See also: Love on the half shell

They don’t even remember when it started, but at some point, it became a spreadsheet.

Three friendsonly one a true chocolate fanaticbegan tasting high-quality dark chocolate bars and rating them.

Larry Noe, Martha Wilkes and Sharon Stanners work together at SAS Institute in Cary. A few years ago, they thinkthey aren’t sure of many of the details around this informal effortthey began bonding over newly available dark chocolate bars. They started jotting down notes about who liked what, and why, on the whiteboard in Sharon’s office. Then, well, the whiteboard got erased or something, so Sharon made a spreadsheet. Which they can’t find now. But still. Differences were revealed. Prejudices were discovered.

The SAS group was on to something, say people in the chocolate industry: tasting, discussing, noting or otherwise paying close attention to how things really taste. And, it turns out, they were ahead of an industry curve, because they discovered something that the rest of us now have the opportunity to realize: Not all dark chocolate tastes the same.

You’ve heard the jokes that newbie wine tasters make: “It’s got overtones of hay and … butterscotch! With a hint of, um, clean linen.” Turns out different cacao beans (chocolate in its raw form) have different flavor profiles, too.

“Much like wine, cacao comes in several different varietals and grows in various regions all over the world,” says Jon Wallace, who is “the chocolate guy” at 3 Cups in Chapel Hill (431 W. Franklin St., 968-8993, “This, coupled with the fermentation of cacao beans in which much of the flavor that we know as chocolate develops, means that chocolates made from beans from different estates and regions have totally distinct flavor characteristics.”

Chocolate considered to be “dark” contains no milk and around 70 percent cocoa solids. It’s the kind that nutritionists tout as so good for us. In this form, plain dark chocolate has plenty of antioxidants and not as much fat and sugar as say, the brownie form.

Producers of high-end chocolate began labeling the cacao percentage to demonstrate that bars were not composed of vegetable fats and heaps of sugar, but real, unadulterated chocolate, Wallace says. As this became a common mark of quality, several companies began printing percentages on their labels and introducing lines of high-percentage chocolates to bank off of the trend. Unfortunately, no matter how much cacao is packed into a bar of chocolate, the quality of the beans that go into it may still be horrendous.

The SAS friends’ findings kept changing. First, they set up a three-bar system, with three bars being the best. But Martha kept giving out three-pluses, and even three-plus-pluses, while Larry assigned no threes. So they expanded to five bars, with five bars being the best. Of course, Larry has yet to taste a five-bar bar. They also added categories for appearance, ease of breaking into small pieces, and package design.

Larry is definitely the strictest judge. He’s the true chocolate lover and most frequent consumer. “I have chocolate every day,” he says. “Every day.” He has definite opinions about all things chocolate. When the others would bring in a bar that was chocolate combined with another ingredientsay, espresso or mint, or something exotic like chili powderhe would protest.

“Larry’s our purist, he is,” says Sharon.

“You started bringing in these bars that had all these different additives … lavender and wasabi … I didn’t like those,” he replies. “It ruined the chocolate for me.”

Don’t even get him started on white chocolate: “It’s an abomination. What is that, anyway? Is there any chocolate in it? It’s horrible.”

For her part, Sharon doesn’t even consider herself a chocolate lover. “I was a vanilla girl,” she says. “You know, I sort of migrated to the chocolate thing out of friendship and out of health. If I have to choose between chocolate and vanilla, I’ll go for vanilla ice cream.” Sharon is attracted to chocolate’s health benefits. She has a stack of articles somewhereone even claims chocolate’s ability as a cough suppressant. “It’s a health food,” she says. “I seriously try to eat it in the morning, because I feel like it supposedly has some good things … antioxidants. And it’s good with coffee.”

And then there’s Martha. If these three were the American Idol judges, Martha would be Paula Abdul. She says she isn’t a chocolate fanatic, either, but she finds something to love in every bar.

“I’m an equal-opportunity chocolate eater,” she says. “How bad could it be?” After Larry cursed the existence of white chocolate, Martha responded: “It’s good in baked goods. I’m just more open-minded than Larry is.”

The trend among chocolate makers isn’t just about percentages anymore. Consumers have begun to pay a bit more attention to how their food is made and processed. Fair trade and organic products are now mainstream, and chocolate is no exception. The signal for this came last October, when chocolate giant Hershey Co. bought Dagoba Organic Chocolate LLC, an Ashland, Ore.-based maker of organic chocolate. Hershey said “the acquisition is part of [its] strategy to focus on the high-growth premium chocolate segment.”

