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One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is that “Craft Chocolate tastes better, is better for farmers, better for the planet and also better for you”.

This is one reason why we are delighted to be hosting a “Craft Chocolate Conversation” with Dr Tim Spector about his latest book, “Spoon-Fed: Why almost everything we’ve been told about food is wrong”. 

Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowdsourced Covid-19 app (the one that works). And his latest book is a passionate paean to the dangers and risks of “miracle cures” and hyped scientific claims for all foods.  At the same time Tim has also spent the last 30+ years researching the microbiome (our gut) and he talks a tonne of sense about how different people respond to different foods (including chocolate)

The tasting is next Thursday, 24th September, at 8-00pm.  It’s free to register on Zoom; we are also going to try to record a version of the conversation for anyone who can’t make it.  And you can buy a copy of Tim’s book, along with the ten chocolates we will be discussing and tasting, too (see here and below)

As a warm up, this week’s blog post is a light hearted, sceptical review of some of the scientific claims about chocolate.  Plus we have some advice on how to “review” these claims.  Similar to the way we encourage you to check the ingredients on a chocolate bar’s label for its ingredients, and the details of the farm where the beans are sourced, we STRONGLY suggest you review  and how many people were studied, who funded the work and your own potential “cognitive bias”.  Read on  — and then please apply Tim’s below “debunking” advise

A QUICK HISTORY OF “SCIENTIFIC” CLAIMS FOR CHOCOLATE

Throughout history, chocolate has been the subject of wonderful and miraculous claims.  Both the Aztecs and Marquis de Sade were convinced of its properties as an aphrodisiac.  Earnest debates were held on its “humorous” properties by alchemists, doctors, barbers and quacks during the 17th and 18th centuries.  And two of the first three US presidents (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) were keen that chocolate become the preferred drink in the US given it’s “nutritional benefits” (and that it didn’t come from Great Britain).

Arguably the modern fad for claiming health benefits for chocolate was a series of studies of the Kuna in the late 20th Century, which highlighted their low rate of heart attacks and coronary problems. These health benefits were attributed to their predilection for a unique drinking chocolate recipe that is very high in flavonols (as well as eating lots of fish).  There may well be something in this.  But it’s hard to translate into “normal” chocolate consumption as the Kuna were drinking gallons (over 5 large cups or almost 2 liters a day) of this beverage; and it is crafted and fermented very differently to any normal chocolate bar.

But the genie was out of the bottle. The power of associating health benefits with chocolate was immediate.  Loads more studies were launched all over the world.  And to journalists the headlines from these studies are like catnip.  Chocolate health studies make great “click bait”.


“GREATEST HITS” FOR RECENT STUDIES ON CHOCOLATES HEALTH BENEFITS

It’s fun (and also a little worrying) pulling highlights out of these studies.  For those who want to read more, “The Economics of Chocolate” (Oxford University Press published in 2016, and republished in 2019), has a whole chapter titled Nutritional and Health Effects of Chocolate of various studies. Here are a dozen (and we’ve more on the blog) claims: 

