Our Single Origin Chocolate Taste Test
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
Single origin chocolate bars are sneeking onto the supermarket shelves. All chocolate fans have been there; standing in the confectionary aisle, paralysed by the sheer complexity of the selection. Brand, cocoa percentage, price and a recent explosion of new added ingredients - from chilli and orange oil, to ginger, caramel and himalayan rock salt.
Now, an additional criteria has been added into the mix. The origin of the beans. Waitrose has recently introduced a range of plain chocolate bars, each with a completely different country of origin. But does choosing cocoa beans from a single country really make any difference to the taste?
Macs and I decided to conduct a blind taste test to find out.
The blind taste test.
We selected 4 different Waitrose single origin bars for a blind taste test - Peru, Haiti, Costa Rica, and Panama. Each chocolate had a cocoa mass percentage of between 75%-85%. We also added into the mix two blended chocolate bars with beans originating from multiple countries - a 72% Waitrose Continental and a 85% Lindt. Find out more about the benefits of single origin chocolate over blended. Although the cocoa beans for all of these chocolates came from different locations, all were manufactured in European factories.
Each chocolate was carefully judged using the 5 senses; The look of the chocolate, the snap of the break, the smell of the cocoa, the mouth feel of the melt, and finally the taste.
Our aim was to answer just 3 simple questions:
1. Does the origin of the cocoa beans really affect the taste of the chocolate?
2. Is it possible to tell where the beans originate from purely by the taste?
3. Does single origin chocolate taste any better than blended varieties?
To be clear, Macs and I are not professional chocolate tasters. However our blind taste test was to find out if an average chocolate buyer could really distinguish between chocolates of different origin.
The answer to this question is a resounding yes.
We were both surprised how much each chocolate varied in colour, texture and taste. Straight away we were able to pick out a whole range of subtle flavours in each bar; throwing out comparisons like kirsch, coconut, raspberry, smoke and charcoal with confidence. Our chocolate taste marking sheets (courtesy of Wine Spectator) showed that we almost universally agreed on the overriding characteristics of each bar.
All our chocolates were between 72% and 85% cocoa. But even in this narrow margin, it was clear that percentage cocoa made the biggest impact on flavour.
Our 75% chocolates were sweeter with fruit overtones, whereas the 85% chocolates were earthy, bitter and with a taste of leather or charcoal.
That said, it is not all about the percentage. The 75% Costa Rica and 75% Peru bars for example still had unique tastes which can only be attributed to the difference in origin. The same is true for the 85% Haiti and 85% Lindt blend which were also easy to distinguish. This despite the only ingredients in all our bars being cocoa mass, cane sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla.
When it came to trying to match the chocolate to its origin, things started to fall apart. There seems to be very little consensus about what chocolate made with beans from Panama, Peru, Costa Rica or Haiti should actually taste like. If - as single origin sellers would have us believe - geography and growing conditions are so central to the chocolate’s flavour it is odd that these characteristics are not more widely appreciated. Where we could find a synopsis of typical flavours for each country, it unfortunately bore little resemblance to our taste test and neither Macs nor I correctly associated a single sample with its country of origin.
Maybe the gourmet chocolate industry is not mature or organised enough to have fully profiled the unique geographical tastes, or maybe the unique notes actually come from how each plantation handles the bean and not from the region at all.
In terms of blended vs single origin chocolate, there is very little to report. All the chocolates were different, but the single origins did not stand out as any higher quality or worth a premium on taste alone. In fact, according to our blind test, the Lindt 85% and Waitrose Continental 72% were amongst our individual favourites.
So to conclude, our taste test proved that plain chocolates made with different beans have unique tastes. However the jury is still out whether it is the country of origin which really determines the flavour. If anyone wants to compare numerous chocolates from a single region to see if they all taste the same, then we would love to hear your results (or just invite us over for the taste test).
Whether single origin or blended, the real lesson is that all chocolate tastes different. So to find your perfect bar, you’ll need to try them all.
For those who would like a starting point, here are our thoughts on the ones we tried - in order of preference.
1st. Waitrose Continental (Blended) 72% Cocoa - Score: 7.5/10
This was our overall highest scorer, but probably because it was the least dividing in opinion. Both of us agreed that this was a balanced, pleasant chocolate which was very easy to eat without tiring of the taste. However this also made it a little unremarkable.
The main taste coming through the chocolate was coconut. It also has some earthy notes of savoury spice and leather. It was quite sweet with a short/medium finish which meant the flavour did not stay in the mouth too long.
If you are new to higher percentage dark chocolates then this will be an agreeable starting point but is probably not challenging enough for connoisseurs.
2nd. Waitrose Single Origin Panama 80% Cocoa - Score: 7/10
This bar was very pleasant with an extremely chocolatey aroma. We identified distinct floral and vanilla based notes. Macs rated this as one of her favourites with the balanced flavour being quite sweet but progressing to more bitter. Oliver felt that it lacked the distinctiveness of other bars but was very smooth and quaffable with a pleasant medium finish before the next inevitable bite.
3rd. Waitrose Single Origin Peru 75% Cocoa - Score: 6.5/10
Almost immediately we concurred that the flavour of this bar was one of the most distinctive we tried. It was extremely fruity with strong notes of red wine, dark fruity tastes, and even balsamic vinegar. It was sweet, leaving a nice after-taste that was balanced and not bitter.
Macs enjoyed the uniqueness of the taste in spite of its sweetness and slight acidity, likening it to a black-forest gateau.
4th. Lindt Plain Chocolate (Blend) 85% Cocoa. Score: 6/10
This was clearly the darkest looking of the samples When it came to the taste, it divided our opinion according to our peronal chocolate preferences. Macs rated this as one her favourites, whilst Oliver placed it second to last. Macs took to the lack of sweetness and acidity, while Oliver felt it made it too bitter and unbalanced due to the absence of high notes. For Oliver it was all earthy – leather, mushroom and vanilla; whilst Macs could pick out more depth with some floral flavours of jasmine, vanilla and nutmeg.
The only thing we agreed on was that the finish was medium and the texture a little claggy rather then melty or creamy.
5th. Waitrose Single Origin Costa Rica 75% Cocoa. Score: 5.5/10
Just like the Lindt, this chocolate split us according to our distinct taste preferences. We both noted the high acidity with its distinctly fruity flavours of berries and kirsch. Macs found the bitterness and acidity quite off-putting and rated it as her least favourite. Oliver rather enjoyed the fruitiness but admitted he didn't find the flavour particularly distinct or exciting. The finish was short to medium.
6th, Waitrose Single Origin Haiti 85% Cocoa. Score: 4/10
The single origin Haiti is not for the faint hearted and suited to those who embrace a little bitterness. It sorts the cocoa nuts from the cocoa nots. Macs, with her clear preference for higher percentage chocolate once more delighted in the array of notes this bar contained but still only gave it a 6; well below her score for the comparable Lindt 85%. Oliver, with his slightly sweeter tooth, found it pretty much inedible. Both agreed it had strong earthy, smokey notes with a distinct lack of sweetness. While Macs felt that the flavours did evolve beyond charcoal to that of more spicy with sweeter woody flavours, Oliver felt the darker flavours were simply too over-powering. The after-taste was bitter and long.