Chocolate Tasting: How To Taste Chocolate

Last week I had the good fortune of visiting Tain-l’Hermitage, a town in the southeastern quarter of France, near Valence. It is right in the middle of the Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage wine country, in a gorgeous area that’s full of peach, cherry and apricot orchards. But me, I was there for the chocolate: Tain is also home to the Valrhona chocolate factory, and I’d been invited to take a tour.

We spent the day in paper hats, paper coats, and paper shoes (v. becoming), going in and out of large halls housing huge machinery, fat bags of cacao beans and ripples of chocolate, breathing in the intoxicating scents cacao emits as it is submitted to the many torments (cleaned, roasted, husked, crushed, ground, conched, molded, cooled, wrapped) that will turn it from bitter bean to the voluptuous antidepressant we know and love.

And the only thing I love more than chocolate is understanding how stuff works, so this was very much my idea of a happy Tuesday — despite the fact I’d had to get up at 4:45am to take the train, but I am nothing if not committed.

Most of the flavor components of chocolate are “trapped” in the cacao butter, and it’s only when the chocolate melts that they are released. Conveniently, the magic happens right around mouth temperature.

At the end of this full and instructive day, we were treated to a session with Vanessa Lemoine, the in-house expert in sensory analysis, a discipline in which the five human senses are used to describe and analyze products.

Among her responsibilities at Valrhona, she is in charge of training the chocolate tasters who assess the ten-kilo samples that are sent ahead of any cacao shipment. The beans from each origin are expected to conform to a particular flavor profile, according to the particularities of the cacao variety, the region’s terroir, and the production method that Valrhona and the growers have agreed upon. Any crop that differs significantly from that profile won’t be accepted for purchase. This is to ensure that the quality and personality of the single-origin chocolates as well as the blends remain steady, so that the chocolatiers and pastry chefs who have built their own recipes on a particular chocolate can in turn offer consistency to their customers.

The thing is, you can’t judge a crop by its bean: at this stage, the aromatic components are dormant, and its full potential will only be revealed after the beans are processed and turned into actual chocolate. So the sample beans go through a mini production line, and emerges as chocolate the tasters will grade along thirty different descriptors. A tough job, I’m sure — and I’m not being ironic.

It takes many training sessions to reach the finesse of palate that’s required of these tasters, but Vanessa Lemoine gave us a short primer on how to taste chocolate, and I thought it so interesting I wanted to share it here. The process is in some ways similar to wine tasting, so if you’re a honed wine taster, you’re that far ahead.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, an estimated 90% of what we call “taste” in common speech is in fact perceived by the nose: directly at first, as we breathe in the smell of the food, and then indirectly, once the food is in our mouth and we start chewing, as we breathe out air that is charged with new aromatic components that have been released by the mastication. This second phase is called retro-olfaction — reverse smelling, if you will.

The mouth itself perceives sensations of coolness, hotness, and spiciness, and the tongue’s receptors feel acidity, sweetness, saltiness, and bitterness*.

The modus operandi Vanessa Lemoine prescribes is to taste a single chocolate in two or three takes, breaking off a small chunk of chocolate (about a third of a square) with your fingers each time: a lot goes on in the mouth and nose when you eat chocolate, so you’ll need a few tries, focusing on different aspects at each bite. She also advises against tasting more than four or five different chocolates during a single session, because the senses quickly become saturated.

Look at the chocolate first: note whether it is shiny or matte, and what shade of brown it is — milky, mahogany, ebony? Notice how the chocolate breaks off, too: does it snap (a desirable quality) or is it pliable?

Although it is interesting to smell the chocolate at this point and note your impressions, you’ll likely find little to write about: most of the flavor components of chocolate are “trapped” in the cacao butter, and it’s only when the chocolate melts that they are released. Conveniently, the magic happens right around mouth temperature.

So next you’ll place a piece of chocolate in your mouth, chew briefly to accelerate the release of the flavor components, then let the chocolate melt between your tongue and the roof of your mouth, and concentrate on your sensations.

The first component that will manifest itself is acidity: if the chocolate is acidic (which is not a fault, unless it’s overwhelming), it will trigger salivation right away, and you’ll feel it on the sides of your tongue and underneath it. Note the scale of this sensation, and whether it fades quickly or stays with you throughout the tasting.

