Updated: Jul 14, 2022
There are burgeoning terms like, "chocolate sommelier", and "chocolate reviewer", that don't really have formal definitions. The definitions are flexible although there are professional courses and certifications for chocolate tasting. Amateur chocolate enthusiasts, and chocolate layman are all humbly invited to enhance their skills. There are free and paid ways to do this and achieve higher skills.
Here, as an example, is a Hawai'i Chocolate Review of Mirzam Chocolate from Dubai. This video shows a comprehensive look at a chocolate bar. Also, there are many units of measure described in this video that demonstrate the diversity of notable chocolate attributes.
In this blog post, we will account for multiple ways of reaching a higher level of understanding for chocolate. We will not be covering chocolate facts, chocolate making or any other technical information. Don't forget you can download your free Bean to Bar Chocolate Tasting Guide Here!
1. Train the 5 Senses. This is basically what is trained in chocolate tasting courses and institutions. We can train ourselves to critique and review chocolate. Just employ your sight, touch, smell, taste and yes, even sound. Those are your main tools. As to what to sense about the chocolate, keep in mind your level of experience and that there will always be, "someone", better at chocolate tasting.
Our most bar with the most notable sense experience is our 10-Scotch Whiskey Infused Hawaii Dark Chocolate w/ Hawaii Sea Salt. Nothing about it is subtle. This bar will train your taste buds and nose to discern tastes and aromas you've never experienced before. Here, below, is a playful and fun way to approach sensory training.
Now, your senses may not be academically trained at all but likely you HAVE been eating chocolate your whole life. If you are just getting into training your palette and other sense to perceive chocolate, the sky is the limit.
2. Understand How Farming/Manufacture Affects Flavor When making chocolate, there are hundreds of variables to consider, naturally. Consuming chocolate requires a lot less variables to enjoy. Chocolate has to last and the aromas have to keep. This means that packaging and its odors have to been engineered to create the best final product. Earlier stages of making chocolate require extensive farming and processing knowledge. Here is just a bit of the bean to bar manufacturing process.
Often in chocolate making, the size of the grind is important. There is even a range that chocolate exists beyond what the tongue can sense. For example the tongue cannot sense anything smaller than about 21 microns in size. Some brands shrink the chocolate particles to an undetectably smooth 14 microns. Since flavors and scents change as the chocolate gets smaller, the chocolate maker has to equate the smoothness or particle size of the chocolate to the sensory experience they want to create. Consumers have no idea about the range of flavors based on increased or decreased chocolate particle size.
Professional chocolate tasters understand this. Often they have a thorough understanding of how chocolate is farmed, fermented, dried, stored and made bean to bar. And more specifically how all that relates to flavor. These seem like far off concepts to your average chocolate enthusiast. Even mediocre chocolate reviewers won't familiarize themselves with chocolate manufacturing until they deepen their passion for analysis as well as organoleptic sensory input. No professional relies on these instincts alone.
3. Attend Professional Trainings
We can always learn from one another. In fact, often times professionals share knowledge with others and thats what this author hopes to do here. There are many international chocolate tasting trainings across the globe. Some are more reputable than others, however, accumulating as much knowledge as possible on the subject will require beginners and experts to continue their own research after graduating trainings.
Professional will in fact have an in-depth knowledge of chocolate history as well. This is a great subject for independent research for anyone. Like fun animated chocolate history videos? Catch up with this one!
Here is a list of professional trainings, some of which have multiple levels: Ecole Chocolat
Academy of Chocolate
International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting The Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute,
and many more. Often they will have multiple levels so you CAN grow your education. Otherwise, something like The School of Chocolate on Netflix may be more to your liking.
4. Host Guided Chocolate Tastings
Once you've achieved a grasp on all the above concepts, its here we strengthen our grasp and reach for higher learning. Many professionals offer online and in real life guided chocolate tasting sessions. It's important to learn with and from experts. Let them share their knowledge, and discover the gaps in your own knowing. Learn with other event goers or classmates to discuss your sensory data. A classroom setting is a great place to advance your cocoa IQ. Hosting is something experienced chocolate sommeliers can do. They will host events to teach and guide others. However, hosting chocolate tastings can be stressful. If hosting chocolate tasting sessions stresses you, you may want to check out something more like this chocolate meditation.
