This past week, I conducted a chocolate tasting with a few friends with the goal of bringing the almost unheard of role that slavery plays in the chocolate world to their attention. I accomplished this goal by introducing the group to chocolate produced by companies that have set out to change the standard of the chocolate world. In addition to this, I was able to introduce everyone to how complex and different each taste of dark chocolate can be, and that there are more flavors to be accounted for than just milk or dark. In this blog post, I will be sharing highlights from the tasting.
After a trip to Whole Foods for Whole Foods 32% Milk Chocolate, Taza (70%, and Raspberry), Endangered Species Salted Caramel Dark Chocolate, and Theo (65% and 70% chili) and a short stop at a CVS pharmacy for milk and dark Hershey’s chocolate I portioned out the chocolates and saved the wrappers.
I decided that I would conduct a blind tasting, as much as I wanted my group to know what they were eating, I did not want any pre-conceived notions about their first bite except for what they could see, smell, taste, and hear. I conducted the tasting very closely to how Professor Martin conducts the ones in our lectures. (1)
I assigned each chocolate a letter and a number, mostly so I could keep track of what we were eating. I instructed everyone to smell the chocolate, hold the chocolate up to the light, break the chocolate piece, and then finally taste it. Between each of these steps we paused to discuss what we smelled, what we saw, what we heard, and what we tasted. None of my group had ever evaluated something they were eating in this way, so the process alone was new for them all. This made a few of them nervous, but by the third piece everyone was excited to hold the chocolate to their ear and hear it snap.
I first asked everyone to describe their typical chocolate indulgences, and here is what they gave me:
B: Way too much! I usually have dark chocolate.
J: None, I hate chocolate. I’ll have white chocolate if any.
D: A couple times per week, not in excess. I usually eat Hershey and Reese’s.
L: Every other week or so, sometimes a random Ghiradelli square.
M: Once a week, sometimes more. Chocolate is chocolate to me.
S: Once a month, I either have milk or dark chocolate.
The first chocolate I introduced was Whole Food’s Milk Chocolate. I explained to my group the process we would be following:
1: Smelling our chocolate and discussing different aromas.
2: Looking at our chocolate in the light and listening for a snap when broken.
3: Tasting our chocolate and letting it melt on our tongue to experience the evolution of flavors.
Overall, this chocolate reminded everyone of Christmas:
J: It smells like the type of chocolate you get off of the Christmas countdown calendar. It reminds me of the holidays.
L: I thought it just smelled like hot chocolate.
B: It tasted like Christmas.
In addition to the holiday feel, my peers were beginning to develop a great sense of flavor growth, describing how at first they tasted milk and eventually the chocolate became bitter.
The second chocolate I introduced was Endangered Species Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel. This one provoked a lengthy discussion about the pronunciation of “caramel” versus “carmel.” Either way, it ended up being the runner-up favorite of the night.
Everyone was able to pick up the contrast between the milk chocolate, and this first dark chocolate just by smell:
B: I’m smelling a lot of bitter.
J: Gross, just gross. I’m so sorry but I really just don’t like chocolate!
S: I’m getting a burnt cardboard scent?
M: Ooh! I’m getting that too, it’s totally like burnt popcorn or something!
The first bite yielded a loud snap as the caramel poured out, leading most to taste the salted caramel before they even reached the chocolate.
M: Wow, that’s good caramel. I like this one. I can’t even tell it’s bitter.
S: So much better than the last one. I’m going to guess this is 60% cacao.
D: The last one went from sweet and milky to bitter, and this one went from bitter to salty.
I’m still not sure how, but S was right on the nose with how much cacao was in this chocolate, but I’m pretty amazed with that prediction!
At this point while everyone was looking at the packaging, many questions about Fair Trade came up which led me into a quick rundown of Fair Trade practices, both good and bad. Fair Trade members and certified companies agree on the same principles: long-term direct trading relationships, consistent payment of both fair prices and wages, no child/forced/exploited labor of any form, workplace non-discrimination, gender equity, freedom of association, safe working conditions with reasonable hours, investment in community development projects, environmental sustainability, traceability and transparency. (2) Fair Trade is doing some really excellent work, but it’s almost too good to be entirely true. It’s a long and expensive processes to become certified Fair Trade, which is a burden that is mostly weighted by the farmers. In addition to this, there’s no evidence yet that their changes are actually holding up. In the end, it’s really just a label for the rich, who can afford this price and feel good about what they’re eating.
Next up, the third chocolate, was Theo’s Chili chocolate bar, which is 70% cacao. Personally, I was scared of this chocolate as I don’t like spicy food, and I didn’t have enough chocolate to taste it beforehand myself.
Taste wise in the beginning, it took quite a bit longer than the others to melt down but when it did there was a raucous reaction filling the room!
L: It’s there, it’s definitely there.
M: It takes a really long time to melt down…Ewwww!!! No no no no.
D: It’s really subtle, until the spice kicked in it felt like putting something tasteless in my mouth. There’s some orange in that, it’s weird.
J: Yeah, there’s orange in there. Still gross, still sucks.
Theo 65% cacao chocolate was up next. As we began to sniff this chocolate, a discussion erupted, and it was a great reminder that all sensory is relative and extremely personal.
