It is one of the debates that fine/craft chocolate snobs rekindle all year round: to question or not to question the validity, worth, and relevance of tasting notes written on the packaging of a chocolate bar?
A typical discussion on tasting notes among fine chocolate makers is usually underpinned by two issues:
⠀• the use of a language in tasting notes that may sound farcical to the uninitiated, and
⠀• the possible inconsistency of flavor notes between a product batch and the next.
As the conclusions to these matters are as much sterile as to lead nowhere, how to give a tangible benefit to the unaware end user in front of the tasting notes printed on the label of a fine chocolate bar?
Make the language in describing tasting notes attainable
Conjuring up notions of seemingly random flavors may sound a little far-fetched to an outsider. However, tasting notes that are well-written and contextualized can convey highly evocative product attributes.
In a specialty food product, tasting notes can describe the product’s style, personality, and potential. Take the example of wines. Tasting notes in wines are paramount attributes: the inclusion of flavor descriptors is not considered a flamboyant exercise to educate unlettered buyers on the full appreciation of an expensive wine. For sommeliers, identifying wine tasting notes has the ultimate objective to pair a specific food/meal with any given wine.
Applying a transposition of food-wine matching to a similar ecosystem possible for fine chocolate is yet not a familiar standard for modern day consumers and, as a consequence, it is harder to envision solid references to turn to for fine chocolate tasting notes. In fact, chocolate—even that of the finest quality—is usually enjoyed as an occasional standalone treat, not associated with other delicacies deserving a full-fledged ritual.
Here is why communicating tasting notes for fine single-origin chocolate relies on a more original framework than that for wine, but this doesn’t mean that even beginners can’t get something helpful from chocolate tasting notes.
So, how single-origin chocolate brands can start describing tasting notes more effectively just through words?
Start from smart questions before writing chocolate tasting notes
In copywriting, conveying WHAT it is written all depends on the art of HOW it is written.
That’s also true for the copy printed on a fine/craft chocolate bar, even if most chocolate makers are not aware of how the same message can read a little different when rearranged in slightly different forms.
Almost every week, a new fine chocolate brand has refreshed the look of their packaging, and, among the chunks of content visible on their social media pages, slapdash tasting notes stand out so triumphantly! More often than ever, the tight space of the packaging appears like a copy mayhem, where redundancy and randomness take the place of clarity and cohesion. The result is a mishmash list of flavor notes that works as a cheap prelude to an even more subpar experience.
The following questionnaire can be an example to shed a brighter light on how to write tasting notes for fine/craft chocolate in a smarter way, having the end user in mind:
Why am I writing chocolate tasting notes?
The language a chocolate brand uses to describe the inherent flavor notes of their chocolate can be the difference between selling a bar over and over again and selling it seldom. And it is even harder to sell fine chocolate with no flavor descriptions at all.
If badly-introduced tasting notes sadly exist for high-quality chocolate, someone might argue that between poorly-written tasting notes and no tasting notes at all, opting for the minimalist shortcut of the latter would represent the smartest choice. However, well-written tasting notes may be for the buyer not only quality descriptors but especially perception guidelines on the higher value of a chocolate compared to another with vague descriptors.
So, unless a brand is so widely known and appreciated on the market that anyone would be willing to try their products with closed eyes, tasting notes remain essential information for high-quality chocolate. Just as fine wine bottles, just as specialty coffee beans.
Another aspect for which smartly-written tasting notes should be present on the packaging of the chocolate is to testify the sensory experience the brand of that chocolate went through firsthand. The first chocolate taster is, in fact, just the artisan themselves. Reporting specific tasting notes, therefore, would let any reader personify with the interpretative journey of flavors that the person/family/team behind the brand has undergone, starting from the raw material (the cacao beans) through the finished product (the chocolate bar).
What chocolate tasting notes am I writing?
People have hugely varied perception thresholds for particular aroma compounds; and the person who clearly isn’t sensitive to a specific flavor note can get frustrated and perhaps a little embarrassed, and worst of all, perhaps upset with a specific company, ensuring that they won’t be their repeat customer.
So how could a great description for fine chocolate tasting notes look like?
A good idea when describing tasting notes for chocolate could be to start from familiar-enough as well as different-enough names—such as, cherries and raisins, honey and bread, coffee and nuts, etc., so to imbue as much confidence as possible into the experience of the taster, without risking to sound too hefty.
