Level: Novice

Reading time: 15 minutes

How do you define quality chocolate?

That is my question this time and it was prompted by this video. 

Let’s get it out of the first and foremost.  The content of the video is rubbish.  It is a pile of straw man arguments layered with misinformation and downright wrong information.  Fair warning, I am going to be a bit pedantic, and in all honesty I might well be a bit tweaked if someone did it to one of my videos.  That said, if I was this far off base, I hope someone would let me know. It is time to tear down the straw men.

All the italicized insets are exact quotes (as well as I could transcribe them) from the video.

A chocolate expert explains a simple trick to check the quality of your chocolate.

That is the blurb for the video and sets the entire premise.  I can’t think of one test that can give you the quality of an object.  A one step “Quality” check is just too damn subjective for a complex system..  We will get to that later.

Hello my name is Angus Kennedy.  I’m a writer, I’m an author, I’m an editor of a magazine in the chocolate industry and my job is to taste chocolates. 

Hi Angus.  I note that you didn’t say you write for the chocolate industry nor that you evaluate chocolate.  Just that you taste them.  I’m not sure how that makes you an expert.  To that end. Hello, my name is John Nanci.  I started and run a business called Chocolate Alchemy.  I have shown tens of thousands of people how to make chocolate from bean to bar.  I was instrumental in giving people the methods, equipment and cocoa beans to make their own chocolate.  I have answered thousands of questions about making chocolate backed up by personal first hand experience and the scientific method and have written over 3 million words in hundreds of articles about it on my website about it in the last 14 years.  I don’t claim to be an expert, only knowledgeable in certain aspects of chocolate making.

 There is quite an easy way of checking chocolate –I’ve got two chocolate bars here – one is like a standard sort of milk chocolate, perhaps a sort of lower end type of chocolate and one is more sort of higher end, higher cocoa butter, higher cocoa percentage.  So this one is actually 70%, this is probably around 40%.

So, you are telling us how to evaluate higher quality from lower quality but you don’t even know what you have there?  “Perhaps”.  And it is ‘sort of lower end type of chocolate”.  What does that even mean?  By exactly what criteria are you saying it is lower end?  And why is the other one higher end?  If it is because the percentage is higher, why are you even bothering to continue?  You have already classified higher percentage as higher quality.  I think sire you are confusing quality with a quantity.  By this way of thinking a 2 lb hamburger is of higher quality than a 1 lb hamburger, right?  Or maybe the hamburger with 10% fat is of higher quality than the one with 12% fat.  There may or may not be a correlation, but you can’t just make those terms equivalent.

Before we go further, here is a definition of quality per Miriam Webster:

“The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.”

The key here is similar kind.  You can’t compare 40% chocolate against 70% chocolate.  It is the proverbial comparing apples to oranges.

There’s a really, really sure way of doing this. So what you do is get a piece of your bar and you just snap it off.  If you just listen to that. I’ll do it again. So that’s the sort of thing.  You can just about hear that.  Now this is a much higher cocoa butter content so it actually sets harder so it should make a different noise, it’s like a kind of click.  That was quite a big difference (with big jazz trumpet flair).  So that’s actually quite easy and then of course you’ve got to eat it, which is the fun bit.

We have to blindly ignore that similar items are not being compared.  I can do that.  So what is being compared?  The premise is sound.  A higher pitch denotes higher quality.  Oh, and apparently more cocoa butter also makes it higher quality.  HUH?

In a word, bullshit. The ONLY thing higher pitch indicates in this case is higher degree of temper.  If the video stated “a simple test to evaluate the temper of a chocolate bar” I would have been all over that and thought ‘sure, that isn’t unreasonable’. 

There is plenty of meta observation about how a chocolate sounds when broken and how much temper it has.  I think it would make for a great research paper.  “The correlation of frequency against degree of temper in chocolate”.  I’d put money down that there is a good correlation and could be used as a in process quality check of temper in as an alternative to semi-complex ice bath method of measuring temper.  Temper a piece of chocolate (of a standard thickness, at a defined temperature), snap it and measure the resulting frequency and correlate it to its degree of temper.  It could be a valuable tool.

Back to apples and oranges though, I just mentioned you would need a standard thickness of chocolate to test.  A thicker piece of chocolate is going to naturally have a lower tone.  Strike or thump or pluck any number of similar items and the thinner of the pair will always have a higher pitch.  That is just physics. With the same length, material and tension, the thinner guitar string will always have the higher pitch.  So that means the thinner string is higher quality?  Rubbish.  Look what he did here.

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I know it is a bit hard to see, but the two bars he is comparing are not even the same thickness. Here it is larger. 

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Even IF they were the same chocolate, the thinner one is going to have the higher pitch.  He has biased his results!  That chocolate that ‘is probably around 40%” is around 25% thicker so naturally it is going to have a lower tone.

Since he is comparing dissimilar things, I can too.  Those guitar strings.  You can have nylon core with a nickel wrap or a silk core and steel wrap.  For the same length and tension, the one that produces the higher pitch is naturally the better quality?  Really?  Rubbish. People have preferences and may take the lower, softer tone because it is what they are looking for.

 “why loudness means higher quality”.

This is worth talking about.  It is a variation on the ‘more is better’ mentality. The basic premise is flawed.  Loudness/higher pitch only correlates with temper and I’m going to argue you don’t always want a chocolate bar with a super high temper.  More is not always better. Through reading through comments there seems to be general agreement that the 70% bar he is snapping is Lindt.  That is really interesting as I have an old memory of tasting a few Lindt bars and noting how damn hard they were.  They had such a high temper that it took near forever for them to melt in my mouth and because of that a really distinct lack of flavor.  To my mind, it was too tempered and this was a flaw, not a sign of quality. Sure, it was a quality temper, but not quality chocolate.

