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.