A while back I went to my first ever chocolate tasting. It was held at the Winemakers Club under the arches at Farringdon, with Spencer Hyman of Cocoa Runners. The theme was dark milk chocolate.
I know practically nothing about chocolate, so this was an interesting educational experience. It also gave me insight as to how normal people might feel approaching wine for the first time.
Spencer began by explaining quality tiers in chocolate in terms of coffee quality.
- There’s the chocolate equivalent of instant coffee: confectionary such as toblerone and dairy milk.
- Then there’s filter coffee, whose chocolate equivalent would be Lindt or Green and Black.
- Finally, we have geek coffee, such as Monmouth or Square Mile. This would be the high-end artisan or craft chocolate that was until recently quite hard to get, made from great beans and great fruit: Duffy and Pump Street.
The cost of making chocolate has gone down with the invention of new machines. There are now extraordinary chocolate makers who have been able to establish themselves without huge capital cost.
So how is chocolate made? Of interest to wine lovers is the fact that chocolate is a fermented product, and the fermentation process can alter its flavour. The starting point is the cacao tree, Thebroma cacao. The pods are harvested, cut open and the pulp, containing the beans, is scooped out. This mass is allowed to ferment for several days, and then the beans are dried. This is the bit the farmer does.
The next stage takes place in the chocolate-making facility. The beans are cracked and winnowed to remove their papery shells, leaving what are called ‘nibs’. These are ground into a paste called the chocolate liquor. It consists of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
A hydraulic press is then used to separate the solids and the butter, in a process known as slamming. The cocoa butter can be saved to be recombined with the solids at a later stage, or – as occurs in some cheaper chocolates – it is sold off and then replaced with vegetable fats in the final chocolate. But the purpose of separating out the solids is so they can be further refined, in a process known as conching. This uses a container filled with metal beads that grind the particles very finely.
The solids are then recombined with the butter and this is the stage where flavourings can be added. It’s followed by a process called tempering, which is a controlled crystallization of the chocolate using a series of heating and cooling steps.
Bonnat, Javan Dark Milk
Cocoa content, 65%; Bean origin, Indonesia; Maker country; France. Creamy and a bit spicy, with a nice smoothness in the mouth. Textural with a bit of spiciness. Very smooth. 6/10
Bonnat, Surabaya Dark Milk
65%, Indonesia, France. Lively, spicy, creamy and delicious. Not very chocolatey – more creamy. Some fruity notes. 5.5/10
Tcho, Serious Milk
53%, Ecuador/Peru, USA. Smooth with nice caramel notes and some spice. Very easy but with a bit of bite. Sweet but has some cacao flavour. 6.5/10
Duffy, Mayan Red Milk
61%, Honduras, UK. Grainy and a bit spicy with lovely black savoury notes. Grainy and earthy with some nice chalkiness and some spice. Some biscuit too. 6.5/10
Fruition, Dark Milk With Flor du Sal
56%, Peru, USA. So attractive and fruity with nice spiciness and a salty edge. This brings out the fruit, and there’s also some spice here. Textural and delicious. 8.5/10
Zotter, Milk Chocolate Dark Style
70%, Nicaragua, Austria. This has no added sugar. Dry, savoury and a bit grippy. Textural with some depth of flavour. Very complex and full of interest: you miss the sugar at first but then it entices. 8/10
Original Beans, Femmes de Virunga
55%, Virunga National Park Congo, Switzerland. Very smooth and textured, but with a lovely fruity quality. Has freshness. Very creamy and textural. 8/10
Mast Brothers, Sheep Milk
60% Peru, USA. Quite broad and fat. Smooth with a sheepy edge, and some grainy notes. Very interesting with a distinctive flavour. 7/10
Mast Brothers, Goat Milk
60%, Peru, USA. Very cheesy and goaty. Distinctive flavour here with a pungent finish. Farmyardy and odd. 6/10
Zotter, Labooko Brazil
35%, Brazil, UK. Very creamy with a coconut edge and lovely smooth texture. Sweet and delicious: tastes like a white chocolate. This has more cocoa butter than solids. 7.5/10
For future tastings see cocoarunners.com/events