Chocolate: The New Fine Wine?

Those of you who have heard me speak, who follow this blog, or my tweets at http://www.twitter.com/PatricChocolate, know that I always dwell upon the many similarities between fine chocolate and other fine foods, with a specific emphasis on wine. I do this not because I want to charge more for fine chocolate, but because I truly believe that the similarities are clear when carefully considered, and that my comments will help people to think about chocolate in new and different ways. Of course, I work with chocolate each and every day, so this is something that is on my mind more than it will be for the average person, but lately the issue has been on my mind even more than usual.

I think that the main cause of this recurring thought is that I have been doing a lot of demos lately (demos are where, at stores or various events, I hand out samples of Patric Chocolate and talk about my products). Demos are interesting because I have the opportunity to interact with a lot of people who didn’t stop by JUST to hear me speak, or to learn about fine chocolate, or even chocolate in general.

At a demo I am speaking with people who are at the store, for example, to do any number of things, from buying produce, to cereal, to seafood, and anything in between. There is no guarantee that the people with whom I am talking, in this fairly chocolate-neutral venue, have ever asked themselves the question “What makes good chocolate good?” All of this being the case, it should really have come as no surprise to find that when I asked people “What is your favorite chocolate?” most people would essentially say, “I’ve never thought about it.”

Now, let me clarify that I am not speaking badly of the people who made these statements. They were clearly being honest with me, and that is exactly what I was looking for as an intro into a conversation about fine chocolate. Still, I can’t help but be a bit disappointed that I didn’t have more people who knew exactly what they liked and, importantly, why.

I guess that part of my disappointment rests upon the fact that people have much better selections of chocolate bars at their disposal now than they did 10-15 years ago, and that at least the _idea_ of fine chocolate no longer seems counter intuitive to most people. On top of that, people are constantly asking me about chocolate and wine pairings, so the comparison of chocolate and wine must somehow be infiltrating popular culture. Still, there are only about ten artisan bean-to-bar companies in the US, when compared with thousands of wineries, over one thousand craft breweries, and at least hundreds of artisan coffee roasters. You’d have far more luck finding someone in any American town espousing the beauty of single-bean coffee than single-origin chocolates. You’d have a much better chance finding serious beer appreciation clubs than any such chocolate clubs anywhere throughout the nation. And, you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find a respectable dessert wine at many decent restaurants, despite the fact that the same restaurants would almost always be serving desserts made without an interesting chocolate.

All of this is to say that though we may be moving in the right direction, we are far from being at parity with the other items mentioned above. This being the case, and since part of this struggle, perhaps even most of it, has nothing to do with actually tasting chocolate and everything to do with learning more about chocolate, I’d like to take just a moment to highlight ten simple reasons why fine chocolate really should be seen to be in the same realm as other fine foods and beverages. I hope that you find them interesting.

1) Over 600 different aromatic constituents have been classified by food scientists while trying to understand what gives chocolate its flavor. These components make chocolate one of the most complex of any food or beverage in the world, and this doesn’t even include the delicate balance of slight acidity, bitterness, and sweetness that we taste as a square of chocolate melts across the tongue.

2) Chocolate is made from fermented cacao seeds. This fermentation, as with any fermented food, adds complexity of flavor that simply doesn’t exist in the raw material, just like with wine, beer, and cheese.

3) Chocolate is made from roasted cacao seeds. The roasting process, again, adds additional flavors and helps create and strengthen the quintessential and inimitable “chocolatey” note. Flavor technologists have been trying to mimic chocolate’s flavor for many years and still have not come up with an acceptable substitute.

4) Combining #2 and #3 above, chocolate is one of only a handful of foods that are both fermented and roasted. This is a large part of the reason why #1 above is the case.

5) Terroir, a term used to discuss the impact that soil-type and macro- and micro-climate have on grapes, and therefore on the wine made from grapes, is also entirely relevant when it comes to cacao as any chocophile who has enjoyed single-estate chocolate from differing years could notice.

6) The definition of terroir can be expanded when it comes to cacao to include the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria populations in a certain place and the impact that they have on the fermentation of the cacao, since the fermentation of cacao is due to these naturally occurring microbes, and not added cultures. This is one reason that cacao from Madagascar’s Sambirano Valley, for example, tends to have such bright citrus and berry tones to it (i.e. The specific mix of bacteria and yeast in that area help to create such flavors). Compare this to other naturally fermented fine foods such as some wines, and Belgium’s tradition of naturally fermented Lambic beers.

7)Single-origin chocolates can have as many differences as similarities, just like single-bean coffees, leading to chocolates that can seem as different as night and day to the initiated. Some may be intensely fruity, while others are quite earthy, for example.

8) From freshly harvested seed to finished bar, chocolate takes longer to make than most beer. Craft chocolate makers may even age their dark chocolate for months to impact the flavor in positive ways before molding it into bars–something that used to be common practice in the early 1900’s.

9)Fine chocolate is very rich, and is made for being appreciated in small quantities. Eating an entire bar of fine chocolate often takes from several days to a week, and in this way is comparable to fine wines that are intended to be appreciated in moderation instead of consumed as quickly as possible. For this reason fine chocolate is not the same as chocolate candy, and even further removed from mass-market chocolate candies, with their heavy doses of sugar.

10) Fine chocolate is best enjoyed slowly with your full attention on the melt, texture, and release of flavor of the chocolate. It shouldn’t be chomped and gulped down as quickly as possible or the true complexity and character of its flavor will never be unlocked and uncovered. In this way chocolate is also analogous to artisan coffees, fine wine, and craft beers among other fine foods.

Hopefully most of you will find these facts as interesting as I do. My wish in sharing them is two fold:

1) That you keep these things in mind as you appreciate chocolate in the future, always pushing to further expand your comprehension of this amazingly delicious and complex food.

2) That you share what you have learned with those around you that might appreciate it.

Chocolate companies cannot change the public perception of chocolate alone. It really will take each and every one of you to help create the chocolate sea change that we need. Sure, such a change will help Patric Chocolate and companies like it, but more importantly, it will lead to a growing market for fine chocolate that can support more privately owned small chocolate making companies, thereby creating a substantial variety of quality fine chocolates for the marketplace. Even those who think that they don’t have a preference will have to take note, and as for the rest of us…well, we will be in chocolate heaven.

Very best,

Alan

Eat Chocolate; Enjoy Life

4 replies
  1. Teresa Cordero Cordell
    Teresa Cordero Cordell says:

    Kudos to you my friend. I’m a wanna be chocolatier. I love the fact that you can enjoy quality chocolate with most of your senses. For me, the mere fact that baking wih chocolate gives me a feeling of ecstacy and pure pleasure is something that I have tried to convey to others. Thank you for a most informative post.

  2. Madame Cocoa
    Madame Cocoa says:

    Excellent post Alan. You are so right on how far we have to go with education. I did a chocolate “happy hour” at the flagship Whole Foods last week here in Austin. Knowing the group was curious but not very knowledgeable about chocolate, I offered to assist with bar selection there, or the group could bring their own favorite bar. I had people who brought oreo cookies and chocolate chip muffins! You are right, appreciation will evolve, much like wine/coffee/beer crafts, and it starts with those of us reading your blog and others, tasting and savoring, learning and sharing.

  3. Patric Chocolate
    Patric Chocolate says:

    Madame Cocoa,

    Wow! I don’t know what I would have done in your situation with Oreos and chocolate-chip muffins.

    I’m glad that you are optimistic too. It will really take so many people moving things in the right direction to get there, but I believe that the day will come!

    Alan

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