A chocolate with more labels on the packaging than a NASCAR driver has endorsements. But this is no ordinary vanity bar.

Naturally it sports the Demeter Biodynamic sticker at a remove above & beyond organic, shown symbolically by its seal way on top of the USDA Organic patch at the bottom .

It also affixes EC Bio from Euro certifiers, BSC ÖKO Garantie (how many time does this have to pass organic filters to be deemed so?), & Kosher to boot. Since Pacari sources locally in Ecuador from small stakeholders who practice inter-cropping &, reportedly, pays them a premium, Fair-Trade + Rainforest Alliance are de facto if unofficial.

One stamp missing but shall undoubtedly be included if they can find space: a medal from an awards show for the best Dark Chocolate — a category generally reserved as the gold standard for chocolate.

Huh? Wha’? Pacari 70% Raw?

Wipe those smiles off the face, suppress the laughter & banish those thoughts at the mere mention of it. Let’s analyze the situation.

Parallels between this award & the notorious 1976 Judgment of Paris Wine Tasting, the subject of the film Bottle Shock, are apt (albeit for the wrong reason) & inexact. The latter because consumer markets for premium chocolate have a far way to go before reaching a maturation point. Chocolate suffered a disruptive innovation upon entering the Industrial Age in 1828 that altered, dismantled, then re-assembled & distorted its fortunes. Ever since it has paid the price with cheap fodder. In contrast, by the mid-1970s, oenophiles in the Old World had matured their market over the course of centuries in a relatively continuous & contiguous fashion. They readied themselves to do so elsewhere in emerging markets, to saturate marketplaces everywhere, soaking the globe with grape juice.

Meanwhile premium chocolate has yet to even define itself; its glossary still in formation, around which governing bodies draw no generalized consensus.

Up until recently, a vocabulary specific to premium chocolate did not appreciably exist other than copycats stealing terms from oenophiles or, worse, rote foodie-talk which usually boils everything down to ‘tasting-by-number’ & meaningless spittle (hence the C-spot®List of Banned Words). Sites like the C-spot® have basically devised a nomenclature in the spirit of elevating the field.

Nor has chocolate undertaken systematic custodial care of even its most root genetic materials. Consumers relate mainly to generic bulk chocolate in candy bars, Halloween treats, heart-shaped boxes of bonbons, or the growing functional food rage of chocolate as a “superfood” in smoothies.

Further, when California wines made a splash back in Paris ’76, they were outsiders, the new kids-on-the-block, a place to where vineyards had been transplanted. Chocolate from Ecuador moves in the opposite direction. It is native, the place from where cacáo grows & circumnavigates the globe, both in contemporary & ancient times. Southern Ecuador / northern Peru may be the birthplace of the entire Theobroma cacáo species. In the collision of history, conquistadores confiscated & deracinated chocolate from its American homeland & re-rooted her around the world as part of the colonial enterprise. As such, the modern retro-revolution of chocolate – the very motto of this site — is about its homeward return & all that that entails geographically & organoleptically.

Granted, Europeans contributed significantly to advancements in chocolate engineering but the seminal fact remains that chocolate by birthright is an American botanical shaped largely in a benign landscape that originally nursed its potent yet fragile character. This nature / nurture dynamic is inseparable from its development of roughly 10,000 to 15,000 years evolving in the Amazon Rainforest & the people who eventually brought it to fruition there & in Mesoamerica.

It therefore has no need to go somewhere to “prove” itself in front of a foreign panel. It should strike as absolutely natural, rather than earthshattering, for the greatest chocolate on the planet to hail from these parts.

Unlike wine which is bottled time requiring years of aging… essentially a dicey crap shoot, rolling rotten grapes, hoping that a gangly ugly-duckling 3rd grader with too much make-up & lipstick will swan out into a fine model… chocolate is more a prisoner of the moment. It’s etheric; simultaneously ancient & young; the here & there, before & after, forever & beyond; making sensory experience primary as a means to glimpse its transcendence, captured in the “eternal now”. It doesn’t need to sit around gathering dust, sediment, & moss in order to mature (though some advocate aging it) any more than it needs a spit bucket, a meal to wash down, or an enema bag.

Given the numerous incremental steps in a chocolate’s elaboration, stamping vintages on bars serves only limited use. Yet herein lies a key differentiator: the auctionable / collectible transactions that serve as a price support for wine vis-á-vis the commodity markets for cocoa that apply downward pressure on benchmark pricing.

