Friday, January 29, 2010

Scharffen Berger Sweetened Natural Cocoa Powder

Manufacturer: Scharffen Berger
Manufacturer Website

Although the purist in me was strongly considering the unsweetened cocoa powder, I realized that most of the time I would be using this to make hot chocolate so I decided to go with the sweetened cocoa. The Scharffen Berger cocoa powder is brownish-red in color. It looks similar to red clay soil. The tiny flecks of sugar are visible and look like diamond powder mixed in with the cocoa.

I followed the directions on the package to make both hot cocoa and cold chocolate milk. The first step is to mix the dry cocoa powder with a small amount of water to make a paste, which is to help the cocoa mix evenly and easily in the milk. Mixing the paste both looks and smells like mixing up a batch of brownie batter.

My first cocoa tasting was made by mixing the paste with cold 2% milk. The chocolate milk had a deep brown color, similar to a good chocolate ice cream. The aroma was rich and chocolatey. The flavor was initially very rich like a chocolate milkshake. As initial creaminess dies down, more complex chocolate notes such as bitterness and slight fruitiness were noticeable. The finish showed the bitter notes of a good dark chocolate. Heated, the hot chocolate had a very similar flavor profile, but the aroma was much more intense with a deep, rich chocolate aroma. The strong dark chocolate flavor lends itself more to sipping than chugging, but this is a very tasty cocoa either hot or cold. Dark chocolate fans should definitely give this a try.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Scharffen Berger 68% Cacao Dark Milk Chocolate

Manufacturer: Scharffen Berger
Cocoa Content: 68%
Manufacturer Website
Rating: B-

Today's tasting is something fairly unique. The Scharffen Berger 68% Cacao Dark Milk Chocolate bar is a high-cocoa content milk chocolate containing ground cacao nibs. This is an interesting combination, and the question is whether this a dark chocolate bar with some milk chocolate qualities, a milk chocolate bar with some dark chocolate flavor, or some magical perfect marriage of milk and dark chocolate? Let's find out...

The Scharffen Berger 68% Dark Milk Chocolate is deep reddish-brown in color. It has a crisp snap, but it does seem a bit softer that a dark chocolate with a similar cocoa percentage. On the palate, sweet cream and caramel flavors come to the forefront. There is a mild acidity as well. Coffee and earthy tones are present in the background. Vanilla and caramel flavors come forward as the chocolate is chewed. The Scharffen Berger Dark Milk Chocolate has a creamy mouthfeel with a bit of crunch from the fine ground cacao in the bar. The finish is fairly short with a caramel latte flavor that is accentuated by a touch of lingering bitterness.

The Scharffen Berger 68% Dark Milk Chocolate is quite unique. It is definitely a milk chocolate bar first, both from a flavor and a texture standpoint. The higher cocoa content definitely adds a richer chocolate flavor, but the added bitterness and cacao pieces tend to counter some of the desireable qualities in a milk chocolate. This is a good chocolate, but I find the marriage of milk and dark chocolate to be a bit of a clash where neither side gets to show its finest qualities to the fullest.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scharffen Berger 82% Cacao Extra Dark Chocolate

Manufacturer: Scharffen Berger
Cocoa Content: 82%
Manufacturer Website
Rating: B+

Today I'm reviewing the third and final dark chocolate from Scharffen Berger, their 82% Cacao Extra Dark chocolate bar. For those of you who who aren't experienced with dark chocolate with very high cocoa content, one thing to keep in mind is that small differences in cocoa percentages make a bigger difference in flavor (and bitterness) the higher you go. For example, a 70% cocoa chocolate is roughly 30% sugar, but an 82% cocoa chocolate is only 18% sugar. That's almost half the sugar content of the 70% chocolate.

The Extra Dark bar has a very firm, crisp snap to it. It is deep mahogany brown in color, with noticeable redness especially along the snap line. The chocolate has bitter espresso and lemony acidity as it's dominant flavors. The acidity is nearly strong enough to drown out the bitterness, despite the high cocoa percentage. Chewing the chocolate releases honey and peaty notes. There is a smooth mouthfeel that is slightly astringent. The finish of the Scharffen Berger Extra Dark is fairly long. It takes a while for the tartness to fade, but then salt and earthy notes make their appearance over the long black coffee finish.

Normally with a lower cocoa percentage the sweetness provided by the sugar content helps balance out the bitterness of a dark chocolate. Once you start to hit the higher cocoa percentages sugar alone is not enough to keep the bitterness of the cocoa in check. The Scharffen Berger 82% Chocolate bar takes the right approach when it comes to balancing the bitterness of a high cocoa percentage chocolate by using acidity as a counterpoint. Unfortunately, it seems like the balance point was overshot a bit here and the scales are tipped in favor of the tartness. There is a lot of good flavor here, but a bit of it is washed out by the amount of acidity.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Scharffen Berger 70% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate

Manufacturer: Scharffen Berger
Cocoa Content: 70%
Manufacturer Website
Rating: A+

The Scharffen Berger 70% Bittersweet chocolate was really the first chocolate that opened my eyes to the potential that fine chocolate has to rival wine, scotch and beer in flavor and complexity. I've had many good dark chocolates before, but the first time I tried the Scharffen Berger Bittersweet I was truly amazed.

