Chocolate contains an impressive array of 400 distinct flavour compounds. From where in the world cacao is grown, to the grinding, roasting, and conching processes, the flavours of chocolate are refined into one unique flavour-wave per bar. Achieving these flavour profiles truly is a craft.
These flavours can be further enriched; or muted; by pairing chocolate with other things such as coffee, wine, whisky, or even cheese.
The vast spectrum of flavours that can arise from savouring craft chocolate alone or from pairing it with other thing is well-worth exploring. But we’re aware that, due to its complexity, venturing into the taste and flavour of craft chocolate can seem daunting; how are we to know how abstract terms like ‘astringency‘ translate into physical sensations?
Tasting chocolate, and understanding its flavour, is a complex art. Here at Cocoa Runners we don’t believe you have to be an expert to fully appreciate the flavours of chocolate, so we supply anyone who’s interested with the tools to confidently ride a bar’s flavour wave.
Table of contents
- Taste and Flavour
- Spotlight Articles
- Defining Our Terms
- How do we achieve such a wide variety of flavours in chocolate?
- And how do we experience all these flavours in chocolate?
- “Super-taster”: What does it mean and is it a real thing?
- Chocolate Pairings
- Inclusion Bars
- Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Identifying Craft Chocolate from Mass Produced Bars
- Riding the Flavour Wave: How to Taste Chocolate
Defining Our Terms
When it comes to describing taste and flavour it’s easy to get tongue-tied. Translating physical sensations into words can pose a very tricky challenge. This is why chocolate people, like wine people, have a specialised library of vocabulary for discussing flavour profiles.
All this jargon can be pretty confusing, especially as a newcomer, so we thought we’d start off by defining the core sensations we discuss when tasting craft chocolate.
Taste vs Flavour
At first glance, these two words appear to mean the same thing. But there is a subtle, and important, difference which is important to acknowledge before you embark on any journey into the world of taste and flavour.
Taste is detected by your tongue and can be broken down into five basic senses: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.
Whereas flavour is experienced through your sense of smell, both via your nose (orthonasal) and via swallowing (retronasal).
We demonstrate the difference between these terms during our weekly virtual tastings, but we also have a special ‘deep dive’ session where we explore the science of these topics. You can find all our sessions on our calendar page.
Texture is a more straight-forward term; it relates to how things feel in our mouths, whether they’re smooth or chewy, coarse or unrefined.
On the other hand, mouthfeel is a touch more complicated. Like taste and flavour, texture and mouthfeel may appear to be the same thing at first.
The framework we currently have in place for articulating mouthfeel includes the descriptors ‘intense’ versus ‘mellow’ and ‘buttery’ versus ‘clean’.
‘Melt’ simply refers to the way in which a square of chocolate melts in your mouth. Some bars melt faster than others depending on how they’ve been made!
Astringency is often defined as when the saliva in your mouth is “pulled” away, creating a “drying”, “roughing”, and/or “puckering” sensation. It makes you want to drink something after to replenish the moisture in your mouth.
Tannins are primarily responsible for astringency and these can be found in: red wine, tea, roasted coffee beans, and of course, chocolate.
It’s also very important to not get astringency confused with bitterness; whilst astringency is all part of the fun of chocolate, bitterness is not so desirable.
For a more detailed account on these sensations, and a scientific elaboration on astringency, see our full article on untangling taste, flavour, texture, and mouthfeel.
How do we achieve such a wide variety of flavours in chocolate?
It really is remarkable that something as bitter and unpleasant tasting as a cacao seed can eventually be transformed into something as delicious as the chocolate we all know and love. But how do we get from A to B?
During the processes of fermentation, drying, roasting, grinding, conching, and tempering, craft chocolate incrementally acquires its unique flavour profile. For a comprehensive review on how each of these processes distinctly effects taste and flavour, please see our full article on the matter.
And how do we experience all these flavours in chocolate?
Once we’ve finished admiring the chocolate, appreciating its snap, inhaling its aromas, and it eventually makes it into our mouths, some magic happens to release the flavours from within the bar.
Firstly, the heat from your mouth and tongue releases many flavours and volatiles in the chocolate. Secondly, the enzymes in our saliva react with the chocolate to release even more of what are called ‘bonded flavours’. To better understand the magical properties of saliva, read our article on savouring, slurping, spitting and saliva.
“Super-taster”: What does it mean and is it a real thing?
