CHICAGO — What does chocolate taste like?
There are the quick answers. Sweet. Velvety. Smooth. Silky. Bitter. Creamy. Heavenly.
But what do they mean? Are they universal? And is chocolate a monolithic food with just one taste?
At a recent event at Barry Callebaut USA’s Chicago headquarters, culinary applications chef Mark Seaman spoke to a group about chocolate tasting. Each person had a burlap bag containing a white cocktail napkin, an eye mask, a small bottle of water, some paperwork and a box with nine pieces of chocolate inside. He explained that to truly come to the tasting of a chocolate, all of those items would be used.
“All five of our senses taste the chocolate. The mouth is going to be the last,” he said, explaining the tasting ritual.
Chocolate, Seaman said, is much like wine. While there can be large generalizations made about the taste, the beans, blends and processes make the difference between the taste and quality of different confections. And there are many nuances to the taste, feel and texture of chocolate.
Sensory evaluation experts at Barry Callebaut, one of the world's largest cocoa producers, recently developed a full chocolate tasting method, complete with a wheel to break down the exact portions of the taste. Seaman said that chocolate tasting was done in the past using less definitive measurements.
“We wanted to have a common language for how we describe something that is a very subjective experience — and taste is very subjective,” Seaman told Food Dive during a conversation with an editor and another Barry Callebaut employee. “All three of us could taste the same thing and all three of us would have completely different perspectives about what we just tasted.”
Big wheel keeps on turning
Despite its appearance, chocolate is not just a simple confection. It’s sourced from different kinds of trees grown around the world. It’s emulsified with different substances. Different amounts of sugar are added. And distinctions can occur throughout processing.
Sensory evaluation experts in Barry Callebaut’s European headquarters teamed up with their counterparts in Canada and flavor companies to come up with the different types of flavors that can be present in chocolate. Priscille Pradal, manager for the chocolate company’s sensory division in the Americas, said in an email that it took about two years of research.
The wheel was rolled out, divided into aroma, mouthfeel and taste segments. Aroma, which makes up the largest portion of the wheel, is divided into several different aspects, ranging from floral to dairy to grains and cereals. As a consumer selects one of these, there are more nuanced terms on the outside. So if a chocolate has a nutty aroma, the consumer can follow the wheel outward and describe if its aroma is like cashew, pecan, walnut, macadamia, pistachio, almond or hazelnut.
“We wanted to have a common language for how we describe something that is a very subjective experience — and taste is very subjective.”
Culinary applications chef, Barry Callebaut
Mouthfeel has the next largest portion of the wheel, which is divided into texture — like hard, creamy or melting — and trigeminal feelings — like astringent or cool.
Taste has the smallest portion on the wheel. It is divided into the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami.
Seaman said it can be difficult to put taste into nuanced words, but the wheel helps to thoroughly describe it. It also assists consumers into thinking about what they’re eating.
“I want them to be engaged with what's happening and this experience. Really think through it all, you know?” Seaman said. “Take the time to be mindful about how it looks and what does that look mean to you. We're going to see the same thing, but we see the same things around us all the time and we have completely different perceptions of them.”
Not just taste
But chocolate is more than just a taste in the mouth, Seaman said. Tasting also has everything to do with looking, feeling, smelling and listening. The cocktail napkin in the taste test kit is used to look at the color of chocolate. And the eye mask is to remove bias by looking at the different pieces — which may be cut differently, potentially prejudicing the tasting.
He said appearances are often deceptive. Seaman recently baked several batches of brownies, hoping to find the best recipe. Testers commonly found taste differences in two brownies cut differently even though they came from the same pan. The environment also makes a difference. Consumers find chocolate tastes smoother when they are in a room where classical music is playing, Seaman said.
During the chocolate tasting, Seaman asked the group to hold chocolates in their hands, feeling the texture. He asked them to smell the chocolates. To break the scored squares and listen to them. To drink water in between.
“You have five senses. Every one of them impacts how you taste something,” Seaman told Food Dive. “When you look at something, you already know in your head, ‘I'm going to like that,’ or ‘I'm not going to like that,’ because it appeals to you or it doesn't appeal to you. Ninety percent of the time, you'll be wrong about what it's going to taste like and whether you're going to like it. ... Tasting is not eating and eating is not tasting. They're two very different things.”