The Scharffen Berger 70% chocolate bar has a firm, clean snap to it. It is a deep dark brown with the faintest hint of red. There are roasted notes, a citrus acidity and dark chocolate bitterness all present on the palate in perfect balance. Vanilla and almond flavors develop along with a hint of salt as the bar melts on the tongue. Chewing the bar releases more aromatic flavors like cherry and vanilla. As the Scharffen Berger Bittersweet 70% melts on the tongue it has a smooth velvet mouthfeel that coats the tongue pleasantly. The finish lingers with sweet fruit and roasted flavors accompanying the rich chocolate flavors.

To date, the Scharffen Berger 70% Cacao is my favorite chocolate. It has all the flavor components I look for in good chocolate, and in perfect balance. This is a must-try for all my fellow cacao-heads out there.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Scharffen Berger 62% Cacao Semisweet Chocolate

Manufacturer: Scharffen Berger
Cocoa Content: 62%
Manufacturer Website
Rating: B

The first dark chocolate we have lined up from Scharffen Berger is the 62% semisweet chocolate bar. The bar is a deep mahogany with some purple and red tones noticible. The chocolate bar has a firm, crisp snap to it. The initial impression on the palate is of sweet notes such as maple and vanilla. Acidity slowly starts to build under the sweetness and gives rise to citrus notes. Chewing the chocolate leads to sweeter fruit flavors like maraschino cherries. There is a soft, smooth mouthfeel with a somewhat thin consistancy as it melts on the tongue. There is a fairly short finish with marshmallow and citrus notes.

The Scharffen Berger Semisweet Chocolate is a pretty good beginner's dark chocolate bar as there is very little bitterness of note despite the 62% cacao content. To my taste I do find that while the sweetness brings some interesting flavors, it seems to mask some deeper flavor notes.

Scharffen Berger Week!

Welcome to the first Critical Tastings theme week. This week I've decided to feature chocolate from one of my all time favorite chocolate makers, Scharffen Berger. Unfortunately, my decision was based mainly because I haven't been able to find any Scharffen Berger chocolate at any local retailers and decided to stock up online. Hershey purchased Scharffen Berger in 2005 and Dagoba back in 2006, and they finally closed the door on the San Francisco Scharffen Berger plant in early 2009. Hershey is still producing both lines at their Illinois plant under their Artisan Confection brand, but I can't help but be concerned that I've had a hard time finding Scharffen Berger locally.

On tap this week we have three dark chocolates of varying percentages. I also have a few other surprises up my sleeves. So without further ado, let the chocolate begin...

Day 1: Scharffen Berger 62% Cacao Semisweet Chocolate Bar
Day 2: Scharffen Berger 70% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Bar
Day 3: Scharffen Berger 82% Cacao Extra Dark Chocolate Bar
Day 4: Scharffen Berger 68% Cacao Dark Milk Chocolate
Day 5: Scharffen Berger Sweetened Natural Cocoa Powder

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Harpoon Leviathan Big Bohemian Pilsner

Brewer: Harpoon Brewery
Style: Pilsner
Location: Boston, MA
Brewer Website
Rating: B+

Tonight's beer selection is from Harpoon's Leviathan series. This is Harpoon's line of "big beers". These are beers with high alcohol content and big flavor to match. The Big Bohemian Pilsner is a light gold color with some haziness. The head likes to hang around with larger bubbles holding together on a thin layer of foam for quite some time after pouring. The nose is dominated by fruity hops, with a hint of sweetness.

On the palate the fruity hops continue to play the lead role. There is a light malt character, reminiscent of a hefeweizen or a European lager. There is some lingering sweetness and a hint of warming alcohol. The Big Bohemian has a fairly heavy body compared to most lagers and pilsners of this style. While there is a great amount of hop flavor, there is little bitterness to this beer. The Big Bohemian is reminiscent of a good European lager, but with a powerful fruity hops component. This beer is definitely a sipper compared to its lighter-bodied brethren due to its heaviness, alcohol and sweetness, but what it loses in quaffability it makes up with flavor in spades.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Gekkeikan Nigori Sake

Brewer: Gekkeikan
Location: Fushimi district, Kyoto, Japan
Brewer website
Rating: B

While I may not drink a lot of sake, there are a few that I've tried that I really enjoy. The Gekkeikan Nigori sake is one that I keep coming back to. For those of you who have only ever tried the lousy hot sake served at most run-of-the-mill sushi/hibachi restaurants, throw out everything you know about sake. Nigori sake is an unfiltered sake that is milky white from the sediment remaining in the bottle. Nigori is generally sweet and fruity, and like most good sakes it is intended to be served chilled.

