Monday, January 23, 2017

Reviewing Marou Vietnamese bean to bar chocolate

Something different, tasting and reviewing chocolate instead of tea in this blog post.  I used input from a chocolate blogger (Lisebeth of the Ultimate Chocolate Blog) to write a post awhile back comparing tasting and reviewing the two things, or really she contributed most of that.  I finally turned up a regional bean-to-bar chocolate that she spoke highly of, Marou, based out of Vietnam.  I live in Bangkok, a stone's throw away, one small country over.  Anyone unusually interested in chocolate should check out their site since it talks about terroir issues and cacoa bean fermentation, next-level stuff related to what chocolate is.

It didn't seem to be available in Bangkok at the time of that writing, or other similar types, although not being a well-informed chocolate enthusiast that would be hard to determine.  But a local business, Maison Jean Phillippe--really a bakery--was working on importing it then.  But they ran into problems with that, for months, and I lost track of the idea, and their progress.

Maison Jean Phillipe, in the Bangkok Thong-Lo Commons

First a little background on what I expect, and methodology, and I'll get to the tasting.  For one thing, this general category of chocolate seems to typically be darker chocolate than one normally sees, even among what is sold as commercial dark chocolate (with a bit more on that to follow).  Per Lisabeth's past input it takes some adjustment to that different range to appreciate just how diverse and positive the aspects are in higher grades of chocolate.  Of course some makers would also do milk-inclusive versions, which could serve well as a bridge, but the ones I ran across from ranged from 70% to 80% chocolate, without any milk added.  I'll know what that really means better after the tasting.

The general idea is obvious enough, but it might be helpful to explain it.  The point is that fresh ingredients (fermented and roasted cacoa beans) are made using better processing, but the rest of the idea is that distinctiveness of beans from a certain location comes through only when making chocolate from beans from a very limited area.  It's the terroir idea, common to wine and tea, and probably to other food items I don't connect it with.  These two bars, or really all of the half-dozen that bakery was selling, are from very specific locations within Vietnam, with differences in character based on that.  Of course there are also generalities connected to beans and chocolate from whole countries in general, but that's not something I'm familiar with enough to discuss.

As for anticipated results of this tasting, I don't expect to do the chocolate review justice being on the very first step of the experience curve.  I'll try both chocolates, at the 70 and 76% cacao level, with the first from Dak Lak (missing diacritics to identify tones and distinguish between letters, so not really spelled that way, technically).  The higher percentage chocolate is from Ba Ria (also missing accents).  It should be interesting.  I won't research any more to pin down specifics about those locations, or the chocolates, but will include some third-party review after that.  All I will go on initially are the percentages and some very limited vendor descriptions:

Dak Lak 70%:  a wonderfully complex bar with a long spicy finish, made with a selection of the finest cacao from the highland districts of Dak Lak province.

Ba Ria 76%:  A bold and fruity chocolate made from fine flavour cacao sourced directly from family-owned farms in the province of Ba Ria.

Dak Lak is the highligthed central area, Ba Ria the star near Vung Tau (and HCMC)

Sounds great!  Let's taste those.  At the risk of throwing off my palate range I'll compare both to some Hershey kisses I have around from a trip back to the US.  I don't expect that to inform the taste-list review section of trying those other two but it might result in an interesting observation related to the over-all effect.  I'd expect for texture those two will be a bit firm packing in a good bit of cacoa but who knows, maybe some insight will arise related to both texture and the very different type of chocolate.  I'll use cool water as a palate rinse between tasting those, with a little left over Oriental Beauty tea from breakfast mixed in just to clear out the overload of the one flavors range.

I might also mention that Hershey's sort of isn't chocolate at all, in the same sense.  Per this article by the Washington Post their chocolate contains 11% cacao, 1% over the category minimum limit in the US, so it's really chocolate flavored candy (according to that author).  So what is it?  Per Hershey's it's made from this:

cane sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter, milk fat, lecithin, natural flavor 

other bars I didn't buy, from different regions in Vietnam and with different cacao percentages


cacao nibs, roughly ground roasted cacao beans

Dak Lak (70%):  The first smell of the first bar is pretty intense.  I've been using cacoa nibs--ground fermented cacoa beans--for tea blends just a little lately (described in a Christmas blend post).  I also made a version of hot chocolate just out of that, and that very sweet, rich cocoa / cacao smell is the same.  Everyone would kind of think they know what chocolate and cocoa smell and taste like but it's a bit sweeter and richer.  As for that cocoa / cacao naming split, per my understanding cocoa is the name for roasted and processed cacao.

