Part Two: the Flavor Wheel
Learning to appreciate chocolate is about developing your taste, respecting the people and land involved, enjoying yourself, and having an open mind. You probably learned that we have at least five categories of taste (bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami) but we also have a sixth flavor that has nothing to do with our tongues: memory.
Memory, and association, play a huge part in why we taste what we taste. Because of this our flavor wheel has ten spokes to cover some categories that aren’t quite so exact. This is to help us create more associations with the chocolate and improve our flavor memory. It’s also a fun way to debate and discuss when tasting with friends.
There are no wrong answers when tasting chocolate. You own your experience with the bar. As you become more experienced at tasting, you will learn to pick out the strengths or weaknesses that professionals use to assess quality. Chocolate is delicious (most of the time) and discovering a new favorite chocolate is one of the great joys in life.
The Flavor Wheel
Our flavor wheel has two components: the wheel itself and the written section. The wheel measures the strength of a category on a scale from 0–10, close to the centre is 0 and the outside edge is 10. Based on our reviewers feedback we plot out the numbers to give a overall flavor map.
The written portion is to help give some context to those strengths. Each category that has a strength will have a note about what specifically they tasted in that category. It’s possible to have more than one item in each category. Sometimes a chocolate will taste of one fruit, sometimes it will taste like a fruit salad!
The flavor wheel is more art than science. The most important part of using a flavor wheel when you’re tasting is that it makes you pause and really experience what you’re tasting.
Here are some examples of what could be included in each category. Some flavors could easily appear in more than one group too. Consider these some prompts or examples of what each category could contain.
Floral notes include, of course, all kinds of flowers but many other things could be described as being floral. We think of florals being light and airy but have you ever smelt a daisy? Exactly. Florals can also be very humid and dark smelling. Other floral smells might not be flowers at all.
jasmine, rose, lavender, rosin/sap, myrrh, galangal, honey, orange blossom, chamomile, juniper
Some spices we associate with sweet foods, like cinnamon and clove, and some we find added to chocolate regularly, like vanilla. However most spices aren’t naturally sweet and not all are spicy. There are lots of earthy, green and sour spices out there too.
anise, salt, ginger, chili, cardamom, allspice, turmeric, cumin, paprika, fenugreek
Everyone knows that peanut butter and chocolate go together but there are many types of nuts and nut products out there. Some nuts are naturally quite sweet and some very dry feeling without many oils in them at all. Nuts flavors can some be very raw tasting and other times very roasted in flavor.
hazelnut, almond, praline, chestnut, pistachio, tahini, kinako, soy, walnut, macadamia
Fruit flavors dominate in the world of chocolate and they can range from fresh fruit, to dried fruit, from preserves and candied fruit. There are thousands of fruits in the world and thousands of ways to prepare them! Of course there are also many vegetables that are botanically fruits as well. We’re not too picky!
raspberry, raisin, dates, apple, pineapple, prune, longan, apricot, cherry, banana
Vegetal and green flavors mean the world of herbs, roots and leaves. Some vegetal flavors we’re familiar with when thinking of chocolate, like mint for example, but there are also many other types of plants we use for flavoring and eating. Some herbs, like verbena, could easily be found in the fruit flavors as well. Use your judgement.
rosemary, grass, seaweed, sage, thyme, moss, cedar, pine, pea shoots, basil
We’re all familiar with some roasted flavors and smells (like coffee) but there’s a wide range of flavors both sweet and savory. Some, like caramel, can taste roasted yet rich, and others, like black teas or hojicha, cross between earthy, roasted and herbal.
hickory, malt, toffee, molasses, cocoa, tobacco, toast, popcorn, molasses, oatmeal
Natural miscellaneous contains all types of flavors that don’t fit so well into the others. They might not even be foods. A collection of smells can sometimes smell like something else, or something specific. Sometimes you’ll realize that what you’re tasting isn’t apples, it’s apple cider vinegar!
miso, pasta, yogurt, custard, olive, bread, egg yolk, dust, leather, paper, burlap
Man-made substances have their own sets of odors. Sometimes we can think of this stuff as nose pollution but you’d be surprised how close the bridge between wonderful and terrible can be.
xylene, rust, chalk, glue, gasoline, paint, soap, tar, rubber, plastics
We made this category simply because of all the associations we make between flavors. Especially knowing how taste and smell are so closely linked to memory. Is that marshmallow you’re tasting or vanilla? Is that anise or black licorice?Sometimes the best description is the most common one.
bubblegum, root beer, wine gums, butterscotch, meringue, cotton candy, cola, icing, gumdrops, taffy
Chocolate doesn’t need alcohol in it to sometimes taste like booze. There are many adult beverages that have particular tastes to them. Common associations go to red wine and rum but there are many other alcoholic drinks you can taste in chocolate. Many a good night can be made by pairing the two.
rum, wines, scotch, port, lager, absinthe, bitters, brandy, gin, whiskey
Cacao is an agricultural product and it has to travel through many stages to become the chocolate we’re familiar with. Developing the flavor in chocolate requires time and timing, the final product contains hundreds of chemical compounds that are affected by each step in the process.
Flavor begins to develop right from the basic elements in the cacao, the genetics, and the earth it was grown in, called the terroir. The soil, length of fermentation, and drying time can effect the amount of acetic acid found in the chocolate, which can determine how acidic the chocolate becomes.
If you’re a coffee drinker you’re probably familiar with the roasting process and how much that can change the way coffee tastes. The exact same goes for cacao beans. And once you start to process the cocoa liquor into chocolate you can change the flavor profile further by altering processing times, fat content, and with any additional ingredients. It’s a complex substance, this chocolate!