How to Host a Chocolate Tasting
Since part of the inspiration for Coffret came from hosting a chocolate tasting as a fundraiser. I think it’s fitting that one of the first posts on our blog be about how to host a luxurious chocolate tasting at home. As a caveat, there are generally two types of chocolate tasting. One of them is used by judges at, say, the International Chocolate Awards, to determine which preparation of cocoa beans is technically most proficient. The other is used by people who eat chocolate to discover things they like and share those preferences with friends. This post is about the latter.
Deciding how many people, and who, to invite, is a huge part of setting up a tasting. Part of it will depend on how much space you have, but generally, I’d keep the group to 8 or less. This way you can avoid having to raise your voice to get everyone’s attention. If you have room for more people, or want something more structured, go for it, but my favorite for an evening with friends of chocolate is 8 people or less (if there are more people you want to have over, I have successfully hosted the same party on 2 consecutive nights – the house is still mostly clean, any flowers you got are likely to last at least a second day, and you can shop for both events at once).
In making the guest list, try to think about their relative experiences of chocolate. The same tasting won’t appeal to people who have preferences for cocoa percentages and cocoa growing regions and people whose preferences run to Hershey or Cadbury. If you’re inviting a mixture, then try to choose some selections that will appeal to both groups.
There are literally hundreds of excellent chocolate options. I’d recommend choosing only 5 or 6 chocolates, as it’s tough for people to keep track of more that in an evening. If there are more chocolates that you absolutely want to try or share, plan a series of tastings. I’ve never seen anyone object.
To narrow down your choices, I’d recommend you choose a theme. That might be to choose only chocolate bars, or only bonbons, or only hot chocolates (an excellent thought for a cold winter evening…). We’ve done all bean-to-bar chocolates with 70% cocoa solids, so people can taste differences in cocoa varieties and growing locations. You could also choose a particular cocoa-growing region (e.g. Venezuela, Madagascar, Cuba, etc.) and taste only chocolates from that location to highlight the processing work of different manufacturers. You could choose a chocolate maker, and pick 5 or 6 examples of their work (if this is the way you want to go, our subscription boxes can help you do this- we send a selection from a single chocolate expert every month).
How Much Chocolate?
How much chocolate you need depends on what else you’re serving. You’ll need less chocolate for a tasting right after dinner than a tasting where you’re serving nothing but cheese, fruit and chocolate. Aim for 10-15g of each chocolate variety of chocolate per person. Over 5 varieties, that’s enough to provide a satisfying chocolate moment, without overwhelming the palette and giving everyone too much sugar.
What you serve with chocolate is one place social chocolate tastings differ from tastings to judge chocolate award winners. If you’re trying to judge chocolate at the competition level, you want the blandest possible palette cleanser, so that what you’re eating between chocolates doesn’t cloud what you taste in the chocolate. I’m sure watered-down polenta porridge works as a palette cleanser, but your guests may not be thrilled.My suggestions for what to serve besides chocolate at a tasting have more to do with creating a pleasant event than trying to bring out every nuance of the chocolate.
You can serve champagne, cava, or prosecco with anything, chocolate included. I often serve only chilled bubbly– it’s a simple way to create a festive event. Likewise, if you have a single wine you know all your guests enjoy, you can serve only that, and have people decide which chocolate they like best to go with that wine specifically. Failing that, if you’ve invited enough people to get through the wine, you can choose a wine to go with each chocolate you’re serving. In doing that, I’d aim for wines you like, and think your guests will enjoy, rather than focusing on specific wines – if you want the focus of the chocolate to be on chocolate, don’t worry too much about the wine beyond if the wine tastes good.
Cheese is also an option – the savory flavours of cheese makes for a satisfying menu next to chocolate. Cheese also helps minimise prep, since you just need to arrange a cheese board, slice some baguette, maybe plate some charcuterie, and you’re done – perfect for weeknight entertaining. I’d try to get something from at least three of the following categories : soft, firm, aged/smoked and blue. In your selections, try to serve at least one cheese that will be familiar to your guests, but otherwise, everything is fair game. The staff at a local cheese market can give you great recommendations for cheeses to serve, and you can often taste them before buying.
My personal favorite accompaniment for chocolate tastings, especially in the summer, is excellent fresh soft fruit. There’s something delightful about meltingly soft apricots, or slightly tart raspberries, and the tang of chocolate that just sets me up for an excellent evening with good friends. A trip to the farmer’s market and seeing what’s in season might yield cherries, apricots, berries or peaches in summer, or crisp pears through the winter. I avoid melon and citrus for this kind of event, not because it’s not delicious, but because it can be a little more prep and a bit messier to eat elegantly as finger food. In the fall, ripe crisp pears alongside fresh nuts are an excellent choice as well.
Of course, there’s no reason you must choose cheese or fruit – a chocolate tasting with wine and tasty food is an indulgent event in itself, if a little more work. When planning a chocolate tasting, there are a couple things to avoid. First, don’t plan another dessert. It’s more work, and can become too much sweetness. Second, try to avoid anything that needs a lot of last-minute prep. If the tomatoes are in season, I might do bruschetta, but avoid things that need to be cooked right before serving (e.g., souffles), or anything that needs to be served hot – I find tastings become a lingering, meandering kind of evening, and so you don’t want to have to interrupt a great conversation to get something out of the oven, or do a lot of last minute preparation.
To prepare chocolate for tasting, we’ve generally had good luck chopping it into small-ish pieces (the size of a nickel or a dime) and putting it into paper bonbon cups (for big events) or small bowls (for more casual evenings). Smaller pieces allow everyone to try several pieces of each selection – trying a chocolate with different wines, or two of your favorites side by side, or just another taste of something you really liked.
Bonbons can be a little more challenging to divide up for sampling if you don’t want to have one of each flavor for each guest, although it is possible. Assuming the centre is more or less solid (rather than an oozy liquor or caramel), you can cut them into 3 or 4 pieces using a sharp knife. If you’re going to do this, make sure to wash and dry the knife and cutting board between chocolates to avoid mingling the flavours unnecessarily (with solid bars, I generally content myself with wiping the knife blade and cutting board with a clean kitchen towel between chocolates).
If you’re doing formal wine pairings, then the order of your chocolates should follow the wines (moving from lighter to heavier bodied whites, then lighter to heavier reds, followed by any fortified wines). If you’re doing a more formal tasting (e.g. with an established order, where everyone tastes the same chocolate at the same time), you can move from the chocolate with the least cocoa solids to the most. I like to put the chocolates and labels out and let people sample as they like. It’s a more casual feel, and when the goal is to try some new chocolate and find what you like, I’ve never seen a need to establish a structure for tastings.
Label the chocolates you’re serving, and if you can, it can help to give guests lists of what they’re trying, with the name of the chocolate and some brief notes (e.g., where the cocoa was grown, who made the bar, any tasting or flavor notes, where someone could get more). Some people will take notes, but for everyone else it makes it easier to identify “that chocolate I really liked from the tasting last week” so they can get more for their private stashes. It’s no challenge to find 5 excellent chocolates to taste, but people can have strong personal preferences, it’s often easier for people to keep track of their own favorites.
I hope those general thoughts on planning a chocolate tasting are helpful – let me know in the comments if you’d like me to put together and post some sample menus (e.g. “these five chocolates, these accompaniments”), and, if so, what themes you’d like to see done up.