Breathe out through your nose slowly with your mouth closed, and try to describe the aromas you perceive through retro-olfaction. They will appear in stages: the first ones you’ll get are the fleeting, delicate notes of fruit or flower, followed by warmer notes of spice, roasted nuts, or toasted bread. Woody, malted or earthy notes will appear in the finish. Note the intensity of each aroma. Vanessa Lemoine noted that any smoky or smoked aroma in chocolate was, in her view, a defect.

The aromas will appear in stages: first come the fleeting, delicate notes of fruit or flower, followed by warmer notes of spice, roasted nuts, or toasted bread. Woody, malted or earthy notes will appear in the finish.

Try to be as specific as possible in describing the aromas: if you sense something fruity, is it berries, is it stone fruit, is it citrus? Is it a fresh fruit aroma, or a jam-like one? If the chocolate is floral, is it jasmine, rose, orange blossom…? It can be a real brain challenge to put a name on the aroma you’re smelling, but you’ll get better with practice. It’s helpful to conduct tastings with other people, too, so you can share impressions.

Bitterness will make its presence known toward the end, and it will become more and more noticeable and persistent in subsequent bites. Bitterness is perceived by receptors placed at the back of the tongue in a V formation (pointing toward the throat**), so be attuned to a sensation in that region of the mouth: is it strong? Does it linger?

You should also note the texture of the chocolate on your tongue: does it feel dry and brittle (not a good thing), or is it lithe and fresh, or is it creamy, so creamy as to coat your tongue and the roof of your mouth?

Taste a second and possibly a third small chunk of chocolate until you feel you’ve explored all of these aspects, and try to describe the overall experience. You can draw inspiration from some of the adjectives Valrhona uses to describe their chocolates: rounded, warm, fruity, fresh, tangy, floral, oaky, tannic, sweet, bittersweet, caramelized, powerful, intense, balanced, elegant, velvety, creamy… and add negative ones if the need arises.

Between chocolates, it’s good to reset your palate by drinking water and/or eating a bit of bread (crumb only) or a slice of apple.

This method was described to us in the context of tasting plain chocolate, i.e. not flavored with anything other than vanilla or malt (standard flavor enhancers for chocolate), but I’m sure it could also be used to assess flavored chocolate bars, covered ganaches, and other chocolate confections.

[Pictured above is chocolate from Brooklyn's Mast Brothers.]

* Vanessa Lemoine did not mention umami or how it factors into this tableau, though I’m sure she’s aware of its existence. Perhaps she omitted it here because umami does not typically figure into the flavor profile of chocolate?

** Poisonous or inedible wild berries are bitter, so the V-shaped formation is thought to be designed as a barrier, allowing gatherers to spit them out before it was too late.

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  • http://www.howsweeteats.com Jessica @ How Sweet

    As much as I love chocolate, I guess I really don’t know ‘how’ it works, either! I am now itching to try my next piece!

  • http://staraniserecipes.blogspot.com Magda

    This is so interesting! I also love to know how stuff works, if you do not understand how and why things happen, you will never be able to appreciate the complexity and hard work that goes into something so common as chocolate. Thanks for that!

  • http://www.gamereviewwiki.com/bikinibirthday Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday

    How do I score a job as a Valrhona Chocolate Taster?

  • http://www.lilyuburns.com/queenoftarts Lily U. Burns

    This is very interesting! I once did a chocolate tasting with my nephews as we made truffles – we started with white and made our way up to 80%. However your experience is so fantastic. I think that I will have to invite my nephews over and do it all over again based on what you describe here!

  • http://rumandreason.com Zoë @rumandreason

    Having a scientific, methodical rationale for being found raiding the chocolate drawer with chocolate round your mouth is fantastic: “Er.. no… actually you see I was just taking another piece to really hone in on those rose petal overtones I tasted earlier. Is it just me or is there a bit of oak chipping in there too”… Etc.

  • http://www.pantrybites.com Janet (Pantry Bites)

    This is really the way that we should be eating all foods. Paying full attention to each bite. But I would agree that good chocolate will be that much better wit your full attention.

  • The Paris Food Blague

    oh how i love chocolate. the approach to chocolate tasting seems a lot like advice you get for wine tasting. and the two together….oh happiness.

    merci pour les conseils!

  • http://thewelltemperedchocolatier.com Eagranie @ The Well-Tempered Chocolatier

    Re: umami, I think it’s a hard one to really quantify. Even outside the context of chocolate, I find umami is more of a sensation of fullness or roundness than a taste.