If you’re a super-taster this usually means you are more sensitive to bitterness and may possess a specific bitter-taste-receptor gene (TAS2R38). It does not necessarily mean that you have some kind of superhuman ability to detect tastes and flavours!
Since the 1930s, there have been a series of tests developed to determine whether or not one is a supertaster. Currently, we can phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) or propylthiouracil (Prop) strips to determine whether or not people might be super-tasters based off of their ability to detect bitterness in these strips.
Although the science of all this is still quite unclear, our article on super-tasters may shed some light on the matter.
These super taster tests are included in our taste and flavour kits, if you’re curious.
But, since detecting and articulating the flavours of chocolate is already challenging, introducing extra substances into the mix can confuse matters further.
At one of our whisky and chocolate tastings, whisky expert Rachel McCormack explained that the perfect pairing should ‘sing’, ideally harmoniously and with a pitch detectable to the human tongue.
Getting your pairings to sing is, of course, easier said than done, so we’re working hard on providing you with the key to harmonising chocolate with your favourite drinks and have put together some handy guides.
Chocolate and Red Wine
Many of you will be familiar with the pairing of dark chocolate and red wine; the tannins and resultant astringency in both make them a fairly obvious match.
One of the best ways to approach chocolate and wine pairings is simply to gather around with a few friends or fellow food enthusiasts, crack open a bottle of red wine, open a few bars and work through them, discussing the flavour combinations as you go.
For inspiration, see our perfect pairings guide which provides some examples of what wines you might pair with what chocolates. Use this as a starting point before you venture further into the wonderfully complex world of pairings.
Chocolate & Beer
Whilst chocolate and beer might be a more unusual pairing, it is certainly worth as much exploration as chocolate and wine.
With the craft beer movement booming in the UK, there is now a huge range of beers to select from before you begin pairing them with chocolate. We recommend getting creative and finding a range of beers, from IPAs to porters, and testing them out with a range of bars.
But if you’re unsure on where to begin see our guide on pairing beer with chocolate!
Inclusions have sparked controversy amongst chocolate makers. Some chocolate ‘purists’ don’t approve on putting additional flavours or ingredients in chocolate and instead argue chocolate should simply be chocolate.
Here at Cocoa Runners we welcome chocolate of all kinds and are especially interested in the creative flavour combinations some of our makers come up with. Some good examples of makers who like to get creative include Austria-based Zotter, Budapest-based Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé, and the Mancunian Dormouse Chocolates.
The debate about the place of inclusion bars in the craft chocolate world is an ongoing one, but there is something to be said for the power of inclusions to help find familiar flavours in a potentially intimidating world of craft chocolate.
Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Identifying Craft Chocolate from Mass Produced Bars
Taste and flavour is a crucial marker of distinction between craft chocolate and its mass produced counterpart. Any blind taste test will reveal that a craft chocolate bar tastes wildly different to a Cadbury’s dairy milk, or any other bar you might find in your local supermarket.
This is largely because craft chocolate generally contains far less sugar, salt, and fat; a combination of ingredients deliberately added to a lot of mass produced to evoke the bliss point which is what leads people to scoff their chocolate in one sitting.
Read the label…
Of course, with most chocolate there’s no option to try before you buy, so identifying craft chocolate from mass produced chocolate by taste won’t always be possible. The best things we can do to identify whether a chocolate qualifies as ‘craft’ or not, is examine the label.
Riding the Flavour Wave: How to Taste Chocolate
Now that you’ve had a brief overview about the science behind the taste and flavour of craft chocolate, you can begin to hone your own tasting skills.
Here is a visualisation of some different flavours to get you started:
When tasting a bar for the first time, refer back to this chart and consider which of the icons you are most drawn to whilst the chocolate is melting in your mouth.
The key to tasting chocolate properly is to ensure that you savour; not scoff; the bar! This means placing it in your mouth and allowing it to melt a little rather than chewing and swallowing right away as you might with your afternoon Mars bar.
Once the chocolate begins to melt, really tune in with the flavours being released in your mouth, noticing any shifts in notes as well (you will find that a couple of flavour compounds will come out whilst you consume the chocolate).
Take a deep dive into the science of taste and flavour…
And if you’re still keen to learn more, or put theory into practice, please do come along to one of our special tasting sessions on taste and flavour! The kits are available to buy (small or deluxe) and you can book onto them on our calendar page.
These tastings focus specifically on taste and flavour, covering much of what we’ve talked about here only in greater depth and with delicious chocolatey examples!