Chocolate’s very consumption presents another key differential. Once any taster worth his or her salt… err, chocolate… records their initial evaluation of a bar, most give it a whole day, resampling intermittently to re-confirm, or alter as the case may be, those first impressions. For special cases of truly monumental impact, & therefore import, it can extend to a whole week in order to really ‘get to know it’ & get a clear read on it.

Coffee cuppers, or wine sommeliers shotgun thru cases of bottles if not barrels at a single sitting (Steve Tanzer racks 10,000+ a year). Chocolate delimits itself by the melt which requires more time, leisure & consideration for proper evaluation as opposed to a swig, a spit, & taste-notes of “big fruit; score it a 96”. Chocolate, after all, embodies a full sensory experience — often an overload — engendering intimacy. So we ‘chew’ & ‘melt’, between alternate tastings, because both have their strengths &, moreover, each reveals a different side of flavor character.

Hi-grade chocolate satisfies the scientifically-validated sensory-specific satiety principle or the tendency for dense & distinct flavors to flood the brain, which then responds by suppressing the desire for more. That’s why most people curb their intake of premium chocolate compared to, say, the candy version of chocolate. Junk food overcomes sensory-specific satiety by engineering complex formulas based off sugar / salt / fat ratios (the meth / opiate / stabilizer addictives of the food industry). These Big-3 pique taste buds enough to be alluring but lack that overriding flavor & feeling of satiety that tells the brain to stop eating.

Hence the anathema of any chocolate tasting competition that sits participants down, & confines while blinding them with tens & sometimes hundreds of chocolates, usually in a tight time frame. Speed dating comes to mind. The polar opposite of the Slow Food Movement which enjoins chocolate’s sultry molten mouthfeel to envelop, then melt thru… to the other senses. As is, the speed method exaggerates the pressure & obscene feeding commonly associated with awards.

To illustrate by way of another foodstuff, Dr. Pepper® subjected its Cherry Vanilla soda to almost 4,000 tastings organized in LA, Dallas, Chicago & Philadelphia. The focus group worked their way thru various test samples, resting at least 5 minutes between each sip to restore their taste buds. And this for a beverage that has been cleverly dialed to short-circuit the sensory-specific satiety triggers in the brain. Image what rifling thru 20 plus rounds of real chocolate in a single sitting, one right after the other, does to taste receptors?

In an attempt to buffer this frenzy, one chocolate organizer serve some slimy gruel, a Gerber’s-style baby-food, between sample bites to cleanse the palate, to get it ready for the next impending round.

A survey conducted subsequently on a subset of experienced participants revealed that about half found it effective. Which puts it right up there with the placebo or, as theologian George Carlin once computed, prayer: 50% of the time God answers them & 50% S/He doesn’t. Those in the camp for whom it worked were mostly sincere; only a few reacted susceptibly to the power of suggestion that preceded the session with an explanation on how this was the best palate cleanser ever invented for chocolate. This much smaller group belongs to a minority of jumped-up monkeys that ape the alphas of the pack. (The same who once heard a guy overstate that every step in the processing chain is as important as every other so they parrot the remark until it becomes dogma. Hold it: they now pimp this bar… which skips an important step entirely… viz., roasting. Hmmm, maybe Batchelor is right, The depth of any understanding is initially correlated to the depth of one’s confusion.”)

The other half expressed dissatisfaction, ranging from a gelatinous build-up of this farina-like solution around the papillae (the tiny raised protrusions on the tongue, the majority of which are taste-buds), to being “too sweet” & “too alkaline”, “cauterizing the mouth”, “leaving a lime trace” (the last presumably attributed to the main ingredient — corn — undergoing the nixtamalization process).

Positive proof came in the results of the reference bar used to re-calibrate the palate every half-dozen or so rounds. A sliding reference, it turns out, since many though not all reported that their impressions of it changed over the course of the session. A combination of ineffectiveness & palate fatigue setting in. Some went so far to say that in the preliminary session during which they sampled 90 rounds, acuity progressively deteriorated starting at the 5th, 10th & 15th intervals so that by the 20th the palate was shot. Which puts a whole new spin on blind tasting. That is, ‘taste-blind’ — the inability to discern practically anything at all. (Hey, something had to make it to the finals.)