M: This one smells calmer, very natural.
S: I feel like I’m smelling nature, maybe a rain forest.
D: I don’t know what you guys are talking about I don’t smell sh*t!
Stuckey (3) tells us that when something tastes good, it also has to look, feel, and sound good. Everyone has their own opinion of what “good” is, so the way each person percieves each sample can be night and day.
Even though D didn’t smell anything, this chocolate ended up being their favorite. In fact, D will be moving out to Seattle this summer, and will be living pretty close to the Theo factory.
S: This is a good happy medium, where chocolate should be. Sweet and bitter at the same time.
M: This is a dark chocolate I would be okay with, and I don’t usually eat dark chocolate.
After this we moved onto Taza, starting with their 70% cacao. Everyone took notice of how sparkly and grainy this chocolate was, this caused a bit of confusion as far as looking for the shine or gloss goes.
D: It’s like biting into cookie dough that just came out of the fridge.
M: It’s just so grainy I don’t think I could eat more than a triangle of this at a time.
The second Taza chocolate I picked out was their raspberry flavored chocolate bar. I think by this point everyone was getting sick of the rich dark chocolate flavors, so the introducion of a sweeter flavor completely lit up everyone’s palettes.
D: I’m smelling more with this one. It doesn’t smell like chocolate but I can’t put my finger on it.
J: I smell plastic.
B: I know this smell but I can’t say what it is. I don’t know.
L: I smell raspberry, or a fruity scent.
Just a reminder that I waited to tell everyone what they were eating until after they ate it, so L guessing what it was right away is pretty impressive.
M: Ooh that’s sweet!
D: Definitely raspberry right away.
L: This is my favorite one thus far.
S: It’s too sweet for me, but it’s nice.
Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate was up next, and as far as smell goes, this one had a more positive yet stale reaction.
M: This one smells like Hershey, Pennsylvania!
L: I gotta be honest, this one does smell the best.
When we held this chocolate to the light everyone took notice of that classic engravings in addition to it being the shiniest chocolate we’d tasted yet. Additionally, this chocolate bar failed the snap test.
D: So their milk chocolate must just be a glass of milk?
No one could pinpoint what flavors they were tasting, so I introduced them to the idea that all Hershey’s chocolate has a sour milk tint of flavor to it. After this it was unanimous that there was a sour profile.
S: My mouth feels a bit sticky, like that film you get when you have something that’s too sugary.
By the time we tasted Hershey’s Specialty Dark Chocolate, everyones palates had been exposed to lots of dark chocolate so the taste that was expected was very different from the taste they received. Everyone agreed that this was barely even dark chocolate in comparison to Taza and Theo, and they were correct to think so as it’s only 45% cacao.
I decided to finish with the least chocolate-y of chocolates, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate for one reason; that was to show the immense contrast between authentic and true dark chocolate and typical every day milk chocolate. I was not an avid chocolate consumer before this course started. If I ever bought a bar from a checkout counter or vending machine, odds are I handed it off to a friend to finish for me. Personally, it was an acquired taste and I am now learning to love all of the different flavors in each dark chocolate bar. Switching back to milk chocolate tends to play tricks on your brain as to whether or not it is really even chocolate at all.
Overall, I set out to raise an awareness of the use of slaves and the politics of the chocolate world. In the end, I introduced everyone to a new set of flavors and a deeper understanding of what they’re putting into their mouths when they reach for that impulse buy. As much as I tried to steer the conversation towards the politics and policies of the companies, I was asked many questions about health benefits and price points of the big chocolate companies versus these smaller chocolate companies.
I explained how in the early 2000’s child labour in the cacao industry came to the media’s attention. Children would essentially be kidnapped and forced into hard labor with no escape, making them slaves to the chocolate industry. (4) After introducing the Harkin Engel Protocol, jaws dropped. I gave everyone a quick and dirty run down of how the protocol was created to put an end to the worst forms of child labor and child labor altogether, and how it ultimately left a worse impact with little to no change between 2007 and 2014.
This new awareness left my group feeling surprised and a bit shocked. When I asked them if they foresee themselves making the switch from their typical big 5 chocolate to a more socioeconomically friendly chocolate, I yielded an interesting reaction:
B: My likeliness to go out of my way to spend more money on a “better” chocolate depends on how badly I am doing financially that week. If I can swing it I’ll go for the Theo chili chocolate, but if it’s a week like this I will be getting that $1 Dove bar from the vending machine at work.
People will try to save money wherever they can, so switching from a frequent $1 purchase to a $2.50-$7 chocolate bar can leave a big financial impact for those who aren’t earning a consistent salary, which in today’s world can be a large segment of the market.
1- Martin, Carla D. 2015. Lecture 10: Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization on April 6, 2016
2- 2-Fair Trade Mission Statement https://fairtradeusa.org/about-fair-trade-usa/mission
3- Stuckey, Barb: Taste What You’re Missing, p.13
4- Ryan, Orla: Chocolate Nations, p.44
5- The Harkin Engel Protocol, http://www.slavefreechocolate.org/harkin-engel-protocol/