Show of hands—who loves chocolate? Most of us! It's great to eat, great to smell and makes for perfect gift-giving. As with most fine drinks, such as wine and tea, there's also a proper way to taste fine foods, such as chocolate! Serious chocolate tasting isn't just a treat—it's also an art, requiring knowledge and regular practice to sharpen your senses and palate. And some have a bit more of a passion for it than others! The Chocolate Crunchers' Club in Paris, with a membership limited to 150 members and a decades-long history, has required aspiring members to provide a resume describing their knowledge in savoring chocolate, complete with a cover letter and references—it may be the most exclusive chocolate fan club in the world.
Curious about how to taste like a pro? Below are the techniques to use and the things to look out for when tasting chocolate bars and bonbons (there are slightly different techniques for each!).
Once you're in the groove with the tasting techniques, check out the chocolate spots in Raleigh, N.C., listed down below to hone your skills!
Tasting chocolate bars
You'll want to taste multiple pieces of chocolate in one sitting. It's recommended to try six to eight at a time and to taste them in order of highest cacao content to lowest. You'll also want to have a clean palate, meaning in between meals (instead of directly after) are ideal times. When tasting the chocolate bars, you'll rate them each in the following six categories. In between each bar, it's important to cleanse the palate with room-temperature water, and you may consider smelling a cup of brewed coffee or coffee beans to clear your scent receptors as well.
Using your eyes to judge, note details on shininess (fine-origin, well-tempered chocolate will have a shine or satiny finish) and color hue (independent of quality, color can range from reddish brown to deep dark brown, depending on the origin of the cocoa beans and how they were roasted).
Breaking off a piece of the chocolate, you'll be on the lookout for a distinctive "snap" sound, a sign of well-tempered chocolate (the opposite being a crumbly texture).
Lifting the chocolate closely to your nose to capture the aromas, consider attempting to describe the smell using a similar language as wine tasters (floral, fruity, coffee, espresso, spicy, nutty, earthy, sugary, etc.).
The extra-fun stuff! Consider the following qualities:
Place a piece of chocolate on your tongue and let it slowly melt. Run your tongue around your mouth to get the full mouthfeel of the texture. Fine chocolate will be full, velvety and very smooth.
Primary and secondary flavors
Attempt to identify the primary flavors (pure, rich, molasses-like, deep, pleasantly bitter, strong, well-rounded, balanced, delicate, warm, bold) and secondary flavors (earthy, flowery, fruity, roasted, nutty, spicy, dairy).
Acidity and astringency
The cocoa liquor that makes up fine chocolate will naturally display different degrees of acidity and bitterness or astringency. Acidity is what prevents the flavor from being flat. As for bitterness or astringency, how these are balanced with sugar and spices is the mark of a great chocolate maker.
Chocolate flavor becomes more complex due to additions of other ingredients like sugar and spices to the chocolate liquor. There should be a good balance between bitter and sweet. If vanilla is present, it should be a subtle note and not mask other flavors. In milk chocolate, the addition of milk crumb will add a distinctive caramel flavor.
Cocoa butter dissipates, leaving only flavor behind. The finish can be described as "nice," "clean" or "lingering." A good chocolate is revealed in its "length," which is the aftertaste that lingers once the chocolate is eaten. Good chocolate can still taste good in the mouth sometimes for 40 minutes or more after eating. In poor-quality chocolate, you may find a waxy or greasy film left over, plus a bitter or metallic taste.
A chance to influence the overall score by adding in a general opinion of the chocolate tasted!
Where to taste locally-made chocolate bars in Raleigh, N.C.:
Escazú Artisan Chocolates
Artisanal chocolate handcrafted from the bean since 2008, Escazú sources fine cacao directly from small farms in Costa Rica, Venezuela and Peru, then roasts and grinds on antique equipment before being aged and tempered. You'll find handcrafted bars, truffles, confections, ice cream and more at this retail spot in downtown Raleigh.
Videri Chocolate Factory
This bean-to-bar, fully-operational chocolate factory and retail space isn't just a place to pick up declious gifts—it's secretly one of the best (and best-smelling!) places in Raleigh to grab a coffee, tea or hot chocolate and spend some time chatting with friends inside at the tables or in the cozy patio area. The factory carefully curates its cocoa beans from throughout Central and South America using fair-trade practices and sources only the best organic cocoa beans, cocoa butter and organic sugar.
Tasting chocolate bonbons
Tasting bonbons, whether enrobed or molded, is quite similar to tasting chocolate bars. There are a just a few differences! Like chocolate bars, you'll evaluate each bonbon's appearance, touch, aroma, taste and finish. In this case, the tasting process includes, for each taster, a small knife as well as a glass of water to cleanse the palate.
Appearance and touch
Start by looking at the texture. Rough the bonbon up a bit first, crushing it to test its resistance, by pressing a knife blade onto various parts of the chocolate bonbon while it's still on the plate. Cut the bonbon in half and examine the thickness of the chocolate shell coating. It should offer resistance, but shouldn't be too thick either, which takes away from what's inside!
Taste, finish and opinion
Taste some bits of the shell coating by itself to evaluate quality, independent of the filling, using the same criteria as you did for chocolate bars. Taste the bonbon halves, paying close attention to mouthfeel and the lightness of the texture, acidity, intensity and the finish. Don't forget the most important aspect of it all: pleasure!
For flavored chocolates, also evaluate the balance between the chosen aroma and the chocolate itself!
Where to taste chocolate bonbons made in Raleigh, N.C.:
Avenue des Chocolats
Avenue des Chocolats specializes in European-style chocolate bonbons with silky-smooth and delicately-flavored ganache centers (pictured in header). Using only a few quality ingredients, no preservatives and traditional artisan manufacturing methods, Avenue des Chocolats ensures fresh, hand-crafted bonbons in small batches and typically makes them to order. Order online or find them at the Midtown Farmers Market in North Hills (open April-Nov.).
The Chocolate Boutique
The locally-owned-and-operated Chocolate Boutique showcases an extravaganza of dark, milk and white chocolates made from the highest-quality ingredients and fair-trade Belgian and Swiss chocolate to enjoy on-site or for carry out.
Another great chocolatier is Azurelise Chocolate Raleigh, offering up milk and dark chocolate truffles!
Header photo courtesy of Avenue des chocolats LLC