    Chocolate can definitely have characteristics of fullness or roundness. Pralus’ 100% is a good example of this, though the added cocoa butter definitely has something to do with that. :)

    And, you know, it’s entirely possible that Valrhona is being patient with the idea of umami. While most agree that it’s a legitimate flavour, it can turn into a heated argument. I suspect they’re waiting to see what happens before attaching their reputation to it.

  • Cristina

    So interesting. Fantastic post!

  • Sam

    AHH.
    Thank you SOO much!
    My life’s work is now fulfilled. :)
    ~Sam

  • http://www.kitchentravels.com Dawn (KitchenTravels)

    So interesting. This post appeals to my inner geek… and my not-so-inner chocolate lover. :)

  • http://www.edenkitchen.com Joe @ Eden Kitchen

    This sounds like an incredible experience. In my last job I used to spend a lot of time tasting coffee which is kind of similar, but I think tasting chocolate for a living would be an absolute dream!

  • http://www.socalsustenance.blogspot.com Larua

    Wow… my little nerd brain just went into complete overdrive. This is fascinating, the science of why chocolate is just so darn good. Thank you!
    -Laura :)

  • susan

    just out of curiosity, what are your favorite brands of chocolate?

  • http://aehrelichgesagt.blogspot.com/ Daniel

    Thank you for the amazing post. I recently re-discovered Valrhona because of your mention of Cacao Nibs in your book.

    I’ve never given much thought to actually tasting chocolate with regards to the deeper flavors, though I do apply the method to beer tasting. It’s actually a bit funny, because certain Imperial Stouts, one of the references I use to describe the flavor is actually chocolate. It’s not much of a coincidence, though, as there is a type of roasted malted barley called “Chocolate Malt.”

  • http://usingmainlyspoons.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/learning-more-about-chocolate/ Louise (usingmainlyspoons)

    I recently went to a chocolate tasting as well – organised by seventypercent.com in London. One fun thing we tried was to taste while holding your nose, let the chocolate melt, then release it – you get a burst of flavour as the aromas are released all at once. Try it!

  • http://www.frenchpressmemos.blogspot.com FrenchPressMemos

    What an interesting post! I am a total chocoholic but never thought of the intricacies that go into taking your time to actually taste, savor, analyze, and enjoy. I love the detail you provided and will definitely run it all through my head next time I bite into that heavenly brown square.

  • Aneta

    Suffering withdrawal-like sympoms form yesterdays ending of Melbourne’s Food and Wine Festival (a yearly, 12-day orgy of food festivities – Asian hawker’s market dishes, cooking demonstrations, The Longest Lunch, and a luxurious diner at Roman Block Party, just to name a few events) I logged on in desperation for my next “foodie fix” and yes! Clotilde, you are there when most needed.

    Thank you for a very well written article on the taste of chocolate. It had me running to my kitchen and raiding my own “hidden stash” of chocolate – (for emergencies only), an am now enjoying a bite of a Lindt Chocolate – wait for it…creamy, smooth, with orange undertones.

    I recently stummbled across Chocolate and Zucchini, and am already smitten – I love your writting and your recipes! so much so, that I will now proceed to read through your archies from start to end (a quick glance revealed a satisfyingly extensive amount of content!). This may take some time, and of course, I might have to stop in order to purchase more chocolate, so, until next time…

    P.S If interested in the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, refer to Pim’s blog: Chez Pim. She’s still teasing us with morsels of photos of the events, but I’m sure a full report is soon to come.
    -The Seasoned Melbournian

  • http://cakeandcordial.blogspot.com Gina

    This was a wonderful, concise and fascinating description of an enlightening way to enjoy chocolate. Meanwhile, I’ve been eating fistfulls of Hershey’s chip-its… ah well. We all need a little high and a little low.

    Thanks Clotilde!

  • http://chocolatierm.blogspot.com Brian Asis

    I think I have read these same tips on the Valrhona website, but it was not as detailed as this one. Thank you for sharing this to us Larua! I’m definitely going to use this on my future chocolate reviews.

  • http://www.FoyUpdate.blogspot.com Foy Update – Garden. Cook. Write. Repeat.

    Screw the wine tasting class, I want to take a chocolate tasting class!

  • http://completerunning.com/chocolate-runners-blog/ Jon (was) in Michigan

    All I can say is that I am incredibly JEALOUS that you got to tour a Valrhona plant. Total dream tour for me! The closest I get is cuddling a 3 kg block of their Caraque.

    Next time you go? I can fit in your suitcase.

