A canyon separates chocolate taster wishing to pleasure his or her soul from self-medicating inhaler attempting to fill psychological divots (or potholes) with the immediate pleasures of cured cacao. A thinner line separates the informed taster from the off-putting snob. (Fair warning: read further, learn, taste and talk elegantly and intelligently of what you imbibe at your peril.)
Every bit of chocolate has its unique flavorprint, reflecting lineage, topography, weather, soil, processing, and post-production care. To get a sense of just the beginning of those complexities, consider the infographic created by artist Sean Seidell (h/t to Pop Sci.)
To try and puzzle all that might mean to you — to turn you into your own cacaommelier — you will have to suffer through the tasting a lot of chocolate. To put a little bit of science into it do your tasting (whether just one type or a comparison) in a room free of distractions and complete with a between-taste palate cleanser of water and crackers. Experiment with a piece larger than crumb, but not as large as you would choose if this were just for enjoyment and if you’ve been keeping it cold wait (if you can) until the chocolate is room temperature. Turn on all senses.
Consider the chocolate’s color, structure and shine. White marks or dustiness (“bloom”) are a sign of poor tempering by the manufacturer. Similarly, there should be no visible air bubbles, or swirling or inconsistencies across the face. The surface should offer at least a slight reflection of light rather than a dull matte finish with a range of “brown rainbow” of hues ranging from tints of pinks, and oranges to purple and black.
Is the surface smooth, rough, grainy? The former is preferred, although some tongues do have more fun with the extra tingles from the latter.
When you break the chocolate does it make the preferred sharp snap? That snap is also likely to be accompanied by the also preferable clean break (no crumbs). A higher milk chocolate content will tamp down the snap and clean break.
Discover the aromas by holding the chocolate directly under your nose or letting it sit on your tongue and breathing out. The mind may be surprised by hints of honey, vanilla or even flowers or tobacco. If it helps, you can consider this the foreplay prior to the engagement of your full taste sensations.
And when you are ready begin the tasting, by letting it slowly melt (the flavors should evolve) and wash over all taste sensitive points on your tongue. Find where on the range of flavors — sweet to bitter, spicy, earthy, fruity — your particular piece lives and whether it moves from one point to another. To the extent possible, avoid the temptation to chew and explore for yourself how the flavors evolve from first fruit ethers to lingering afternotes. (If comparing different chocolates, begin with the lowest percentage of cacao and work your way up, comparing between five and 10 different chocolates at any one session.)
With your bite nearing its finish it’s time to note how the flavor has evolved. Is the chocolate bitter? Heavy? Light? What tastes remain and what has vanished from the tongue map? Finally, and nobody else can tell you this, was it the best sensory experience for the moment or did it leave you wishing for a different chocolate love?
(So as not to just get caught up in the experience and perhaps replicate or intentionally improve on it, consider a small off- or online notebook stocked with notes, discoveries and maybe even wrappers.)
If by chance all of this helps you discover a lifelong passion you wish to turn into a profession, the Wall Street Journal helps out with directions on the path that could lead to certification as one of the worlds top cocoa-bean graders: