Intense. Black. Noir. Bitter. Full-bodied. Dark chocolate for true connoisseurs.
We, high-quality fine chocolate lovers, have made it completely wrong so far, after months or years of education, emotional and financial investment in buying, tasting, and discerning between a note of red fruits, nuts, and jasmine in a bar of dark chocolate made with the utmost care.
Since our first appreciation of chocolate in our infancy, commercial brands of the so-called noir intense or black chocolate made us believe that the best chocolate for our enjoyment, health, and palate had to be directly functional to its percentage (the higher, the better). Consequent to such logic, the chocolate ought to be über-dark like the color of charcoal and extra bitter because naturally-processed cacao beans are supposed unbearably bitter.
Nothing more misleading to a well-informed chocolate lover could be fabled!
What can be called extra dark or black chocolate?
As no single definition or reference explains at which percentage of cocoa dark chocolate is genuinely “dark,” even less so, there’s one for extra dark chocolate. However, we typically consider this type of chocolate when cocoa percentages range between 85% and 99%—whereas “average” dark chocolate is around 60‒75%.
But are all extra dark chocolate bars the same?
An upmarket chocolate brand that carefully selects fine flavor cocoa beans and meticulously executes a tailor-made process maximizing the quality of the cacao beans can produce chocolate that is anything but bitter and black, even at extremely high cocoa percentages. For example:
Despite being only made from pure cacao mass (the ground cacao nibs), this bar has extremely low bitterness, a brown color, and a rainbow of delicate flavors ranging from fruity to floral. The following is an example of one of the best chocolate bars one can taste, even if it cannot technically be considered chocolate for missing the added sugar.
More experience is required to spot the differences between extra-dark chocolate brands that are more accessible to the mass:
Although the Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99% tablet has a slightly higher percentage of cacao than the Perugina® Nero® 95%, it doesn’t intimidate with the unnatural opaque black color of the latter.
How is it possible? Let’s start with the ingredients list and tasting impressions:
Perugina® Nero® 95%
Ingredients: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, sunflower lecithin, natural vanilla extract.
• the color is so black that, even under natural light, a single square appears like a stub of charcoal;
• the bar smells so burned that it is like opening and sniffing into a tobacco can;
• the mouthfeel is remarkably astringent (it dries the palate), like swallowing a teaspoon of baking cocoa powder.
Michel Cluizel Noir Infini 99%
Ingredients: cocoa mass, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla powder.
• the color is a matte dark brown with pinkish mahogany highlights;
• the aroma is smoky—but not unpleasantly burned—suggesting a high-temperature roasting with a wet pre-drying to intensify the formation of still pleasant flavor compounds;
• the flavor is archetypally cocoa, with moderate acidity, high bitterness but nearly indistinguishable astringency.
As a side note, the Norman Michel Cluizel was the first brand in history to make dark chocolate at unusually high cocoa percentages, with their two 85% and 99% cacao tablets launched back in 1989. In the same year, Lindt immediately climbed on the bandwagon to introduce their extra dark Excellence line.
Alkalization is the difference between cheap black chocolate and pleasant extra dark chocolate.
A noticeable difference between the two extra dark tablets above stands out to the palate of an expert chocolate taster. A process known as alkalization puts the black color and burnt flavor of the Perugina Nero chocolate at a lower level than the Michel Cluizel Noir Infini.
The technique of alkalization—also known as ‘Dutching‘—was first introduced by the Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten in 1828. The process consists of treating the cocoa nibs with an alkali solution (the opposite of an acid solution) containing salts like potassium or sodium carbonate. The alkali treats the cocoa nibs by raising their pH from 5.5 to near neutrality at 7, intensifying the cocoa color and flavor to reach fancy black hues!
When a brand processes chocolate with alkali to make it more intense in color and bitter in flavor, it doesn’t elevate our senses and make us reach a blessed gourmet status or let us familiarize ourselves with the “authentic” nuances of dark chocolate. It, instead, uses alkalization as a shortcut to compensate for the excessive acidity and astringency of cocoa beans coming from different lots unevenly fermented together to be processed in bulk as soon as possible. If alkalization is necessary to make up for the nastiness of the cocoa bean quality, let’s imagine how “black chocolate” would be inedible if it weren’t deeply processed to disguise it like charcoal!
In case we further wished to check out where humankind is at when it comes to understanding chocolate, then let’s visit the Amazon mayhem.
The flavor wheels designed to appreciate the wonders of high-quality specialty chocolate seem to be going to get rediscussed since “charcoal” and “burned coffee” are no longer sensory defects but flavor notes—according to the cheap chocolate brands. And that’s not all. You can even dare to pair such carbonized ‘flavors’ with a sophisticated drink, perhaps with a Cabernet Sauvignon!
Being challenging to describe in plain words the kind of aversion that regularly afflicts me against the myth of ‘Black Chocolate,’ I tried to condense the substantial commercial and emotional scam into a single image:
On the one hand, the brand attempts to describe the product with consummate attributes that refer to that ‘deep intensity,’ ‘full body,’ and ‘bitterness’ extra dark chocolate is supposed to possess. On the other hand, the consumer, with a hazardous pretension to trade off quality with a low price, reviews the product with five stars, despite an inconsistent and even contradictory logic that reads like: “It’s not the chocolate that seems to taste awful. No, no, no.. It’s you, dummy! Your nose and palate aren’t still accustomed to the inebriating scents of dirty, burned, and alkalized cacao.“
Although the brand appears sincere in describing the chocolate according to the prospectus shown on its website, it also shoots itself in the foot. It’s all good news for those who know a little more than the average about high-quality chocolate—but much less so for the uneducated and mainstream share of consumers that keep perpetuating a distorted perception of how ‘extra dark’ chocolate should taste. Recommending black, intense, and bitter chocolate (processed with alkaline chemicals) would mean championing a nutritionally inferior product (despite the high cacao percentage) since alkalization tends to block and alter all the antioxidants contained in the cacao nibs.
High cacao percentages in chocolate are not always proportional to its quality and taste. Consumers must learn to discern whether the chocolate chosen for their indulgence and comfort was made starting from good cacao beans and natural steps or messed up with corner-cutting manipulations like alkalization to avoid rewarding the insidious scam of “black chocolate.”
Are you a consumer of the carbonized, alkalized, and extra-bitter “black chocolate”? Tell your opinion below, and feel free to share this article if you despise this type of product or find my content educational and entertaining. Thank you!