It is one of the debates that specialty/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 single-origin chocolate bar? Every discussion is underpinned by two issues:
- the use of a language in tasting notes that occasionally sounds farcical to the uninitiated, and
- the possible inconsistency of flavor notes between a product batch and the next.
But since the conclusions to these matters are often so sterile to lead nowhere, how to give a tangible benefit to the unaware end user in front of the tasting notes included in a chocolate bar?
Making 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 fine food product, tasting notes can describe the product’s style, personality, and potential. Take the example of wines. Tasting notes in wine are paramount attributes: the inclusion of flavor descriptors is not considered a flamboyant exercise to educate unlettered buyers on the full appreciation of the wine. Writing tasting notes has the ultimate objective to pair a specific food/meal with the “right” wine.
Applying a transposition of the food-wine matching ecosystem to one possible for chocolate is not the standard and, as a consequence, it is harder to envision solid references to turn to for chocolate, which is usually enjoyed alone in everyday life. Here is why including tasting notes in 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 the notes.
So, how single-origin chocolate brands and makers can start describing tasting notes more effectively just through words?
Start from smart questions before writing tasting notes for specialty/fine/craft chocolate
In copywriting, getting WHAT it is written is in the art of HOW it is written.
This is true for the copy printed on a specialty/fine/craft chocolate bar, as there is a fact: most chocolate makers are not aware of how the same message can read a little different when rearranged in slightly different forms. It just takes a chocoholic checking out their Instagram feed daily to realize that, almost every week, a new maker has refreshed the look of their packaging, and, among the chunks of content visible on the screen, 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 disguising the anticipation of an exclusive feeling as the prelude to a subpar experience.
Why am I writing tasting notes?
The language you use to describe your chocolate can be the difference between selling a bar over and over again and selling it sometimes. And it is even harder to sell chocolate with no descriptions at all.
If tasting notes poorly introduced exist, someone might argue that between poorly written tasting notes and no tasting notes at all, the minimalism and shortcut of the latter seem the smartest choice. The fact is that between a product with poorly written tasting notes, a product without tasting notes, and a product with mindfully written tasting notes, guess who’s the most likely to win over the others? Well-written tasting notes are quality descriptors giving the buyer the perception to get a product of higher value compared to a product of few pretensions. So, unless your brand is so widely known and appreciated on the market that anyone would be willing to try your products with closed eyes, tasting notes remain essential information for quality chocolate.
Another aspect for which smartly written tasting notes should be present on the packaging of the chocolate is that they testify the sensory experience the maker went through firsthand. The first chocolate taster is, in fact, just the maker themselves. Reporting specific tasting notes, therefore, means to make the reader personified with the interpretative journey of flavors that the maker has undergone starting from the raw material (the cacao beans) along the whole chocolate making process.
What 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 you as a company, ensuring that they won’t be a repeat customer. So what should a description of your chocolate look like, if you don’t actually describe what you taste?
Start from familiar terms when differentiating tasting notes, so to imbue as much confidence as possible into the experience of the taster. Consider there is already a difference between cherries and raisins, honey and bread, or coffee and nuts. That’s information all worth knowing without risking to sound too much sophisticated.
Hint: take it easy by comparing flavors like colors distributed on a map. Approach flavor notes as if you were the end chocolate taster! You may find Taste with Colour® – The Chocolate Tasting Flavour Map by Hazel Lee a nice idea bank for writing smart tasting notes in an accessible language.
Also, when you write down flavors, try to list the most prevalent ones first. This helps create a hierarchy of importance and allows the consumer to focus on something that is more evident even if he is not an expert.
How and Where am I writing tasting notes?
As for any successful brand today—in any industry—people will buy for the overall experience they get included “in the package.”
In a 2013 research, neuroscientists Lauren Atlas and Tor Wager prove 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, what you the brand/maker can control is at level of the conscious influence.
HOW and WHERE tasting notes are reported matter: mindfully “telling” pieces of information is different than brutally tossing them off with no connection with your story. Storytelling is not limited to telling a story, but “wrapping up” the experience that you intend 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 brand’s storytelling, there are at least successful examples giving a spark of inspiration:
- 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.
Now that you know how it is possible to write more effective chocolate tasting notes, what to consider about flavor inconsistency? Is it a problem or an excuse to sidestep a better approach for tasting notes?
Flavor inconsistency in single-origin chocolate: a problem or an excuse?
If bean-to-bar single-origin chocolate witnessed a renaissance in the last 15-20 years, it has been in the latest 5-10 years that the specialty cocoa supply chain increased exponentially, mainly thanks to the opportunities offered by the Internet in easily and quickly creating contacts through forums, groups, blogs, social media, and niche-specific industry networks. This type of ecosystem made of new possibilities put fuel on the fire for chocolate makers trying to find ideal partners to include new cocoa origins to their collections and encouraged specialty cocoa providers, at all levels, to get much more prepared and attractive on a marketplace immune to the legacy of a commodity market.
The smartest fine cocoa suppliers emerged by strategically focusing on these aspects:
- quality improvement (through more specialized subject matter knowledge and validated know-how),
- product diversification (both in a horizontal offer, proposing different cocoa origins; and vertically, differentiating a type of cocoa origin through controlled fermentation methods),
- data transparency (through periodic publications on the rewarding system benefiting the farmer and the sensory analysis on origin-specific cocoa flavor profiles).
In a realm of specialty cocoa stakeholders made up of cooperatives, aggregators, and brokers, the value awareness carried out to attract specialty chocolate makers not only generated interdependability but promoted consistency. Consistency in the quality of the product, diversification of the offer, and transparency of the data.
If the chocolate maker can now count on a dialogue with the specialty cocoa origin/supplier based on a greater awareness of the raw material for the final product, then flavor inconsistency is nothing else than a false problem from where to start a correct brand vision and an old excuse for not considering tasting notes in single-origin chocolate.
Yet, someone might object: how to behave against the external variable of the climatic conditions?
Since there is evidence that different weather conditions may influence the flavor profile of a cocoa origin from one harvest to another, here comes not only a priority of good communication between the cocoa supplier and the chocolate maker but a long-term vision of the chocolate maker on their production. And this is where the best chocolate makers stand out, by asking themselves a few appropriate questions:
- Can I have this origin every year so to include it in my regular production line or just in small amounts so to think of it as a limited edition?
- How is the sensory profile of this year’s origin compared to the previous year?
- What process from roasting to conching, until possible aging, am I choosing to make the flavor notes of the chocolate acceptably consistent lot after lot?
- What am I doing differently in the process to make my chocolate not only acceptably consistent in flavors but recognizable from other brands using the same cocoa origin?
Since we can only start from sensible questions before claiming solutions with the same answers applied to everyone, approaching the matter of chocolate flavor inconsistency is possible through: 1) effective communication with the cocoa origin supplier and 2) a conscious knowledge of the chocolate making process. These two elements are the foundations of a long-term vision that can lead to the recognition of your product and pay off the strategy for your brand in a crowded market.
How are you approaching tasting notes for single-origin chocolate?