So the higher quality chocolate tends to make a bit of click and a harder noise because it doesn’t melt so quickly and it’s just got less sugar, got less vegetable fat in it…

Beating a dead horse here, but no.  Yes, the higher temper bar “tends to make a bit of a click” but it isn’t because it doesn’t melt so quickly, it isn’t because it has less sugar and it isn’t because it has less vegetable fat.  It is because the 40% bar is milk chocolate and milk fats (an ANIMAL FAT) inhibits tempering.  His proposition is that if you had two 40% bars, one with milk and one without, the milk chocolate is inferior.  Sure, it will have a softer temper because of the milk fat, but adding milk does not by definition make it inferior.  It merely makes it a different product.  

and when you eat it it should taste a little bit fruity because the cocoa is actually a very fruity product. So it ONLY depends on how much they roast it that gives it that bitter flavor. So cocoa beans actually are mistakenly are said to be bitter but it only depends how long you roast them and ferment them

This is wrong.  SOME cocoa beans are fruity.  Some are not. The presence of fruit is not an indicator of quality in all cases.  Going back to the definition of quality, you have to compare against a standard.  If I taste a bean that has a history of being fruity (Madagascar for instance), and then it doesn’t, that might be a sign of a quality issue.  But on the same note, if a bean that is traditionally not fruity (Papua New Guinea, Honduras or Costa Rica) suddenly is, that too could be a sign of a quality issue.  As for bitterness, clearly he has never eaten a raw cocoa bean.  Nearly all cocoa beans are bitter and astringent from the pod and fermentation and roasting reduces those levels.  It is of course possible to introduce bitterness during the roast (I can’t speak for fermentation but suspect it is true there) but that is the rare exception and is not an indication of how long they have been roasted.  “Chocolate expert”???  Bah, I’ll grant (magnanimous of me I know) maybe chocolate professional but clearly not an expert.

for but having said all that, I was brought up on this stuff so I can still eat this any day.

So, he willingly and knowingly will eat what he is calling an inferior chocolate?  He looses 100% credibility with me at this point.  Not for eating milk chocolate.  I 100% believe people should eat what they like but how can anyone actively eat something if not at gun point or starving that they readily admit is inferior?  

A few years back, a few years after starting Chocolate Alchemy, I was out with my daughter for Halloween.  We (yes, I was dressed up too)

alchemist2010.jpg

As I was saying, the lab accident....no that wasn't it.  Oh yeah, we were making the rounds and received some Hershey’s kisses.  I unwrapped one and popped it in my mouth, thinking fondly of my childhood…..only to suddenly realize I was eating a chocolate with defects -  sour, musty and moldy.  It had really clear fermentation and/or roast defects.  I was crushed. I too grew up on it but upon education about what good (dare I say quality?) chocolate could taste like there was no going back.  I was not being pompous or uppity or trying to impress anyone.  I was just eating chocolate and was not thinking about what I had learned. I was trying to enjoy a bit of nostalgia from my childhood.

Just because you grew up on something inferior doesn’t mean you have to keep eating it (unless you enjoy it of course).

Ok. I think those straw men have been burned to the ground.  I want to now take a minute and talk about what quality can mean in chocolate.

During a conference (the NW Chocolate festival Unconference) a group of us talked about this for 4-5 hours.  There were numerous heavy hitting chocolate experts, many of who have been deep in the industry for literally decades.  Giving the story away we concluded that defining quality as a single item was simply not possible.  In essence “how do you define quality chocolate” is the wrong question.

You can talk about the quality of particular steps. 

  • Is there <1% mold in the beans? 
  • Are the pods fully ripe when picked?
  • Was it a quality fermentation by a lack of off flavors?
  • Are the beans even and of a uniform size?
  • Is the moisture within a given range?

None of those things though talk about whether the chocolate is quality, just some of the places you can have a quality control step.  You can have a chocolate that started from good quality stock, was fermented well, is even and uniform, with very low defect counts and still produces inferior (read bad tasting) chocolate.

At that point the conversation moved to evaluating and scoring attributes and maybe defining quality that way.

“Acidity is bad.  You don’t want acidic chocolate.  You should count off for acidity”.

“But I like acidity”.

“Oh, ok.  So it should not be too much”

“How do we judge too much objectively?”

pause.....

“Bitterness is bad.  It should be marked as a negative.  Same with astringency.  We can agree on that, right?”

 “What if the chocolate tastes flat without some bitterness?”. 

Ominous silence.

You can see where this went.

Some acidity is fine, as is some bitterness and even astringency if it balances out with good levels of fruit and chocolate flavor.

Quantitative quality measurements are brutally hard on complex food products.  A large part of the problem is a standard to compare against. Another part is personal taste.

I recently was discussing mold and cut tests with a chocolate maker.  They refused a bean outright due to what they perceived as mold.  I found on the other hand that the flavor was not impacted and more than that, was utterly stellar.  

There is always the danger of depending upon one criteria too much (is that the sound of snapping chocolate I hear?).

At the end it was decided that all you could do was report intensity (like I do on the spider charts I make) and talk about what you taste and your impressions.  It is then up to the customer to decide if what they are tasting is quality or not.

Knowing what is quality is not unlike the now infamous Supreme Court declaration about pornography.

“I know it when I see it”.

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