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CHOCOLATE 201: Chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver (Spring 2012 edition)

EDIT: Due to scheduling issues, these classes have been postponed to Fall 2012. If you’re interested in a private or corporate chocolate tasting, please contact me.

CHOCOLATE 201 is a series of classes that dig a little deeper into the world of chocolate. If you’ve taken a chocolate-tasting class before, then here’s an opportunity for you to dig a little deeper into topics of interest. If you’re a newbie to chocolate, don’t fear—you’ll do just fine in these sessions.

Classes are small to encourage discussion…and to make sure everyone gets plenty of chocolate. All classes will take place at Xoxolat (2391 Burrard Street, at West 8th Avenue).

Train Your Palate: Guided and Blind Chocolate Tasting
There are two parts to having a good palate: one is being able to taste, the other is finding the vocabulary to describe it. In this two-part class, you’ll learn how to do both. First, we’ll do a guided tasting to demonstrate some common flavours in chocolate. Then, see how you do in a blind tasting.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Can You Taste the Difference in Chocolate?
Most people understand that there’s a difference between handcrafted chocolate, made in small batches and free of junk; and a mass-produced candy bar stuffed full of preservatives, wax and unpronounceable ingredients. But can you taste the difference? In this class, we’ll do a blind tasting of chocolates of different quality and price tags. See what your tastebuds tell you.

Viva Venezuela!
Since the 1600s, Venezuela has been home to some of the world’s best cacao. Today, there’s remarkable diversity in the cacao that comes from this country. In this class, we’ll taste a smattering of chocolate from different growing regions in Venezuela.

Chocolate Matters: Beyond Fair Trade and Organic
Many people buy Fair Trade-certified chocolate because they believe that it’s better, more sustainable or more ethically produced. But is it enough? In this class, we’ll talk about Fair Trade, Direct Trade and organic chocolate and what they mean for the producer, the chocolate maker and the consumer. And, of course, how does it relate to flavour?


Chocolate 201: Chocolate-tasting classes in Vancouver

Once again, I’m teaming up with the lovely folks at Xoxolat to teach some chocolate-tasting classes. We’ll go into more detail than you’d get in an introductory class, but don’t let that scare you; beginners are more than welcome, and I promise that the classes will be fun, not snooty. Nobody likes a critic—but everyone likes chocolate.

Each class features plenty of samples—and in true Xoxolat style, there will be a few surprises at the end of the night.

Participants receive an $8 store credit (must be used that evening) plus 10% of all purchases the night of the class.

WHERE: Xoxolat (2391 Burrard Street, at 8th Avenue)
WHEN: All classes run from 6:30–7:45 p.m.
COST: $20 per class, or register for all four classes for $75. (Note: due to the higher cost of samples, Chuao! costs $25.) Prices do not include HST.
REGISTER: You must register in advance. Indicate which class you’d like and someone from Xoxolat will confirm your registration. Register now.

About Chocolate 201

Chocolate 201 is a series of chocolate workshops that share the stories behind the chocolate wrapper. They’re intended for people who have some knowledge of chocolate and are familiar with how it’s transformed from bean to bar, but keen beginners are more than welcome. Expect engaging stories, interactive dialogue and the opportunity ask lots of questions.

Chocolate 201: The Science of Chocolate

Thursday, September 29, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

Chocolate makers work diligently to coax the very best from their fine flavour beans. Learn how two critical steps, roasting and conching, affect the final product. We’ll also explore how playing with cacao percentage and sugar content affects flavour. Hint: higher cacao content does not automatically mean more bitterness in the bar.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: The Science of Chocolate. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: Smackdown! Old World vs New World

Thursday, October 6, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

In Europe, making chocolate is a traditional that’s mostly passed through family generations. In North America, people abandon other, often lucrative, careers to make chocolate. In this old world/new world smackdown, you’ll hear stories of how people choose to make chocolate, and taste for yourself how each chocolate maker has created his own distinct style.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: Smackdown! Old World vs New World. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: In Defense of Milk Chocolate

Friday, October 21, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $20 + HST

Chocolate snobs may dismiss milk chocolate as cloying, sweet and childish, but it’s still the chocolate of choice for most people. While regular milk chocolate clocks in at about 45% cacao content, dark milk chocolate can contain nearly 65% cacao. In this class, you’ll learn about and taste dark milk chocolate. It’s an ideal class for someone who loves milk chocolate and wants baby steps toward the dark (chocolate) side, or for someone who simply wants to learn more.

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: In Defense of Milk Chocolate. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

Chocolate 201: Chuao!

Friday, October 28, 6:30–7:45 p.m.
Cost: $25 + HST

Mention the word Chuao in chocolate circles and people sit up straighter. This small region in Venezuela is known for the high quality of its beans. In 2005, Italian chocolate company Amedei won accolades from chocolate critics around the world for their single-origin Chuao bar. Learn how this small chocolate company took a snub from a well-known French chocolate maker and turned it into an award-winning chocolate bar. We’ll taste several bars made from Chuao beans, and you can see for yourself what all the fuss is about. (Due to the higher cost of Chuao samples, this class costs $25. Trust me, it’s worth it.)

REGISTER for Chocolate 201: Chuao!. Be sure to mention the name of the class when you register.

“Chocolate from Bean to Bar” in Northwest Palate

Happy New Year! Somehow, it became 2011 and I want to know where my flying car is. Or my jetpack. I’m not picky; one of them will do. Though really, if I had to choose I’d want a transporter a la Star Trek, because that would really cut down on transportation time.

While we’re waiting for technology to catch up to our expectations, why don’t you take a gander at the January/February 2011 issue of Northwest Palate? My article on bean-to-bar chocolate appears on page 26, and it features interviews with the lovely Hodie Rondeau (Xoxolat, Vancouver), Lauren Adler (Chocolopolis, Seattle) and Aubrey Lindley (Cacao, Portland).

Chocolate 201: Recap

Chocolate 201 in VancouverI realized that I didn’t post a final summary of the Chocolate 201 fun. I have a particular penchant for  lists of numbers, so let’s try that.

Chocolate 201 featured:

  • 8 hours of instruction
  • 10 fabulous participants
  • 4 artisan chocolate producers
  • 36 samples of chocolate
  • 4 samples of Scotch
  • great conversation and great people!

Many thanks to Hodie at Xoxolat for partnering with me on this, to Chef Marcus of Von Albrecht and Associates for the Scotch lesson, and to the chocolate producers who donated product for the class: Patric Chocolate, Amano Artisan Chocolate, Pralus Chocolate and Claudio Corallo Chocolate. And, of course, thanks to the participants for bringing your curiosity, questions, comments and palates to the class. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful group of guinea pigs.

In case you missed them, here are the tasting notes from each of the classes:

Chocolate 201 is on hiatus for the summer, and I’ll see about doing another one in the fall. If you’d like to get the inside scoop, fill out the form below and I’ll add you to my friendly email list. I promise not to spam you or share your email address with anyone.

Chocolate 201: Amano Chocolate recap (plus scotch)

The third chapter of Chocolate 201 focused on Amano Chocolate and featured a fabulous bonus of a scotch tasting from the always lovely Marcus von Albrecht. I’ll get to the scotch soon enough. This is, after all, The Well-Tempered Chocolatier and not The Well-Sozzled Scotch Drinker.

Though, truth be told, I have been known to get well-sozzled with scotch.

Amano Artisan Chocolate is based out of Orem, Utah. Of the small producers highlighted in Chocolate 201, Amano is probably the one with the widest distribution, especially considering a recent expansion into select Starbucks locations in the US. It’s an interesting move, and one that most are watching closely. Will it dilute the brand, or will it provide a gateway for more people to access real chocolate? Time will tell.

Regardless, Amano is the darling of North American chocolate, and has received numerous chocolate awards.

Amano Ocumare 70%, Montanya 70% and Cuyaga 70%

We started with a tasting of these three bars, each made with beans from a different region of Venezuela. People always ask me if there are characteristic flavours of chocolate from a particular region. Madagascan chocolate is known for its red fruit and brightness, but that doesn’t mean that all chocolate from Madagascar tastes like that. Nor does it mean that a chocolate from somewhere else can’t have those flavours.

So these three chocolates are all from different regions in Venezuela, and they all taste quite different.

The Ocumare is usually one of my favourites, with notes of plum and smokiness, but I’ll admit that the bar we tasted in class was more subtle than I’m used to. The plum came through as raisin, rather than plum. On the whole, the brightness that I associate with this bar just wasn’t there. It’s still nice, but not as evocative of warm summer afternoons as previous bars have been.

Next, we tried the limited edition Montanya. This bar comes from a mountainous region of Venezuela and was far more assertive than the Ocumare. Some in the class thought it had to do with the cacao trees having to deal with mountainous conditions. Interesting thought, but I don’t know enough to say for sure. This bar was bright and bold with notes of flowers, nuts and hops. I think it was the crowd-pleaser of the night, as I noticed more than a few people walking out with this bar in their hands.

Note: as the Montanya is a limited edition, you should probably get your fix now. As with anything that’s limited edition, when it’s gone—it’s gone.

We rounded out the Venezuela bars with the Cuyaga, also a limited edition bar. And, sadly, this one is sold out. It’s more subtle than the Montanya, and has floral notes with hints of grass and smoke.

Amano Guayas 70%

This bar is from Ecuador. In last week’s class, we talked a bit about Ecuadorian chocolate. I still haven’t decided whether I’m not a fan of Ecuadorian beans, or if no one out there makes an Ecuadorian bar that I like. I trust that Art Pollard, the man behind Amano Chocolate, knows what he’s doing, so it appears that I just don’t like Ecuadorian beans. This one had vague notes of tropical fruit, and was described by one of the participants as “between bark and spice.” Now, that sounds weird until you think about something like cinnamon, which is decidedly spicy but also a bit woody.

Amano Jembrana 70% and Jembrana milk

Amano is one of the few companies who makes milk chocolate. Milk chocolate gets a bad rap. I’ve seen people turn up their noses at it and sniff derisively, but there’s some really lovely milk chocolate out there. For example, the Theo Chocolate Jane Goodall milk bar is one of my favourites. Given the complexity that comes with adding an extra ingredient—milk powder—I actually think that milk chocolate might be harder to make than dark chocolate. Good milk chocolate, that is. Not that cloying, chalky stuff.

The Jembrana bar is apparently the only bar to exclusively feature beans from Bali—as opposed to other Indonesian chocolate which consists of beans from Bali mixed with beans from Java.

We did a tasting of the Jembrana dark and milk bars. The dark has floral notes along with some smoke and spice; and while I picked up a decided anise flavour to it, others didn’t. The milk tasted surprisingly different, given that it’s the same bar but with milk powder. The floral notes were muted, replaced with more butterscotch and spice.

Amano Madagascar 70%

We tried two batches of this bar. The older batch was everything you’d expect from a Madagascan bar: bright, with red fruit, nice acidity and a hint of citrus. In contrast, the newer batch seemed a bit muted and less bright. I’m not sure if this is an issue with batch variation or if they’re playing with recipes, but there you go.

Amano Dos Rios 70%

This is one of the most distinctive bars on the market, and I’d go as far as to say that I’ve never tasted anything else like it. I first tried this at the Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon last year, and while Art was very proud of it, he was also super secretive. A few months later, when someone mentioned they had tried a chocolate that tasted like bergamot, I knew it had to be this one.

It smells of bergamot (that’s the scent of Earl Grey, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of being in California or Italy in January) and tastes like bergamot, orange and cloves. It’s shocking, actually, how distinctive it tastes. I love giving this to people and watching their faces as they taste it. Some are quick to pinpoint the bergamot, while others need a bit of pushing. Mentioning Earl Grey tea usually does it.

Scotch…and scotch-induced observations

We finished the session with a scotch tasting led by Marcus von Albrecht, who surprised me by not doing a tasting of only scotches from Islay. I’d provide more details, but, well, it was a scotch tasting and I seem to have lost my notes.

After the class, one of the participants bought a Pralus Tanzania bar, which surprised me. We did a Pralus tasting last week, when I described the Tanzania bar as being dangerously close to burnt, as opposed to toasty. And, the whole time that I’ve been teaching this class I’ve been mentioning that each chocolatemaker makes chocolate to suit his (or her, but mostly his) palate. I’m not sure why, but it took me a while to realize that I’ve also been teaching the class according to my palate. I gravitate toward bright, fruity, floral chocolates. It’ll be interesting when we focus on Claudio Corallo next week, whose chocolate is decidedly earthy, nutty and brooding—and, incidentally, one of my absolute favourites. A woman of contradictions, I am.

Chocolate 201: Pralus recap (plus extra goodies)

The focus of the second class in Chocolate 201: Pralus.

Last week highlighted Patric Chocolate, which was a great way to open the series. It was such a study in small-batch chocolate, a limited product line, and attention paid to every single detail. I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the room really liked each of the chocolates that we tasted.

Tonight was a mixed bag, with some people liking one chocolate while others disliking the same one. I will say that I have less of an emotional attachment to Pralus, having not met the chocolate maker, but that I respect the company for what it did for artisan chocolate. Pralus is probably best known for its 100% Madagascar bar (typically the best-seller in any shop that sells bean-to-bar chocolate) and for its tasting pyramid. The tasting pyramid features 10 of the single-origin chocolates from the Pralus line, complete with tasting notes. It was really the first marketing campaign that really pushed the idea of how different chocolate can be, based on where it’s from. I’d argue that there’s more to flavour and texture than just origin, but that’s fodder for a much longer post.

Anyway, tonight was a chocolate extravaganza. We tasted six selections from Pralus, and then an assortment of Ecuadorian chocolates that I brought from my personal collection. Finished off with some wackiness from Zotter and a shot of drinking chocolate, it’s safe to say that people left the class chock full of chocolate.

Pralus Venezuela 75%

This bar had some pretty characteristic Pralus quirks: exceptional smoothness and meltiness, due to the addition of extra cocoa butter. This bar had notes of butter and caramel, with just a hint of licorice in it. Last week, we tasted the Rio Caraibe bar from Patric Chocolate, which is also from Venezuela, and the two bars couldn’t be more different. It’s an interesting exercise in showing that bean origin is only one factor; the personality and preferences of the chocolatemaker also have a lot to do with it.

Pralus Madagascar 100%

We jumped right into things and tasted the 100% bar. We compared it to another 100% bar, which was astringent, tannic and bitter. In comparison, the Pralus bar is surprisingly sweet, with definite red fruit and red wine characteristics. It’s certainly not bitter, though it does take some getting used to. And, of course, the characteristic Pralus smoothness of the bar helps its palatability.

Pralus Madagascar 75%

This bar is a single-origin bar from Madagascar, and while it has the red fruit you’d expect for a bar from Madagascar, it isn’t as prominent as with other Madagascan chocolate. You have to look for it a little bit, but it’s there–accompanied with pleasant acidity and brightness, and just a hint of citrus. Again, as a comparison with the Patric Madagascar bar from last week, the Pralus is much more muted and less effusive.

Pralus Tanzania 75%

This one was an interesting study in the flavour of toast. Toast is a tricky one to master, as it can be pleasant to some people or just taste burnt to others. I think the roast on this bar is dangerously close to burnt, though it just manages to come across as toasted almond with a bit of smoke. I think some people in the class found it closer to burnt.

Pralus Ecuador 75%

Ecuador lays claim to its own genetic strain of chocolate, the Arriba Nacional strain. Others think that it’s just a genetic variation of Forastero beans. Either way, these beans are known for brash tropical fruitiness, with banana and citrus being common flavours. This bar elicited a lot of suggestions from the group, including figs, raisins and coconut. There were also suggestions of the bitterness of matcha tea (bitter, but in a savoury kind of way), and tobacco. One person astutely noted that the flavours in this chocolate are quite light–like the flute section in an orchestra–lacking middle or underlying flavours.

Pralus Fortissima 80%

The Fortissima is a blend of various beans, with a decided raisin aroma. It’s marked by acidity, a slight bitterness, and the sensation of spice. People in the class tasted butterscotch, coffee and toffee. If the Ecuador bar is the flute section of the orchestra, the Fortissima is the double bass, or perhaps the French horn: deeper tones, more brooding.

Republica del Cacao La Communidad Vinces 75% and Esmereldas 75%

The bar from La Communidad Vinces is the first certified organic bar from Republica del Cacao, who are a lovely little company in Ecuador. This one has some vague tropical fruit, though I taste a bit of a hay undertone to it. The Esmereldas bar is a bit hesitant, too, and the class had difficulty finding the purported lemon zest notes that are in it. I do love the company and think they’re doing great things, but have found some of the batches to vary widely. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that they come up with a consistently good product, because I’d like to see them do well.

Askinosie San Jose del Tambo, Ecuador 70% and White Chocolate Nibble Bar

I really wish that Xoxolat carried Askinosie, because then I would have made Chocolate 201 into a five-part series and highlighted this great company from Springfield, MO. Whether it’s the picture of the farmer on the package, the lot number that lets you trace its origin, the innovative sustainable packaging, or the great story about the chocolatemaker, this is a fun product to talk about. The Ecuador 70% tastes distinctly like banana, with a pleasant toastiness to it. The white chocolate nibble bar–what I like to think of as a deconstructed cacao bean, with the cocoa nibs embedded in white chocolate–is slightly too sweet and a bit granular, but the shock of goat’s milk is really quite fun.