Add to that its slipperiness. According to a few, it either simulates melted cocoa butter lipids or performs poorly at removing residuals of it left over from the preceding sample. Over time its accumulative effect, it was noted, impairs the tactual sensors from rendering good mouthfeel on a chocolate’s textural quality – one of the attributes that figure into the total rating.

Alternatives suggested to base-out include water-crackers (virtually tasteless); a tepid beverage with course-ground corn meal to gently exfoliate; & hot, not scalding, water (the last should please the Neo-Sparatans in the craft choc-movement who prize ultra simplicity.)

As for apt comparisons to the Judgment of Paris, those unfortunately are of the regrettable variety. It is now widely known that the results of the Paris competition, organized oddly enough by a Brit (Steve Spurrier), were based on a miscalculation. In fairness, whether fraudulent or not, with or without the Judgment of Paris, the overarching trajectory of California wines’ ascent might have been delayed but it would not have been stopped.

By 1972, American Robert Parker had already announced to his readership that Napa wines, in addition to being good value, a bargain really, stood every bit as noble & rewarding side-by-side to the finest France had to offer. Spurrier’s exercise in Paris 4 years later simply dramatized the fact in a, pardon the pun, spurious manner.

With respect to chocolate awards, the quality of judges is uneven, running the gamut from specialists to street pick-ups.

For example, in the disorganized scramble immediately leading up to one such session, a call went out for help: Judges Needed.

As an engine who quite possibly drove the lion’s share of judges to one of the venues over the course of 3 days, this much is known: some were die-hard foodies, a few were experienced at chocolating grading; others were novices who might or might not tell the difference between Torreblanca & Tauromaquia. But, hey, as with politics & sex, everyone knows chocolate, no?

Just as well, for as Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker: “People who make prediction their business — people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments & businesses, & participate in punditry roundtables — are no better than the rest of us.”

More troubling: the appearance of nepotism that mark these events.

A few years back, a taster’s academy held a competition. It awarded numerous top prizes to a Tuscan company with whom it engaged in a cozy relationship. Ditto a Central American gourmet cacáo broker whose technical advisor confided that the ferment pile on the batch sent over to Europe, which won the highest medal, was a urinal for ‘arpissanal’ chocolate. Everyone back home on the cacáo grove laughed when they heard the news; ‘with results like these, why bother fermenting at all?’.

To redress such concerns & conflicts of interest, a few members went rogue to establish a separate competition. More statistically oriented with databases filled with spreadsheets delineating wonkish-levels of criteria testing for composite averages, though apparently, reading between the lines, no less cozy & clubby.

Inside the winner’s circle – particularly the top two slots — can be found friends & business colleagues of the event’s promoters. Indeed, the two garnering the most have been pushed by the lead coordinator for years. The organizer’s blog proclaimed this particular bar here #1 over a year & half before the competition began.

Coincidence? Perhaps the competition simply formalized what the blog presaged; validating an earlier, personal contention. That’s fair play.

That they’re a traveling road show that attends food conventions & chocolate conferences together belies impartiality however. They’d say, ‘well, fine chocolate is a small world so of course we’ll bump into each other’. Somewhat true; but a burgeoning world. Or, they’ve simply befriended those whose work & output they like. They’ve been humping them prior to their prime when those barsmiths pumped out mediocre to abysmal product.

Consider that no premium chocolate specialists outside this clique have voiced the same verdict regarding the gold medal recipient.

Are they acting as classic arbiters under the patina of an open unbiased system?

Chances are all of it is completely innocent, maybe even altruistic. So it’d be arrogant to suggest having to give them the benefit of the doubt. One thing is clear though: instead of compiling & tabulating the scores themselves, a heresy at any event, the organizers who stand to benefit from the outcome need to relinquish that sensitive task to an independent accounting firm. Avoiding even the mere appearance of any conflict of interest is paramount & central to integrity.

Consequently, for all the above reasons, as well as its nascent state, the full impact remains to be seen. So far no blaring headlines in mainstream media, no films or even books (hell, if this goes on much longer this post might be the one though). Plus in the age of the Internet, stuff gets stale fast.

The upshot? In general chocolate awards, salons, shows, medals are all over the lot. As problematic as all the above sounds, more scandalous shows abound… one hands out stickers to winners in a manner almost tantamount to governments handing out food stamps: just apply for them.