Its important to be confident in your own sensory perception, so that you may hold space for others to grow theirs. Let your students or attendees stumble and fall while tasting. Sometimes making mistakes is the best way for one to learn. Just pick them back up by using a toolkit of chocolate notebooks, tasting sheets and flavor wheels. Having confidence in yourself is also a tool and its much harder to teach. A professional attends trainings so that their confidence can grow.
If you need a flavor wheel for your toolkit, save this black and white one from our free ebook.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice This is the best part about being a chocolate professional and the most fun to write about. "Practice, practice practice," means, tasting chocolate, a lot. This is not something ordinary folks do. Ordinarily folks eat chocolate. When you are practicing a lot it is important to (note palette fatigue and) not eat or taste too much chocolate. Chocolate reviews are comprehensive when the taster has not eaten chocolate or tasted too much. Moderation is a professional quality. Moderate but do not stagnate is my rule of thumb. This author cannot stand bored taste buds and in fact, less is more. The smaller the pieces tasted, the more chocolate one can taste.
Here is a bar that won't burn out your palette. It's our 72% Hāmākua Dark Chocolate. What you need to know about it, is that the chocolatey aspect of the taste is just an undertone. It deepens a bit but is not dark enough to confuse your taste buds. The mid and upper tones vary each batch. The same tones will be perceived differently depending on everything else eaten previously to the chocolate. Those same tones will vary depending on your training. At first they are woody and nutty. After a few more tries you'll detect olives and fruit. By the end of this bar, you will perceive everything as almonds, mushrooms and even avocados. It takes time and with this bar, your palette will never burn out. Rather, it grows.
Tasting and noting every flavor of every bar is scarcely the goal or practice at chocolate tastings. Elite chocolate tasters are most often chocolate makers and there for they may taste more chocolate than anyone. Reviewers, the good ones, know to taste like a chocolate a pro. Therefore, they will note the most relevant and accessible flavors in chocolate for others to relate to. And, as they report on their findings, chocolate tasters approach the consumption frequency of chocolate makers. Pay attention to this colored flavor wheel. Chocolate tasters and reviewers use these to help identify what they are tasting and smelling.
Pros recognize flavors and aromas in the chocolate with flavors and aromas on the flavor wheel. Recording them is something that may or may not be part of a reviewers process. Everyone has a different critiquing process. This is how professionals can discern amazing things, even like how a certain chocolate was manufactured. Don't get, "cellar palette". Its a phenomenon from the wine industry where the wine makers think their wine is the best. This is only natural in wine as the good vintners tend to make wine they think tastes the best - the wine they want to make the most. Makes sense right? Well the same thing happens in chocolate so just assume every chocolate company thinks theirs is the best chocolate. Critics don't believe the hype. A, "tainted palette", is the name for sensory areas affected by previous stimuli. It seems obvious but everything you eat and drink affects chocolate flavor perception. Its best to have a neutral palette although its almost impossible by the afternoon or late evening. Chocolate for breakfast anyone? Pro's already know. Chocolate critiques or reviews may include any number of factors including place of origin, number and type of ingredients, growing conditions, packaging and of course actual flavor. Our peers in the chocolate industry doing reviews will create score cards to rate chocolate, based on the above factors. Not all scores cards are the same and not all chocolate reviewers are the same. Some may love chocolate other critics do not. Before we close, check out this quick video on the difference between American and European Chocolate. In the video it shows just one thing that every white collar chocolate reviewer knows all too well.
There is simply, so much to learn. However, never let anything stop you. Including loving your own chocolate the most. Objectivity, of the senses, is a perfect tool that everyone is born with. Use it, and become more objective over time. Take your education into your own hands. Start tasting chocolate, recording it and reviewing like a pro. Just remember to train your 5 senses, understand how farming/manufacture affects the flavors, attend professional trainings, host guided tastings and practice, practice, practice.
If you would like to read this authors chocolate reviews, just follow on instagram @hawaiichocolatereview and check out the videos, captions and posts!