A Beginner’s Guide to Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles
Eating fine chocolate is far more than a simple indulgence. It’s a complex sensory experience, filled with diverse tastes, aromas, and textures. From delicate floral notes to a creamy mouthfeel, the best cacao and chocolate offer distinctive flavour profiles.
But what flavours should you expect? And how can people new to fine cacao and chocolate learn to taste these exquisite profiles? I spoke to Dr Carla Martin, Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI), to find out all this and more.
Spanish Version: Guía de los Perfiles de Sabor del Cacao & Chocolate para Principiantes
Chocolate bar. Credit: Michał Grosicki
Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles
Just like coffee, cacao and chocolate have a wide range of flavours, aromas, and textures. And just like coffee, some are more prized than others.
Some people say that there are five, or seven, or even eleven basic flavour profiles for cacao. But these descriptions can be reductive. The FCCI, in contrast, has developed a detailed cacao bean evaluation sheet. It lists numerous aromas and tastes, both defective and positive/neutral.
Dr Martin tells me, “The most desirable flavour profiles in cacao and chocolate are those that are typified by balanced amounts of astringency and bitterness (not overpowering), have an enjoyable cocoa aroma, and also have delicate notes such as fruity, floral, spicy, herbal, nutty, or caramel/malty/candied.
“The least desirable are those that exhibit defects in the raw materials or processing – hammy, musty/mouldy, ammonia, putrid, rancid, sulfurous/rubbery, artificial like vanillin, etc.”
She also reminds me of the importance of mouthfeel for chocolate. “The texture of chocolate shouldn’t be challenging or unpleasant, sticky, muddy, chalky, or waxy,” she explains. “The chocolate that I like best has creamy, smooth melting properties that allow for a gradual flavour progression in the mouth.”
Chocolate tasting. Credit: Gabriel van Essen
What Affects Cacao & Chocolate Flavours?
Origin, processing, terroir, variety, and the chocolatier’s skill all have an impact on the flavour profile of fine cacao and chocolate.
There are three well-known varieties: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. These have traditionally been divided into the ‘exceptional’ one (Criollo), the ‘commodity’ one (Forastero), and the ‘hybrid’ one (Trinitario). You’ll hear numerous descriptions of Criollo’s complexity and delicacy or of Forastero’s bitterness and body.
However, many criticise this stance as overly simplistic – especially because, as Scientific American reports, we currently know of ten major cacao varieties. Just like with coffee, it’s important to let cacao and chocolate speak for itself. Evaluate it based on a tasting sheet, not its name.
SEE ALSO: Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties
As for regions, cacao is grown throughout the Americas and Caribbean, Africa, East Asia, and Australasia. Within those regions, there are additional variations in terroir and climate that accentuate specific flavours.
Then you have the impact of cacao processing, which has many stages. In particular, roasting will affect the aroma compounds while conching influences mouthfeel.
Much like coffee, the more you learn about cacao, the more you realise that the story behind it matters.
Cacao beans being dried in Belize. Credit: Cocoa Runners
Blending & Pairing
Good cacao is a complex flavour experience on its own, but even so, many consumers like their chocolate with something.
Hot chocolate recipes often come blended with Madagascan vanilla or cinnamon. In the UK, dark chocolate and orange is a popular dessert combination. And of course, who can forget coffee? The tiramisu is a classic dessert, and many specialty cafés offer coffee-and-chocolate tasting flights.
Chocolate recipes and pairings have changed over time (Dr Martin points me to the work of anthropologist, archaeologist, and ethnohistoricist Dr Kathryn Sampeck in mapping historical chocolate recipes). But today? “Some of the popular ones at the moment include milk/cream, nuts, fruit, liquor (like whiskey, tequila), beer, wine, and more,” Dr Martin tells me.
However, there’s no need to limit your experiments to the most popular options. You’ll find specialty chocolate paired with everything from ginger to gorse.
As always, the key to good pairings is choosing something that will accentuate the cacao or chocolate’s best notes. Taste the chocolate on its own first, before trying it with the paired food or drink.
Remember, your goal is to better appreciate the chocolate’s distinctive flavour – not drown it out.
Tasting multiple chocolate bars. Credit: Magda Grzelka
SEE ALSO: How to Evaluate Cacao & Chocolate
Tips For Cacao Tasting
I ask Dr Martin her recommendations for trying fine chocolate for the first time. She tells me, “As far as tastings, we recommend picking grocery store chocolates that you know well and like to use as references, then finding other chocolate to compare them with.
“You can try tasting along a variety of lines: comparing milk or dark milk chocolates, comparing chocolates of the same percentage from different makers/manufacturers, comparing single origin chocolates from the same or different origins, comparing two-ingredient chocolates (cacao and sugar) to those with added cocoa butter…”
In short: sample, sample, and sample again. Really pay attention to what you’re tasting: what does it smell like? What is the mouthfeel? What notes are you picking up?
“When you taste, be sure to do so in relatively quiet and comfortable conditions, away from other sensory distractions,” Dr Martin instructs. “Then look at the colour and finish, feel and listen to the snap, smell the aromas before tasting, taste the chocolate flavours and progression, and think about the mouthfeel, texture, and finish.”
Cacao beans and the chocolate they become.
As you begin your exploration of cacao and chocolate, you’ll find there’s so much to experience. Next time you crave a sweet snack, check where the chocolate was grown and what variety it is. Listen to how it snaps. Feel the way it melts on your tongue. And savour it the same way you would a cup of specialty coffee.
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