Saturday, December 29, 2012

Fresh & Easy Swiss 72% Dark Chocolate


3.5oz (100g) bar
Ingredients: Cocoa liquor, sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, natural flavor
11g sugar/40 serving (27.5% by wt.)

Corporate Info: Fresh & Easy is a grocery store operating in the Southwestern U.S. The company stocks a combination of large brands and its own store brand, operates relatively small stores, avoids additives in its private label products, and is a subsidiary of a large European chain (note: this may not last)all of which make it sound like a more mainstream Trader Joe's. (Some of the products even look like they could be TJ's private label goods.)

Today's Bar: Fresh & Easy's store brand 72% Swiss chocolate, also containing “natural flavors,” which I'm guessing means vanilla if not others as well. I can't remember where I found this bar, but it certainly wasn't at Fresh & Easy. But hey, whatever.

Appearance: Big, thin, flat. Matte, lending a greyish cast to a medium-toned, slightly reddish bar.

Smell: Sugary, nutty, kind of thin.

Taste: Not a fan. Crunchy, then thick, somewhat chalky, with a thin, sweet flavor. I was reminded of cocoa powder, then recalled a conversation with Nat of Madre Chocolate at the Northwest Chocolate Festival: I was able to try a new, Hawaii-grown chocolate they're working on, which he euphemistically described as “tasting like Oreos” because of its flat, cocoa-powder-like flavor. He pointed out that the challenge was in the fermentation, which is what develops the complex sourness that many good chocolates have, and which was the next step in bringing their new cacao up to snuff. Perhaps it's the fermentation that's bringing me down in the case of Fresh & Easy's product. I will say that today's co-taster thinks this chocolate is okay: “It starts out dry and unremarkable, but then there's a little bit of richness and creaminess that comes out.” He still doesn't think it stands out from the other chocolates we've tried, but he doesn't dislike it as much as I do.

Conclusion: Fresh & Easy Swiss 72% Dark Chocolate is thin and sweet, lacking the rounded complexity of the chocolates I tend to like.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Madre Chocolate Hibiscus Dark Chocolate


1.5oz (43g) bar
Ingredients: Organic fair trade cacao beans, o. cane sugar, o. cocoa butter, Mexican whole vanilla, o. hibiscus, o. bergamot oil

Corporate Info: (Altered from 8/11/12) Madre is basically brand new (circa early 2011), the brainchild of a traveler working on social justice in Central America and a botanist with a focus on food and medicinal plants. There's a lot of passion behind everything written about the company: the “About Us” page of their website, the focus on ecology and direct contact with cacao farmers, the now-funded Kickstarter, and even reviews by fans of their chocolate and their shop in Kailua. The cacao is grown organically, some on the Big Island (in the only U.S. state in which this is possible) and some in Central America, and they make the chocolate bean-to-bar in Hawaii. Madre has already been talked up in Saveur and, at greater length, by food personality Aida Mollenkamp after she visited the founders in Hawaii.

Madre currently produces two lines of chocolate, one inspired by Latin American cacao and flavorings and the other using Hawaiian cacao and flavorings. As you might imagine, this is not cheap chocolate: All bars are 1.5oz (half the size of most common chocolate bars) and range from $6 to $10 each on the website, and they may cost slightly more in stores. The bars are sold all over Hawaii, but they look to be spreading quickly to high-end and specialty stores in the U.S. and abroad.

Today's Bar: Hibiscus in 70% cacao, which I picked up from Madre's booth at the Northwest Chocolate Festival back in September. This bar is made with Dominican cacao, and includes not only hibiscus but also bergamot oil as a flavoring. I expect the hibiscus to impart a bright, sour note; I'm less familiar with bergamot outside of Earl Grey tea, but Wikipedia says that it's the bitter, sour, fragrant skin of the citrus fruit that is used as a flavoring. Here, I assume it will add complexity to the clear tartness of the hibiscus.

Appearance: Madre's usual funky mold, semi-glossy, in a pleasant, creamy-looking orangey brown.

Smell: Slightly acrid, fresh, and spicy.

Taste: I tried this bar at the festival and liked it, so though I didn't remember the nuances, I knew I would enjoy it. The chocolate itself is crunchy melting to waxy, rich, and not too sweet. I can definitely sense the bergamot in here, as the flavor is layered, with the bitter, fragrant citrus rind oil, the straightforward, fruity sourness of hibiscus, the fresh, tropical cacao, and the sweet sugar to anchor it all.

Conclusion: Madre Chocolate Hibiscus Dark Chocolate is a well-crafted layering of fresh, sweet, sour, and bitter flavors.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Theo Dark Chocolate Peppermint Stick



3oz (85g) bar
Ingredients: Organic fair trade cocoa beans, oft. sugar, oft. cocoa butter, o. peppermint oil, o. vanilla, o. corn syrup, water, sea salt, baking soda
11g sugar/42g serving (26.2% by wt.)