  1. “..  an average consumption of 10g/ day of chocolate induced positive effects on cognitive performance, with maximum benefit depending on the variety of chocolate consumed (flavonoids-rich type) (Nurk et al 2009)”
  2. “… a habitual chocolate consumption of 10g of dark chocolate per day (corresponding to 4.2g of cocoa) was associated with lower systolic blood pressure compared to no, or very low, cocoa intake” (Buijsse et al 2006)
  3.  “… Almoosawi and colleagues (2012) found that 20g per day of dark chocolate improved cardiovascular risk factors in health, overweight and obese subjects”
  4. “Research conducted in the Netherlands on young healthy women explored the relationship between appetites and levels of gastrointestinal hormones … results showed that smelling and eating 30g chocolate induced appetite suppression and were inversely correlated with levels of ghrelin, a hormone which stimulates appetite (Massolt, 2010)”
  5. 21 healthy men aged 25-30, were given dark or white chocolate for 28 days.  They were given 25g three times a day ((4,6 and 8pm).  And those who were given dark chocolate saw a “decrease in blood sugar” (Rusconi, 2012)
  6. 15 women, aged 20-40 years, were given 100g of 70% dark chocolate (Di Renzo) in two 50g portions in morning and evening. “After chocolate consumption, a significant increase in HDL cholesterol level and a significant decrease of total cholesterol/ HDL cholesterol ratio were observed and.  In addition “a reduction in abdomen circumference” was noted.
  7. Hermann and colleagues (2006) suggest that “70% dark chocolate improves vasodilation by 80% in young healthy smokers starting from two hours after chocolate ingestion and lasting for up to 8 hours”
  8. “… people with an average age of 57 years who’d been eating chocolate five times a week for the last few years, and run 3-4 times a week, have a lower BMI that those who eat chocolate less often” (Golomb and colleagues)
  9. In a study by Parker and Crawford in 2007 3000 people who described themselves as being depressed, 45% craved chocolate. “Chocolate is high in branch-train amino acids, and especially in tryptophan, which increases the blood level of serotonin, the neurotransmitter producing calming and pleasurable feelings”.
  10. “Chocolate was found to coat the teeth, thereby preventing tooth decay… Tannins in cocoa were found to promote healthy teeth as they inhibited the formation of dental plaque (Matsumoto, 2004)
  11.  “A double blind study of 30 healthy subjects divided into two groups one consuming a 20g per day of high flavonol level chocolate and one consuming a conventional dark chocolate …. confirmed that a regular consumption of rich-in-polyphenols chocolate confers significant photoprotection and can be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects (Williams et al 2009)
  12. “Chocolate is rich in theobromine (an alkaloid stimulant that acts on the body in ways similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to caffeine) and other compounds similar to the cannabinoids, that act on the central nervous system, producing euphoric, aphrodisiac and stimulating effect (Di Tomaso et al 1996).  It also contains phenylethylamine, a molecule  released during intimacy, when people are infatuated or fall in love, and it further promotes the release of serotonin … producing some aphrodisiac and mood lifting effects (no study quoted for this one, and to be fair the authors say more work is needed on this one …)

So if you smoke or are healthy, if you are male or female, looking to lower blood sugar, reduce the size of your “abdomen circumference”, end your cravings, stop being depressed, think better or want to fall in love more someone has done a study where the solution is “EAT MORE CHOCOLATE”.  If you are starting to scratch your head, we do too.  

Some scientific studies really are too good to be true.

And this is one of the areas that we will discuss with Tim.  He can explain far more what is going on here.  But in advance a couple of points on the importance of “reading the small print”

  1. Just as we encourage you to check the ingredients in your bar of chocolate, check how many people the study has involved.  In the above, only in a few cases could I find the number of people “studied”.  
  2. Similarly, just as you want to know the farm/estate/co-operative where the beans in your bar are from, when checking a study it’s worth trying to find out who has paid for the research.  Vox did some research in 2017 of 100+ studies carried out on chocolate by Mars and found “they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate — promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease”.  Similarly when we dug into the health benefit claims for Coconut Sugar we discovered that the “proof” that Coconut sugar generates lower GI spikes was based on a study of 11 people financed by the Philippine Coconut Marketing Agency.  Hmmm
  3. Beware of what is variously described as “cognitive bias”, “motivated reasoning” or “wishful thinking”. Psychologists warn us to beware that we all are more likely to notice what we want to notice. And this is very true when we see “justifications” for savouring our favourite craft chocolate bars.   

For more debunking, please do join our Craft Chocolate Conversation with Tim Spector.  We’ll also discuss his work on the microbiome and discuss the ten different craft chocolates he has selected.  Register (for free) for the zoom call here, and you can purchase his book and tasting kit here (more details are below) 

As ever, thanks for your support

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

P.S. If you missed last Sunday Brunch, tune in again here and see below for the bars that were savoured by Tim, Simon and their guests Elizabeth Tan and Jeremy Vine

Tim Spector is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowd sourced Covid-19 app (the one that works). He is also passionate about fermentation and its importance to our gut health, and has recently released a book called Spoon-fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told about Food is Wrong. This year, Spencer and Tim held an extremely popular Virtual Chocolate Tasting, where they discussed together Tim’s life story and dissected some of the more common myths about food and chocolate

Now you can buy Tim’s new book, alongside a combination of bars tried at the tasting and new bars related to Tim’s life. The book and bars will come presented in a beautiful gift box.

Many of the world’s greatest foods and drinks involve fermentation – think wine, coffee, beer, yogurt, bread, cheese and, of course, chocolate.  Life would be a lot less fun without the miracles that yeasts and bacteria perform in transforming grapes into wine, hops into beer and cocoa seeds into chocolate.

