Hosting a chocolate tasting evening is one of our favourite things to do with family and friends. We just love sitting down to taste some of our newest finds, sharing our thoughts and picking our personal favourites as we go. As well as our formal tasting events, we’ve been hosting informal tastings since before we founded Cocoa Runners back in 2013. Over the years we’ve tried a whole bunch of different approaches to these soirees – some of which have proved more successful than others. So with that in mind, we’ve written this How To Guide, to help you host your own chocolate tasting, whether its a formal tasting or casual get together with friends.
CHOOSING YOUR BARS
When it comes to choosing the bars for a tasting evening with friends who are new to craft chocolate, we like to take inspiration from the world of cheese. A well balanced cheese board includes a mix of different cheeses, with clear differences in texture, intensity and flavour profile. It shouldn’t be too esoteric or inaccessible to those who are tasting for the first time.
If you’d like to curate your own selection of bars, we have some general top level tips that should help you to make a well rounded pick. First off, we would choose a classic dark chocolate – perhaps a bar crafted at origin by a maker such as Menakao or Conexion. Next, we would look for a milk chocolate bar. We love the milk chocolate bars made by Duffy’s and Friis Holm. We would also include a white chocolate, for those with a sweeter tooth. Single origin white chocolate is exceptionally hard to find, so for this bar we would turn to one of the old school masters of the craft chocolate world, such as Akesson’s or Fruition. Then finally, we would recommend a bar with a distinctive texture or added flavour – perhaps a bar with added Sourdough & Sea Salt from Pump Street Chocolate, or a bar made using an ancient stone grinding technique from Taza.
If you’re new to chocolate tasting, or those who you are tasting with are, we would recommend keeping things fairly simple. Members of our Tasting Club have a distinct advantage here – their monthly delivery box is the ideal basis for a tasting. Inside this box is a selection of four bars from different makers around the world (either milk chocolate, dark chocolate 100% cacao or a mix of bars), and tasting notes to guide you on your way throughout the evening. If you are not a member of our Tasting Club, but you would like to pick up a Box Of The Month to use for your next tasting as a one-off purchase you’re in luck – you can buy these as a one-off purchase right here.
If you’re after a particular theme, you could compare bars from a single maker, or contrast bars from one origin from a host of makers. We’ve also greatly enjoyed hosting evenings where we have compared bars from ‘old (chocolate) world’ makers with those from ‘new (chocolate) world’ makers, in which we take two bars made in the traditional European style by makers such as Bonnat and Pralus, with those made without the additional cocoa butter, a style favoured by makers from North America, Latin America and Africa.
If you’re catering for guests with a particular dietary requirement, we’ve curated gift boxes that might help. For example, we have an Alternative Milk Chocolate Collection that is suitable for vegans, and a Kosher Chocolate Collection for those would prefer kosher bars. If you have guests who would prefer to have low/no sugar, we have a number of collections of 100% cacao bars that contain no added sugar at all. If you’re curating a tasting for children, it’s tempting to plan to avoid dark chocolate altogether. We’ve found that most children are open to at least trying a square or two of an approachable dark chocolate bar, such as Cru Virunga from Original Beans or one of the less intense bars from Dutch maker Chocolate Makers. That being said, we would generally recommend avoiding giving a person of any age 100% cacao if they wouldn’t happily drink an espresso.
GETTING SET UP
If, like us, you favour a casual approach, you really don’t need much special equipment to host a chocolate tasting evening. That being said, as with a wine or a whiskey tasting, a small amount of prep can go a long way… We would recommend doing your homework, and familiarising yourself with the stories behind the bars and their makers ahead of time. It’s tempting to rely on the wrappers, but, as with wine, there’s a limit to the information that you can fit on a chocolate bar’s label, and quite often it isn’t in your language… If you’re a member of our Tasting Club, you’ll have the Tasting Notes to guide you, but don’t despair if you’re not… Each bar’s page within our Chocolate Library will give you the background on the bars, while our Maker Profiles will give you even more information about their journey and process for crafting chocolate.
For an informal tasting, we like to serve our bars on boards with pieces of broken bars next to their respective wrappers. This lets people contemplate the beautiful packaging as they taste, and reflect on the experience of eating craft chocolate. If you want to make a game out of your tasting, you could hand the wrappers our separately and ask people which they think goes with each bar, by trying to match the descriptions on the packaging with the tastes and flavours they found.
If you would like to host a more formal event, you can download a tasting mat (see on) and use this to pre-set the chocolate in each person’s place. If you’re hosting for a larger group, we certainly find that this is a more efficient way to set up your tasting, and to help people keep track of which bar is which in conversation.
For those who want to be super diligent about keeping track of the bars that you have tasted, we have created our Chocolate Tasting Book. This handy pocket sized journal is a great place to make note of different harvests and vintages of bars as you taste them, and keep track of the bars you love as you go. It’s small enough to take with you when you’re on the move, and has plenty of pages to capture your thoughts.
When we first started tasting chocolate, we found it tricky to pinpoint the flavours that we were tasting in bars. Quite often we could get as far as a vague ‘family’ of taste (e.g. ‘berries’), but we couldn’t zero in on a specific flavour (e.g. raspberries). To help with this, we have created a card of tasting icons, which we find can be handy to print out and have on hand – you can download yours on the tasting mats below…
One more tool that we have found helpful to use when tasting was created by a friend of ours, Hazel Lee. Hazel is a synesthete who sees colour as she tastes food and drink. To help her to navigate the world of flavour, she designed a colourful tasting map called Taste With Colour that ties specific flavours to the colours that she associates with them. When tasting, Hazel first pictures the colour as she taste, and then uses the map to pinpoint the flavour. We think it’s a fantastic tool for those who are just getting started in the world of taste – you can buy yours in our online store now…
If you want to bring another medium into your chocolate tasting, you could take inspiration from the Taste With Colour Map and use watercolours or chalks to capture the colours that you experience as you taste different bars. We love to do this with friends and then compare and contrast each others’ paintings as a visual depiction of the subjectivity of tasting.
So, to summarise, there are many, many ways to host a chocolate tasting. Whether you’re hosting a last minute tasting as an alternative to dessert, or a planned out, formal chocolate tasting for foodie friends, we hope our guide has provided you with some food for thought!