That chocolate is pretty intense in taste too.  It tastes like dark chocolate, but there are layers beyond that (it is dark chocolate; I guess I mean it's more complex than what I've tried as such).  It has a fruitiness to it, just a little toward a dark cherry, but it also tastes a little like a mild version of coffee, but not bitter.  I get the initial impression that a main difference from typical dark chocolate might be that they've not roasted the beans quite as much, because those tend to pick up a bit more roast effect than I'm getting from this.  Of course all of that isn't something I've ever given much thought to, so it's odd reconstructing what I think about dark chocolate based on tasting it last awhile back (I had some a week ago, come to think of it, some commercial European version, grocery store brand chocolate).

About the finish, I guess it does last, a couple of minutes after eating the chocolate that taste range hangs in there.  About spice, I'm not so sure.  I cook with spices, of course, and I just tried a Taiwanese Oriental Beauty (oolong, of course) that was heavy on spice, so it's familiar ground, but the chocolate context here really isn't.  I'll try the other before trying to dig any deeper.

Ba Ria:  The scent of the Ba Ria is that much more intense, as likely from the elevated cocoa percentage.  It's getting pretty close to the smell of those cacoa nibs, those just pieces of fermented cacoa beans.  In tasting it--wow!  Chocolate that strong is hard to relate to at first, but it's not hard to appreciate the novelty of the experience.  The texture changes, I think due to that difference, so thick it takes a few seconds to melt and spread across your tongue to be tasted.  I'll never be able to separate the character of this particular chocolate from tasting one at this intensity, but I'm never at a complete loss to speculate.

Since it's that much less sweet (there's no milk in these, and sugar is the other percentage, and shifting it from 30% to 24% changes a lot) the flavor context is much different.  At first it almost comes across as more savory, but really that seems to not be what's going on, after more consideration.  Obviously it is less sweet.  It tastes like chocolate--I had to say that at some point.  The maker called it "bold and fruity," and it is bold, but I'm not getting fruit as much as for the other, but no spice either really.  I'm not getting far in general.  I'll try tasting the Hershey's to circle back to a familiar lighter baseline and try both again.

Hershey's Kiss:  it's hard to appreciate the role that milk had always been playing without tasting those others.  Again these "Kisses" are likely to contain 11% cocoa, with the Hershey's "Special Dark" chocolate at 45%; not all that dark in comparison.  Of course they are in the general range of typical chocolate, commercial products, on the light and sweet side.  It's like comparing a latte and a hot chocolate; they're not at all the same thing.  At first I'd think to use an analogy of comparing a mocha with the cocoa instead, but they're just so different that a bit of that common primary ingredient doesn't bring them into the same taste-space in the end.

one bar does look darker, but the pictures don't do the scent justice

It is interesting trying to separate out what the tastes of the cocoa add to the Hershey's beyond being focused on what the milk is doing, or being distracted by texture and sweetness.  It's just a generic "chocolate;" there aren't other layers of specific elements to try and taste.  That's not exactly horrible, just quite different.  I don't pick up a heavy roast element, so they seem to have not went to far with that processing step.  But then it's quite uniform, with comparatively much less chocolate flavor.  Of course it has the slightly chalky texture that it's known for, which is quite intentional, per a former co-worker who previously worked at Hershey.  They use crystal structure phase charts as used for metalurgy, with very specific cooling steps employed to get to that result.

Dak Lak, again:  it's interesting how the flavor changes over the taste experience.  The introduction taste isn't the same as it transitions to, which changes over a middle-period experience, then the aftertaste / finish is something else.  It was almost as if a trace of smoke showed up really early on, then it moved into richness and fruit.  I'm still not getting spice at the end but it's something unique, something I'll probably not pin down with accurate description.

Tea sort of does that too, transition flavors while you taste it, but I tend to not break tasting into phases, beyond what you taste during drinking it versus the aftertaste / finish.  Tea doesn't transition to the same degree that chocolate just did.  In that middle period it's cool the way the hint of bitterness and earthy complexity balances well with the sweetness, then fruit seems to pick up, and describing the finish is tricky.  It shares a little with the earthy malt-range astringency in black teas, even though I've just mixed a lot related to feel and taste, so that may well not make sense.

Marou image of cacao pods (credit Marou site)

Ba Ria, again:  that chocolate intensity is even more interesting when you know it's coming.  The chocolate may well be fruity but the intensity and range of what's going on remind me of sundried tomato, both in terms of flavors, and also how richness, brightness, and range play out in that.  The finish is different, the tasting effect different.  Related to a taste-list description, I'm going to have to settle for completely failing on that.  The overall intensity seems to overwhelm my normal processing into distinct flavor elements.

Hershey's:  I still like it.  I can relate to people sort of "moving beyond" it, to some extent, to developing an appreciation for all the rest going on, and that completely different taste range.  It is chocolate, to me, but not in the same sense as those other bars.

It's funny how I feel as if I have enough habits in the one subject, tea, so I don't really want to be a chocolate enthusiast, or get back further into tisanes, or other foods, etc.  I'd make a terrible foodie.  I'm in a Facebook Bangkok-oriented foodie group and it's cool the way so much of what they address really is on the common-sense page though, talking about good Mexican restaurants, or burgers, etc.  There are lots of other tangents they could be on, like better and stranger cheese, and foi gras, or even something like that strange molecular gastronomy trend that went through, eating foam as a companion to food, or freezing things that aren't normally frozen.  But they just appreciate normal foods in that group, for the most part.