And like wine before it, chocolate is starting to be about “terroir”where and how the raw fruit was grown and harvested. Now there’s “origin” an Australian Shiraz will also note the difference between cocoa’s origins. It’s not just marketing, either.

“Chocolate is like wine in that both are agricultural products,” says Timothy Moley, founder and creator of Chocolove, a Boulder, Colo., chocolate company that just introduced a line of origin chocolate called Chocolatour. “Both have high amounts of acids and tannins when harvested. Cocoa beans undergo fermentation, ostensibly to remove the fruit covering the beans; as a result they have some fermentation flavors, like wine. Cocoa beans are cured and wine is aged. So from a biological and processing perspective, the plants have characteristics and processes that are at least similar.”

“The trend we have seen in the wine industry is greater attention to detail in general, but in specific more awareness about what varietal is in the field, choosing optimum harvest time for flavor development, exercising care in processing to assure that the subtle delicious flavors are preserved and coaxed to develop,” he says. “Consider the jug wine nature of California wine in the late 1960s, yet there were great winemakers making great wine in California at the time…. Over the next 20 years you will see more origin, vintage and varietal labeled on chocolate, just like wine in the U.S. from the 1960s to the 1980s.”

Spilling the beans

Results of an informal chocolate tasting

The whiteboard has been erased and the spreadsheet has been consigned to someone’s hard drive, somewhere, but Larry, Sharon and Martha remain close friends. They agreed to come to 3 Cups for a blind tasting of six of its chocolates. Reflecting individual tastes, there was no clear winner. Each of the SAS friends picked a different favorite.

The chocolates

The chocolates chosen for tasting were:

1. Valrhona Ampamakid, 64 percent (Madagascar)

2. Amedei Porcelana, 70 percent (Venezuela)

3. Pralus “Les Tropiques du Chocolat,” 75 percent (Papua New Guinea)

4. Chuauo, 64 percent (Venezuela)

5. Pralus, 75 percent (Indonesia)

6. Valrhona Plantation Gran Couva, 65 percent (Trinidad)

Larry: “My favorite was the first bar in the tasting, which was a Valrhona bar. I gave it 3.5-4 bars. There were others in the tasting that were almost as good. All of them [except for No. 5] were in the 2.5 bars to 3.5 bars range.”

Sharon: “I loved the fourth bar, which was so incredibly rich and decadent tasting … very rich with vanilla and caramel flavor. I could definitely imagine a bite of this with a good glass of spicy Zinfandel.”

Martha: My favorite from the tasting was No. 6 because I loved the caramel-y flavor.”

The overwhelming clunker was No. 5 from Indonesia. Martha declared that it tasted like latex. “It was my least favorite,” Larry said. “That is being kind. My initial impression was that it tasted like motor oil. I gave it zero bars in my five-bar rating system, which means I would only eat it under duress.”

Sharon was more diplomatic, saying “it had a strong flavor that was foreign to me and distracted me from the chocolate,” but foreign flavors aren’t unusual, even in high-quality chocolate. It’s all about finding out what you like.

Other recommendations from the SAS chocolateers:


  • Hachez, “Cocoa D’Aribba Classic,” Germany (4 bars)
  • Venchi, “Cuor di Cacao” Italy (4 bars)
  • Amedei, “La Tavoletta” Italy (3.5-4 bars)
  • “And I know this is shocking, but I actually do like good milk chocolate. I love Milka brand for example. Maybe because that’s what I had a lot of growing up in Germany.”
  • Sharon

  • NewTree, “Pleasure,” Belgium. “The packaging is also lovely. I am a sucker for beautiful packaging.”
  • Dark Chocolate Santander, Colombia. “But not the Santanders that are mixed with fruitthe 70 percent dark chocolate.”
  • “Also, in my office, we always keep the Dove Darks, which have the advantage of that nice, little form factor that makes it easy to share with others or take with you.”
  • Do your own tasting

    If you want to sample origin chocolate, you can find it in many places. A Southern Season in Chapel Hill has an entire wall of chocolate bars, World Market sells Chocolove’s Chocolatour, and even grocery stores have widened their selections of bar chocolate. 3 Cups holds tastings, but if you want to train your palate, all you have to do is eat, Jon Wallace says. “Eat, eat, eat! Eat a variety of foods and don’t be afraid to take notes. Take time to savor and assess the food that you consume. Chocolate is especially fun because you can eat a tiny piece every day for a week and totally familiarize yourself with its characteristics and nuances, then you can start all over again the following week with something new.”