“Oh, note of raspberry! You mean there are raspberries in this chocolate?”
The struggle is real.
Average consumers still don’t know that chocolate can have more than a “chocolatey” flavor. They don’t expect to taste berries, exotic fruits, nuts or spices in their 70% plain dark bars. How to blame them! As a kid, nobody was probably ever fed the finest chocolate in the world. From Hershey’s to Kinder, the chocolate snacks for children contained little cacao and lots of sugar, milk and vanilla. Not that flavor mattered much, as these treats were devoured in a matter of seconds anyway.
This ‘mindless eating’ associated with chocolate since a tender age didn’t create the best environment for craft chocolate. A lot of explaining and tasting is now necessary to change this habit. Consumers have to learn how to enjoy the different flavors that chocolate can deliver.
This is why Tasting Notes were written on craft chocolate bars in the first place.
Tasting notes indicate the aromas contained in a chocolate bar when you taste it. These are not added ingredients, but the intrinsic flavors of the chocolate itself. They are achieved in a million ways. Some involuntarily (genetics and terroir), some voluntarily (roasting and conching techniques). Interesting aromas are what differentiates craft chocolate from industrial chocolate.
Craft chocolate aims to preserve the original aromas of cacao. Industrial chocolate dilutes the intrinsic flavors of cacao with sugar, milk, vanilla and other flavorings to keep the price tag low. The distinction is clear: craft chocolate is for savouring; industrial chocolate is for mindless eating. And for those who want to savour, the majority of craft makers includes Tasting Notes on their packaging.
This indication serves three main purposes:
- To make consumers understand that chocolate can taste of something other than “chocolatey”.
- To help consumers make a purchase based on the flavors they prefer.
- To guide consumers during their tasting experience.
Tasting Notes also help the storytelling of a chocolate bar. They reveal the unique personality of that specific chocolate, and differentiates it from all the other bars on the same shelf. This way, consumers can enjoy guidance in their purchasing and tasting experience, and craft makers have a tool to differentiate themselves from a growing competition.
It seems like a win-win situation for everybody, but there’s a catch.
Although Tasting Notes are a great marketing and educational tool, there is something politically incorrect about indicating them on the packaging of a craft chocolate bar.
The biggest enemy for those who make chocolate starting from the beans is inconsistency.
Depending on the conditions at origin, the supply of cacao beans is impacted in both quality and quantity. Since most of the suppliers of fine cacao are small farmers, many factors influence flavor: weather, fermentation practices, quality protocols, time of harvest, even political instabilities. Also the chocolate maker contributes to this confusion. From buying new equipment to switching suppliers, any change inside the chocolate factory can affect the end result.
The craft chocolate movement actually takes pride in this inconsistency. While big manufacturers offer the exact same product over time, craft makers respect the cacao beans they receive and make the best out of them in the moment, surrendering to any difference from batch to batch. Unfortunately, the package that wraps such inconsistent chocolate often remains the same.
So it happens that the new batch of chocolate tastes different, but it is sold in a package with Tasting Notes from the previous batch. Or the one before that. Or who knows from how long ago.
Considering inconsistency in craft chocolate, is it a good idea to write the Tasting Notes on the packaging?
This topic has been discussed at Chocoa, the largest gathering of chocolate professionals in Europe that takes place every February in Amsterdam.
In the Chocolate Makers Forum, chocolate expert Clay Gordon from The Chocolate Life (now The Maven) was the mediator of an interactive conversation all about the challenges and the opportunities of being a craft chocolate maker. From brand identity to logistical difficulties, every aspect of bean-to-bar making was analyzed and discussed. When it was time to talk about packaging, Clay posed to the audience a very practical question:
“As a craft chocolate maker, what do you do if your new batch of chocolate tastes different from the previous one, but you still have hundreds of packages with the old Tasting Notes?”
Many craft chocolate makers in the room candidly admitted that they would keep using the old wrappers, even when they knew for a fact that the Tasting Notes of the new batch were different. Packaging is expensive after all, and they didn’t see the value of throwing it away just because the Tasting Notes had changed.
All good for the maker, but we can’t say the same for the consumer.
It is true that Tasting Notes are subjective. Everybody tastes different things in chocolate. But there is someone more trustworthy than others: the maker who created that chocolate. Among all opinions, what’s more reliable than the opinion of the person who voluntarily tried so hard to achieve those specific flavors? This is why consumers look up so much to the Tasting Notes written on the packaging of craft chocolate.
Identifying tasting notes is the favorite game of craft chocolate lovers. Floral, fruity, herbal, nutty, spicy. These aficionados try to find the best words to describe the flavor of what they are tasting. It takes sharp focus to conduct this exercise. This is the quintessence of mindful eating!
If the Tasting Notes are written on the chocolate bar, these aspiring connoisseurs would compare them with their own results. This could be the reason of great pride or great insecurity, depending if the results matched or not. But what’s the value of using a reference that even the chocolate maker knows isn’t right? Are consumers being taken for fools?
Frustration gets even bigger when consumers make a purchase based on those Tasting Notes.
After some tastings, chocolate lovers develop their own preferences. Some love fruity notes, some enjoy their chocolate spicy, some like to keep it simple with nutty or chocolatey notes. If new chocolate is wrapped in old packaging (with different tasting notes), consumers receive the wrong guidance. They are using an inaccurate piece of information to make a purchasing decision. And it is $10 for a chocolate bar we are talking about!
This is why writing Tasting Notes on craft chocolate packaging might not be a good idea. They definitely teach new consumers that chocolate can taste of something, but will end up confusing and irritating those who spend the most money on it.
When there is no indication of Tasting Notes, consumers are free to come up with their own conclusions. There is no pressure of comparison, but mostly there is no doubting themselves based on wrong information. It is also a wise decision for chocolate makers, who can keep using old packages even when the Tasting Notes change. They optimize costs and avoid complaints.
After all, no guidance is better than wrong guidance.
What do you think of Tasting Notes written on craft chocolate bars?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.