BY ED MURRIETA
“Tasting like chocolate isn’t quite good enough,” Pierson Clair declared.
Clair, the CEO of Tacoma confectioner Brown & Haley, and his wife, Sara, a food technologist, gave me a lesson in the true flavors of chocolate. Twelve different chocolate bars lay before us. They carried a worldly waft: floral and citrus notes of Venezuelan beans, acidity of Indonesian beans, chalkiness of Ghanian beans. Some were made in France, Belgium, Italy, California and Seattle. Some contained nearly 90 percent cacao, about three times the amount of pure chocolate liquor in a Three Musketeers.
After sampling 12 bars with the Clairs, I started to taste what they tasted: tropical fruit, mushroom, cheese, bell pepper, curry, ham and a sharp, dry flavor Pierson Clair called “wood floor.” “You want to get into complexity,” he said. “You want to tear it apart. If you can divide them out in all these different categories – earthy, floral, roast, sharp, chemical – then you can start getting a very sophisticated palate. This manner of tasting transfers to everything we eat.”
Foodies have turned the tasting of wine, beer, whiskey, cheese and olive oil into culinary cocktail parties. Chocolate is the next big party flavor.
“We’re very much in the beginning of this flavor examination of chocolate,” Clair said. “We’re at the beginning of chocolate-tasting parties.”
Let’s get this party started. Here are the Clairs’ insights into tasting chocolate. Taste testers rate 12 dark chocolate bars The News Tribune invited Pierson and Sara Clair to taste test 12 dark chocolate bars that we purchased from local supermarkets. The bars spanned brands, manufacturers, bean varieties and countries of origin. We sampled only dark chocolates and tasted them in the order of their cacao percentages. Chocolates were purchased at Metropolitan Market, Safeway, QFC and Trader Joe’s. High-percentage cacao bars are shown here.
DolFin Dark (Belgium) CACAO: 88 percent COST: $3.99, 2.47-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: I was stopped by a flattening of flavor, a cardboard effect which didn’t let me get into the complexity of flavors.
SARA CLAIR: Cheesy flavor. Mineral notes. Bell pepper. Roasted nuts. Packaging had permeated the chocolate, giving it a cardboard flavor even though there was no cardboard in the packaging.
BEST EATEN: Make mole!
Endangered Species Extreme Dark (Indiana) CACAO: 88 percent COST: $1.99, 3-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: A little more sour. I didn’t get much sweetness out of it. I got more cocoa butter out of it. SARA CLAIR: Introduced notes of spice, curry and burnt toast. Little tobacco notes. A touch sour. Kind of pasty with less butter and sugar on the tongue.
BEST EATEN: Baking.
Scharffen Berger Extra Dark (California) CACAO: 82 percent COST: $4.49, 3-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: Answered the call of high-grade chocolate. You get wood floor on this one. At this percentage, you’d think this would be pasty. They’re putting a lot of butter into this. I got a big, beautiful woodsy, a very complex blend of hay and mushroom. Very earthy.
SARA CLAIR: Musty, woody flavors. There’s a bite. There’s almost a licorice quality. Maybe ginger. Very complex flavors.
BEST EATEN: On its own, or baking. With ice cream.
Vintage Plantations Dark (Ecuador) CACAO: 75 percent COST: $3.79, 3.5-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: Getting a pastiness here. This is a little bit of a strange piece. They didn’t put much butter in it. It isn’t what I’d expect. The classic Ecuadorians get this floral cherry. I got a green release up front. It shouldn’t be this sour.
SARA CLAIR: A blast of unripe fruit. Bitter, green flavors.
BEST EATEN: Make brownies.
Theo Ghana Panama Ecuador (Seattle) CACAO: 75 percent COST: $5.49, 3-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: Huge butter. Just floating away. A lovely blend. A floral lift that’s typical of the Ecuadorian bean. Chalky note through the middle is a classic Ghana flavor. It’s delivering what it ought to deliver. It’s like a fine blended red wine.
SARA CLAIR: A lot of cocoa butter. Oh, that’s smooth and lovely. You get high notes, round-about notes. Look at the temper: It’s like a mirror. It’s gorgeous. It’s a good dark roast.
BEST EATEN: On its own, enough character to use in cake glazes. Shave onto ice cream.
Green & Black’s Bittersweet Organic (Italy) CACAO: 70 percent COST: $3.73, 3.5-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: I get melon. There’s the mint. It’s very complex in its flavor elements. Wonderful flavor elements – if you can just take the time to pull them apart.
SARA CLAIR: Immediate release of melon. Very grapey. Tropical fruit. A wonderful rich, dark rounding-out flavor. Smokiness. It’s one that lingers and grows on your tongue. Soft mouthfeel.
BEST EATEN: On its own, enough character to use in cake glazes. Shave onto ice cream. The rest of the taste test These six chocolate bars all have cacao percentages under 70 percent.
Michel Cluizel 1er Cru de Plantation Dark (France) CACAO: 66 percent COST: $5.49, 3.5-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: An extraordinarily fine bean. It’s Venezuelan. There’s richness on your mouth. Lovely blend between particle size and cocoa butter content. Floating richness. This is why we eat chocolate.
SARA CLAIR: Very creamy, very smooth. Sour fermentation notes. Very earthy. Some lingering orange flavor. Just sweet enough.
BEST EATEN: On its own, or in a dessert sauce or glaze.