Chocolate brands may put the theory of visualizing flavors in their mind when tasting specific chocolate origins into practice by using Taste with Colour®—The Chocolate Tasting Flavour Map by Hazel Lee.
Contrary to flavor wheels, this map is especially useful to start viewing the tasting toward an area of a certain color and moving to another, associated with other colors—and flavors. It doesn’t require a laborious mental process and greatly facilitates the tasting of a complex food that evolves in different temporal aromatic phases such as great chocolate.
Also, when writing down flavor notes, the most prevalent ones should be listed first, so that they are more obvious and provide higher confidence to the taster.
How and Where am I writing chocolate tasting notes?
As for any successful brand today, people will buy from it for the overall experience they get included “in the package.”
In a 2013 research, neuroscientists Lauren Atlas and Tor Wager proved that expectations are the first things we “taste” in a food. They argue that taste is influenced in two interrelated ways: conscious influence—such as prior knowledge, appearance, and pricing; and unconscious influence—shaped by day-to-day factors like present company, weather, or ambiance. So if all of these aspects can influence a consumer’s appreciation and understanding of a food, the level of influence a chocolate brand can control at least before the end user will buy their product is conscious, by any means.
Therefore, HOW and WHERE tasting notes are reported matter: mindfully telling pieces of information is different than brutally tossing them off with no connection with a brand’s story.
Storytelling is not limited to telling a story, but “wrapping up” the experience that a brand intends to resonate in the consumer’s mind: each piece of information is conscientiously integrated with the others, like the pieces composing the big picture of a jigsaw.
As there is no one-size-fits-all approach because of the individual nature of a fine/craft chocolate brand’s storytelling, there are at least successful examples giving a few sparks of inspiration for tasting notes:
⠀• Transparency first. Dandelion Chocolate puts essential information about their single-origin chocolate on page one! From briefly storytelling their chocolate making process and cocoa origin to disclaiming ingredients and tasting notes, everything you must know about their specialty is printed on the front to impress. A detail for not failing in writing tasting notes is in the use of the first person pronoun “We.” In this way, you provoke a powerful double effect in the reader’s mind: 1) to make the reader identify with your point of view as the author (the brand/maker); 2) to intend the tasting experience as something personal and not an exercise.
⠀• Plain list. Ritual, Fruition, and Maverick Chocolate makers take a similar approach in reporting the tasting notes of their single-origins: two or three terms, quite distinct from each other, in the list. The effect is minimal but immediately evokes what to expect from tasting the stuff; risky for those who can not offer an acceptable consistency between one batch of single-origin chocolate and another. Beyond the immediacy and simplicity of this list, there are two warnings to consider for those who taste, especially if they are not acquainted with fine flavor chocolate. The first one is that without a “Tasting Notes” headline, someone may believe that flavor notes are inclusions present in the chocolate. Secondly, flavor notes that are not read with intentional distraction before tasting the chocolate can be taken too seriously by a taster unfamiliar with tasting notes. This kind of issues can be overcome if you include a mini-disclaimer inside the packaging on the correct mindset on how to approach tasting notes in a confidence-boosting way.
⠀• Slow anticipation. French Broad Chocolate is a romantic detail freak and inserts tasting notes printed not on the outside but inside the packaging, usually on page two of the booklet that surrounds the chocolate bar. A detailed storytelling about their encounter with a single cocoa origin is the prelude to a final in which the tasting notes are unveiled using the first person—as already seen for Dandelion. Since the tasting notes are revealed after buying the chocolate, this sought-after approach is not recommended for those who still have some work to do on building their brand recognition.
⠀⠀⠀⠀• Diplomatic disclaimer. Chocolaterie Morin demonstrates all their experience of over a century, not only in offering a myriad of single-origin chocolate bars but also in presenting their peculiarity through the tasting notes. Each origin has on the back of the wrapper at least three characterizing flavors that Franck Morin aims at highlighting through careful roasting and conching steps. A diplomatic disclaimer accompanies the tasting experience after opening the wrapper: “Our way of working involves the eventuality that the final product may present variations from one harvest to another and differ from one year to another.” A clever approach which focuses on the responsibility of the maker to craft a chocolate product that may occur with a slight aromatic inconsistency due to the variable nature of the single-origin cocoa bean.
How do you approach chocolate tasting notes as a brand or consumer?
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