This week’s blog post aims to explain the importance of fermentation in 1) crafting great chocolate, 2) increasing cocoa farmer incomes and 3) catalysing the Craft Chocolate revolution (which involves a wide range of characters, including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime).

We are also pleased to announce a “Craft Chocolate Conversation” with Professor Tim Spector on the 24th September (see below and here for tickets and kits). Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind one of the Covid-19 apps that actually works (get yours here).  He is also passionate about fermentation and its importance to our gut health.  Below, I’ve listed a few of the topics that we are going to discuss while we also taste some of his favourite Craft Chocolate bars.

PROFESSOR TIM SPECTOR IN CONVERSATION

Tim Spector trained in rheumatology and epidemiology before moving into genetic epidemiology in 1993 when he founded the UK Twins Registry of 12,000 twins.  And for the last twenty five years he has been researching the importance of the microbiome in explaining human health, well being and behaviour.  It’s not easy to summarise all his findings, but here are some of the topics we plan to discuss :

FERMENTATION AND CHOCOLATE

Craft Chocolate is all about coaxing amazing flavours, textures and sensations out of a cocoa bean.  And to do this, you need great cocoa beans. And great cocoa beans are about great genetics and careful fermentation.  Even a “great bean” will be awful if it’s not properly fermented (they don’t just taste “mouldy”, they can also taste of rotten meat).

Quite how humans learnt about cocoa fermentation is lost to history.  But we can surmise that about 5-4000 BC some enterprising inhabitants of what is now modern day Peru and Ecuador realised that whilst the “seeds” of a fresh cocoa pod are incredibly bitter and astringent, if these seeds are left in a pile (or even in the open pod), after a few days they start to develop interesting nutty, fruity and (almost) chocolatey flavours. And then they started to cook, winnow and grind these cocoa beans into a paste which made a filling and nutritious drink.  And that was how we started to drink chocolate.

In the late 19th and early 20th century we started to eat chocolate, and we also realised that chocolate is a great vehicle for other flavours and as an ingredient (think candy bars, chocolate brownies, ice cream, etc.).  Creating mass-produced chocolate is all about achieving consistent taste along with the luscious mouthfeel of chocolate. 

Mass-produced chocolate achieves consistent flavour profiles largely through additives and flavourings.  Mass-produced chocolate is NOT about revelling in the amazing flavours that different bean varietals, different fermentations, different roast profiles and different conches can create (that’s what we do in Craft Chocolate).  Mass-produced chocolate doesn’t worry about the profiles of different beans and fermentations.  It’s more concerned about economies of scale –  beans are bought in “bulk”, fermented in huge batches and blended together with additives and flavourings

In contrast if you want great craft chocolate, you want to celebrate different beans and different fermentations.  This means that once a farmer opens a pod it needs to be fermented “properly”.  And proper fermentation is delicate, complex and requires scale.  It is a multi-stage process that involves yeasts, lactic-acid bacteria, acetic-acid bacteria, ethanols, aerobic spore forming bacteria and more.  All these stages interact, involve high temperatures and need to be managed over a period of 4-9 days and via “turning” or oxygenating beans in “vats” that contain 50-500kg (and up to 2,500kg) of cocoa beans.

Changing any of these conditions (i.e. time, bacteria, turns,  box size etc.) dramatically impact the flavour.  For example Mikkel Friis Holm’s “Double” and “Triple” Turn bars are made from the same beans, from the same harvest, they are roasted and conched in the same way, but one bar has beans that are “turned” twice, the other three times.  Similarly Mucho has two bars made from the same beans which have a radically different flavour as in one (the Lavado) most of the pulp is washed off before fermentation whereas in the other it is left on and a “classic” 5.5 day fermentation in wooden boxes carried out. (See below for details on both bars.)

A key component of the Craft Chocolate revolution is teaching farmers about fermentation and establishing fermentation co-operatives so they could achieve scale.  Most of the world’s cocoa farmers are small holder farmers with 2-5, and sometimes up to 10, hectares.  That means that individually they rarely have the “critical mass”, skills or even the “kit” to perform a proper fermentation.

For example the proliferation of Craft Chocolate bars from Tanzania is thanks to the pioneering work of Brian and Simran with Kokoa Kamili.  Efi and Max of Qantu (Canada) regularly travel down to Efi’s home county of Peru to help teach farmers more about fermentation.  Estella is similarly helping the farmers of Kablon Province in the Philipinnes.  Zoi Papalexandratou has worked with Luisa Abram and local farmers in the remote parts of the Amazon to improve their fermentation. 

