Chocolate Tasting in the Name of Science!

Chocolates for a blind taste test - photo by Josh Weaver

Diversity of Chocolates
Chocolates for a blind taste test. Photo by Josh Weaver

Chocolate scientists study everything from the disease resistance of cacao trees to the health benefits of the finished product. But they shy away from one critical question: which chocolate tastes best?

Flavor is subjective, of course. But with a healthy sample size, a blind taste test, and a solid dose of statistics, one Bay Area foodie hopes to find an answer. IBM research engineer and UC Berkeley graduate student Christine Robson has held chocolate tastings at her San Jose home since 2007. This year's event on February 12 featured fifty-four chocolates, forty-two tasters, and an evening of rigorous data analysis.

Chocoholic scientist that I am, I couldn't stay away.

Guests included Annika Mongan of brand new Berkeley chocolate maker Ostara, who cleverly brought some raw material. Sure, I knew cocoa beans came from a cocoa pod, but I didn't realize they were surrounded inside that pod with gooey cocoa pulp, called baba in Spanish--drool. Despite its unappetizing name, I enjoyed the dried baba; its flavor was similar to other tropical fruits like papaya and mango.

Although most of us never taste it, cocoa pulp is crucial to the flavor of chocolate. After picking the pods, farmers pile the beans and pulp together and ferment them for days. Yeast, bacteria, and fungi take turns breaking down pulp sugars, producing acids. Longer fermentation creates more acidic beans and a stronger, more aromatic flavor. Shorter fermentation leads to a milder flavor.


When cocoa beans become raw chocolate, the process of fermentation is mostly responsible for the taste--with contributions from cocoa genetics and growing conditions. Some people swear by it. I fell in love with the rich, fruity flavor of raw chocolate at the Snake & Butterfly booth in the Campbell Farmers' Market. This five-year-old local chocolate company was named after Aztec gods to honor the food’s mesoamerican origins. Like Ostara, Snake & Butterfly started with raw chocolate, but decided after a couple of years to start roasting.

Roasting takes two fermentation products--amino acids and reducing sugars--and gives them a chemical shake called the Maillard reaction, which is famous among food scientists for browning bread and onions (among many other things). Along with fermentation, roasting produces the taste we recognize as distinctly chocolate.

Snake & Butterfly now only makes raw chocolate for special orders, but you can buy their roasted chocolate at Whole Foods, local farmers' markets, cafes, wineries—and art museums! Designer chocolate bars made to match the paintings of artist Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe will be boxed up and sold at his exhibitions.

Ostara's raw chocolate will soon be on the shelves at Whole Foods as well.

If you’d like to see how Bay Area chocolate measures up against chocolate from around the world, check out Robson’s chocolate statistics. But be warned: chocolate snobbery is a slippery slope. According to Snake & Butterfly’s Celeste Flores, “My five-year-old refuses to trick-or-treat, because he says it doesn’t taste like chocolate.”