Corporate Info: I've written about Theo Chocolate many times, and in short, it's a great Seattle company making bean-to-bar chocolate and creative, often seasonal confections (you'll see more in-store than online) that are organic and fair trade. You can visit Theo's retail store, order online, or find a selection of Theo's bars at upscale and health food stores nationwide. My only beef with Theo is that I tend to find its usual 70% dark chocolate base too sour as a match for flavorings, but that's a personal taste issue.

Today's Bar: One of Theo's “holiday” bars, its 70% with peppermint candy.

Appearance: Theo's usual long, simply molded bar, in a very dark reddish brown.

Smell: Simultaneously dark and fruity and bracingly minty.

Taste: Chocolate combined with with tiny crunchy crystals of varying size. And it's not as minty as I thought! According to the ingredients list, the chocolate is what contains the peppermint essential oil, while the “brittle” is just sugar, corn syrup, cocoa butter, water, salt, and baking soda. Looking at the candy cane on the wrapper, you expect a rush of strong mint candy when you bite into the very distinct crystals, and it doesn't happen—they're just sweet and crunchy within a somewhat minty and fruity chocolate. That's not bad, especially if you don't want your chocolate to taste like a breath freshener, but it's jarringly counter to expectations. On the other hand, it's sweet but not too sweet, and not a bad match with the mint flavor or the candy's crunch.

Conclusion: Theo Dark Chocolate Peppermint Stick is a medium-mint, fruity chocolate with small, irregularly shaped, flavorless candies within.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Tea Room Chocolate Fusion Raspberry Rooibos


1.8oz (51g) bar
Ingredients: Organic cacao, o. cane sugar, o. cacao fat, o. red raspberry rooibos tea, soy lecithin
10g sugar/25.5g serving (39.2% by wt.)

Corporate Info: The Tea Room is a small, California-based company started by a Swiss chef and later hotel manager. I can't find much more information about the company itself, including in the press, but it seems pretty small and focused on tea, imported macarons, and tea-infused chocolate treats. All of the cacao is organic and non-GMO, and it's sourced with farmers' quality of life in mind while consciously avoiding the Fair Trade label. The Tea Room's bars and some other items are sold nationwide, mostly at gourmet and health-food-type markets; I found mine at an upscale, local chain pharmacy.

Today's Bar: Raspberry Rooibos in 60% cacao. I drink a lot of rooibos tea, so I wonder if I'll be able to identify it in the chocolate.

Appearance: Again, The Tea Room's blocky bars. Surprisingly, this 60% isn't significantly lighter than last week's 72% cacao, though this particular bar looks a bit glossier than the other one.

Smell: Definitely raspberry, with a light chocolate scent.

Taste: Okay, there's a lot of raspberry in there, which I think overwhelms the rooibos. I find rooibos in general to be distinctive but subtle, and chocolate might be too much for it—or maybe it's just the fact that the raspberry stands out so much. Texture is thick and rich, but otherwise just okay.

Conclusion: The Tea Room Chocolate Fusion Raspberry Rooibos offers mostly raspberry flavor and thick texture.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Tea Room Chocolate Fusion Maté & Cacao Nibs


1.8oz (51g) bar
Ingredients: Organic cacao, o. cane sugar, o. cacao fat, o. yerba maté tea, o. star anise, o. cacao nibs, soy lecithin
7g sugar/25.5g serving (27.5% by wt.)

Corporate Info: The Tea Room is a small, California-based company started by a Swiss chef and later hotel manager. I can't find much more information about the company itself, including in the press, but it seems pretty small and focused on tea, imported macarons, and tea-infused chocolate treats. All of the cacao is organic and non-GMO, and it's sourced with farmers' quality of life in mind while consciously avoiding the Fair Trade label. The Tea Room's bars and some other items are sold nationwide, mostly at gourmet and health-food-type markets; I found mine at an upscale, local chain pharmacy.

Today's Bar: I selected two bars based on how dark they were, and today's is 72% cacao infused with yerba maté and also including cacao nibs. For those who've never tasted yerba maté, it's a South American plant whose leaves can be used like tea, imparting a grassy flavor as well as a hit of caffeine.

Appearance: The Tea Room's bars are not especially exciting to look at, just sharply molded into a rectangular grid. The color of this one is quite dark, more black-brown than I'd expect for 72%, with a slight gloss.

Smell: Deep, but not fruity, more of a dried, “brown” vibe.

Taste: Wow, that's deep. The flavor stands out, punchy and dried-fruity, and the texture is super rich and creamy. Not a lot of sourness, no edges, but lots of lingering, dark dried fruit and a sort of dried grassiness, which I presume is the maté. Nibs seem to be few and far between, detectable mostly only in a slightly less smooth texture, which actually provides some interesting variation, if not a stark contrast.

Conclusion: The Tea Room Chocolate Fusion Maté & Cacao Nibs is deep and dark, but not bitter.