This creates a win win for all.  We can now enjoy great craft chocolate bars from these beans, and local cocoa farmers can enjoy a higher income as their properly fermented beans now realise them far higher prices and incomes.  Please see below for these bars

Governments have also seen the benefits of encouraging farmers to grow, and ferment, premium cocoa as an alternative to cocaine. For example in Colombia the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been working for a decade to get farmers to replace cocaine with cocoa, and teaching farmers about fermentation.  Similarly USAID has helped recreate cocoa farming to replace cocaine crops in San Martin, Peru (and that’s partly how Efi of Qantu learnt about fermentation).

SUMMARY

In Craft Chocolate, fermentation is critical to create great tasting bars and also to help raise farmers’ incomes (whilst also replacing other less desirable crops).

And as we will discuss with Tim, eating fermented foods (including craft chocolate), is also critical for a healthy gut, microbiome and diet.

We really hope you can join us – and we’re sure that you will enjoy Tim’s great new book that debunks much of the nonsense around many food fads  (see here and below)

Welcome to our series of Craft Chocolate in Conversation where we’ll be holding more Zoom calls with Craft Chocolate enthusiasts including Professor Barry Smith, Julian Baggini, Ruth Spivey and more to come. With these experts we will be discussing everything from Philosophy to Wine, and Texture to Feasting. These Craft Chocolate in Conversation sessions are free to attend, just simply book your space. However during these sessions we’ll also be trying some of our experts’ favourite chocolates, so why not join in with the tasting. All you need to do is buy your tasting kit.


Barry Smith

Friday 6th November, 8pm

Barry Smith is a professor of philosophy and directs the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. He is also the founding director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, which pioneers collaborative research between philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists. A philosopher of language and mind, his current research is on the multisensory nature of perceptual experience, focusing on taste, smell and flavour.  And he believes that Craft Chocolate is a fantastic tool to explain and explore how these multi-modal  experiences of taste, flavour, smell and texture.

Buy the kit

James Hoffmann

Thursday 12th November, 8pm

James Hoffmann, co-founder of Square Mile Coffee Roasters, author of The World Atlas of Coffee, YouTube sensation, World Barista Champion, Prufrock Coffee, to name just a few items of his work… is also a craft chocolate aficionado and a dear friend of Cocoa Runners. During this Craft Chocolate in Conversation with James, we’ll take a deep dive into some of his favourite bars – bars that he chose for being particularly fascinating.

“I’m drawn to chocolate, in many ways, because of its similarities to great coffee. To me chocolate is effortless enjoyable, chemically satisfying but when I dig a little deeper, it becomes fascinating and even more delightful.”

– James Hoffmann
Buy the kit

Philipp Kauffmann

Thursday 3rd December, 8pm

On this evening we’ll be joined by Original Beans founder, Philipp Kauffmann. Former conservationist at the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations, Philipp started his chocolate-making venture with the focus on protecting farmers, the rainforest, and thousands of endangered species. All through the means of incredibly delicious and sustainably sourced cacao.

Philipp’s chocolate kit is set to include a selection of bars crafted from cacao sourced by Original Beans and their Bean Team. The premise of this tasting is to walk through Philipps’ life, vicariously through chocolate.

Register Your Interest Here*

*We’ll be in touch when Philipp’s chocolate tasting kit is available to buy!

Past Events

Julian Baggini

Philosophy, Religion and the Sacred Cacao Bean. In this philosophical talk and chocolate tasting, we’ll be looking at what makes chocolate truly divine, or perhaps something even better. Philosopher Julian Baggini has just published a book on the greatest food movie of all time, Babette’s Feast, and Julian will be applying ideas from that to chocolate. Julian will be trying to persuade you that much of what we seek in religion can be found in the mortal, material world, and that cacao is one way to unlock this.

Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood

What a morning pleasure it is to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee with an amazing bar of chocolate. And so we’re delighted to be joined by three-time UK Barista Champion & three-time world finalist, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, for a morning of pairing different coffees with chocolate. We’ll also taste more chocolate alongside Maxwell as we discuss the differences and similarities in coffee.

