Fine chocolate is just like fine wine: there may be clues to its quality on the label, but we are the final judges of its ‘fineness’. Our own appreciation of the pleasure and complexity of the tasting journey is crucial to quality assessment.
We can drink wine as a pleasurable way to consume alcohol, but fine wines offer us the opportunity to appreciate the nuances of aroma, mouthfeel and taste, and to compare grape variety, terroir, maker and vintage. Chocolate, too, offers the choice between a deliciously stimulating chocolatey indulgence and a taste experience altered by bean variety, harvest, terroir and the craftsmanship of the maker. Along with fine wine, chocolate also has the potential to deliver hundreds of different flavour notes, a multitude of mouthfeels and long, lingering aftertastes. Something you will want to try over and over again!
FINE CHOCOLATE NEEDS FINE-AROMA COCOA BEANS
When judging what is fine, the first thing you need to know is that you cannot make fine chocolate without fine flavour cocoa beans.
Only 5% of the cocoa beans grown are ‘fine’ or ‘fine-aroma’ beans. And it is only this 5% of beans that that can deliver the nuanced flavours of fine chocolate. The reason, too, why you don’t find fine chocolate in supermarkets, and even their ‘fine’ brands are still industrially produced from ‘bulk’ cacao that is grown for quantity and not quality.
Criollo, Forastero, Nacional and Trinitario are the general classifications for cacao varieties, and, put simply, Criollos are related to the ancient fine flavour beans discovered in Mesoamerica; Forasteros are ancestors of the hardier, less flavoursome varieties found in parts of South America, including the Nacional cacao from Ecuador (now categorized on its own) and the Trinitarios are hybrid varieties believed to have been created in Trinidad and Tobago when a Forastero variety crossbred with an ancient Criollo to provide both flavour and increased disease resistance.
These names can be a sign of quality in that they indicate the ancestry of the cacao, but cacao trees are extremely promiscuous, and, given their history of transplantation, you can see how, in reality, the genetic make-up of varieties is way more complicated!
You can read more about which varieties are grown in which countries on my post on GROWING REGIONS
ONLY FINE INGREDIENTS PERMITTED
The first thing to do when assessing a bar is to check the ingredients list. Fine chocolate can only contain the following ingredients:
- Cocoa solids from fine cacao (over 60% for dark chocolate and over 30% for milk chocolate)
- Extra cocoa butter
- Lecithin (to aid the flow of the chocolate)
- Real vanilla
Any flavourings or inclusions, including salt, must be declared, and the bar is then classified as ‘flavoured’.
IT’S ABOUT TASTE, TRANSPARENCY AND CRAFTSMANSHIP
If the genetics and ingredients of a bar are good, you can then move on to considering the ethics of the maker and the care taken to develop the intrinsic flavours of the beans, but first it must pass the taste test.
Taste is the true test of the quality of chocolate, and you need all your senses to assess the appearance, aroma, snap, mouthfeel and taste of the chocolate to determine its quality. Fine chocolate will take your senses on a tasting journey—it will not be predictable, singular and monotone, but varied, exciting and colourful!
Fine chocolate makers are committed to transparency. They want you to know as much as they can tell you about the chocolate you are buying, including its sources, varieties, growing methods, trade (which will be as direct as possible), making processes and the extent of their involvement in the making process. This may not be shown on every bar, but it will be on their website or in other publicity. But beware, just because a website talks of sustainability, fair trade and single origins, and has images of cocoa pods and chocolate-making machines, don’t assume they are selling fine chocolate. Fine chocolate makers will tell you, so it if it doesn’t identify sources and processes then you should be suspicious.
The skill of the craftsman begins as soon as the cacao has been harvested. The fermenting and drying processes are crucial to developing the inherent flavours of the beans. This process then continues with the maker—the roasting, grinding and conching of the dried cocoa beans are all skillfully executed to coax out those intrinsic flavour notes.
Here, I think it helps to clarify the difference between a chocolate maker and a chocolatier: a chocolate maker is a person (or company) who crafts the chocolate from the beans, whereas a chocolatier uses pre-made chocolate or couverture to craft bars or filled chocolates.
There is a wealth of information on the web about fine chocolate, provided by makers and bloggers with an in-depth knowledge of each of these subject areas. Visit the RESOURCES page for further information and I have included a few links to further online reading below.
More on fine chocolate quality criteria:
A characteristically no-nonsense exploration of the terminology of fine chocolate: https://www.thechocolatejournalist.com/blog/fine-chocolate-pretends-fine-chocolate-2
An analysis of the different options for every ingredient permitted in fine chocolate: https://readcacao.com/blog/ingredients-in-chocolate-what-is-in-my-bar/
More detail on taste terminology: https://cocoarunners.com/chocopedia-by-cocoa-runners/the-science-history-of-chocolate/disentangling-taste-flavour-texture-and-mouthfeel-aka-dont-confuse-bitterness-with-astringency/
Why we need transparency in chocolate? Ama at Lucocoa spells it out…because “in 2018 there were an estimated 2.2 million (ICI) children farming cocoa in West Africa – TWO THOUSAND AND EIGHTEEN!”: https://www.lucocoachocolate.com/blog/worldchocolateday2020
US makers Dandelion Chocolate are trailblazers in demonstrating transparency but it is by no means straightforward. This article looks at the challenges and triumphs of Dandelion’s journey: https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2018/05/09/dandelion-chocolate-transparency-and-accountability-in-craft-chocolate/
Colonial history, commodity markets and direct rather trade – Cocoa Runners take you through the key points and provide further reading suggestions: https://cocoarunners.com/2020/06/chocolates-dark-history-and-the-importance-of-transparent-direct-trade/
A succinct homily to fine chocolate “barsmiths” and their “techno-magic” on the C-spot site: https://www.c-spot.com/atlas/chocolate-brands/
A step-by-step look at the chocolate making process: https://readcacao.com/blog/bean-to-bar-how-chocolate-is-made/