  • http://berlincheesecake.blogspot.com Vanessa

    I remember my trip to Tain l’Hermitage a few years ago; the smell of the chocolate outside near Valrhona and the shop where you could taste all those different kinds – fantastic. Thanks for the tips; I never imagined tasting chocolate was as complex as tasting wine.

  • http://forkfingerschopsticks.com/ Andrea @ Fork Fingers Chopsticks

    Excellent post. As much as I enjoy chocolate, I’ve only begun to understand its complexities. Any particular favorites?

  • http://www.feldhofer.com/felix felix

    according to hervé this-benckhard (in his book ‘les secrets de la casserole’) although the nose is very important in the process of tasting, the tongue is still underrated. it is not only able to taste saltiness, acidity, sweetness and bitterness, but also umami, the taste of liquorice, the taste of mint and several other tastes, making it at least ten different tastes in total. the tongue is also able to distinguish between different kinds of saltiness and sweetness (that’s why coke-light doesn’t taste as good as the real thing) and to taste combinations of the different elementary tastes.

  • http://bonjourjuliette.com/ BonjourJuliette

    I just had some very good chocolate with me reading this, and i was planning on tasting it properly. But now i’m at the end of your post, nothing’s left of it! Must be some mouse that came by or something…

  • http://sarahjuniorjunior.tumblr.com Sarah

    Mast brothers! I read an article awhile back about them – their workshop seems so old-fashioned and wonderful.
    I’ve been meaning to try their chocolate ever since.

  • http://firefliesofhope.com Gwendolyn

    I love how Mast Brothers chocolate bars are wrapped in beautiful Rossi paper.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/thelovelyemily Emily S.

    Clotilde,

    I rarely comment but just want to say thanks for sharing this with us!

    Emily

  • http://www.cookincanuck.com Cookin’ Canuck

    My goodness, I don’t think I’ll ever think of chocolate in the same way again. Great info!

  • http://www.inolongerlikechocolates.com Kathie

    Is it pure coincidence that you’re listening to a song by She & Him, while reading a Kathy Reich novel? The “She” is Chloe Deschanel, while on the TV series “Bones” Dr. Temperance Brennan is played by her sister Emily! Chloe even guested on one episode as Bones’s long-lost cousin.

    The first novel I co-translated is titled (in English) “I No Longer Like Chocolates.” The source of the title is a quote near the end of the novel by the main character, a Portuguese peasant from one of the islands in the Azores who, although he’s never tasted American chocolates, is convinced he’ll love them once he reaches the US and gets to try them. In his early 40s he eventually obtains the necessary visas for him and his family to immigrate to California, where he prospers (and develops a liking for chocolates!). Yet near the end of his life he realizes he never successfully figured out how to cope with American culture — hence the symbolism of the title. Ironically, I know for a fact that the novelist himself, Álamo Oliveira, actually LIKES chocolates!

  • http://mylittleexpatkitchen.blogspot.com/ my little expat kitchen

    That’s a very interesting post. I better go eat some chocolate now… or better yet, have a tasting!
    Magda

  • Lesley

    What wonderful timing. I have just picked up my monthly ration (which lasts two weeks) of organic pedal powered chocolate by Chocosol Traders here in Toronto.
    I will now “taste” my secret desk stash more carefully following the directions.
    Is there anything better in life than chocolate?

  • Stephie

    Great description of the tasting aspects. We should always try and really taste our food but especially indulgences like chocolate. Touring a chocolatier sounds like a great way to spend a day!

  • http://humblecook.wordpress.com Hilary

    1. I thought that was a Mast Brother’s wrapper! Aren’t they spectacular?!

    2. Malt in chocolate? I have heard of a chocolate malt, but…

    and

    3. Last night, my friend told me she doesn’t like chocolate. I’m not entirely sure we can hang out anymore.

  • http://www.delishhh.com Delishhh

    Great post! I just did a post on tasting chocolate too a few weeks back. Everytime a have a little girls get together we have a chocolate tasting event and eveyone loves it. http://delishhh.com/?p=430

  • http://www.pebblesoup.blogspot.com Solange

    great post, thanks. For info there is a chocolate festival at the South Bank this week-end and in Brighton too.

  • http://www.fureyandthefeast.com Cynthia

    It fascinates me that there’s so many different things to learn about chocolate. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us! I do hope Valrhona offers tours to the public in September!

  • http://www.justfoodnow.com Jacoba

    As usual, an amazing post – congrats, you do it every time.

  • http://www.blogfood1.blogspot.com Londyn

    wow! how fabulous! I’m green with envy :)

  • http://www.mylocaltown.ie Nelly

    Amazing post, will take this into account. Fabulous!

