How to Pair Chocolate
We love the chocolate pairing craze going around right now, and we have embraced chocolate pairing wholeheartedly. However, a recent Italian study concluded that chocolate paired well with drinks depending on its cocoa content percentage. We’re glad that there are scientific studies being conducted on the tastes of chocolate, and we do love a good pairing, but at Lake Champlain chocolates, we’ve been pairing chocolate with wine and other things (like beer and cheese) for years, so we like to take a slightly more nuanced approach to the exercise than by simply looking at the cocoa percentage.
Think about it this way: to us, pairing chocolate based only on its percentage would be like pairing wine based solely on its alcohol content. While in general, wines with a lower alcohol content will be sweeter, there is so much else to take into account that it seems a little silly to just base pairings on one aspect of the overall flavor. Take origin, fermentation method, or type of grape, for example. These same considerations can also be thought about with chocolate:
Origin: The theobroma cacao (the tree that produces the cocoa beans that we use in chocolate creation), grows in hot, tropical conditions, about twenty degrees north or south of the equator. This region is known as the cocoa belt. But think about it: that’s a lot of different areas in which the cocoa tree can grow. Would the soils of Tanzania be the same as the soils of Peru? Absolutely not! As a result, cocoa beans from one area have a distinct taste that is different from cocoa beans from another area.
Types of Cocoa Beans: There are three main varieties of the theoborma cacao tree: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario (which is a cross between the other two.) The trees are grown in different parts of the world, and yield different types of beans. (You can read more about the differentiations between the beans here.) This also affects the final product.
Fermentation method: There are many different methods of cocoa bean fermentation used today that help to determine the quality of the final bean. Sometimes the beans are layered with banana leaves in wooden boxes, sometimes in plastic boxes, and sometimes they are simply left in heaps. Sometimes the beans are turned, and other times they are left to sit. All of this can change what the bean will taste like at the end of this process, and consequently what the chocolate made from the bean will taste like. (For a very detailed look at this, check out this paper on the subject.)
Roasting method: The beans used in chocolate are roasted, and, just like with coffee beans, there are an infinite number of variations that can take place during the cocoa roasting, including the heat of the roast, what machinery is used for the roast and the length of the roast.
So you can see, there are many facets of chocolate making that can affect the overall tone and flavor of a simple bar of chocolate, even before the cocoa is processed with other ingredients. Our bean-to-bar sub-brand, Blue Bandana, has been working hard to find the best way to do all of this, from working with the growers in Guatemala and Madagascar to grow the best beans, to experimenting with various roasting techniques. Their three bars, Guatemala, Madagascar, and Madagascar Wild Pepper all show the fruits of this labor, and they’re now available in our stores. (Don’t worry, we’ll sell them online eventually too!)
There you have it. We believe there is more to pairing chocolate than cocoa percentage. Here are some quick tips on pairing, though you’ll certainly want to look at our tasting tips for more on what to do to taste chocolate before you pair:
Consider the tastes within each chocolate: The four basic tastes are sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Think about how these four tastes interact with each other in the chocolate, and what can be added to help bring out certain flavors that might be more hidden.
Think about the way you would describe the chocolate and find a wine, or food, or other drink, to match: Would you describe the chocolate as fruity? How about buttery or creamy? Maybe it has an earthy tone or a caramel flavor to it. These terms can also be used to describe wine. For instance, Zinfandel is known for its peppery and dark berry notes, so it could match well with our Spicy Aztec Dark Chocolate because the complex cayenne and cinnamon flavors as well as the tobacco notes of the chocolate itself complement the notes in the wine.
Consider both complementary and contrasting flavors: In the study that sparked this post, the researchers noted that 70% dark chocolate tended to pair well with stouts. However, the dark and typically bitter profile of a stout could be elevated with a lighter chocolate, especially one with fruity or sweet notes. For this reason, we like to pair stouts with our organic mango truffle. It might also be well complemented by a coffee-flavored chocolate, like our french roast truffle. Sometimes, opposites attract to create a beautiful full flavor that you wouldn’t have gotten without either component in your pairing. Other times, if the flavors are similar, they enhance what you were already tasting. Either way, it can be a win!
Whatever you do, make sure you enjoy it, and I hope that if you are pairing chocolate with drinks or food, you find some delicious combinations. Let us know if you find something extraordinary!