Tim Spector

Tim Spector is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowded Covid-19 app. He is also passionate about fermentation and its importance to our gut health. During this Craft Chocolate in Conversation with Tim, we’ll delve into Tim’s just released book, Spoon Fed, and discuss a range of topics from fermentation to our microbiome – along with tasting some of his favourite Craft Chocolate Bars too. We’ve curated a Chocolate Tasting Kit that includes 10 unique chocolates to be tasted alongside us. We’re offering up Tasting Kits ideal for 1-2 people or for 4+, with the chance to add on the incredible Spoon Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told about Food is Wrong book.

Isabel Vincent

Join us for an interactive chocolate tasting with award-winning author and investigative journalist Isabel Vincent. Isabel’s latest book, Dinner with Edward: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship, is a memoir of her deep five-year friendship with a lonely widower, and tells of their weekly dinners, prepared by Edward, and the wide-ranging advice he shared with her. We’ll be using six special chocolate bars to explore Isabel’s life, career, and life-changing friendship with Edward.

This week we’d like to congratulate a number of chocolate makers who have entered, and won, multiple awards at the Great Taste Awards — in particular Fjak and Tosier (ladies first), Standout, Firetree and Solkiki swept the boards.

To celebrate we’ve pulled together an award winning box (see below) and highlighted a few other awesome award-winning bars. 

We’ve also used this occasion to ruminate more on the extraordinary labour intensity of judging food and why they are (arguably) more “art” than “science”.

HOW TO SAVOUR

Just as how you are often advised to swill your wine in a glass, sniff it and then sip it, chocolate has a similar protocol.  When you open a bar the classic advice goes along the lines of “admire the shininess of the chocolate, then break off a piece (it should have a clean snap), then ‘sniff’ it and finally move on to savouring the bar”.

In the process of tasting literally thousands of craft chocolate bars, we believe that there are a few other best practices to make savouring more fun and memorable. These include:

  1. Try to have a few chocolates on the go at the same time (easier than with wine or coffee…).  It really highlights the differences
  2. Try to share and discuss with friends.  It’s more fun and articulating the notes you detect helps you discover and remember
  3.  Try to have some “crib sheets”; most of the time tastes, flavours and textures are “on the tip of our tongues” but hard for most to articulate.  Hence why we always hand out our “Craft Chocolate Savouring Wave”
  4.  Give it time.  Lots of time.  Revisit and repeat

TASTE — “ART” OR “SCIENCE”?

For most of our senses and experiences we’ve developed standardised criteria and scientific measurements.  Time has minutes, hours, years, etc.  Distance has miles (or kilometres).  Weight has kilos (or pounds). Sound has decibels (and pitch, rhythm, frequency, tone, etc.)  Temperature has Celsius (or Fahrenheit or Kelvin).  Colour, since Newton and his prisms, has wavelengths to describe red, yellow and even stuff we can’t see.

Food and drink are different.  They are about flavour, taste and texture.  Measurements and judgements are a lot more subjective. 

Awarding prizes and awards in food and drink is all done by hand (or rather mouth and nose) and by teams of people.   The Great Taste Awards is all about lots of people tasting lots of products.  The same is true for wine with the likes of Decanter, the IWC, IWSC etc. tasting tens of thousands of wines each vintage.  And the Academy of Chocolate and International Chocolate Awards do a similar job for chocolate, each now tasting thousands of bars every year. 

No one really has found a way to speed up or “automate” the process of tasting.

This is in large part because we are a long way from having standardised criteria and measurements for “taste” (or more specifically for flavour — see below).  We don’t have Newton’s light-refracting prism to help us describe and define aromas and flavours.  

And disentangling what we enjoy when we drink and eat is incredibly complicated.  To quote Professor Barry Smith, “…what we ordinarily call ‘taste’ involves input not just from the tongue, but from touch and smell. …  The experience often described in unisensory terms as ‘taste’ depends on the multi-modal combining of inputs”. By this he means that when we delight (or not) in food it is all about our sense of taste, smell, texture and a few other senses (e.g., spiciness). Untangling these is part of the problem.

Another part of the challenge is that we only have defined measurements for some of these senses. For spiciness we have the Scoville scale.  And we do have criteria to measure all the “tastes” (saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness, umami, etc.).

But flavour (olfaction, our sense of smell and flavours) is particularly problematic.  It wasn’t until 1991 that Linda Buck and Richard Axel identified where, and how, the brain’s olfactory process “works” (they won the Nobel Prize for their work here in 2004).  But we are still a long way from having anything like Newton’s prism to define colour via light waves.  Olfaction is hugely complicated.  For example, just for starters we detect flavour in two very different ways; orthonasally (through our nose) and retronasally (through our mouth). 

