There are 199,000,000 links to “chocolate” on Google and there were just about as many references – and chocolate samples – at COPIA this weekend, where the 6th annual “Death by Chocolate” Festival was held.
COPIA, in case you have been in a chocolate-induced coma for the past decade, is the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts, in Napa. How appropriate that the center, known mostly for wine, hosts this annual deep, dark, delicious chocolate event, because it turns out that chocolate has many of the same properties as wine.
For starters, dark chocolate has many of the same antioxidants as wine and the raw ingredient – cacao – even has healthful antibacterial agents.
“Our roasted chocolate nibs have nearly 65 times more antioxidants than broccoli,” says Shawn Askinosie, who attended the event. You’re going to hear more about this extraordinary chocolate maker from Springfield, MO, in the paragraphs that follow, so pay attention. Hint: He’s on the final exam.
What’s more, chocolate is easily as complex as wine; taste any three of the hundred small-batch, artisanal chocolates sampled at COPIA and you’d be shocked at the differences in mouthfeel, flavor, attack, release, length and finish – terms customarily used to describe wine. But they work just as well for chocolate.
The Festival this year was punctuated by a series of seminars, panels, and workshops, and concluded with a three-hour walk-around wherein 800 attendees sampled the best premium chocolates and chocolate-based confections made in America. Imagine – no limits, as many of the best chocolates as you could eat for nearly half-a-day! This was an assignment that Napaman had been dreaming about for weeks in advance.
In fact, I found myself in training for the event, having purchased a kilo of premium chocolate (70% cacao) from Italy to better understand what American chocolate makers – and chocolate consumers – are up against.
The chocolate that I hold as a standard to beat is the tablet from Amedei, in Tuscany, whose Venezuelan-based chocolate, called Chuao, is a gold-medal winner in my humble, cacaoic opinion. (I made that word up, so don’t look for it in your online dictionary.)
I love the unctuous, complex, caramel reveal as the Chuao slowly melts on your tongue; I love the chocolate’s gorgeous, velveteen mouthfeel, and long, lingering finish filled with plum and dried fruits. Like a good wine. The acidity in the Chuao chocolate is perfect, too. It leaves your palate clean and you hankering for another gnaw at the bar.
My pleasure at COPIA was finding three stunning American-made chocolates that, in their own way, are also standards to beat, and one of them is quite simply, the best chocolate in America.
The Askinosie 70% cacao dark chocolate made with beans from San Jose Del Tambo, in Ecuador, is a stunning chocolate achievement, particularly as this single-origin chocolate contains no lecithin (an emulsifier usually added to commercial chocolates for mouthfeel) or vanilla (natural or artificial, usually added to boost flavor and length of finish).
The ingredients of this exceptional bar are simply: cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter. Period. You start with great stuff, you wind up with great stuff.
Shawn and Caron Askinosie produce what I believe is the best chocolate made in America. Caron’s blue gloves, by the way, are NOT a fashion statement, but were worn so that she could hand out single-origin chocolate drops that were the size of rhinestones that Dolly Parton would wear.
Shawn Askinosie, a former criminal lawyer, recently left a successful 20-year law practice to start making chocolate (he never lost a case – so watch out Hershey because he’s approaching chocolate-making with the same energy and determination!). Shawn’s M.O. is to find small, regional bands of cacao growers, encourage them to grow, ferment, and dry their beans in a particular way, and then actually share the revenue stream with them on an open-book basis. A one-man version of Ben & Jerry. Though it’s hard to tell if Shawn is the Ben or the Jerry in this scenario. What we do know is that his chocolate brings as much pleasure -- and as wide a smile – to one’s face as any Ben & Jerry flavor.
My tasting notes on the Askinosie Ecuador-based bar: “Light cigar aromas on the nose and early on the palate as the chocolate starts to melt; on the attack, flavors of forest floor and deep unsweetened cacao, followed by a rifle barrel-focused intensity of ethereal dark chocolate robed in velours. Sensationally complex from start to finish. This is the Romanee-Conti of American Chocolate.
I rediscovered my favorite San Francisco-made chocolate, brought to COPIA by fourth generation chocolate maker Gary Guittard. I recently conducted a thorough tasting of virtually all the premium chocolates in America for a consulting project and rated Guittard’s 65% cacao, Sur Del Lago, Venezuelan chocolate in my top three.
I love the complexity of this bar, the rich, red fruit aromas, the stunning, slow release of different chocolate notes and the acidity, which zips up the finish. And then, after that very last swallow, there’s a twinkle of lingering astringency, as though you’ve just had a cup of great Irish breakfast tea.
Often I find that food and wine writers, who are always chasing the “next new thing,” forget old friends and former favorites. I am as guilty as the next writer. I recall writing a story about John Scharffenberger and his sidekick/partner Robert Steinberg just after they started up Scharffen Berger Chocolate. I recall loving their energy, dedication and chocolate. The pair went on to reap a huge public following and last year, Hershey bought them out.
At COPIA, I revisited the “blue label” Scharffen Berger 70% Cacao dark chocolate, which is a blend of eight different beans. This bar has great length, is extremely satisfying, and strolls to the finish line with a measured, well paced, chocolate intensity. It has what you might call a chocolate cadence, a sequence of perfectly paced tastes throughout the melt, chew and swallow.
Discover Chocolate Seminar
Before they let guests loose on the 39 chocolate makers, vendors and retailers who were present, COPIA hosted a series of morning seminars and panels to help consumers better understand the world of chocolate.
Clay Gordon, originator of chocophile.com and author of Discover Chocolate, led a tasting of different chocolates and confections to explain different methods of manufacturing and offered hints of what to look for when tasting chocolate.
