Host a chocolate tasting party

By Eli Penberthy

This article was originally published in April 2009

(April 2009) — It’s dark, rich and smooth, but it’s not coffee. It might be fruity or floral, but it’s not wine. What is it? Why chocolate, of course!

Good chocolate, like wine or coffee, has complex tastes and aromas that reflect the type of cacao beans, where the beans are grown, and how they are roasted and refined. If you try new varieties, you might taste notes of plum or licorice, vanilla or caramel, even earthy mushrooms or grass!

Gathering friends for a chocolate tasting can be a fun way to explore the many flavors of this pleasureful treat, so here are a few ideas to get your party started.

Getting ready

Choose about 10 bars — enough to be interesting but not so many that you overwhelm or confuse your taste buds, and avoid chocolates flavored with fruit or nuts, which can distract you from tasting the chocolate itself.

Select a variety that will offer points to compare and contrast. You might organize your tasting by sampling all dark chocolates with similar percentages of cacao (there are many high-quality bars that are around 70%), or you might opt to compare single-origin bars, made with cacao beans from one geographic location. Seattle chocolate company Theo, for example, offers single-origin bars from Venezuela, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Madagascar.

You also can create a chocolate spectrum, tasting the range of flavors from white to milk to dark (taste the lightest first and the darkest last).

Chocolate experts agree there is not one standard for judging quality. A single-origin bar is not necessarily better than a bar made from a blend of cacao beans, and milk chocolates can be just as luxurious as dark. Just make sure that the chocolates you choose are made with pure ingredients (cocoa butter and sugar) and that they don’t contain vegetable fats or artificial ingredients.

Before your guests arrive, break the chocolate into small pieces and place them on separate plates, which you can label or not (for a blind tasting). Provide unsalted table crackers, thinly sliced apples, and room temperature water as palate cleansers, and give each guest a pad of paper or a chart so they can record their observations. (Several online sources have “flavor wheels” you can download.)

At the party

If you and your guests are serious tasters, you might follow the advice of Chloe Doutre-Roussel, author of “The Chocolate Connoisseur.” She says to engage all five senses in evaluating each chocolate — and tasting comes last.

A good chocolate should look shiny, feel smooth, and snap crisply when it breaks. Before putting it in your mouth, smell it (according to Doutre-Roussel, 90 percent of what we taste depends on what we smell), and use the flavor wheel to articulate what you perceive.

Finally, place a small piece on your tongue and allow it to melt. What do you taste? Overall, is it too bitter, or too sweet? Is it mild or intense? Does it taste spicy or nutty?

Can you taste hints of other natural things, such as honey or berries, bread or butter, almonds or coffee? Like wine, does the flavor change over time? How does it compare with other chocolates you’ve tasted?

Fun for all

Above all, tasting chocolate should be a pleasure, so make sure your party is more fun than work. You can make it kid-friendly and less formal (but still chocolate-centric) by hosting a dessert potluck — brownies, puddings, tortes, biscotti and mousses — just have your guests bring their favorite chocolate indulgence.

You also can add spirit to your party by sipping wine (bubblies are nice) or, if you are really edgy, by pairing dark chocolate and malt scotch — when tasted together, the flavors of both are explosive!

There’s no right way to perceive or taste chocolate. My favorite is to try extremely dark varieties, such as Theo’s Venezuela bar (91% cacao), Claudio Corallo’s (80% cacao), and the Blanxart (85%) — all available at PCC. These varieties all are barely sweet, all rich and velvety, and yet they each taste completely different.

Like wine, chocolate has terroir — each piece has a unique history and is the product of the special conditions under which it was produced. I like to think of the people who grew the beans, their culture and the climate of their land, and the many magical transformations that create such a luscious treat. There is a world of flavors to discover!

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