For those of us who are fans of “real” food (and drinks) there is some good news here: it’s really, really hard to recreate flavours that occur in nature.  Scientists have some tools – for example, Mass Gas Spectometry.  But if you read how long and laborious it was to make artificial vanilla, you’ll see how far they are from cracking fake flavours (the work behind synthesizing artificial vanilla has been compare to “trying to figure out what was inside a mysterious piece of luggage by heaving it off a hotel balcony”). And even then, artificial and synthetic flavours are  approximations which seek out some key characteristics of the desired fruit or suns. Nootkatone was identified in the 1960s as giving grapefruit part of their distinctive flavours and, when distilled, it made a great addition to create Fresca.  But it’s not the real thing.

And to return to the Great Wave of Savouring Chocolate we use in our Virtual Tastings (see here), it is in the “after taste” that these artificial additives fall flat.  To quote Tim Spector from our “Craft Chocolate Conversation” on Thursday night:  “Real food like craft chocolate really lingers and evolves …. mass-produced chocolate is all about the upfront flavour … and is often designed to give you more “hits” to get you coming back for more (and more and more)”.

CELEBRATING THE GREAT TASTE AWARDS WINNERS

So anyhow, let’s celebrate all the hard work of our makers, and the tasters, of the Great Taste Awards.  We’ve assembled a box of Milk and Dark Award winning bars.  And as we could only fit four in this box, we’ve included a few more wonderful winners too.  See below and here.

And if you want to know more about the science of taste, flavour and indeed the amazing career of Professor Barry Smith, please do sign up for his next “Craft Chocolate Conversation” with us (he is in the process of choosing his “Desert Island Chocolates”,  but you can sign up for the free Zoom details here and we’ll send you details on how to buy the kit soon).

As ever, thanks for your support,

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony

All our Virtual Tastings are completely FREE to join, however you’ll need to make sure to register below to gain access. These live tastings will be held via Zoom, and we’ll send you details on how to join after you register your choice of date in the form below.

We strongly recommend having the chocolate tasting kit to go alongside the Virtual Tasting. It’s a great way to explore and taste terroir & genetics, monumental moments in chocolate’s history, and lots of different tastes, textures and flavours. These kits can be bought on the Virtual Chocolate Tasting Kits page. Please note that you still need to register your place for the Zoom Tasting!

Note: if you’ve been invited to a corporate or bespoke tasting, we will separately be sending out instructions (and if you are interested in setting up a corporate tasting please see here)



Weekly Virtual Chocolate Tastings | every Wednesday alternating 5pm and 8pm

These Weekly tastings will involve the “Pair Kit” (ideal for 1-2 people) or the “Family Kit” (ideal for 4+).


MILK SPECIAL Virtual Chocolate Tasting | every 4 weeks on Wednesday at 7.30pm

These Milk Special tastings will involve the Milk Special Chocolate Tasting Kit. Please see above for the dates of these tastings.


Chocolate Tasting with Tim Spector, Thursday 24th September 2020, 8pm

Tim Spector is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, a craft chocolate aficionado, and one of the driving forces behind the crowded Covid-19 app. He is also passionate about fermentation and its importance to our gut health. During this Craft Chocolate in Conversation with Tim, we’ll delve into Tim’s just released book, Spoon Fed, and discuss a range of topics from fermentation to our microbiome – along with tasting some of his favourite Craft Chocolate Bars too. We’ve curated a Chocolate Tasting Kit that includes 10 unique chocolates to be tasted alongside us. We’re offering up Tasting Kits ideal for 1-2 people or for 4+, with the chance to add on the incredible Spoon Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told about Food is Wrong book.


Chocolate Tasting with Julian Baggini, Thursday 15th October, 8pm

In this philosophical talk and tasting, we’ll be looking at what makes chocolate truly divine, or perhaps something even better. Philosopher Julian Baggini has just published a book on the greatest food movie of all time, Babette’s Feast, and he’ll be applying ideas from that to chocolate. He’ll be trying to persuade you that much of what we seek in religion can be found in the mortal, material world, and that cacao is one way to unlock this. We’ve created a Chocolate Tasting Kit of 8 fantastic chocolate bars, complete with Julian’s new book, which you can buy here. You can also buy the chocolate only here.


