Friday, July 31, 2015

Don't let your biases get in the way of tasting chocolate

For our seventh Anniversary Month celebration in July, we hosted a chocolate "bracket" among sixteen bars from our craft chocolate collection. Similar to a NCAA basketball tournament or a NFL Football season, we arranged the sixteen bars into brackets, and customers could submit "fantasy brackets" in advance of the competition. The most perfect fantasy bracket, as judged by me, the Chief Chocophile, won a Golden Ticket entitling him or her to a free bar of chocolate every week for a year. The stakes were high!

For the next eight Thursdays, our weekly chocolate happy hours featured blind tastings of the competing bars in a particular bracket. Any customers who came to happy hour had the chance to taste the bars and vote for two of their favorites, with the winners moving on to the next round. We handed out ballots as customers came in the door so that each person only received one ballot (no stuffing the ballot box!), and we were careful to cut the tasting pieces small enough so that customers would have a difficult time recognizing the brands just by the appearance of the bars. There were even times I had difficulty figuring out which bar was which just by taste.

Before I provide observations and thoughts about tasting biases, I'd like to congratulation Shawn
Shawn Askinosie
Askinosie and the team at Askinosie Chocolate! A job very well done! Not only does Askinosie make fantastic chocolate, they work directly with cacao farms to create some of the most meaningful cacao sourcing I've witnessed. Make sure to read about "Shawnie" Askinosie's recent sourcing visit to Tanzania as told by a cacao farmer himself for

While I've always enjoyed this bar from Ecuador, it's gotten better over the years. I often found myself surprised by how much I liked this bar during the blind tastings.  While I didn't know what bar it was during the tasting, I knew when tallying up the votes, and, frankly, was often surprised that I'd voted for it over some of its competitors. And this didn't happen just once. It happened over and over again.

Today I got together with my team of mathematicians to crown the winner of the chocolate fantasy bracket league. As we reviewed the fantasy brackets, it was fascinating to see what people thought would move forward to each round and to the finals. It was a good reminder to not let your tasting biases get in the way.

What do I mean by that?

While the bars in our collection are all good chocolate, they are a craft product that is different every time. While one batch of a particular origin by a particular chocolate maker may be excellent, the next may not be quite what you remember.

It might be that the next cacao harvest wasn't as good as the last, or that the chocolate maker is experiencing more humidity or heat than usual, or any number of other things.

It could also be that the batch is much better than what you remember. Perhaps the chocolate maker received a particularly good batch of cacao or has gotten better at chocolate making with time and experience.

Your taste buds aren't the same every time, either. What you've eaten, the time of day and your mood can affect how you taste chocolate.

Pretty packaging can also get in the way of your taste buds. Much as I'd like to say packaging doesn't matter, I think it does, even subconsciously. When I've been asked by new craft chocolate makers about how to go about putting their bars on the market, I always tell them packaging is important. While some in the industry may think I'm being too commercial in providing this advice, my experience is that it affects peoples' perceptions of the taste of the chocolate.

What to do about biases? Unless you're able to have someone set up a blind tasting for you on a regular basis, it's hard to avoid them. I recommend tasting a group of chocolates together rather than one at a time. I become a much tougher judge of taste and texture when there's a group of different chocolate makers for comparison. The comparison helps me get around any packaging and brand biases (e.g., "I know I like this bar because I've always liked this bar").

Don't write off a bar forever if you don't love it the first time. Wait awhile and try it again. Sometimes a new batch can do the trick.

Monday, March 16, 2015

How we curate our collection. A response to the article on Mast Brothers

Our team evaluating chocolate
Yesterday posted an article titled, "The High End Chocolate World Hates Mast Brothers: Why do specialty shops refuse to carry one of the best known craft chocolate brands in the country?"

I agreed to be quoted for this article because I believe Mast Brothers receives an unfair share of press, and there are some talented chocolate makers who don't receive their share. I'm glad to see Rogue Chocolatier, Patric Chocolate, Fruition Chocolate Works and Amano Artisan Chocolate mentioned as some of the best. The title of the article, however, is unfortunate. My father taught me never to use the word "hate" for anything. He said that was how the Holocaust started. While I haven't found Mast Brothers to be worthy of the praise it receives, I certainly don't "hate" it.