About the growing use of numbers to sell chocolate (you often see a 65%, or 70%, or even 85% figure, in the corner of many premium bars, proclaiming the percentage of cacao in the bar), Gordon had this to say:
“This is strictly a marketing gimmick. The number tells you nothing about the quality of the chocolate. At best, this is a disingenuous practice, at worst, deliberately misleading.”
Gordon went on to give a wine analogy. “You wouldn’t go to a wine store and ask for a 15.5% alcohol wine, or a 14.7% alcohol wine because it tells you nothing about the quality of the wine… so why would you go to a store and ask for a ‘70% cacao’ chocolate bar?”
Gordon said that somehow, marketers have convinced consumers that 70% cacao is a relevant and important number and that bars containing smaller percentages of cacao are to be dismissed.
Gary Guittard had much to say about the same subject in his seminar, which followed.
Guittard Tasting Seminar
Guittard said that the rush to use numbers to quantify the percentage of cacao in chocolate bars, a practice of which his own company is guilty, is both meaningless and misleading. (Give the guy credit for two things: He makes great chocolate and he’s also bluntly honest.)
Guittard dispelled another myth in his seminar that is worth sharing: “There is no industry-regulated use of the terms ‘semi-sweet’ and ‘bittersweet.’ One company’s ‘semi-sweet’ chocolate may be another producer’s ‘bittersweet.’” Essentially, these are (mostly) subjective expressions of sweetness levels in chocolate. The federal labeling requirement that touches on this matter says that chocolate called 'dark,' 'bittersweet,' or 'semisweet' must contain a minimum of 35 percent cacao and less than 12 percent milk solids (more milk solids than this and the chocolate has to be called milk chocolate). Beyond this, labeling is left in the lap of the manufacturer, which is why the terms 'semi-sweet' and 'bittersweet' appear to be interchangeable once the minimum levels are met.
The Future of Chocolate - Expert Panel
From left to right, Shawn Askinosie, Timothy Childs, Gary Guittard and Chuck Siegel; their respective affiliations are listed on the slide above them; they assembled to discuss fair trade and issues related to organic certification.
In one of the morning’s more interesting sessions, four chocolate experts gathered to discuss relevant issues that are alarming the industry.
Foremost is the increased demand for chocolate and the shortfall in world production.
Clay Gordon, who moderated the panel, said: “The world produced 3 million metric tonnes of chocolate last year – but this was a shortfall of some 250,000 metric tonnes.”
Interpretation: Look for dramatic price increases for your favorite brown treat.
And the price increases are only going to get worse as China and India become mainline chocolate consumers. The experts are talking about a worldwide demand for chocolate that may grow by 50 percent over the next few years.
And no one’s planting more Theobroma cacao trees to meet the anticipated demand. They probably couldn’t even if they wanted. For one thing, cacao trees only grow in a narrow band about 15 degrees north and south of the equator. No matter how much the super industrious wine growers in Napa Valley and Sonoma want to convert their vines to grow cacao, it just ain’t gonna happen.
During the session, Timothy Childs, of TCHO Chocolate, pointed out that “most cacao farmers never taste the finished chocolate whose raw materials they supply. We intend to change this.”
Childs, like Askinosie, takes a hands-on approach to producing chocolate and wants to rewire the way chocolate commerce has traditionally been conducted. These producers want to know their farmers, want to share revenues with them, want to oversee production from farm to finished good. They are mavericks in a world dominated by “the big guys,” like Hershey, Nestle, Callebaut.
But every industry has a pioneer or contrarian, and often times, they go on to great success. Look at Michael Dell, who transformed the way computers were sold. Maybe, just maybe, these boot-wearing, forest-stomping, chocolate contrarians will start a revolution to change the chocolate industry’s dynamic.
The good news is that even if they don’t succeed in changing an entire industry, consumers can still enjoy the labors of their work; their bars are world class, as the tasting at COPIA proved.
Other brown highlights at COPIA
Mona Keady, the bright light behind Raffiné, a Danville, CA-based confection company, makes filled chocolates. Note: Mona, like many exhibitors at the COPIA chocolate event, doesn’t make her own chocolate; she buys chocolate from producers and further adds her own touch – liquid centers, ganache fillings, etc. Within the “chocolate industry,” a distinction is made between “chocolate makers,” who take cacao beans and process them into finished chocolate, and “confectioners,” who take some one else’s finished chocolate and further process it to make their own tasty creations. One such chocolate confectioner is Michael Recchiuti, of San Francisco, who did not participate in the COPIA event, but who is a stunning – and glaring – example of someone who takes chocolate from “chocolate makers” and turns it into some of the most flavorful chocolate confections made in America.
Timothy Childs, chocolate maker, and Zohara Mapes, assistant chocolate maker, at Tcho Chocolates. They are conducing a crazy, vote-on-line focus group, asking consumers to register their comments about several un-launched chocolates. The chocolates displayed for comment at COPIA, two rather granular, Ghanaian offerings, were not inspiring. But word is that TCHO will launch several formal, packaged chocolates this spring, and we look forward to reviewing them then.
Kelliann Reginato and Jessica Bell from LaLoos Goat’s Milk Ice Cream Company were on hand to serve two flavors of chocolate ice cream – Deep Chocolate and Chocolate Cabernet – made with goat’s milk at the Sonoma Country dairy. I know, sounds weird, “chocolate-flavored goat’s milk ice cream.” But it tasted great and was a pleasing intermezzo from all the heavy-duty, industrial-strength, astringent chocolate everyone else was serving.