On a lazy Sunday evening a couple of weeks before Easter, I hosted a chocolate-tasting party with a handful of super tasters. It wasn't as frivolous as it seems. In fact, it was quite serious – at least until we had drained all the bottles of banyuls, tawny port, stout, late-harvest Riesling and a 20-year-old early Muscat.
Thanks to the recent boom in craft chocolate making, chocolate tasting has become as mystifying as the snobby worlds of wine and premium coffee. Fortunately for us dilettantes, Eagranie Yuh has come to the rescue. The Vancouver-based chocolate expert and educator has just published The Chocolate Tasting Kit ($31.95), which can be purchased locally at Barbara-Jo's Books to Cooks and Xoxolat.
The interactive guide includes a 48-page booklet that teaches you how to buy and taste chocolate, plus tasting notepads, flash cards (to help you zero in on all those obscure medicinal, bergamot and mushroom smells and flavours) and a keepsake envelope for wrappers. It makes a really fun gift and a great party planner.
The panelists included Sebastien Le Goff, director of service and sommelier for Cactus Club Restaurants, Nikki Bayley, editor of Vancouver Eater.com, Joie Alvaro Kent, a food writer, Paul Scheffer, a landscaper and former chef, Billie Livingston, a novelist, and Kirsten Rustco, a wine representative and journalist.
Let the festivities commence.
Mast Brothers, Belize, 70% ($9.50)
The Brooklyn-based Mast Brothers are pioneers in the North American bean-to-bar craft chocolate movement. This single-origin, single-estate bar has a dark reddish colour, citrus smell and soft snap. Its grainy texture divides the panel. Paul enjoys the roughness. "It gives you something to wrestle with," Billie concurs. Joie and Sebastien find the astringency disagreeably dry. Our tasting notes range from tobacco and black tea to earthy forest and lemon. "What does it say on the package?" someone asks. "Notes of raisin, plum and sarsaparilla," I read out loud. "Boy, did we ever get that one wrong," Joie howls. Lesson learned: Taste is highly subjective.
Dick Taylor, Belize Toledo, 72% ($8)
Owned by two former furniture makers, this Northern California micro-batch bean-to-bar company packages its organic chocolate in "gorgeous" gold foil and letterpress wrappers. The intricately molded bars are "remarkably refined" and "smooth" with a crisp snap and long-lasting finish. Leather, tobacco and hazelnut gives way to a curiously bright chemical flavour. "Iodine?" Kirsten offers. "It's like sucking on a penny," Billie says. "I often snack on pennies," Paul jokes. It's the runaway favourite of the night for five of seven tasters. Lesson learned: Pennies can taste quite pleasant.
Mast Brothers, Madagascar, 72%, ($9.50)
This second Mast Brothers bar has a coppery sheen and pitted appearance. It smells like almonds and has a mellow snap. Nobody likes the chalky texture or strongly tannic espresso flavours. "Initially grim, then horrid." "Hugely imbalanced." "Grossly acidic." "Where are these jokesters from?" Nikki asks. Brooklyn. "I wonder if they give you a discount if you wear suspenders and ride your bicycle to the shop?" Sebastien laughs. Lesson: Hipsters aren't necessarily great chocolate makers.
East Van Roasters, Madagascar, 70% ($6.50)
This is one of the few local chocolate makers that grind their own beans. (The others being DC Duby, Take a Fancy Chocolates and Victoria's Sirene.) The non-profit initiative, which also roasts great coffee, benefits the women residents of the Downtown Eastside's Ranier Hotel. This dark reddish-brown bar has a smooth sheen, caramel scent and high-pitched snap. The panel identifies lots of sweet butterscotch and pecan flavours with a touch of yeast and a messy, melty creaminess. "It's a solid middle of the road bar," Joie declares. Nikki appreciates the company's altruism and would buy it just for that. Lesson learned: Good social causes can upgrade a mediocre bar.
Amadei, Cioccolato Al Latte, 32% ($9.95)
This Tuscan chocolate boutique has won the Chocolate Academy of London's prestigious Golden Bean award for four consecutive years. Their dark chocolate is outstanding. But this orangey milk chocolate with a fudgy vanilla smell and "screamingly sweet" malted milk flavour doesn't impress the panel. "It taste like a dirty Wendy's frosty at 2:30 a.m. after a night of drinking," Joie says. Then everyone takes a sip of Cave Spring select late harvest Riesling. "Yuck." "It turns into blue cheese." Lesson learned: Not all wines pair well with chocolate
Akesson's, Milk Chocolate With Fleur De Sel and Organic Coconut Blossom Sugar, 45% ($8)
Cocoa grower Bertil Akesson was a Swedish diplomat in Paris before starting a trading company. The cocoa for this astonishingly complex milk chocolate was grown on one of his plantations in Bali. Although sweet enough to satisfy the milk chocolate lovers in the panel, it has surprising depth, with toffee and roasted hazelnut flavours and a mouth-popping kick from the fleur de sel. "The complexity was a big surprise," Sebastien marvels. Lesson learned: Low cocoa mass can still produce very high quality.
Xoxolat, Blue Corn Tortilla Chips and Lime in 75% Dark Chocolate ($4)
Pronounced sho-sho-la, this Vancouver shop sells single-origin and estate chocolate from around the world and produces its own line of fun flavours. But this dark, shiny, crunchy bar that smells strongly of lime margarita and has a waxy finish packs too much fun. "Whoa, it tastes like a plate of nachos," Nikki says. "It reminds me of the product you use to polish wood," Sebastien offers. "Pledge?" says Billie. "All those crunchy lime chips are disorienting," she adds. "But I bet it would be fabulous with a joint." Lesson learned: Be creative with your pairings.
Valrhona, Dulcey Blond ($14)
Caramelized white chocolate is one of the hottest trends in the chocolate world today. And most of the panelists swoon over these creamy, velvety smooth baking discs (feves) from one of the world's best-known chocolate giants. "Dulce de leche!" "Werther's Original Candies!" "Love, love, love!" "I need more!" Lesson learned: Mass-produced chocolates are sometimes popular for good reason.
Beta 5, Candied Black Olives in White Chocolate ($12)
As strange as it sounds, this sweet-and-savoury bar from a Vancouver chocolatier won gold at the 2013 Canadian Chocolate Awards and silver at the International Awards. According to Eagranie Yuh, a grand jury member, flavoured white chocolate has become the innovative category in recent years. Our panelists, who detect "armpit" "rustic barnyard" and icing sugar" odours, are not impressed. After a spirited discussion about the type of olives being used (Nicoise, it's decided), everyone complains about the bar's "outrageous" sweetness. It burns our throats. We have olives stuck in our teeth. Sure, it's a showstopper. But not a pleasant one. Lesson learned: The Chocolate Award juries must be crazy.