So why don't we sell Mast Brothers' chocolate? They may be "one of the best known craft chocolate brands in the country," but they haven't scored high marks on our tasting evaluation panel. They're not unique in that accomplishment. Let me explain.

As one of the premier craft chocolate retailers in the country, we receive a lot of chocolate samples from craft chocolate makers who would like us to add their chocolate to our collection. While most chocolate makers are incredibly passionate about chocolate and their craft, not all of them create chocolate our tasters would consider good. If you're going to pay $10-$12 for a bar of chocolate, we want to make sure you're getting something we're proud to sell you for that price.

For the first few years Chocolopolis was open, I'd taste the chocolate samples we received, and I'd make the decision about what we'd carry. However, like any human, I have my tasting biases, and those may be different than the tasting preferences of my employees and customers. For example, I'm not a fan of heavy roasts or anything that might make chocolate taste like coffee. I tend to prefer a lighter roast on my cacao along with notes that are more fruity and floral. I'm less likely to prefer a bar with earthy notes, but some people prefer earthy over fruity. My tastes aren't "correct", they're just preferences. You get the idea.

About a year ago we enlisted a group of customers from our Frequent Bar Club to join our employees in a monthly tasting panel. We prepped them on our philosophy and approach to choosing chocolate, and they committed to join us once a month.

So what happens when you have a group of random chocolate lovers rate chocolate? They all have different opinions. No great surprise when you're dealing with different peoples' tastes. While their opinions may differ, the bulk of the ratings and comments from our tasting panels tend to fall into groups. Like you'd expect in any statistical group, most chocolates receive an "average" rating.

I'm not willing, however, to stake our reputation or spend our money on "average" chocolate. A chocolate has to be well above average or "world class" to gain entry to our shelves.

What are the criteria we're evaluating? Taste and texture.

It takes a skilled chocolate maker to create a complex chocolate, one that begins with one flavor note and continues to change and evolve into others as the chocolate melts in your mouth. Many of the chocolates we taste are "one-note", offering one flavor profile throughout the melt. Some might have two notes, but very few offer flavor complexity.

Complexity is only part of flavor equation. The flavors need to taste good. For example, while there are certain cacao-growing regions that tend to produce smokier cacao, the chocolate shouldn't taste like a bonfire. A few medicinal notes in a chocolate may make it interesting, but too many and it becomes an unpleasant affair. I've tasted bars with strong diesel, bacon and rubber notes (all in one bar). Not something I'd be willing to pay for.

While these savory, earthy notes may sound unpleasant in chocolate, I'd like to offer up a bar that I wish we could sell in the store as an example of an earthy flavor profile that works. The French chocolate maker and Chocolatier, Bernachon, creates a chocolate from the bean that offers leather and tobacco notes. I tasted his chocolate for the first time and I thought, "Now I know what leather and tobacco taste like." It's one of the most interesting bars I've ever tasted, and it totally works. It has wonderful complexity and texture, and it challenges my palate. It's one I probably wouldn't eat on a daily basis given my preference for fruity and floral notes, but I appreciate it and recognize the skill of the maker.

The second criterion for evaluation is texture.

Texture is one of the areas where most craft chocolate makers miss the mark. There are only a handful of chocolate makers who have conquered texture, most of them listed at the top of this post. Excluding unrefined chocolate from this criteria (e.g., Taza and Claudio Corallo), chocolate should be smooth and creamy. Unfortunately, the chocolate samples we receive from most makers are gritty or chalky or have a peanut-butter-like stickiness that is goopy and chalky at the same time.

We almost never receive a sample with good texture. It's disappointing, particularly when we taste a chocolate with great flavor. Sometimes poor texture is enough to scuttle a bar's chances, even if the flavor is great.

The craft chocolate market has grown significantly from the six American craft chocolate makers who were producing when we opened the store in 2008. There are new craft chocolate makers popping out of the woodwork every day. It makes our job a lot of fun because we get to taste and try new chocolate, and I am optimistic that each new taste will bring us a world-class chocolate that we can add to our shelves.

In the coming months, we're even planning some regional "throw downs" for our tasting panel. We'll be pitting bars from the same region that we already sell against each other to make sure they're still worthy of shelf space. It should be fun, and we're hoping these chocolates continue to make the cut.