This seems particularly unwise for a fledgling barsmith. Like giving candy to a baby or the way public schools give passing grades to help build a student’s self-esteem even if that pupil, as critics point out, fail in being able to read the word ‘esteem’.

Get ready for an onslaught of them because a feeding frenzy exists over their perceived value which then confers a competitive economic advantage.

It means money as one exorbitantly-awarded chocolate maker discovered running around the country, the world really, entering all these “contests”, many of them with the thinnest competitive field, then posts ribbons, pins & citations they collected all over their website & packaging to dupe unsuspecting buyers. Still, to their credit, they put themselves out there & that counts for a lot. Whether in politics, chocolate, art or life, circulating & showing up, as Woody Allen said, is most of the game.

One wonders when it comes to chocolate awards & ratings if anyone understands the folly, the fools bargain (present company included) to an endless pursuit of the dog chasing its tail given the burgeoning number of barsmiths coming out of the woodwork, the multiplying origins coming to market, the various cacáo-percentages, the changing portfolios within individual brand lines, et.al.? It rivals Faustus for absurdity in vainly seeking to cover this worldwide explosion via ‘gobble-ization’.

Chocolate, derived from a botanical within the web of nature is, like all of life, constantly evolving. How can that possibly be captured? No, these awards all amount to simply a snapshot in time. Of the moment, in the moment… back to the aforementioned “eternal present”.

For these reasons, ratings, which the C-spot® compiles on a Daily basis & indexes in The Chocolate Census, are highly ephemeral to the point of almost meaningless. They should be used simply as a navigational tool in how to approach a bar or a box & never as fixed measure. Any who proclaim otherwise fools the public & maybe themselves.

We digress (to say the least)… back on point with this particular bar: Pacari 70% Raw. How can this be the ‘best bar in the world’ if it isn’t, arguably, the best from Ecuador? the C-spot® Chocolate Census houses over 160 premium bars, & counting, that contain cocoa grown in Ecuador – easily the largest database of its kind. Over 100 of them fit the generalized Dark Chocolate category. This bar ekes into the Top 10. Even factoring in all sorts of unscientific variables (biases, methodology, age of reviews, et. al.), it’d still probably lag behind the tops, whether all-time or more recently. And that’s for Ecuador. Add in the rest of the globe &, well, Nate “538” Silver would have a field day analyzing how it snagged a gold medal: a) the restricted field & iterative process; & b) the aforementioned methodology; c) a statistical mean average whereby the titans battle it out only to have a “dark horse” emerge with the most overall points to win. Similar to the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes when more than a half dozen conservative candidates split the right wing vote that allowed moderate Mitt Romney to garner the nomination; & d) it’s just a damn good chocolate.

the C-spot® was the first forum to recognize this as a breakthrough bar back in 2010, calling it “easily the first edible “raw” bar around & earns respect.” (for an explanation why “raw” appears in quotes, see Qualitysection… toward the bottom of this review)

While tempting to insinuate that a cocoa from Ecuador, a country overrun by vapid clones, let alone a raw bar, winning the grand prize amounts to such an embarrassment that for the organizer’s sake let’s hope they fixed the outcome, this particular Pacari 70% represents a defensible proposition. The company justifiably prides itself on careful seed selection, surveying the countryside for vanishing pockets of genuineNacional cacáo type or at least picking EET of decent Nacional germplasm. Perhaps not necessarily the best-of-the-best, it is the best-of-the breed (i.e., “raw”) & belongs in the conversation as a contender irrespective of its rawness.

College football with its BCS bowl games & all engenders controversy that demands a playoff system. Should playoffs come about, even there too arguments will ensue. Same with chocolate. Just part of the growing pains of a process that, to the credit of the organizers, strives to increase appreciation for the premium variety.

Until it gains momentum that attracts wider attention & more entries, they’d do well to conduct some due diligence, old-time background work, scouting for nominations in addition to putting out a call for submissions. For what value is a trophy in a weaker field? Tantamount to Federer collecting championships before Nadal showed up at Wimbledon.

With further development & refinement of the methodology & judging criteria that goes into these awards, hopefully they’ll guide more people to draw distinctions of their own & become discerning in their purchases while arriving at an acceptable consensus of the best… even if that extends to a class that contains more than one.

Because taste, we’re told, is “so subjective”. A subject for another essay.

GO TO -> Feast or Famine… or Fraud? Part II

 

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