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
If you’d asked anyone about the health benefits of chocolate twenty years ago, they would probably have laughed at you. Chocolate was seen as the cause of many health issues from acne to obesity.
But recently – and coinciding with the rise in popularity of artisan chocolate – there have been more and more scientific studies that prove that chocolate not only isn’t bad, but that it can actively improve your health and even help you live longer.
Here at Cocoa Runners we’re not health experts and don’t claim to be. But we have been watching recent research with interest and collected some of the specific health claims relating to chocolate on this page and presented them here with their sources. We recommend reading up for yourself and making up your own mind.
But before you do that, there is one point that should be noted. Nearly all of these claims relate to high cocoa content dark chocolate. Too much sugar and saturated fat in your diet is still a bad thing, and in most cases, there is a balance between the health benefits of the cocoa and the negative effects of the added sugar and milk powder.
Most of the chocolate we feature in Cocoa Runners is high in cocoa solids and low in sugar, meaning that when consumed in moderation, you should get the maximum benefit.
Chocolate – specifically cocoa – is high in flavanols, which are powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, with known mechanisms to benefit the brain and cardiovascular health. Cocoa Powder can contain up to 10% of its weight in flavonoids which have been linked to a reduction in coronary heart disease and stroke.
Antioxidants are compounds that protect against so-called free radicals, which are molecules that accumulate in the body over time that can damage cells and are thought to play a role in heart disease, cancer and the aging process.
Many recent studies have shown links between a small daily chocolate intake and improved cardio-vascular and heart health, although research is still ongoing into the benefits of antioxidants.
It is also been found and suggest that high % chocolate and cacao has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity.
Several studies have shown that eating a small, regular amount of chocolate may help to reduce blood pressure.
One recent study indicated that bacteria in the stomach ferment chocolate into useful anti-inflammatory compounds that are good for the heart and reduce the death rate in heart attack survivors.
One recent study showed that the flavanoids in chocolate might help prevent diabetes and obesity.
Making health claims related to cancer is – and will always be – controversial, but some studies have indicated that there may be a link between cocoa in the diet and reduced risk. One study by Spain’s Institute Of Food Science, Technology And Nutrition showed that the antioxidants in cocoa could reduce the number of aberrant cells that cause colon cancer, while other studies have shown they can reduce cell damage that can lead to tumour growth.
Research by the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, also believe that due to their high concentration of catechins and procyanidins, cocoa and high % chocolate may have beneficial health effects against oxidative stress and chronic inflammation, risk factors for cancer and other chronic diseases.
The good fatty acids in combination with the lesser sugar proportion of dark chocolate should lower concerns about the adverse effects of cocoa products. Future nutritional trials need to assess a larger number of biomarkers that may be relevant for cancer risk, whereas epidemiologic studies require valid dietary assessment methods to examine the association of cocoa products with cancer risk in larger populations and to distinguish possible cancer protective effects of cocoa products from those due to other polyphenolic compounds.
It’s long been known that a key chemical compound in chocolate – theobromine – has a stimulant effect on the brain similar to that of caffeine. More recently, studies have shown that theobromine can stimulate the release of endorphins, giving a sense of well-being, similar to the feelings we experience when in love.
The flavanols in cocoa is also believed to enhance the working memory performance and improve visual information processing. And – although suggested more so for women – consuming cocoa after moderate to intense sleep deprivation can actually counteract any cognitive impairment that might come about after a poor night’s sleep, such as less accuracy in performing tasks.
Contrary to what you might expect, recent research suggests that a key component of chocolate – Theobromine – is actually good for your teeth, and acts to harden tooth enamel more effectively than fluoride.
The one thing that most of the studies listed here have in common is that they recommend a small daily intake of quality chocolate. To get the maximum benefit, you should avoid chocolate that has excess sugar and vegetable fats, and – most importantly of all – consume chocolate in moderation.
At Cocoa Runners, we put a great deal of thought into this when creating our monthly tasting club. We think that four bars per month not only lets you sample a fantastic range of the world’s best chocolate, but at roughly 10g per day, is just the right amount to help maintain a balanced diet.
The one thing you’ll notice with high quality chocolate is that you simply won’t need as much of it as you would with cheaper chocolate. The higher cocoa content means you can get the same lift – and all the health benefits – in a couple of squares that you would in a whole bar of cheaper confectionery chocolate.
So whether you choose Cocoa Runners or not, the message is simple. Eat chocolate in moderation and stick to the good stuff!