If It Ain’t Dark, It Ain’t Chocolate

The new breed of chocolate snobs

Not long ago, Seth Wolf’s wife found something in her husband’s possessions that shocked her. Was this the man she knew? Was he harboring a dastardly secret? No, Wolf didn’t have lipstick on his collar or a hotel receipt in a phony name. He simply had a bar of milk chocolate stashed away.

Wolf adores dark chocolate, his wife knew, and looks down upon the dairy-tinged version of his favorite confection as a lower-quality food, indeed as trash. So what was he doing slummin’ it? Wolf explained that he’d bought the bar for a friend. And you better believe he was telling the truth.

How to Speak Chocolate Snob

Drop these terms, and people will know which side of the color line you stand on.

Limited Edition: A collection or single bar that’s only produced in a small run. Use it in a sentence this way: “Godiva was just crappy mall chocolate until it started offering its limited-edition G Collection.”

Percentage: Short for the total percentage of ingredients in a particular chocolate derived purely from the cacao bean. The implication is the better the chocolate, the higher the percentage. “I no longer let anything less than 70 percent touch my lips.”

Single Origin: Refers to chocolate made from beans harvested from a specific country, region, or, in the case of single estate, plantation. “I just did a tasting of single-origin Venezuelans, and the Amedei Chuao kicked Valrhona’s ass.”

Vintage: In choco-speak, this is the year the cacao beans were harvested. “I was dying to compare Valrhona Ampamakia vintages, but I discovered my last 2005 was eaten by rats.”

The number of Americans who, like Wolf, prefer dark chocolate to milk almost doubled from 1991 to 2003. Industry types such as John Scharffenberger, cofounder of the eponymous high-end chocolate company now owned by Hershey, say dark-chocolate-lovers are actually growing at a rate of 25 percent a year. The boom is fueled by studies trumpeting the antioxidants in dark, an exploding variety of new artisanal chocolate bars, savvy marketing, and good old-fashioned elitism. And with it, a culture of snobbery has grown.

It starts with cacao percentage. Several years ago, specialty chocolatiers like Scharffen Berger began printing it on their labels. The number, a combined total by weight of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, reflects the percentage of ingredients derived purely from the cacao bean. So, the higher percentage of stuff from the bean, the lower the amount of other ingredients, like, say, sugar. Consumers began equating higher cacao percentage with better quality, because as Scharffenberger explains, “If you’re putting less sugar in it, the cacao’s gotta be pretty good. You can’t make an 80 percent out of crummy cacao—you won’t be able to eat it.”

But percentage-mongers are only partly right. “It’s not always the amount of cacao content—it’s really the bean profile and where it’s grown and how it’s fermented that dictates its intensity, its level of acidity, and its astringency,” says upscale-chocolate-maker Michael Recchiuti. “And also the roast time. There are a lot of those elements that play into percentage wars. We have an 85 percent bar, and everybody says it tastes like 65. It’s very smooth, and low in acid, and very fruity.”

Try telling that to Elissa, an editor from Sausalito, California, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy. She won’t eat anything less than 87 percent. Her friends who do are “sugarholics,” she says, disdainfully.

It’s getting to the point, says David Lebovitz, that whenever this pastry chef and cookbook author leads a chocolate tasting, everyone asks him what percentages the samples are.

“Americans like high numbers,” says Lebovitz. “That’s why we haven’t switched to the metric system: 40 degrees is not exciting; 110 degrees is!”

Wine for Dummies

Adding fuel to the fire are the chocolate-makers themselves. Borrowing language from the wine world, many high-end producers are trumpeting their beans as single origin, even if the origin is an entire country like Venezuela; printing the year (called the vintage just like wine) that the beans were harvested on the label; and producing limited edition bars, made in small batches from one harvest.

“You can choose a terroir and vintage and if you taste carefully, you’ll be able to taste something of the country where the cocoa beans were grown,” reads the website of producer Chocolove.

But the analogy only sorta works. Like grapes, cocoa beans reflect the soil and weather conditions where they were grown. But you’ll have to have a great memory if you want to compare different years from the same producer.

“There’s a reason why you can’t find a flight of chocolates from 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006,” says Clay Gordon, editor of chocolate blog chocophile.com. “By the time you get the 2006 and produce it, the 2003 is way past its peak.”

Wine ages. Chocolate rots.

Milk Is for Amateurs

Milk chocolate, meanwhile, has taken a kneecapping at the hands of those who view it as an adulterated and diluted version of “the real thing,” and others who fail to discriminate between waxy mass-market candy bars and high-quality milk chocolate.

People who like milk chocolate, says Gordon, author of an upcoming book on the confection, “have become the white-Zinfandel drinkers of the chocolate world.” The lighter the chocolate, the thinking goes, the less sophisticated it is.

“I have had people come in embarrassed,” says Adam Smith, owner of San Francisco newsstand and chocolate shop Fog City News. “They’ll sorta look around and say in a low voice, ‘Uh, I actually like milk chocolate, but my friends say I shouldn’t like it.’”

Smith, Recchiuti, Gordon, and Lebovitz all believe dark-chocolate snobs are missing out on some darn good chocolate.

“There are nuances to milk chocolate that you can never achieve with dark chocolate,” says Recchiuti. “The milk adds a different dimension to the flavor. And if you can really taste the cacao—as opposed to the first things hitting your palate being sugar and milk—then it becomes interesting.”

Recently, Smith was invited to lead a blind chocolate tasting at the Berkeley Chocolate Club in Berkeley, California. Smith was well aware that the group had a rule about only tasting dark chocolate (because most of the members like it better). However, after stealthily confirming that nobody had an allergy to dairy, Smith secretly slipped a milk chocolate sample into the lineup.

When the club members tasted the plant, there were gasps and cries of “This is very interesting!” “Cinnamon notes!” “A cheesy quality!” One person exclaimed, “Oh my God!” When Smith told them it was milk chocolate, the members amiably admitted they should, says Smith, “open their eyes to it.”

To date, the Berkeley Chocolate Club continues to taste only dark chocolate.

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