The World of Chocolate is More Than Bittersweet or Chocolate Tasting 101

by Stephanie Zonis
October 2004

Recipe

Food of the Gods

Chocolate, the Food of the Gods (really, that’s the translation of it’s Latin scientific name, Theobroma cacao), has now been proven to be healthy! Talk about having your cake and eating it, too. 

As interest in chocolate expands and the number of press articles increases, more and more people are sampling the wide world of chocolate, either privately or in groups. Is it hard to do? Not really. Just go to a specialty store or website and you’ll find more and more chocolates on the market to try. Will it be enjoyable? Are you kidding?  It’s chocolate! 

There’s more to Chocolate than Hershey’s

When one thinks of wine, the number of varieties of grapes is immense; the terminology innumerable and nuanced; and the ability for an average person to detect all of the gobbledygook descriptions while sampling is unachievable. Come on wine-o-philes, get a life! Can’t you just simplify and make me feel comfortable trying to enjoy a glass of vino?

Amazingly, the world of chocolate can be just as varied and complex. There are many varieties of cacao, the source ingredient of chocolate, such as Forestaro, Trinitario, and Criollo, just to name a few. Each variety has sub-species, each with it’s own unique characteristics. Compound this with the fact that cacao is an agricultural product with a variety of growing conditions (e.g. weather and soil) as it is grown all around the world, primarily close to the equator.

Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit

Bet you didn’t know that to make cocoa beans (the seeds of the cacao fruit) taste like chocolate, one has to do some amazing chemistry. Actually, it all happens naturally!  When ripe, the sweet pulp and seeds of the cacao fruit are scooped out and exposed to natural yeasts and bacteria floating in the air. The yeasts and bacteria multiply and thrive on the sugars of the pulp and, through fermentation, create alcohol and acids which chemically change the seed; these processes develop the chocolate flavor. Unfermented beans do not taste like chocolate!

So developing chocolate flavor is a function of tree variety, growing conditions, and microflora in the air. That’s not all, though. Fermented beans are roasted in chocolate factories. The time, temperature, and humidity also have an effect on flavor and aroma. Wow, chocolate flavor can be varied and complex.

But wait a second, please. The best way to appreciate the wide world of chocolate is to appreciate the basic characteristics of chocolate.

First and foremost, cocoa beans (that’s what they are called after the cacao seeds are fermented) are basically bitter and sometimes sour. With the addition of sugar for dark chocolate, or sugar and milk for milk chocolate, the resulting chocolate can vary from very bitter to very sweet. What about white chocolate?  Well, it isn’t really chocolate. Why? White chocolate is fundamentally the fat (cocoa butter) that is squeezed out of the cocoa bean, with sugar and sometimes milk added. There are no chocolate solids in white chocolate, so there is no chocolate flavor. But enough people eat white chocolate that I need to at least mention it.

Another attribute of chocolate is that it can range from very hard to very soft. Cocoa butter, which makes up about 53% of the total weight of the inside of the bean, differs in hardness depending on where it is grown. Compound this with varying percentages of additives like sugar, milk fat, butter oil, or even vegetable oil, and the ultimate texture of any chocolate can differ significantly.

Government Specs for Chocolate

There are basic government regulations defining what it takes for a product to be called “dark chocolate”. In the EU(European Union), dark chocolate is basically defined to be at least 35% pure chocolate. In the US, it’s defined to be “sweet dark chocolate” if it has at least 15% pure chocolate, or “bittersweet”/”semisweet”(no difference in specifications) if it has at least 35% pure chocolate.

Obviously the higher the percentage of pure chocolate, the more full-flavored the chocolate will be, although there is no direct correlation. For example, I’ve seen some 75% cacao chocolates that were as mild as 60% cacao chocolates, which hails back to the wide variety of beans and roasting techniques. But there is definitely a significant difference between a dark chocolate with 60% pure chocolate and one with 15%! Some chocolatiers will put the percentages on their labels and some won’t. If they do not put a percentage on the label, a big clue is to look at the ingredient list. If chocolate isn’t the first ingredient, then the percentage of pure chocolate is probably on the lower side, and the chocolate flavor will likely be muted.

Wide World of Chocolate

Beans can develop their own unique flavors and aromas. Some develop fruity aromas; some develop spicy flavor and aroma. Don’t go down the wine path of trying to determine which unique set of chemical esters are being developed; just appreciate the fruit or spice characteristics that can form. The fact that they can be noticeable doesn’t mean you have to like them! It’s just a way to make unique blends or single bean chocolates. Certain conditions in roasting the beans can develop key flavors, such as a full-roasted flavor or even a “baked-brownie” flavor. These are neither good or bad, just additional ways to develop character in the chocolate.

Do be aware that there are also certain chemical processes that can be applied to chocolate. Color and flavor can be adjusted by adding alkali salts. In the 1820’s, a Dutch chemist by the name of Van Houten developed a process by which one can darken the chocolate (darker chocolate was thought to be higher quality, but beans can come in a variety of shades of brown) as well as to reduce it’s bitterness. I like to call this the Oreo cookie effect: black chocolate without any character. Do you want chemically treated chocolate?  Please read the label!

