We’ve written this post with two objectives. The first is to help clarify a bunch of terms and descriptions which loosely fall under the heading of “taste”. We hope that this clarification will deepen your enjoyment and ability to engage with craft chocolate by helping you articulate, and therefore identify, those sensations that are “literally on the tip of your tongue” but you can’t quite explain.
The second objective is to suggest a bunch of trials and experiments of different pairings of craft chocolate with wine, beer, coffee, rum, whisky and much more that you can try at home and in the company of friends. In particular we hope that highlighting the difference between the mouthfeel of astringency and the taste of bitterness will help open up the world of 100% cacao bars to even more customers. It gives us another excuse to try and persuade people to travel to the truly dark side of 100% cacao and explore a bunch of exquisite bars.
We experience craft chocolate through multiple sensations. At Cocoa Runners when we taste chocolate we break down these sensations into five very different experiences; taste, flavour, texture, mouthfeel and melt. We know that these aren’t the only aspects to appreciating craft chocolate (for example occasion, colleagues, temperature to name but a few other important aspects). And we also know that we experience all these sensations at the same time when we enjoy craft chocolate (ie it’s a multimodal experience) which makes it trickier. However, bear with us.
One of the most fun parts of any Craft Chocolate “Tasting” we do is when we try to explain the difference between “taste” and “flavour” by having customers hold their nose whilst sucking a piece of chocolate. At best customers can taste a little bit of sweetness – but only after they open their nose can they start to identify all the flavours of that chocolate. Full disclosure – this test we “borrowed” from Professor Barry C Smith Director, Institute of Philosophy and Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London. To paraphrase the Professor, there are five basic tastes you detect on your tongue (sweet, bitter, sour, salty and “umami”) but “flavour” is detected via your sense of smell (both via your nose – orthonasal and via swallowing – retronasal). So with chocolate, in particular high quality craft chocolate that only uses cocoa butter (which melts at just below human body temperature), we are treated to a wealth of flavours. We’ve assembled the most common here – and we also love the work that Hazel Lee has done as part of her Taste With Colour project in associating colours with flavours to help you hone in on that flavour that is on the tip of your tongue.
Above and beyond “taste” and “flavour”, craft chocolate has some other sensations that we love to explore – in particular texture and mouthfeel. And again, we are heavily indebted to the expertise and guidance of Professor Smith here.
Texture is relatively straightforward – it’s all about the smoothness or graininess of the chocolate (compare stoneground bars like Taza which are almost biscuit-like in texture to smoothly conched bars from Akesson’s, Bonnat and most other craft chocolate makers). We use four basic descriptors here which are fairly self explanatory –
Mouthfeel is more complicated and confusing. Unlike flavour, taste and texture we know that there is a lot more to be done on mouthfeel. Here is where we’ve got to so far in developing a framework to articulate the different sensations
And to be honest, I’m not sure we’ve (yet) completely cracked these descriptors. Nonetheless it’s very clear that we all know the difference between butteriness and intensity – or creaminess and astringency. Neither creaminess or butteriness, nor intensity or astringency are tastes, textures or flavour. But all too often we confuse creaminess with sweetness and astringency with bitterness. For chocolate, especially 100% and higher percentage chocolate, the difference between astringency and bitterness is really important – astringency is part of the fun; bitterness not great.
Astringency is classically defined as when the saliva in your mouth is “pulled” away so you have the sensation of “drying”, “roughing” and/or “puckering”. You desperately want something else to drink and get your saliva going (hint: milk is better than water, and goat’s milk better than cow’s milk because of the way goats milk binds with the proteins causing the dryness). Classic cases of astringency are when we eat or drink a product with lots of tannins (red wine, whisky, roasted coffee beans, many teas and of course chocolate). Although astringency – this puckering – is very different from bitterness, all too often we confuse the two.
It may be that part of the problem for us in the West is that many astringent items are also quite bitter (or at least that’s when we notice the astringency …). In Japan the difference between what they call bitter (nigai 苦い) and astringent / puckering (suppai 酸っぱい ) and (渋い shibui) is very clear. The classic Japanese persimmon (kaki) is astringent and causes your mouth to pucker. But it’s also quite sweet. And this perhaps helps explain why in Japanese there is less confusion between the two sensations. It’s hard to think of a common fruit or drink we have in the west that is astringent (mouth puckering) but also sweet – maybe some heavy but mellow red wines, and possibly chewing the skins of red grapes if that’s your fancy.
Technically what happens when we eat something astringent is pretty amazing. Proteins in the food or drink combine with our saliva to irritate our trigeminal nerve (this is the same nerve that registers mintiness as “cooling” or spiciness as “hot”).
Interestingly if you don’t “chew” something astringent you won’t detect the astringency (try this with some 100% cacao bars or some nibs; put them on your tongue, don’t suck or chew and you’ll be fine. The moment you start to masticate or suck, about 10-15 seconds later you should start getting astringent sensations as the saliva irritates your trigeminal nerve).
An even more interesting experiment is to try to overload (or in Professor Smith’s terminology “over saturate”) your trigeminal nerve.
Take a small piece of 100% cacao and “enjoy” it (try a buttery bar like Akesson’s 100% or Original Beans Cuzco Chuncho if you are nervous). Then chew a roasted coffee bean and go back to the chocolate. Most people we’ve tried this with are amazed by how much “easier” (ie less astringent) the 100% cacao bar is after the coffee bean. You can try the same with a rich red wine or rum; again, the astringency of the 100% is muted and it’s flavour easier to appreciate. Professor Smith and his team are still working on the bio-mechanics of this “super saturation”, but any which way this experiment is a great way to experience and enjoy 100% craft bars.
The range of flavours, textures, astringency and intensity different makers can coax from different beans is quite extraordinary. In tastings we try to encourage our customers to try nibs (the ground up part of a roasted cocoa bean, less it’s shell) and then a couple of different 100% bars – and invariably, we’re asked why there is such a range of intensity and astringency.
There is no single answer here … but we’ve a few hypotheses that are worth experimenting and trying at home or at a tasting.
The first point is the amount of cocoa butter – basically the more butter, the more “smooth” and “creamy” so the less astringent. And then the size of grind can accentuate this further (the smaller the particle, the more cocoa butter to particle … simple physics). The type of bean also plays a role – as does the roast and fermentation. Confusingly roast and fermentation when done “badly” also create bitterness … And then the time the bar is in the mouth (ie the melt) also makes a difference – astringency is a slow build (it takes 5-15 secs) and then it depends on how long it’s in your mouth … so a thin bar is less astringent.
In addition to the “coffee bean” experiment of Professor Smith, here are some other pairings we strongly recommend you try at home in the company of friends (or come to a tasting with us to try too)
Happy tasting and thanks, as ever, for all your support