Chocolate Tasting with Isabel Vincent, Thursday 22nd October, 8pm

Join us for an interactive chocolate tasting with award-winning author and investigative journalist Isabel Vincent. Isabel’s latest book, Dinner with Edward: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship, is a memoir of her deep five-year friendship with a lonely widower, and tells of their weekly dinners, prepared by Edward, and the wide-ranging advice he shared with her. We’ll be using six special chocolate bars to explore Isabel’s life, career, and life-changing friendship with Edward.

For most of its history we’ve “drunk” chocolate.  And hot chocolate remains a favourite “night cap” for many kids and adults.

Yet many people fear that eating, or drinking, chocolate in the evening will keep them up at night.  And one of the most common questions at our Virtual Tastings remains “does chocolate contain caffeine”.

The simple answer to that “is there caffeine in chocolate” question is YES.  But the amount of caffeine in chocolate depends on the type of chocolate, the cocoa varietal, how it’s farmed and how it’s crafted (or processed).

The more contentious question is “does chocolate at night keep you from sleeping” (or “will some chocolate in the afternoon act as pick me up”).  To try and answer this question, we’ve researched some of the active ingredients in chocolate and tried to understand their impact. 

Our conclusion is that the answer differs not just depending on the chocolate but on the person eating (or drinking) the chocolate. 

Chocolate’s Active Ingredients

Chocolate contains a bunch of active ingredients – in particular caffeine, theobromine and tryptophan. Chocolate is also normally combined with sugar and sometimes milk. Each of these “work” on us differently.

Caffeine works directly on our central nervous system making us more “alert” and, when overdone, make us jittery and it can even become addictive with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.  There is some caffeine in chocolate.  But it’s not a huge amount, even in dark chocolate — far less than in a cup of coffee.  Savouring a few squares of chocolate will involve consuming less  caffeine than in drinking a cup of decaffeinated coffee.  To become addicted to the caffeine in coffee it’s suggested you need to drink more than 9 coffees of Xg per day; for chocolate it’s over ten 100g bars per day.

Chocolate contains far more of another stimulant, theobromine.  In a standard dark chocolate bar, theobromine comprises 1-2.5% of the weight of a bar, caffeine 0.06-.4%.  Theobromine, even though it’s in the same class of chemical as caffeine (and is just as astringent), doesn’t stimulate the central nervous system.  Rather it acts as a muscle relaxant whilst also stimulating, and regulating, cardiovascular activities (i.e., it can sort your heart out).  Unlike caffeine there is no evidence that Theobromine will keep you awake – indeed there are studies suggesting that theobromine can help people sleep (see blog for references).

Chocolate also contains tryptophan, which  stimulates serotonin and melatonin.  And serotonin and melatonin are believed to help sleep.  But again, the amount of tryptophan differs by chocolate type and it impacts different people very differently. 

Now let’s turn to some other stuff that is often added to chocolate — sugar and milk.

Sugar for almost everyone acts as a stimulant which prevents most of us from going to sleep (at least initially).  That’s why people reach for a sugar snack (including many chocolates) for a mid afternoon pick me up.

Milk, especially hot milk (for drinking chocolate) however is soporific.

Differences Between Chocolates

Just to make matters even more complicated, different chocolate types contain different amounts of each of these elements. See the blog for more details, but here is a first summary

And then different beans, farming practises and crafting approaches also make massive differences.  For example; different roasting profiles and fermentation approaches will impact the concentration (and efficacy) of tryptophan. 

Differences Between People

As if this complexity isn’t enough, it turns out that different people react differently to the same bars and compounds.  For more on this see the work done by Professor Tim Spector (an avid craft chocolate fan and subscriber) on identical twins where he shows how the way we react to different foods is primarily a question of our gut’s microbiome.  And this is definitely applicable to chocolate

Our Request, Experiment and Suggestion

Given all this complexity, we’d like to ask for your help with an experiment.  Can you find a friend, family member, partner, etc. and experiment with different chocolates at different times and record your reactions here?

