A Primer on Tasting ChocolateJuly 22, 2017
With the rise of great Philippine chocolate and Philippine cacao, the time could not be more ripe to learn how to best appreciate them—what to look out for and how certain qualities in chocolate come about.
We explore the basics of tasting chocolate with insights from Moulinet Chocolat‘s Estela Duque, who has earned her certification as a chocolate taster, having trained under the International Institute of Chocolate & Cacao Tasting, and gets to exercise her skills as a judge at chocolate competitions abroad.
What is chocolate and How is it Made?
At its core, all chocolate comes from cacao beans. Any finished bar is a product of a long process (check out our brief rundown of the three main types of cacao and of the chocolate-making process in our previous bean-to-bar chocolate taste test), where every step—from the origins of the tree where the cacao pod originates to the methods carried out by the chocolate makers, each with their own set of equipment and processing preferences—plays an important role in the result.
The basic ingredients in chocolate are:
- chocolate liquor or cacao mass—the ground, liquified mix of fermented, roasted cacao beans. Chocolate liquor is comprised of the cacao butter (the fat naturally found in the bean) and cocoa solids (what remains after the cacao butter is removed, and what makes up the cocoa powder you use in baking).
Note that there are variations on the cacao mass-cocoa solids distinction, depending on where you are in the world.
- additional cacao butter, which is optional but can make for a better mouthfeel and melt.
- sugar (for sweetened varieties)
- milk (for milk or white chocolate)
The percentage of chocolate (by weight) made with chocolate liquor, relative to sugar, is called the cacao percentage—which as the definition implies, can point to the intensity of the chocolate flavor (higher percentage = more intense chocolate flavor, less sweetness). But because it includes both the cacao butter and cocoa solids, which is not controlled and can come in varying proportions—plus the fact that many other steps in the chocolate-making process come into play—different brands of the same percentage can have vastly different tastes and different levels of bitterness. (And, contrary to popular belief, a higher cacao percentage does not necessarily mean “better” chocolate.)
From there, the following ingredients are optional, but can enhance the final product:
- emulsifiers (e.g., soy lecithin), which can reduce viscosity and improve flow properties and shelf life, though some chocolate makers specifically avoid this.
- flavorings (e.g., vanilla)
General types of chocolate
There are many ways to categorize different kinds of chocolate, but essentially, real chocolate contains cacao butter, whereas compound chocolate (a.k.a. mockolate) is a cheaper substitute that subs in vegetable oil but at the expense of texture and flavor. Real chocolate can come as either:
- regular chocolate (or “eating” chocolate)
- couverture chocolate, which has extra cacao butter and is tempered properly for a smoother, shinier appearance (especially helpful for dipping and coating) and a creamier mouthfeel.
The author points out that there is chocolate out there that would technically be classified as “compound” chocolate due to the use of vegetable oil in place of cacao butter, but in a way that can actually enhance the final product and give it its own identity—e.g., the use of virgin coconut oil for a nutty flavor in CocoDolce bars. (The author also admits to having a soft spot for good ol’ Flat Tops.) In any case, what matters is that the said category be recognized as one that is objectively distinct, because in many cases, the fake stuff is (cleverly, but deceptively) posed as the real thing—and this is totally not fair for consumers who may not be aware of these differences.
Another way is to focus on the classification based (more or less) on cacao percentage. Though this can vary in different parts of the world, to simplify, there are three general types to take note of:
- Dark chocolate, the most “basic” made with chocolate liquor, sugar, emulsifiers, and optional flavorings, but no milk solids. From there, you can generally break it down to unsweetened chocolate, which is all chocolate liquor with no sugar; bittersweet chocolate, which as the name implies, is more bitter than sweet with a higher cacao percentage; and semisweet chocolate, which tend to be a little sweeter with a slightly lower cacao percentage. (The exact percentages needed to qualify as either type can can vary from country to country.)
- Milk chocolate contains milk in the mix and is generally sweeter and creamier than the darker varieties above, although you will actually find milk chocolate of higher cacao percentages (e.g., up to 65 or 70%!). The defining feature here is the presence of both dairy and chocolate solids, rather than the amount of sugar.
- White chocolate lacks cacao solids and is made with just the cacao butter, sugar, milk, and other flavorings.
Some will argue that white chocolate is not even chocolate. Does it matter though? Good white chocolate—made with real cacao butter—can be every bit as good for what it is.
In this respect, no one type of chocolate (or one range of cacao percentage) is necessarily ‘superior’ to the other. Each type has its own identity and value—think lakatan and latundan bananas, which are both local banana varieties with different tastes and textures, but are good in their own right. What matters, really, is that it provides a good balance of flavor that does justice to its respective type.
Yet another sort of classification, and one more relevant to the current state of the local industry, can be made between what is called “bulk” and “fine” chocolate:
- Bulk chocolate—the industrially-produced stuff—is made with bulk cacao beans, which are higher-yielding but planted for quantity rather than quality. Bulk chocolate aims for consistency and uniformity in flavor—hence the need for rigorous processing methods and additional ingredients to ensure they are able to conceal any remaining nuances from the original beans. This is why they can use inferior beans with little consequence on the final product.
- Fine chocolate, on the other hand, can be marked by the care for the ingredients used and the artistry that goes into making it. In the process this entails the use of higher-quality cacao beans (we explore more on this in our previous article) processed with the proper techniques and quality additional ingredients (if at all necessary). Unlike bulk chocolate, fine chocolate focuses on quality, rather than quantity.
- Within the realm of fine chocolate, too, is what is called origin chocolate, which specifically aims to showcase where the cacao bean comes from—the country, region, cooperative or farmer producing the cacao, the cacao variety’s inherent biology and the environment it grows in. Care is given to actively reflect and preserve the pure flavor that defines the beans’ place of origin, entailing minimal use of additional ingredients (e.g. emulsifiers or other flavorings) and the acknowledgement of the origin country’s defining taste in their chocolate-making technique to know which factors to highlight, how to bring out its best qualities, and so on.