We capped off the evening with a selection of Zotter bars (beer, champagne, blood orange) and Xoxolat’s famous West Coast Breakfast Bar, featuring maple, double-smoked bacon and espresso. Breakfast for dinner never tasted so good.

I think everyone is looking forward to next week’s chocolate and whiskey extravaganza. I can’t think of a nicer pairing: the shocking flavours of Amano Artisan Chocolate, plus a crash course in smoky Islay scotches with Marcus von Albrecht.

Chocolate 201: Patric Chocolate recap

On Monday, I gathered with fellow chocophiles in the coziness that is Xoxolat. Our mission: to taste great chocolate. And my side mission was to regale the group with infinitely interesting and witty stories from chocolate travels past.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, we covered a lot of ground. We talked about how chocolate is transformed from bean to bar, and just how difficult it is to get right. That was followed by a brief lesson on tasting chocolate, complete with bunny-rabbit sniffing technique that I learned from a perfumer. Imagine a room full of people cupping pieces of chocolate in one hand, the other hand cupped over their nose, sniffing like bunny rabbits. If we weren’t so distracted by chocolate, it would have been funny.

Well, it still was.

We ended up tasting five selections from Patric Chocolate.

Patric Chocolate 67% Madagascar

This was the gateway chocolate. With notes of plum and raisin and just the slightest sharpness of citrus, it’s a chocolate with character that isn’t overpowering. Its flavour is pretty typical of Madagascan chocolate, with hints of red fruit. This one also has added cocoa butter, so it’s particularly smooth and melty.

Patric Chocolate 70% Rio Caraibe

Where the previous bar was bright and fruity, this one was a bit more brooding. That makes sense, given that these beans come from Venezuela and have a very different flavour profile than Madagascan beans. Some people in the class tasted butterscotch and coffee, others a kick of spice and flowers.

Patric Chocolate 70% Madagascar

I wanted to compare this bar to the 70% Rio Caraibe bar, to illustrate the differences that bean origin has on the final product. The 70% Madagascar is bright, effusive and almost brash. The red fruit is there, but accompanied by a red wine or balsamic vinegar syrupiness at the back of the tongue.

Even more interesting is a comparison of the 70% and 67% Madagascar bars. Ostensibly from the same beans, but with marginal differences in sugar content and cocoa butter content, the two bars are very different. The 67% is more more muted, with the fruit flavours taking centre stage. The 70% has more of the acidic richness of the red wine and vinegar flavours I mentioned.

Patric Chocolate 70% Madagascar with Nibs

This bar is the 70% Madagascar bar with the inclusion of Madagascan cocoa nibs. Far more than just the sum of its parts, the nibs are hoppy—almost boozy, actually, with a nutty undertone. The effect this has on the tastebuds really pulls out the acidic qualities of the chocolate, drawing out the red wine syrupiness.

This is probably my favourite of the Patric line, and one that makes my ears tingle. No joke. It makes my ears tingle, and then I do a happy dance. Bribe me with this chocolate and I will show you the happy dance.

Patric Chocolate 75% Madagascar

We had small quantities of this, personally supplied by someone in the class. I love that I have people in this class who bring their own chocolate! With less sugar than the 67% or 70% bars from the same region, this one was less fruity with a more distinct cocoa flavour.

We finished off the night with some wacky selections from the Zotter line (avocado and mandarin orange, anyone?) and shots of drinking chocolate.

Tasting chocolate makes you full

One comment really stuck with me after the class, and that was that one of the participants felt full. And yes, we had been tasting chocolate for about 90 minutes, but the tasting portions were small. And there were long stretches of me yammering away about fermentation or ethics or something else, so we certainly weren’t stuffing our faces.

The difference was that we were tasting. Consciously. We were thinking about what our tongue tasted, what our nose smelled, what our eyes saw. And while I know that my eating and tasting experiences have changed drastically since I’ve become conscious about these senses, it was very interesting to hear someone else say it. And for him to have observed it in such a short period of time. I think he was just surprised at how full he felt from eating so little, but considering how much mental energy went into tasting those samples of chocolate, I’m not surprised.

Next week: Pralus

I started with Patric Chocolate because they’re an interesting small company based in North America (Missouri, to be exact). Next week, I’ll look at one of the old-school French producers, Pralus. I can’t wait.