Sources:

ACADEMIC ARTICLES

https://www.netdoctor.co.uk/healthy-eating/news/a26374/dark-chocolate-magnesium-levels-sleep-help/

https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/10.5664/jcsm.5384

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4335269/

http://web.colby.edu/st297-global18/2018/10/28/serotonin-dopamine-the-neurological-benefits-of-chocolate/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575938/

JOURNALISTS

https://mammothcomfort.com/does-chocolate-really-stop-you-sleeping/

https://www.sleep.org/articles/five-surprising-foods-that-could-be-making-you-tired/

https://verlo.com/blog/a-chocolate-sleep-aid-does-it-work/

https://www.cacaoteaco.com/blogs/blog/does-chocolate-have-caffeine

https://criobru.com/blogs/news/what-is-theobromine-and-should-i-swapping-it-for-caffeine

https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/caffeine-vs-chocolate-a-mighty-methyl-group

OTHER SOURCES

http://www.tim-spector.co.uk/

https://joinzoe.com/

Geography has never been my strongest subject.  So even though I know that cocoa only grows within a band of 0-20 degrees of the equator, I struggle to identify which of the following countries does NOT both grow and craft chocolate and wine:

  1. The USA
  2. Bolivia
  3. Chile
  4. Australia

The answer is Chile (in the USA, Hawaii grows cocoa as well as coffee, Bolivia growns both and in Australia they grow wine in both the South West and South East, plus cocoa in the Daintree Rainforest in the North).  Chile grows some amazing wines (which pair wonderfully with craft chocolate, as we plan to show in an upcoming Virtual Wine and Craft Chocolate Tasting).  However it’s too far south to grow cocoa.

Despite this, Chile does have its own bean-to-bar, small-batch craft chocolate maker, ÓBOLO.  And we are delighted to welcome Mark Gerrits, the founder of ÓBOLO, and his bars to our chocolate library.  He sources his beans from the Pangoa Cooperative in neighbouring Peru, and we are delighted to finally have these for sale – see below, or here, for more details.

ÓBOLO

Mark Gerrits, born in the USA, went on a three-month backpacking trip to Chile in 1994 and has basically yet to return. He stayed in Chile until 2001, when he moved to Napo, Ecuador, to work with a number of cocoa-growing communities. In 2003, he returned to Chile to join The Nature Conservancy.

Having been “bitten” by the chocolate bug in Ecuador, Mark determined that even though Chile does not grow its own cocoa, it would be far more environmentally sensible to craft chocolate in Chile.  He noted that Chile’s local chocolate market was comparatively large, compared to its neighbours (though it has a fair way to go to catch the UK, see the full breakdown below).

PopulationVol. 2014 (tonnes)Vol. 2018 (tonnes)Spend per capita
Chile20 million25,00040,000$40
Peru32 million8,00015,000$6.56
UK60 million390,000480,000$143.33
Comparison of chocolate consumption by country, 2018. Source: Eurostat

And he saw the opportunity, and environmental benefits, of importing beans from nearby Peru rather than having the beans shipped to Europe (or the US), processed there, and then shipped back to Latin America.

So in 2013 Mark started to craft chocolate in his home, and by 2015, following unanimous encouragement from US makers who had tasted his early bars, he decided to throw himself full-time into crafting chocolate.

Mark named his company “ÓBOLO” after the Spanish word that means a gift or a small contribution in Spanish.  Or as Mark puts it “We at ÓBOLO are very grateful to everyone who supports us daily on this adventure: the cacao farmers, our local community, employees, clients, friends and family. ÓBOLO is our small gift back to the world; our way of saying thank you”.  If you dig back a little further, the naming is even more appropriate – the root of ÓBOLO comes from ancient Greek, where an ÓBOLO was a coin… just like the cacao bean was used as a unit of currency in Mayan and Aztec societies.

Mark also leveraged his knowledge of cocoa and Latin America to find a unique source for his cocoa beans.  ÓBOLO works directly with the Pangoa Cooperative in Junin, Peru.  The cooperative was established in 1965 to help preserve the ancient rainforests and 36 “Native Communities”.  In 1977 they set up a Coffee Co-Operative and, with ÓBOLO (and a few other US makers including French Broad and Fruition), they have over the last decade also formed a Cocoa Cooperative.

ÓBOLO crafts a variety of dark bars (including a very approachable 100%) to showcase the sherbety, fruity and nutty flavours of the Pangoa beans.  And in addition they’ve incorporated various local flavours and spices from Peru in their bars – we strongly recommend their Maqui Nativo bar, made with a local “superfood” berry.  In addition, they have an intriguing dark milk and (rare) white bar.  Please see below for more details.  And again, we STRONGLY recommend these bars with a local Chilean Malbec like Intipalka (and do write to us for more wine recommendations).

MORE VIRTUAL TASTINGS

And just to remind you that we’ve a bunch more Virtual Tastings and Craft Chocolate Conversations now available — see here for the full listing and below for some highlights.

Wishing you a great weekend  

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie and Harmony