text by Laura Martin Bacon
photos by John Wiest
Photo by John Wiest
“Chocolate-tasting is hard work.” That’s what Guittard’s Micki Weinberg tells us when we arrive at Sophia Markoulakis’ beautiful Burlingame home on October 16 for the SFPFS official chocoholics’ tasting SIG meeting.
As we look around, we notice that the scene is set rather like a business meeting. Or at least, the table setting indicates that this is serious business.
Micki and Sophia have equipped all tasters with freshly sharpened pencils, professional-looking tasting sheets and flavor descriptor wheels, along with palate-cleansing water crackers and carafes of water. For those of us whose stress level may need reduction, there’s also plenty of wine and port.
The evening’s blind tasting will include 13 commercially available chocolates. Some are single-origin chocolates and others are blends, but they’re all within a 70-75% cacao range. Micki assures us that she worked hard to narrow down the assortment -– we could easily have tasted at least twice as many noteworthy chocolates within that range.
Wondering exactly what the term “70-75% cacao range” means? Micki informs us that the number refers to the percentage of dark chocolate that comes from the cacao bean, which will be a combination of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. The rest of the chocolate is typically composed of sugar, plus tiny amounts of lecithin (an emulsifier) and vanilla (which highlights the flavors of chocolate).
Chocolate liquor, Micki says, is the essence of the cacao bean -– it’s what you get when you grind the nibs (similar to grinding peanuts for peanut butter). And, contrary to its name, chocolate liquor does not contain alcohol. Cocoa butter is the fatty part of the cacao bean that results from the process of pressing the chocolate liquor, which separates into cocoa butter and cocoa powder.
Milk, semisweet and bittersweet chocolates contain varying amounts of cocoa butter -– and white chocolate is pure cocoa butter, plus sugar. According to FDA standards, anything with over 35% chocolate liquor qualifies as “sweet dark chocolate.” As for terms like semisweet, bittersweet and dark, there are no standardized definitions, so one chocolate maker’s bittersweet offering could have exactly the same amount of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter as another company’s semisweet.
Even though the chocolates we’re tasting fall into the same cacao range, Micki tells us that they’ll likely taste very different, have a distinctive mouthfeel and will function differently in recipes. These factors will depend on things like ratios of chocolate liquor to cocoa butter. And, just as it does with wine, coffee and olive oil, terroir affects the attributes of chocolate.
You have to learn how to really taste the chocolate, Micki notes, as she tells us about the professional taster’s approach to this challenging task. Let it melt in your mouth to get a nice flavor release and to really gauge the mouthfeel, she advises. Be sure to note textural factors like smoothness, graininess and whether the cocoa butter comes through.
Micki and Sophia have set out tonight’s chocolates on each taster’s plate. They’re numbered, but we can taste them in any order we want. Tasting sheets request that we rate each chocolate, as well as provide comments about its distinctive attributes. For inspiration, we have a flavor wheel that provides descriptors ranging from floral, citrusy, coffee, caramel and tropical fruit to burlap, mothballs, barnyard and hammy (I swear I am not making this up).
“Please take this seriously,” Micki requests. “Have fun with it, but realize it’s a special opportunity. After all, how often do you spend $50 on great chocolates –- just for tasting? Also, try not to have conversations, so everyone can concentrate.”
Really? We can’t talk? Well then, it’s work, a few folks grumble good-naturedly. But as I begin to taste the selection on my plate, I realize that it really is better not to talk –- I don’t want to miss an instant of the extraordinary show each chocolate seems to be performing.
One of the things I learn is: wait for it. Like a great wine, chocolate reveals its distinctive flavors in layers -– it’s a full sensory experience that evolves as the chocolate dissolves on the palate.
As if that’s not enough, SFPFS President-Elect John Wiest reveals a delectable tidbit that he’s gleaned from the AP newswire: the more chocolate a country eats, the more Nobel prize winners per capita. Also: the antioxidants in chocolate can help slow the aging process.
The bottom line: eat lots of chocolate. It tastes wonderful, feels great and it just might make you smarter -– and younger.
For details on the SIG, please check out these tasting stats from Micki:
SFPFS Tasting SIG
Dark Chocolate, 70% – 75% cocoa solids
October 16, 2012
Sorted by # Who Would Buy
1. Callebaut-Belgium 70% $8.50 lb Pasta Shop, Oakland
2. Cost Plus World Market Private Label 70% $1.99 3 oz bar
3. Ghirardelli Intense Dark Twilight Delight-USA 72% $3.29 3.25 oz bar
4. Trader Joe’s Pound Plus-Belgium 72% Dark Chocolate $4.99 17.6 oz bar
5. Lindt Excellence-USA 70% Cocoa Lunardi’s $3.59 3.5 oz bar
6. Green & Blacks Organic Dark Baking Chocolate-Italy 72% Lunardi’s $5.99 5.3 oz
7. E. Guittard Bittersweet Chocolate-USA 72% Cacao Draeger’s $17.49 16 oz
8. Scharffen Berger Bittersweet Baking Chunks-USA 70% Cacao Lunardi’s $5.69 6 oz
9. Dandelion Small Batch Chocolate, San Francisco Single Origin Sambirano, Madagascar 70% $8 2 oz bar, Serendipity Chocolate, San Carlos
10. Tcho, San Francisco Single Origin Ghana 70% $7 2 oz bar, Serendipity Chocolate, San Carlos
11. Rogue Chocolates, Massachusetts Single Origin Rio Caribe 70%
$8 2 oz bar, Serendipity Chocolate, San Carlos
12. E. Guittard Quetzacoatl Bittersweet-USA 72% Cacao Mass
Mollie Stone’s $2.99 2 oz bar
Same as Onyx 72% www.KingArthurFlour.com $10.95 16 oz
13. Waialua Estate Extra Dark Chocolate, Hawaii
Single Origin North Shore Oahu www.Chocosphere.com $6.95 2 oz bar
Dark chocolate tasting 65% or more
Photo by John Wiest
Photo by John Wiest