How to taste
While there is essentially no right or wrong when tasting, it helps to consider a number of characteristics so as to better appreciate the work that went into making them. Before you even ingest the chocolate, for example, you can already note the following factors, which can point to the way it was crafted:
- Aesthetics, or its appearance, including the sheen (clear, glossy chocolate is a product of successful tempering) and color
- The snap—the sound or the way the chocolate “breaks”. (Chocolate with a higher cocoa content, or that has been tempered successfully, will have a cleaner snap.)
- Aroma, including its intensity (“some of them will have instant impact [whereas the others] will have no smell,” shares Duque) and the specific scents that come about. These also point to its flavor.
Once put in the mouth, chocolate releases its qualities not in one singular burst, but as a dynamic progression. So to get the full experience, your best bet is to allow the chocolate to melt on the tongue, rather than munching or biting. “The key point is that you let it melt . . . between your tongue and the roof of the mouth, and then you wait for it to coat the tongue,” shares Duque. “Swallow slowly, and also try to get a feel for how it passes through the throat [and as] it goes from the tongue to the throat.” Consider the following:
- Mouthfeel, the smoothness (or grittiness) of the the chocolate as it melts on the tongue. Ultra-smooth chocolate is generally the result of extensive conching and refining.
- Melt, which can be quick or long.
- Flavors, which include both the specific notes and the way the tastes evolve from the beginning as it is put in the mouth to the end as all the chocolate melts and is swallowed. Flavor can be affected by multiple parts of the process—from the type of the cacao bean used and the environment it grows in, fermentation, roasting, and conching.
- Aftertaste, or what proceeds after swallowing.
Fun fact: tasting multiple bars consecutively can take its toll on the tongue, so for professionals, the use of a palate cleanser is of paramount importance—especially during competitions where you’ll be tasting up to hundreds at. Abroad, one of the palate-cleansing foods they turn to polenta, whose combination of fiber and water can help clear the tongue of residual flavors. Whenever she’s home in the Philippines though, Estela prefers to nibble on pan de sal to refresh her tongue in between bars.
What is it that you’re tasting?
To aid in identification, and as a standardized system that can be used as a tool for communication, many have come up with tasting systems that list the common flavors found in chocolate and organizes them to link related notes closer to each other. These come in different forms (purely qualitative charts, flavor wheels, spider plots, maps, and so on), each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses, and which utilize varying arrangement and organization.
Here are just some of the common base categories (and samples of the flavors you might find listed under them). Keep in mind, though, that not all maps will feature all of these—some may make use of less categories, or of others not listed here. You can also have the same flavor note come in listed different categories in different systems.
- earthy (think wood, smoke, oak or tobacco)
- spicy (cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg)
- nutty (almonds, walnuts)
- fruity (berries, plums, citrus)
- grassy or vegetal (moss, fresh grass)
- floral (jasmine, rose)
- dairy (caramel, milk, butter)
For now, many of these will tend to favor things commonly found in the West: fruits like plums and cherries, or flowers such as orchids or roses. But this is not to discount the possibility of a more contextualized tasting system—say, one with flavors more recognizable to Filipinos, such as bagoong, patis, aratilis, or guyabano—in the future.
As with any form of perception, tasting is never a one-way affair as a person’s physical and emotional conditions can also affect how they ultimately perceive the chocolate. “It depends on . . . how you [feel] that day,” shares Duque. “If you didn’t have any sleep, you will taste it differently from when you’re relaxed on a Sunday afternoon with a glass of wine.”
Professional tasters apparently follow a system, Duque notes: “We try to keep the bar for as long as we can and we try to taste it at different times of the day and different times of the week. And we keep our little black notebook which I have, [comparing] what the tasting notes were for certain times of the day.”
As social beings, one’s culture can also play a part in how you associate raw sensations with which ideas. As an example, Duque cites the case of a bar where most of the chocolatiers, having been brought up in the West, thought it tasted of macadamia nuts—whereas to her it tasted more of pili nuts, having grown up in the Philippines where the nut is abundant.
Why taste Chocolate?
On an individual level, it’s fun—plus there’s the little benefit of being able to impress more people at parties, upping your fancy points, and sounding all the more #legit of a #foodie (well that last one is debatable, but we digress). But more than that, tasting chocolate can also also be a great way to explore the ways the different variables can affect the final product, which can reflect characteristic styles of makers from certain areas, or characteristic flavors of cacao from certain parts of the world.
Having a community of educated tasters, especially in the Philippines, can also be key to improving the quality of what we have locally. By creating demand for better chocolate, we can encourage more people involved in the chocolate-making process—from the cacao growers and fermenters to the chocolate makers—to put more care and effort in producing higher quality products. And by having more people who, individually or collectively, can take note of the flavors (or the patterns emerging) in chocolate made with cacao from our shores, we can gain a better understanding of Philippine cacao’s identity.
These, in turn, can be promoted outside the country. Having a solid understanding of Philippine cacao’s identity can help in marketing it to chocolate makers abroad who look for specific profiles in crafting their ideal products. Quality Philippine-made chocolate, too, can be entered in worldwide competitions—which, if won, can help make a name for the country as one with good chocolate. With the demand for the fine stuff and the number of people willing to pay a premium for the good stuff on the rise abroad, this can benefit the Philippine economy greatly, and finally do justice to the cacao that’s been growing in the country for centuries.
More than a self-indulgent exercise, learning to taste chocolate can be key to helping improve our local cacao industry—which is one with huge potential.
Special thanks to Estela Duque of Moulinet Chocolat.