Monday, December 27, 2010

Describing Chocolate

As I rack up the chocolate reviews, I frequently encounter bars whose scent and taste I can't accurately describe. Some flavors are obvious to me, like dark red berries and raisins, tropical fruit, or red wine, but those don't always fit the bill. Other times I might use the same term, like tart, to characterize two bars that are indeed tart but in different ways, so my description is lacking.

With these weaknesses in mind I'd like to try a more rigorous vocabulary, and this chart seems like a good place to begin. I can think of two potential downsides. First, it might not help you as a reader to hear that a given bar smells of mushroom, or tastes of cedar. I'll try to minimize the over-description by first noting that the chocolate is mild, or bitter, or whatever else you might experience as someone who just wants to eat chocolate that tastes good. The second problem is that I don't entirely know what I'm doing. Chocolate doesn't usually come at you with a strong punch of vodka, ashes, or grass, so I'll be reaching for what are often very subtle flavor distinctions. I apologize for any confusion this may generate, and I hope you enjoy the process nonetheless. I think it'll be fun!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dagoba Xocolatl Rich Dark Chocolate Chilies & Nibs

2.83oz (80g) bar
Ingredients: Organic cacao beans, o. cane sugar, o. cocoa, o. cocoa butter, soy lecithin, o. cacao nibs, o. chili powder, o. maca, o. vanilla, o. nutmeg oil, o. milk

I admit I've already made up my mind about Dagoba. First, there's the history. You won't see much of it on Dagoba's website, just the founder's name and the company's sustainability goals. Let's try Wikipedia... Ah, I see: Founded in Colorado and later moved to Ashland, Oregon, Dagoba was bought by Hershey in 2006. There's still a retail store in Ashland; I've been there, and it was small, quiet, and dull, the only company presence a woman who seemed to be office staff. I can't tell if production remains there or somewhere else. The vague, minimalist website lists the retail store address with no phone number, online orders direct you to San Francisco, and a general (866-) number has Eastern Standard Time office hours. Hershey wants to elicit your organic/sustainable warm fuzzies while standing behind an opaque, soulless wall.

Second, the taste. I've tried to like Dagoba chocolate. It's organic, it's often on sale (something big companies like Hershey can afford), and it comes in lots of flavors. But in my experience, it's just not good. Take the Xocolatl bar here. It's pretty and smells like raisins, which can be nice. The texture is of dense, chalky-type chocolate rather than creamy or waxy, and there's that subtle crunch of nibs. But the flavor comes on sour and harsh, without much complexity or interest besides. In some of the bites, I taste something “off” in the back of my mouth. There is a nice afterburn in this subtly spicy chocolate, but the chocolate itself just isn't good. I ate my last piece ten minutes ago, and I'm still tasting sour.

As I've said before, I understand why small chocolatiers sell to large companies. If those large companies act transparently, and absorb the brands' standards as well as their names, it's hard to be critical of the merger. I'm certainly not seeing transparency here. What about the chocolate? To be honest, I don't remember how Dagoba chocolate tasted before 2006; maybe this is how it always was, and presumably some people like it. Personally I'd like to think it was better once upon a time, because this really isn't doing it for me.

Conclusion: Dagoba Xocoatl Rich Dark Chocolate Chilies & Nibs is harsh and sour, albeit with a nice chile afterburn.

P.S. That “maca” in the ingredients is a Peruvian root. Based on a quick Google search, it sounds like it has a bitter and polarizing flavor. Dunno if that made any difference in the chocolate.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Askinosie: Three Dark Chocolates

70% San Jose Del Tambo Ingredients: Cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter
8g sugar/42.5g serving (in full-size bar; 18.8% by wt.)

75% Soconusco bar not currently available

77% Davao Ingredients: Cocoa beans, organic cane sugar, cocoa butter
7g sugar/42.5g serving (in full-size bar; 16.5% by wt.)

I'd never heard of Askinosie until I found these single origin mini packs at my local chocolate specialty shop. As high-end chocolate isn't cheap, I thought it might be fun to do a sort of tasting flight with these little bars, and I picked three of them more or less at random. I ended up with the following “Itty Bars”: 70% San Jose Del Tambo (Ecuador) Nibble Bar; 75% Soconusco (Mexico) Bar; and 77% Davao (Philippines) Bar. I've since looked up the various bars on Askinosie's website, though the Soconusco chocolate isn't currently available except as white chocolate.

