The Melt Experience
Tasting chocolate for pleasure is a journey of discovery, a most enjoyable way to explore your own palate and preferences. No two people taste flavors or even experience textures in the same way; you will be amazed at the different responses you will find among a group of tasters.
In the past when you’ve eaten a piece of chocolate you’ve probably thought to yourself either “that’s pretty good,” or “I don’t especially like it.” Chocolate tasting is all about paying attention to the special nuances of different chocolates in ways you probably haven’t considered before.
Don’t worry. There’s no “right, or wrong” taste. The best chocolate is the one you like. In fact, no two people perceive aroma or taste flavors exactly the same way. Even the perception of texture —whether something is smooth and creamy or slightly gritty — differs from one palate to another. Your individual chocolate palate also evolves and sharpens over time with experience. Each taster should look for, notice, and describe what pleases them personally in the chocolates they taste, and what displeases them, as well.
To taste and appreciate chocolate, engage all of your senses
We eat with our eyes. Appearance is part of the initial pleasure and attraction of chocolate, but not itself a measure of quality. The color of chocolate varies. It may be ivory, golden, shades of copper brown, deep reddish, or charcoal brown depending on the type of chocolate, the percentage of cacao in the chocolate, the presence and quantity of milk or cream, and the source of the beans from which the chocolate was made.
An attractive gloss on the surface of chocolate with a tight, fine grain and even-colored showing at cut or broken edges indicates that the chocolate was well-tempered, and properly cooled and stored. Scuffed or scraped samples are not necessarily of poor quality, but they are less pleasing to the eye.
As with wine, some of the first clues to flavor are in the nose. Before even tasting, rub the piece of chocolate with your thumb to warm and release its aroma. Hold the chocolate to your nose in cupped hands, like a brandy snifter, to capture and hold the aroma close. Sniff or draw slow breaths. At first chocolate may simply smell “chocolaty.” But as you compare one piece with another you will notice general differences in richness, intensity, sweetness and earthiness. You’ll pick up on lower notes and higher notes. The aroma of some chocolates is faint, while that of others is intense. You may then detect even more specific differences.
Milk chocolates often give off aromas of milk or cream, or caramel or malt. Dark chocolate aromas may be characterized by toasted nuts, roasted coffee, dried fruit or wine. Some chocolates have floral or fruity qualities; others smell more roasted or nutty. As with flavor, each chocolate brand has a signature aroma. This comes from the blend or selection of beans and their quality, as well as the manufacturer’s roasting and conching methods. There is no end to the specific notes that you can pick up with practice and no limit to the words that you may use to describe them.
Seriously accomplished tasters are adept at drawing from their own experience and memory, choosing words accordingly to describe what they smell and taste. Practice!
Similarly, learn to detect any unpleasant aromas as well. These might be described as harsh, paper, burnt, waxy, moldy or musty, etc.
Texture is enormously important to the chocolate experience. A smooth and creamy melt-in-your-mouth texture is so seductive, that many people are more influenced by texture than by flavor.
Begin by listening for the snap! It’s the first clue to texture. Snap is the feel and sound of a piece of chocolate when you first break it or bite into it. Snap is easier to appreciate in a thin bar than a thick chunk of chocolate. Snap is a function of the amount and quality of the cocoa butter in the chocolate, how finely ground the chocolate particles are, and how well the chocolate was tempered.
White and milk chocolate bars have a gentler snap than dark or semi-sweet chocolate because their milk and butter fat content make them naturally softer.
Experience the Melt
Mouthfeel is another word for texture. After looking, smelling, and snapping, place the chocolate in your mouth. But, resist the urge to chew and eat. Instead, hold the chocolate against the roof of your mouth and pass your tongue over the bottom of it, noticing first how it melts and then how it feels. Does it melt readily and feel smooth and creamy, or greasy and slimy? Maybe it resists melting and seems hard or waxy? Does it feel grainy or gritty, powdery, harsh, or drying?
No two palates have the same perception of these textures…it is even possible for the same piece of chocolate to seem smooth and silky to one taster and dry and powdery to the next!
If the piece of chocolate has melted completely, take another piece so that you can now notice how the chocolate feels to chew. Is it gummy, sticky, cake-like, fudgy, fast-dissolving, etc.?
Flavor is the ultimate criterion for quality in chocolate. Because texture is so distracting some tasters focus on flavor first, before considering texture. Either way, flavor begins to fill your mouth from the moment the chocolate begins to melt on your tongue.
At first there is so much pleasure in tasting the chocolate, it may be difficult to focus on the specifics of flavor. As with aroma, your first perception may be simply described as “chocolaty” or even just “yummy”! As you begin to focus, notice several things:
- Does the flavor come on quickly or slowly?
- Does the flavor build and peak or remain constant?
- Does the flavor change character from the beginning to the middle to the end?
- How long does the flavor last in your mouth? Professional chocolate tasters often look for a “long finish.” This is simply flavor that lasts a long time in your mouth.
- Describing flavor is the most fun and most challenging aspect of chocolate tasting. Everyone gets better with practice.
Relate the flavors that you taste in chocolate to flavors, smells and experiences familiar to you, no matter how corny or off beat they may be, and whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Don’t forget food memories. Chocolate flavor has been compared to strange things like “buttered toast,” “egg custard,” dirty leaves…You may describe the sweetness in terms of sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, caramel or some other sweet food memory.
Consider tartness, acidity, and bitterness as well. If these are detected, are they pleasing or displeasing to you? Do you taste vanilla? Does the chocolate taste nutty? What kind of nuts, and are they toasted nuts or raw? Do you taste fruit, and is it dried fruit or fresh fruit, citrus or other? Do you taste coffee?
Connoisseurs appreciate complexity in chocolate, rather than a single constant flavor. But even connoisseurs disagree about what they taste and what they like.
Professional tasters also appreciate balance and the overall intensity of the chocolate flavor. Deciding which chocolates taste “in perfect harmony or balance” or which “strike the perfect intensity” is up to the individual and is completely personal, and often develops with chocolate tasting experience.
Practice! Beginners may not taste or be able to describe as many flavors as seasoned tasters, but continued practice is both pleasurable and rewarding.