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    All – So glad you share my enthusiasm for this; thanks for your comments!

    Eagranie – I see what you mean about umami, and agree: considering how argumentative food people can get, it’s possible that Vanessa Lemoine chose to avoid that discussion in order to focus on the chocolate. :)

    Felix – Thanks so much for your thoughts on the tongue’s perception, that’s super interesting. I don’t have that book but will look it up.

    Kathie – Thanks for pointing this out — I had no idea Emily was Zoey’s (I assume you meant Zoey not Chloe) sister. What a fun coincidence! And that novel sounds really good, too.

  • http://www.inolongerlikechocolates.com Kathie

    Good catch, Clotilde! Indeed I meant Zoey Deschanel. I’m so glad you can read my mind.

  • Molly

    Clotilde — is it possible for the public to take a tour of Valrhona factory? I’ll be in the area with my family in June and we would love to visit there! thanks,
    Molly

  • libby Sloan

    How ironic that you should have a photo of the Mast Bros. chocolate in Williamsburg Brooklyn. I happened by there when they first opened as our kids live in the same building. They told me that their original inspiration was Maurice Bernachon in Lyon, a lovely man whom I remember well from the 1980’s and doing chocolate courses with him in his atelier in Lyon. I’m not sure that the Mast brothers have achieved a Valrhona or Bernachon (1980’s) perfection, but they are certainly headed in the right direction with their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. Glad you found them! We stop by there everytime we go see our kids in Brooklyn.

  • Patrick

    I once attended a chocolate tasting in Paris at La Maison Du Chocolat. There are no words to describe…

    They have stores in NYC and I’ve heard they conduct occasional tastings. You might contact them to find out. Their chocolates are highly recommended, especially the ganaches.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Molly – I don’t think Valrhona offers public tours at this time, but if you’re in the area you could drop by the store to stock up on chocolate and/or consider taking a class at their cooking school (see website for more info).

    Libby – I hope to have a chance to visit the Mast Brothers’ chocolate factory sometime!

  • http://www.secondnature.typepad.com Maj Carita

    Oh, you lucky girl! I have visited the Valrhona shop in Tain l’Hermitage a number of times, but a tour of the factory would be awesome!!!
    Last time, we accidently met, and talked with one of high rank Valrhona people outside the shop, and as we were leaving, he came over to the parking lot and presented us with a big box of Porcelana chocolate. From now on, I am an ambassador of Valrhona, when ever I get the chance. It was sooo good!

  • http://www.AnnmarieKostyk.com Annmarie Kostyk

    I loved this article. I, myself, have been itching to be invited on a tour such as this. Perhaps I should invite myself?

    My blog is devoted completely to chocolate. I hold chocolate tastings regularly and I have found it difficult to do so in the US. I am embarrassed at the way everyone juts wants to shove the chocolate into their mouths and devour it. They miss the whole point. There is an art not only to making chocolate and food, but in eating as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this post!

  • http://hungry4words@blogspot.com Chloe

    What kind of chocolate bar is in your photo? The wrapper is very pretty! :)

  • http://culinarygrammar.wordpress.com/ Steph

    Thanks for the in depth explanation! I have a bar of Olive & Sinclair Salt&Pepper Chocolate at home that I can’t wait to try this with. :D

  • http://www.purplefoodie.com Shaheen

    Thank you so much for this. I learned a lot!

  • http://thecuriousbaker.com The Curious Baker

    I did something like this during chocolate week and we found that white tea was fantastic for cleansing the palate between chocolate. I think I jujst found it weird/quasi-impossible to just let the chocolate melt without crunching into it!

  • http://www.fondtimes.com Scott

    What is the best brand for baking?

  • http://blog.fondtimes.com Sherri

    I need to take a chocolate tasting class and if I don’t pass the class I will just have to take it again.

  • http://la.goodchocolateblog.com Chocolate Lover

    I thought I was a chocolate expert. I sell it and eat it, so I must be one right? Well, I now know that I need to learn to truly taste chocolate to get the whole experience! Wonder how I could get a job as a taster?! :)

  • http://www.customcandybarwrapper.com Chocolate Favors

    Love everything chocolate especially this post on how to really taste chocolate. Try Chocolate Favors

  • http://www.divinechocolate.net Kevin

    You did a great job describing the benefits of chocolate tasting! I look forward to grabbing a piece of chocolate and following your step by step methods. It seems logical to apply this to all types of foods. :)

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