Fran’s Chocolates Ltd. Semisweet (Seattle) CACAO: 65 percent COST: $2.79, 1.1-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: A remarkably well-balanced chocolate. It’s got everything going for it. No harshness. No forward tannin. There’s nothing that you’re looking through to look for the more subtle flavors.
SARA CLAIR: Very creamy. Immediate release of cherries and dark plum. And then a honey flavor. And then you get an oaky, woody flavor. This is something you don’t want to waste on your chocolate-chip cookies. We’re going onto seconds.
BEST EATEN: Just unwrap and enjoy.
Ghirardelli Dark (California) CACAO: 60 percent Cost: $2.29, 3-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: Very clean. You can get the olfactories of this big-roasted bean. A no-nonsense, straight-ahead dark chocolate.
SARA CLAIR: Good bite. There are more tannins in this. The tongue is puckering more. A little wooly. Sour notes with lingering sharpness. This needs to be chunked up and put in a good chocolate chip cookie to round it out.
BEST EATEN: Savory chocolate sauce, chocolate chip cookies or brownies.
Trader Joe’s Dark (Belgium) CACAO: 58 percent COST: $1.29 for three 1.75-ounce bars
PIERSON CLAIR: A beautiful balance. Lots of butter. High level of sweetness but balanced against acidity.
SARA CLAIR: It melted away quickly on the tongue. It would have more cocoa butter. There are tannins. It had hints of dairy. Obviously it’s got no dairy product in it, but the hints of bean flavors they used give this a creamy note.
BEST EATEN: On its own
Valrhona le Noir (France) CACAO: 56 percent COST: $4.99, 3.5-ounce bar
PIERSON CLAIR: A very high sour fermentation note. We’re tasting up acidity – fermentation. This is lovely. I get berry notes. Mmm. Wonderful fineness. There’s nothing you feel on your tongue. You don’t feel sugar. You don’t feel fiber. This is beautiful. A very rich piece.
SARA CLAIR: Much tangier. You get some flowers and berries. A good sweetness. You could pick up the tangy. Ultrafine smoothness. This is just wonderful.
BEST EATEN: On its own
Jacques Callebaut Puur Noir (Belgium) CACAO: 55 percent COST: $10.99 for two 8.75- ounce bars
PIERSON CLAIR: Very balanced chocolate. Acidity blended in very well with the sweetness. I picked up some great cherry notes, fine fruits, little earthy flavors, which tell me they’re more likely to be Ivory Coast beans.
SARA CLAIR: Mild, no acidity. Sweet mint tones. No earthy. No smoky. A nice, well-balanced eating chocolate. BEST EATEN: On its own
SIDEBAR: TIPS FOR TASTE-TESTING CHOCOLATE
Conducting your own chocolate taste test? Here’s what you need to know.
KNOW BEANS Soil and growing conditions give cacao beans unique flavors. Central and South American: Floral and earthy. Southeast Asian: More acidic. West African: Mellow. Other flavors (coffee, ham, apple) develop during wood-fire drying and fermentation. Most chocolates contain bean blends.
CACAO CALCULATIONS Chocolates are categorized by cacao percentages – the amount of cocoa bean solids, aka chocolate liquor, an alcohol-free, technical term. Eating chocolates range from 35 to 88 percent. A 60 percent bar contains 60 percent chocolate liquor and 40 percent other ingredients: sugar, vanilla and soy lecithin, a stabilizer. “It’s difficult to find eating enjoyment in an 80 because you don’t have enough oil system in there to allow for the liquor to cascade over your palate,” Pierson Clair said.
SMALL BITES “If we had 1-ounce samples, we’d end up eating 1 pound of chocolate,” Sara Clair said.
TASTE PROGRESSIVELY Taste lighter and lower-percentage chocolates first. You’ll pick up subtle flavors easier. Sara Clair: “If we went backwards, we wouldn’t be able to taste.”
CLEANSE PALATE Sips of hot water will cleanse your palate. Unsalted crackers and white bread also clean away oils.
BITE . . . SWALLOW Sara Clair: “Let it melt on your tongue. Feel the chocolate as it reaches the taste buds on the sides of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Then you chew. And don’t swallow. You let the flavors release. Breathe in through your nose and then you get the next level of flavor development. Then you can swallow.”
HOW WE TASTE Pierson Clair: “We taste on our palates, and we taste in our brains. We taste olfactory; we’re tasting aromatics, those things that lift up. Additionally, we’re tasting mouthfeel on our palate, sometimes on the roof of our mouth. We are tasting for fineness. We are tasting for viscosity.” The Clairs evaluate taste on eight levels: sweet, dairy, earthy, bakery, fruit/floral, roasted, sharp/sour and chemical.
PACE YOURSELF Pierson Clair: “You can immediately kind of run in and say, ‘Whoa, that Valrhona, boy, was that sour.’ Well, if you step back and let it develop a little bit on your palate, you can say, ‘Whoa, that was kind of like an interesting red wine.’ ”
AVOID EATING . . . No garlic, onions or heavy food. Oils clog your palate. Mint and chewing gum permeate your mouth and sinuses. No coffee. Pierson Clair: “You cannot taste chocolate and drink coffee. Coffee has a fair amount of oil in it, and it gets down into your taste buds. You miss a whole world of flavor.”
DISCOUNT PRICE Pierson Clair: “There are so many things that go into the final elements of taste in chocolate. I don’t think price is a good indicator at all. You can find a great bottle of wine for $8, and you can find and outstanding bottle of wine for $150. The same thing is true in chocolate. If you’re looking and if you’re tasting, you can find great chocolate that is very affordable.” –