When we talk about the taste of chocolate, what do we mean? As with specialty coffee, sometimes it can be hard to articulate what we are experiencing. But there are some exercises we can do to better understand the sensory characteristics and more fully appreciate craft chocolate.
Read on to learn more about astringency, mouthfeel, and more.
Lee este artículo en español Entendiendo el Sabor, la Textura y la Astringencia Del Chocolate
Cacao nibs and pods. Credit: Perfect Daily Grind
Breaking Down Chocolate Tasting
At Cocoa Runners, the craft chocolate subscription box company that I co-founded, we break down sampling chocolate into five experiences: taste, flavour, texture, mouthfeel, and melt. These aren’t the only aspects to appreciating craft chocolate, but they’re a good starting point. By considering these points, we believe you will be able to better evaluate the chocolate you’re tasting and become more aware of the differences among bars.
You may also like A Beginner’s Guide to Cacao & Chocolate Flavour Profiles
Chopped chocolate. Credit: Charisse Kenio
Taste vs. Flavour
Hold your nose while sucking a piece of chocolate. It may seem strange, but this exercise can help you understand the difference between taste and flavour.
With your nose closed, you may be able to identify sweetness but probably won’t experience much more. When you open your nose, you’ll notice a range of flavours.
This is because there are five basic tastes, which we experience through our taste buds: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. But flavour is created by our sense of smell. Smell is both orthonasal and retronasal (that is, what you sniff and what you experience as you chew and swallow). Good chocolate melts when it hits your tongue, and contains many flavours, so you’ll experience a variety of sensations.
Chocolate tasting. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
So now that your nose is open, what flavours do you notice? As with coffee, there are hundreds of chemical compounds that contribute to aroma and flavour in cacao, and it can be difficult to articulate exactly what you’re experiencing. So it can help to have some descriptors that are generally understood. Common descriptors include spicy, fruity, green, floral, bright, sharp, and malted.
Try a couple of bars at the same time to understand the differences between them. You may also want to keep a tasting notebook and list what flavours stand out to you in each chocolate you try, as well as how much you enjoyed the overall experience. You might notice that chocolate made with cacao from one origin has a unique profile or that you enjoy a particular flavour note more than others.
Some common flavour notes in chocolate. Credit: Cocoa Runners.
Texture & Mouthfeel
Texture is relatively straightforward – it’s simply how smooth or grainy the chocolate feels in your mouth. Compare stone-ground bars like those from Taza to smoothly conched bars from Akesson’s, Bonnat, and most other craft chocolate makers. The difference will be evident.
To evaluate texture during tastings at Cocoa Runners, we use four basic descriptors that are easy to understand: smooth, chewy, coarse, and unrefined.
A bar of dark chocolate. Credit: Jacqueline Macou
Mouthfeel can be more complicated and confusing to categorise. During tastings, we evaluate mouthfeel as intense, buttery, mellow, or clean. But to be honest, I’m not sure we’ve completely cracked a meaningful way of describing mouthfeel yet.
The difference between butteriness and intensity is clear, as is that between creaminess and astringency. None of these elements are tastes, textures, or flavour. They’re something slightly different that we categorise as mouthfeel. But we often confuse creaminess with sweetness and astringency with bitterness.
Dark chocolate buttons. Credit: David Greenwood-Haigh
In craft chocolate, the difference between astringency and bitterness is really important – astringency is part of the fun, but bitterness is not such a desirable quality.
Astringency is classically defined as when the saliva in your mouth is “pulled” away so you have the sensation of drying, “roughing”, or puckering. You’ve probably noticed astringency in foods and drinks with lots of tannins, such as red wine, whisky, roasted coffee beans, persimmons, and some teas.
Astringency is very different from bitterness, but the two are often confused. Perhaps the problem is that in the global West, many astringent foods are also bitter so we conflate the two sensations.
Bitterness is caused by polyphenols, which naturally occur in cacao. During fermentation, a lot of these compounds are converted in to less-bitter tasting chemicals. We need some bitterness to balance the other flavours in chocolate, but a very bitter bar may be a result of using cacao that hasn’t been fermented for long enough.
Cacao beans being fermented. Credit: Llankhay Chocolate
When we eat or drink an astringent substance, proteins in the food or drink combine with our saliva to irritate our trigeminal nerve. Try placing cacao nibs on your tongue. If you can hold them still and don’t suck or chew, you probably won’t notice any astringency. But if you suck or chew, you’ll notice astringent sensations as the saliva irritates your trigeminal nerve.
In tastings, we try to encourage customers to try cacao nibs and then a couple of different 100% cacao bars. We’re usually asked why there is such a range of intensity and astringency among the bars. There’s no single answer to this.
The perception of astringency can be influenced by the amount of cocoa butter – basically the more butter, the more “smooth” and “creamy” the sensation and the less astringent. The size of grind can accentuate this further (the smaller the cacao particle, the more cacao butter to particle). The variety of cacao used also plays a role, as do roast and fermentation choices, as well as melt and temper.
You can also try to “super saturate” your trigeminal nerve and observe how it affects your perception of flavours. Try combining an (astringent) espresso, full-bodied red wine, or strong spirit with the chocolate. You should be able to better detect the fruity, earthy, or floral flavours of the chocolate when you’ve already stimulated your trigeminal nerve with another astringent experience.
Cacao nibs and a chocolate bar. Credit: WKND Chocolate
The Importance of Melt
How chocolate melts is influenced by many factors, including its temper, age, how finely the cacao was ground, the amount of cacao butter included, and the thickness of the bar. Put a piece on your tongue and let it melt, taking care not to chew. As it melts, it will take you on a journey of different flavours. A rich Dominican bar might start with roasted notes but then develop into an earthy finish. Or the initial berry notes of a Madagascan chocolate may transform into a citrus flavour.
If your sample is very thin, it can be more difficult to pick up the different stages of flavour, so start out using pieces that aren’t too thick or thin in your tasting exercises. Astringency is a slow build (it can take 10 to 20 seconds for us to experience it), so a thin bar will seem less astringent because the chocolate melted before you had time to perceive much of it.
Pouring melted chocolate. Credit: Mayorga Organics
It’s also important to make sure that the bar is still “in temper” and hasn’t bloomed. Chocolate can take on six different crystal formations, known as crystal structures 1 through 6. The most desirable crystal structure is 5 (also known as form V or beta crystal). The aim of tempering is to make as many of this type of crystal structures as possible. The result is chocolate that will melt on your tongue and release those great flavours and aromas.
If you’ve ever let a bar melt in the sun and then put it in a fridge, you may have noticed that the bar is a lot harder, more brittle, and may have some white bits on the surface. These are the fats separating out and this is known as blooming. A bar that has melted and re-solidified like this is essentially untempered. It won’t melt as easily and won’t release all those wonderful flavour volatiles, so it may be a less enjoyable sensory experience.
Learn more in Sweet Treats: How Is Fine Chocolate Made?
Melted chocolate. Credit: Mayorga Organics
Improving your sensory analysis of chocolate can help you make more informed choices on what bars you buy and better describe the sensations you experience. So why not try a few tasting exercises and see what you notice? Similarly to a coffee cupping, trying multiple bars makes it easier to appreciate the distinctions and differences of each bar.
Be sure to keep notes on the cacao content, texture, thickness, and other factors to identify any patterns.
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Written by Spencer Hyman of Cocoa Runners.
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