Before I try the chocolate, who are these Askinosie people? The complex website is a bit of a pain (just try perusing the news section) and could use a copy editor, but basically the company was founded in Springfield, Missouri by ex-lawyer Shawn Askinosie, his wife, and a business partner. They try to work with the cocoa farmers in person, pay them fair wages, and share a percentage of the profits with them to encourage high quality. Aside from specialty items their chocolate is just beans and sugar—no vanilla or soy lecithin—and they try to be as organic as possible short of going through the certification process. (See the FAQ for more.) They sound like lovely people.

Back to the Itty Bars. Each gives you two wafers of plain chocolate, with the Nibble Bar having nibs on the back. Let's take them one at a time...

70% San Jose Del Tambo with nibs has an underlying tropical scent, like bananas. The texture is dense and thick, coating the mouth with cacao, and the flavor is dark with minimal sweetness, but not bitter chocolate with some of the bitterness removed. Nibs add texture and more of that tropical banana vibe, something I've tasted in other nibs too. Aftertaste is light, tropical, and short-lived.

75% Soconusco has a minimal smell, quiet and banana-free. It's dense but not so mouth-coating, more bitter, almost like chocolate distilled to its essence: just enough sugar to get past the wince factor and on to the cacao, not especially fruity or tropical or rich, just chocolate. The aftertaste is a bit sour, but it's more like intense chocolate than free-floating acid. Overall a neat experience.

77% Davao also doesn't smell like much to me, so perhaps I'm not especially creative today. It tastes sweeter than the Soconusco, probably because it has that red wine quality, tannic but also fruity in a way that speciously reminds me of sugar. It's not berries or cherries or raisins; my co-taster says fresh currants, which I've never eaten myself, but perhaps that'll be helpful to you. Either way it's not overwhelming or off-putting, though there is a long, lingering bitter finish that isn't the most pleasant.

All in all, this was a fun way to compare three subtly varying bars. My favorite was the 75% Soconusco, though I didn't love it enough to pay for this premium chocolate. If you feel like spending a little cash, you could do worse (and support worse companies) than to pick up some of Askinosie's chocolate.

Conclusion: Askinosie's 70% San Jose Del Tambo with nibs is tropical and thick; 75% Soconusco is the essence of dark chocolate; and 77% Davao is winey and somewhat bitter.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seeds of Change 61% Cacao Dark Chocolate With Coconut

2.99oz (84.8g) in three 1oz bars
Ingredients: Organic chocolate, o. cane sugar, o. cocoa butter, o. milkfat, o. soy lecithin, o. vanilla, o. coconut, natural flavor
8g sugar/28g serving (28.6% by wt.)

I bought Seeds of Change's coconut bar for several reasons. 1. I'd seen the brand in the grocery store many times but somehow hadn't tried it yet. 2. I finally caught some of it on sale. 3. I was curious whether someone could combine flavorful dark chocolate and mild coconut in a balanced, worthwhile way.

While this is a common tall, 3oz brick, it's not a single bar but rather a card-stock envelope containing three individually wrapped 1oz bars. The copy's a little silly (“The Seeds of Change mandala is an ancient symbol of abundance and vitality...”), but the bars are pleasantly stubby and scored into the usual rectangles with a nice little imprint on top. The chocolate isn't especially light or dark and is just barely glossy, and it smells rich and coconutty, vividly reminiscent of suntan oil, Mounds bars, and other sweet, perfumy coconut products.

That's just about how it tastes, too: Sweet, rich, only mildly chocolatey, and with a lot of coconut. Compared to Theo Seeds of Change actually uses less sugar per serving, but this chocolate tastes sweeter. That's probably in part because it has a significantly lower cacao content, which means less intense chocolate to compete with the coconut. Lower sugar, lower cacao...what makes up the difference? Milkfat, and possibly a greater percent of added cocoa butter. Fat can mellow sharp flavors—strong spices plus coconut milk create curry that is complex but not overwhelming; parmesan or blue cheese tempered with cream makes a mild sauce. I also wonder if the “natural flavor” in the ingredients infuses the chocolate with coconut flavor, because I don't think the suntan oil/Mounds vibe is coming from the shreds of coconut alone.

I'm not sure this is for me. The richness reminds me of the center of a Lindor Truffle, sweet and fatty, and though I used to love them my tastes have changed. But it definitely doesn't overwhelm the coconut, and if that appeals to you, by all means try this bar. The company is pretty neat too, and they have other interesting-sounding flavors (albeit in the same chocolate) that I'd be interested in trying if I found them on sale again.

Conclusion: Seeds of Change 61% Cacao Dark Chocolate With Coconut is sweet, mild, coconutty, and very rich.