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Apr 20, 2011

The 10 Levels of Chocolate Appreciation

Recently, my wife, Elaine, started taking a class at Stanford about the history and art of the book. The class spends their nights looking through ancient manuscripts and poring over type in Green Library. In the last class, the professor posed the hypothetical question:  “if you came upon a mountain of books and had 20 minutes to save 20 of them, how would you choose?”

Apparently, there is an answer to this — or at least an approach you can take in evaluating a book from an aesthetic and craft, rather than a content, perspective. The idea is that there are seven levels of book craft connoisseurship — a simple framework consisting of the different questions you can ask and answer when examining a book. These range from as basic as: “is the font bold or italic?”… all the way down to who was the punch maker and at which foundry. These questions provide a common vocabulary provide a way to think about the book making craft.

I found this fascinating and thought it would be interesting to apply this same line of thinking to chocolate. If you started from knowing very little about chocolate and wanted to expand your understanding of a particular bar, what would be your framework for learning and going a level deeper? What details would you look for and what questions would you ask? After discussing with Cam, we jotted down some quick notes. I’d love to hear from other chocolate makers and enthusiasts if this seems about right, fill in some gaps, or present an alternate opinion:

The 10 Levels of Chocolate Appreciation

#1 Type — What type of chocolate is it? Is it dark, milk, or white?… or possibly compound (candy bar chocolate with the cocoa butter swapped out for something else).

#2 Aesthetics — is the bar tempered properly, has it bloomed? Does it have flaws, bubbles, or mold release marks? What about the packaging and unwrap experience?

#3 Chocolatier — Who made this bar? Not necessarily the maker of the chocolate, but who tempered, molded and packaged it? What is their story?

#4 Percentage — What percentage cocoa products does this bar have? Why?

#5 Ingredients — What else did they add? Vanilla to even out flavors? Lecithin or cocoa butter to change the viscosity and mouthfeel? How did each of these affect the experience?

#6 Flavor notes — What do you taste and when? How does the flavor evolve?

#7 Country (or countries) of origin — Where did these beans come from? How does the flavor of this bar differ from similar bars from the same region?

#8 Chocolate maker — Who made the chocolate (if not the same as #2). What’s their story? How was the chocolate changed by the chocolatier in #3?

#9 Plantation / Farmer — More specific than #7, where did these beans come from? What’s their lineage? Who is the farmer and what’s their process for harvesting, fermenting, and drying the beans?

#10 Chocolate Making process — What parts of the maker’s process affected the final flavor or mouthfeel and in what ways?

This last one is interesting and best illustrated by a story that Cam told me.  Steve DeVries, an expert chocolate maker, was judging a chocolate competition. Immediately after trying one chocolate, he spit it out, shocking the other judges and the person that had made the chocolate. Steve explained that he could tell by taste and texture that the chocolate had been over-refined and was giving him that “dirt mouth” sensation that lingers on your tongue and would prevent him from tasting anything else. He said he could tell that the chocolate maker had used a ball mill and had let the chocolate refine for too long. Everyone was amazed, as are we, at his level of understanding.

One of the great things about chocolate is that it’s easy to enjoy. At the same time, we’ve found that the more we learn, the deeper the experience can be. So, if you’re a fellow chocolate lover, tell us how you enjoy your favorite chocolate and what you look (and taste) for.


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