makers and masters are stepping up their chocolate education experiences to help chocolate lovers and businesses alike discover a world of pure imagination—and get smart about chocolate while they’re at it.
At the Food Craft Institute’s recent professional training course titled the Business of Chocolate Craft and Confectionary, chocolate masters and innovators shared their knowledge of what goes into tasting, sourcing and producing this ancient treat. They know educating other entrepreneurs and community is key to the long-term success of the burgeoning chocolate craft revolution. Much like wine or coffee tasting, there is a lot of information to share.
One of these educationally focused companies, Dandelion Chocolate, located in the Mission district of San Francisco, is an open book about their creation of bean-to-bar craft chocolate. Dandelion processed 60 tons of cacao beans in 2016, yielding 38 tons of chocolate, and has since increased their production.
“Chocolate is about 30 years behind coffee,” says Cynthia Jonasson, the Dean of Beans at Dandelion Chocolate. “We want to help educate on quality and grow the industry as a whole.” They offered up a few takeaways to get started on tasting for quality.
Start with the ingredients: Only seven ingredients can go into a bar for it to be called “chocolate”—cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, cocoa butter, milk powder, vanilla, soy lecithin and sugar. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures, and cocoa butter is the edible vegetable fat extracted from the cocoa bean. The milk powder is, of course, for milk chocolate, which in the U.S. must be at least 10% cocoa solids and 12% milk solids. Dandelion only uses two of these ingredients for their dark chocolate bars: cocoa nibs and sugar.
“We want it to taste like the beans the farmers sold us,” says Jonasson. The other ingredients help keep a consistent flavor in the chocolate bars you may know and love.
The percentage on a chocolate label also can change the flavor, as it could vary in amounts of ingredients. The percentage on a chocolate bar is a total of any of the cocoa ingredients or cacao products in the bar. So, a 70% bar could be made with all cacao nibs, or perhaps 60% cacao nibs and 10% cocoa butter. The cacao nib itself is about 50/50 cocoa to butter.
The subtler flavor of the chocolate is where things get complicated. It is determined by four main factors before it even gets to the factory: the terroir, plant genetics, and the fermentation and drying processes.
Focusing specifically on the terroir, or soil and location, isn’t going to consistently tell you what to expect, the way it often does with wine grapes. Chocolate does not have the same single-varietal farming techniques quite yet. With the varied processes and varieties in a region, it is hard to pinpoint whether a Madagascar fruit will always be more acidic, or a Venezuelan variety more chocolaty. But efforts are under way to try to catalog and gain a better understanding of these flavor makers by region, and how consistent farming and harvesting practices might help with this type of tasting classification in the future.
The taste and quality of the bean is the holy grail for craft chocolate makers, but there is not yet a common language to describe the taste palette. The perfect bean for Dandelion is “a combination of the farmer, flavor and consistency,” says Jonasson. Like other makers in the area, Dandelion is working to establish a common tasting vocabulary by training staff to be “chocolate sommeliers.” To do this, they create samples from around 200 different farms to find their perfect bean and craft the shared terms to describe it.
What’s the best way to find your favorites? Gather friends and take a class or visit a chocolate store and taste them for yourself!
For classes, Dandelion offers factory tours Wednesday–Saturday from 6:10 to 6:50pm, and additional classes, the most popular of which is their Chocolate 101. Book your tour and find other chocolate education and tasting tips at DandelionChocolate.com. For more education on sustainable sourcing in chocolate and the makers doing it right, head to Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, open Saturday 8am–1pm, Wednesday 5–9pm or for private tastings. TheChocolateGarage.com