Can I be a connoisseur? Why should I be?
Your first question might be: can I become a chocolate connoisseur? The answer is definitely yes—everyone can be a connoisseur! Everyone has a palate and their own taste preferences. Tasting like a connoisseur is simply about developing a vocabulary to describe the flavors that you taste and the aromas that you smell. It is definitely not about learning to like things just because the “experts” seem to prefer them. You might think, I’m not a connoisseur because I like sweet milk chocolate over the bitter dark chocolate that “experts” seem to prefer—but being a connoisseur is NOT about liking something just because you think you should. You should always remain grounded in your own tastes and preferences.
Your next question might be: why should I be a chocolate connoisseur? First off, it’s fun! As you’ll see, chocolate tasting can (and should) be a social experience. And it can deepen your experience of chocolate—much in the same way that developing an “emotional” vocabulary can help increase the range and depth of your own emotions, or that knowing some art history can deepen your appreciation of certain masterpieces. With the right vocabulary, you will have a better understanding of your own tastes. The word “connoisseur” is borrowed from French, and shares the same root as the English word “to know.” At heart, becoming a chocolate connoisseur means deepening your knowledge about the richness and complexity of one of Earth’s most magical foods. That’s why the two most important tools for becoming a chocolate connoisseur are an open mind and curiosity.
A Chocolate Primer
Chocolate is a complex food with a wide range of flavors—the genetic diversity, variation in post-harvest processing, unique processing techniques, and impact of added ingredients all result in a wide range of flavor combinations and tasting experiences.
Let’s break each of these factors down. Cocoa genetics are an important factor in flavor. There are three main varieties of cocoa—Trinitario, Criollo, and Forestero—and thousands of different cultivars within the three main varieties. Another key contributor to the flavor of chocolate is how the cocoa is processed right after harvest. This is usually done right on the farm or in a nearby village, and involves the fermentation and drying of the cocoa beans.
Finally, the chocolate maker roasts, refines, and conches the cocoa beans to make chocolate—and exactly how these are all done affects the chocolate’s final flavor profile. In case you’re wondering, “conching” refers to the way crushed roasted cocoa beans are mixed in large vats for several hours—ensuring that any remaining water is extracted and that the cocoa butter (the fat from the beans) is evenly distributed throughout the chocolate.
Building your Vocabulary
There are three main flavors in chocolate:
Of course you are familiar with these flavors—but learning to distinguish each one of these when tasting a piece of chocolate is what takes some practice. In particular, while most people are aware that chocolate has sweet and bitter notes—they don’t tend to think of the sourness of chocolate. But once you bring your awareness to it, you will start to notice that there is usually a subtle sourness in most chocolate, and that the amount of sourness varies greatly between chocolates.
Once you’ve become comfortable with those primary flavors you can expand to what are considered secondary flavors. These include:
- Toasted and roasted flavors—like the taste of toasted bread or dark coffee
- Dried fruit—like the taste of raisins or dates
- Red fruit—like the taste of cherries or raspberries
- Tropical fruit—like banana, mango, or pineapple
As you taste the chocolate you can try to discern if you what you’re tasting matches your memory of these secondary flavors. Beyond these, there are many other flavors to explore. It’s not uncommon to find unique flavors in chocolate like melon, rice, or tea.
Preparing for a Successful Tasting
Start with chocolate that has the fewest ingredients, such as dark chocolate. Regardless of what you enjoy, starting with higher percentage cocoa (70% or higher) dark chocolate will help you practice discovering all the unique cocoa flavors.
Make sure that the chocolate is at room temperature—one of chocolate’s unique qualities is that it’s solid at room temperature, but melts in the mouth. To accentuate this quality and make sure that the chocolate is at its most flavorful, bring it to room temperature if it has been refrigerated.
Have some palate-cleansing supplies at hand. This includes warm water, to rinse your mouth and to keep your mouth warm in between tastings. You will want something like sliced apples or unflavored water crackers—these have fairly neutral flavor and can help clear the palate in between tastings.
Pen and paper—it’s very helpful to be able to write down what you taste to be able to discuss and track your experience. If you are tasting more than one chocolate, it is best to start with the sweetest chocolate and work your way to the most bitter.
Time for Tasting!
Above all, I recommend tasting with friends. Making the experience a social one can often help expand your tasting vocabulary. It’s very common to taste a flavor that is familiar but that you cannot find the words to describe. Inevitably, someone else in the group tastes the same thing but has the words to describe it! This will help build your vocabulary and sharpen your palate-mind connection.
There are a few things you should do before the chocolate even hits your tongue. First, see if you can clear your mind—it’s always best to clear and focus your mind before tasting. Concentration is another element that helps connect your mind with your palate. Find a brief exercise, like focused breathing, to help ground your body and still the mind.
Next, pick up the piece of chocolate that you’re going to taste and break it into a bite size. Did you notice the snap? A good snap is a sign of well-tempered chocolate.
Smell the chocolate before putting it in your mouth and note what you smell. Describe the aroma as best you can.
Take a small piece of chocolate in your mouth and let it melt on your tongue, pressing it in between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. I often close my eyes to help focus my mind while tasting. As the chocolate melts, note the flavors your taste. Don’t be afraid to use any descriptor you happen to think of. THERE ARE NO WRONG RESPONSES TO WHAT YOU TASTE.
Think of the tasting as a journey with a beginning, middle, and end. Note down any flavors that changed during this journey. Did a certain note really come through at the beginning, or at the end?
Let the chocolate cover as much of your palate as possible. Different parts of your tongue taste different flavors, so covering a wide area of your tongue is key. Note the sequence of flavors that you taste all way through until after you swallow. Compare what you taste on your palate with what aromas you smelled before putting the chocolate in your mouth.
Always start by describing the basic flavors and their intensity (sweet, sour, bitter), before moving on to secondary flavors.
The more you practice and revisit chocolate that you enjoyed tasting, the more you might be able to refine your tasting experience and expand your palate. Tasting the same product over time, you might experience differences in manufacturing runs or harvests. This experience can add to the enjoyment of a truly unique agricultural product.
Tell us what you taste
As you may know, Dr. Bronner’s now offers our own line of All-One Magic Chocolate! We’d love for you to taste our chocolate like a connoisseur and tell us the flavors that you taste—leave us a comment below!