The Joys of Tasting Chocolates

The keys to tasting and appreciation of dark chocolate are to see how wide a world it comes in: mild chocolate flavor to very intense chocolate flavor; very bitter to very sweet; very hard to very soft; roasted, fruity, spicy, brownie-like, and/or sour are more noticeable flavors/aromas. There are lots more, but they’re very hard for the majority of people to identify, so let’s keep it simple. For example, try the following generally available chocolates to educate your palate: Hershey’s Special Dark, which is a sweet dark chocolate (so you can guess the amount of pure chocolate in it). If you dislike bitterness, this one may appeal, since it is fairly sweet. The chocolate intensity is slight as it has a fairly low amount of pure chocolate in it, and it utilizes alkalized chocolate.

For grins, I will bring up our dark chocolate, because I developed it to MY favorite dark chocolate preferences. It’s 61% pure chocolate and was developed to have a very strong chocolate flavor, yet not one that’s too bitter. In addition, it has the baked-brownie character that, to my palate, makes the chocolate rock! Hey, a father can’t help but be a proud parent.

For another unique chocolate, try Scharffen Berger 70%. This chocolate is intense, fruity, hard, bitter and slightly sour. This is definitely an extraordinary contrast, one at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hershey’s Special Dark. Another directional contrast is Cadbury’s Royal Dark. It’s very soft and slightly sweet, with a medium strength chocolate flavor. It’s softness is in contrast to many other European chocolates.

These chocolates give a wide range of what to expect in dark chocolate. Most other chocolates will be bounded in hardness/softness sweetness/bitterness, and lightness/intenseness of the chocolate flavor by the above four. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other interesting and unique chocolates---of course there are! This is just a guideline to indicate that there is a wide range of flavors. You really need to have some of the above-listed chocolates to allow you to compare and contrast and find out where your “sweet spot” is.

Milk Chocolates

When one thinks of milk chocolate, the big “H” immediately comes to mind if one grew up in the US. Milton Hershey started selling his chocolate bars about 1900 and his product has become synonymous with milk chocolate. We are used to it and relatively unaccustomed to other milk chocolates…but there is a world beyond Hershey’s.

Milk Chocolate Government Regulations

In the US, one only needs to use a minimum of 10% real chocolate to call one’s product “milk chocolate”, while in the EU, one must use a minimum of 25% real chocolate. Let me repeat that: 10% real chocolate in the US and 25% minimum in the EU. Think that will cause a difference in taste? You betcha!

Hershey’s Milk Chocolate is a great place to start a tasting. They won’t reveal the amount of real chocolate in their bars, but it is probably toward the low end of the range. Hershey’s also uses a sour form of milk in it’s formulation. You can detect sour on the sides of your tongue and it’s really noticeable with Hershey’s. By the way, when we talk about milk chocolate, the milk is added in powdered form. Liquid milk, being primarily water, and chocolate, being primarily fat or oil, doesn't mix very well.

Now try my milk chocolate. What I was trying to do in designing our milk chocolate was to make it an intensely chocolate-y and milky, without it being too sweet. We utilize 36% real chocolate. You should notice a lack of tingling on the front of your tongue where the sweet taste buds are when trying this milk chocolate.

Next on your list to try should be Lindt Swiss Milk Chocolate. This milk chocolate is very, very soft. Companies use additives like milk fat or butter oil to help soften the chocolate. Lindt milk chocolate has two other distinctive flavors: the first is a strong flavor of milk, much more so than many other milk chocolates, while the other interesting note is that of malt, which is added to this chocolate.

The other must-try chocolate in the world of milk chocolate is Symphony, made by Hershey’s. This milk chocolate is one of the sweetest chocolates you will ever have. The front taste buds will tingle for a long time. The other distinctive flavor in Symphony is that of caramel. There is no caramel in the chocolate, but the way they process the milk in this product must induce caramelization, and that’s very evident when you taste this chocolate.

You Can Do It Yourself!

Obviously, there are more and more chocolates becoming more widely available. My suggestion is that you only use small samples in your tasting, e.g. ¼ inch by ¼ inch sections. This will be enough for you to appreciate the characteristics of each sample, but not enough to overwhelm your palate. In setting up an order to taste the samples, I’d go for some of the extreme examples listed above so you can calibrate your tongue for the range of flavors and textures. Within a group of “like” chocolates (all milk chocolates, all semisweets or bittersweets, etc.), it really doesn’t matter which one you try first.

It’s also best to clear your palate with water and an unflavored cracker, such a plain matzoh, before tasting each sample. Try not to do more than 6 chocolates at one session. After a flight of 6 chocolates, take a break for 15 minutes and then try again. You can always try more of the ones you like after the tasting is over!

Now you can begin to see just how extensive the world of chocolate really is. The breadth of textures, flavors, and aromas are extremely wide and you can see for yourself where your “sweet spots” are in this widening world of chocolate. Experiment, do side by side tastings, and, when you are comfortable, take the next step of pairing chocolate with wine/beer/port and yes, even soda!