This is how you become everyone’s favorite hostess: Throw a chocolate tasting party. Wine is famous for inspiring its devotees to hold elaborate tastings, complete with spit buckets and intense conversations about mouthfeel and notes of “tobacco” and “freshly mown grass” (No, I’m not sure what that means, either). However, wine isn’t the only indulgence suitable to careful, thoughtful tasting. More and more, people are getting excited about tasting chocolate. Like wine, chocolate can be rich and multilayered, offering up a complex range of flavors and aromas. And, of course, it’s delicious. (But you already knew that).
A chocolate-tasting party is exactly what it sounds like: a gathering of chocolate-loving friends to sample different types of chocolate and discuss what they taste like. How do you taste chocolate? Start by studying its color. (You might think all chocolate looks the same, but when you compare them, you’ll see that there are subtle differences between types.) Inhale deeply to take in the chocolate’s aroma. Finally, let it melt slowly on your tongue, and consider the flavors that arise. Take the time to think about how the flavor evolves as the chocolate melts. Tasting more than one chocolate can help you to see (and taste) just how different one chocolate is from another.
For tips about how to make your chocolate-tasting party, well, the tastiest, I consulted food writer and chocolate aficionado Megan Giller, who has written about chocolate for publications like Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine (She also happens to be a good friend of mine). Her advice shows that hosting a fun and delicious chocolate-tasting party doesn’t have to break the bank, nor does it require you to be an expert in chocolate. Here’s how you do it:
Make your guest list
Because you want your guests to be able to discuss the chocolate (and you don’t want to go into debt buying it), keep the party relatively small. Instead of inviting every one of your Facebook friends, bring together a dozen people or less who you think would enjoy sitting down and eating delicious chocolate. (I know, that narrows the list down to just about every person you know.) Remember, it doesn’t take a lot of people to make a party: If you and two of your best friends want to get gussied up and have a tasting at your apartment, go for it!
Keep in mind, too, that although you can certainly serve wine with your chocolate (more on that below), a chocolate-tasting party is a great option if you have guests who don’t drink alcohol. People can choose to imbibe at your party or not, but everyone will be able to participate in the tasting.
Buy good chocolate
Giller suggests that when you’re stocking chocolate for your party, it’s good to start locally. She explains, “Chances are, there are some pretty awesome bean-to-bar makers and chocolatiers right in your backyard. Check them out ahead of time and buy a few of your favorites for the party.” One great aspect of shopping at a local chocolatier is that the people who work there will know a lot about chocolate, and they’ll be excited about their products. Most will be more than happy to talk to you about the types of chocolate that they offer and help you pick out a good selection for your party.
If you don’t have access to many local chocolate makers, you can also buy good quality chocolate at most grocery stores. Giller recommends looking for labels that state the chocolate’s percentage of cacao and country of origin, which, she says, are “clues that the maker really knows what they're doing.” For really excellent chocolate, Giller suggests looking for the words “bean to bar.” (“Bean to bar” describes chocolate that has been processed entirely, from cocoa bean to finished bar, in the same place, by a single maker.)
Don’t be afraid to mix locally made chocolate with chocolate from major manufacturers, or to try pricey bars alongside more affordable ones. You could even make this mix central to your party, and do a blind tasting in which your guests try to guess which bars are the “fancy” ones. Whatever you choose, be sure to serve the chocolate at room temperature.
Mix up your countries of origin
One of the purposes of having this kind of party (besides CHOCOLATE, of course) is to explore the subtle differences between chocolates, so it’s important to buy bars containing a variety of cacao types. Giller explains,
Like with wine, each country's cacao tastes a little bit different. For example, Madagascar's has berry notes, while Papua New Guinea's is actually pretty smoky! Pick about three countries to focus on and buy bars that are a similar percentage. If you try one after another, you'll really be able to taste the differences.
Buy enough chocolate for everyone, but don’t go crazy
Aim to provide each of your guests with half an ounce to an ounce of each type of chocolate. You want to provide them with bites large enough that they won’t melt instantly, but you don’t need to worry that each guest will to eat pound after pound of chocolate. Chocolate – especially very dark or bitter chocolate – can be very intense, so most guests will probably not be shoving handfuls of it in their mouths. If you’re concerned about people being hungry, provide some simple, savory snacks.
Provide a palate cleanser
Chocolate is rightly celebrated for its richness, but that very richness can overwhelm anything else you put in your mouth. Giller recommends providing guests with palate cleansers like slices of apple and lemon water. Having your guests effectively rinse out their mouths between samples will allow them to fully taste each type of chocolate.
Buy the right booze
Finding the right alcohol to serve with your chocolate might be more difficult than you expect. Chocolate and wine seem to go together in many ways – after all, they’re both decadent, rich, and complex in flavor – but the intensity of chocolate and of some wines can make them difficult to combine. A 2014 article from Serious Eats asked a number of sommeliers for the selections they would pair with chocolate, and the results show that there’s little consensus for this pairing. The suggestions ranged from ice wine, to “fruit-driven reds,” to sherry, to aged rum. For her part, Giller recommends against red wines, arguing that chocolate and red wine are “both high in tannins and tend to compete with each other.” She suggests trying a white wine instead.
My completely uneducated vote? Sparkling wine. Because bubbles go with everything.
Give the tasting a structure
Chances are, at least some of your guests will never have done a chocolate tasting before, so give them some direction by having everyone taste at least the first chocolate sample together. People can discuss the flavors that they taste (or don’t taste), and, if you have tasting notes (say, from a local chocolatier), they can be useful in helping people to get an idea of what they’re looking for. As the tasting continues, consider having people write down their impressions of each chocolate on note cards or a chart. As people loosen up and the wine and conversation flows, their comments may become increasingly...creative. (I once went to a wine tasting party that did this. By the end of the night, my “comments” had devolved into emoticons, as in “This wine = happy face.” It was a good party.)
As you make your preparations, try to remember that the main purpose of your chocolate-tasting party is to have fun. By all means, do your best to learn something new about chocolate, how it’s made, and the subtleties of its flavors, but don’t get too hung up on getting everything right or knowing exactly what you’re doing. After all, you have good company, good wine, and good chocolate. What could possibly be better than that?
To learn more about American craft chocolate (and pick up some useful info for your next chocolate tasting party), check out Giller’s Chocolate Noise, a new digital project that tells the stories of some of the country’s best chocolate makers.
Images: Getty Images(4); Giphy