Next I'll research these chocolates and cite "real" reviews to see how I did.

Chocolate enthusiasts / reviewers input

Lisabeth!  My favorite chocolate blogger

I wanted to find Lisabeth's reviews, but she only seems to have written one up for the Dak Lak bar.  In an earlier post she reviewed a different version, and described the producer company's mission in general:

Marou not only makes chocolate from the bean, but they make it at its source.  The cacao is all grown in Vietnam and their mission was to make "unadulterated chocolate made from nothing but cocoa and sugar" (ref). 

In that second review post she does elaborate on that:

The chocolate bars are more than simple single-origin chocolate bars; each chocolate is being made from cocoa beans grown in different regions of Vietnam. This is even more fun than the usual country-of-origin chocolate tastings because Marou showcases how regional differences can vary so significantly even within a small country.

I'm not sure those guys leave off with that; they probably could go on and on about the micro-climate details that each farm location is drawing on to produce individual ingredients with related flavors:  local temperature, elevation, rainfall, soil type, sun exposure, effect of other vegetation, etc.  In a series on terroir on their site Marou mentions one input they are testing, and also others:

we expect that mineral composition in the soil will affect the mineral composition of the cacao tree, its pods, the beans and eventually the mineral composition of chocolate.

Lets move on to check that Dak Lak review:

Dak Lak 70%, Batch #2929:  Tastes of the roast with a hint of smokiness, mint, berry fruit, smooth and full-bodied with a hint of blackberry flavours and a hint of black liquorice.

I caught some of that.  It would've been interesting if she'd try to say more about that aftertaste since I had some trouble pinning that down.  Here's another review to check on that, by the "Bean to Bar" blog:

Semi quick starting with roasted bread followed by a strong brown sugar aroma. Gently turning over to liquorice with small twinkles of acidity and bitterness popping up to keep the aroma interesting and ever-changing...  A deep and very satisfying chocolate flavor comes forth next. Near the end of the melt gentle wood aromas give body to the entire experience without overpowering the palate. The aftertaste follows the main aroma of the Dắk Lắk bar, slowly turning to volatile cacao, wood and faint spice aromas. The aftertaste keeps rolling and rolling in your mouth for an exceptional long time...  Unlike the other Marou chocolates I’ve tried so far, this bar doesn’t feature the nice, abundant spice tones and isn’t fruity at all, yet it delivers such an amazing warm and gratifying chocolate flavor...

internet photo of cacao pods; see next photo for clarification

I didn't pick up much of that, but then there's not much common ground between that and Lisabeth's take either.  It would be interesting to compare every review of this product on the internet to identify variability in those but I'll move on to the next bar instead.  Here's one of Ba Ria from the One Golden Ticket blog:

The chocolate tasted initially of a cocoa roast, but soon revealed sweetness and fruit flavors. The sweetness tasted similar to honey. The fruit was complex. Among the specific flavors I identified were raspberry and apricot, as well as a general citrus... The finish was somewhat acidic and somewhat tannin...  Ba Ria was much fruitier than the other Marou chocolates. Of the five, I think I liked Dong Nai best, though Ba Ria was a close second. 

Or another review of the same type from Mostly About Chocolate:

Marou cacao pod photo; not the same look as the last

This particular cote starts out with an intense dark flavour with an edge of acidity. Super dark coffee and I think I got a bit of tobacco coming in there (not like the smoker who sits next to me on the train sometimes – real tobacco). There is an edge of almost over-stewed tea in there... and a very quick finish...  I think there was some leather in there but overwhelmingly this is a dark bar that I want to call bitter but it really isn’t...

Again, completely different; interesting.  Let's sample a third to see how that goes, from Chocolate Codex:

The sour fruit and tea [scent] carries over to the taste. This bar is tangy (sour cherries, tamarind) and tannic like a strong green. The aftertaste is black coffee sans sugar. I also found some grassy/earthy notes wrapped up in there. This earthiness seems to be a defining characteristic of Marou bars.

Interesting!  These descriptions vary, but then the degree of complexity, intensity, and degree of flavors layering in these chocolates is something that can't really be explained or described, it has to be experienced.  Variations in interpretation seem reasonable based on all that is going on.

Back to my own typical subject scope, the degree of objectivity even possible in tea tasting--getting to a final description--has always been an interesting point for me.  I've suspected that's more or less asking the wrong question, that it's more interesting to consider why there are natural variations in interpretation.  But this post already runs long, so I won't get into that here.  I wrote a bit on that subject awhile back that didn't really get past framing the question more completely, and a year later revisited the general subject scope based on input from other tea bloggers.

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