The Gekkeikan Nigori is milky white with a slight rosy hue. There are fine particles that cling to the glass as it is swirled. Upon closer examination, you can see that the sake is actually a fine suspension and not just uniformly milky. The fragrance is sweet and fruity. There are aromas of cherries, almonds and strawberries on the nose.

The Gekkeikan Nigori sake hits the tongue with sweetness and fruit flavors. There is a noticeable amount of alcohol, and the sake warms pleasantly on the way down. There is just enough acidity to balance the sweetness and highlight the fruitiness of this sake. A faint hint of earthiness is also detectable. The milky mouthfeel gives way to a bit of a drying astringency. The finish lingers with a fruity sweetness. The Gekkeikan Nigori is very different than your typical sake, but its sweet fruitiness makes it very drinkable and enjoyable for sake newcomers and veterans alike.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Something to Tide You Over

As is usually the case this time of year, I've been sidelined with a head cold that I just can't seem to shake. That makes it sort of difficult to provide you with new tasting notes. I'm hopeful that I'll get you one or two reviews this week, and I do have my first theme week for the site planned for next week (sinuses pending).

In the meantime, I wanted to point my faithful readers to a favorite beer website of mine, Beer Advocate. This is a great beer site that has something for everyone. The Beer 101 section has a lot of great information for the beer neophyte (and plenty of good info for the connoisseur as well). Their beer reviews are very well done and their list of reviewed beers is humongous. I've gotten quite a few good ideas for this site from them myself. If you're looking to kill a few minutes (or a few hours for that matter) and brush up on your beer knowledge, then Beer Advocate is a great site to check out.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nói Siríus 70% Extra Dark Chocolate

Manufacturer: Nói Siríus
Cocoa Content: 70%
Manufacturer Website
Rating: B-

The fourth and final chocolate from my recent trip to Whole Foods is a 70% cocoa dark chocolate from Noi Sirius. Nói Siríus is a chocolate maker from Iceland, which adds to my curiosity about this product. I can't say I've ever had food from Iceland before. The packaging is pretty unique too. The chocolate bars (there are 2 in the package) are wrapped in wax paper, which is then wrapped in the product's outer label.

The chocolate bar has a nice firm snap to it. The color is a very dark brown, with a lot of redness visible on the snap line. The nose has a distinctive aroma of coconut, with a bit of vanilla detectable as well. The main flavors I detect are bitter chocolate notes and peanut butter. There is a thick, creamy mouthfeel that adds to the peanut butter sensation as well. There is virtually no acidity to note here. The finish seems to cling to the tongue with roast peanut notes as well as bitter chocolate/espresso notes. Chewing the chocolate brings some vanilla flavors to the mix. Not a bad chocolate, but seems a bit flat to me due to the lack of acidity.

Monday, January 11, 2010

S. A. Prüm "Essence" Riesling

Winery: S. A. Prüm
Varietal: Riesling
Appellation: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer
Winery website
Rating: B+

Last night I enjoyed a fantastic dinner for my wife's birthday at Ruth's Chris Steak House. I wasn't in a steak mood so I ordered a Riesling to match the lighter fare I was ordering. My wife was nice enough to let me interrupt our dinner for a few minutes to jot down some notes as I tasted my wine.

The Essence Riesling by S. A. Prüm (aka SA Pruem) is a very light, clear honey-straw color. The nose is rather light with graprefruit and herbal notes. On the palate this Riesling is slightly sweet with tangy grapefruit as the dominant flavor. There are also some mineral and herbal notes. There is a slight fizziness and a very juicy mouthfeel. The acidity gives a pleasant zing on the tip of the tongue. The Essence Riesling leaves a fairly long citrus finish.

While the "Essence" is fairly one-dimensional, it has a lot going for it. The acidity and slight fizz make it easy and fun to drink. It has a light grapefruit-spritzer quality that makes it a great aperitif and pairs with seafood quite well. It was just sweet enough without being too syrupy and would be a good choice served ice cold on a hot summer day.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Hale Groves Tangelo (Hand-Squeezed Juice)

Grower: Hale Groves
Variety: Tangelo
Grower website

The tangelo is a hybrid of a tangerine and a red grapefruit (or sometimes a pommelo, thus the name tangelo). The skin color ranges from a dark tangerine orange to a lighter navel orange color. The first thing you notice when you cut into one is that they're loaded with juice. I got nearly twice as much juice from three tangelos as I did from three red navels. They're also loaded with seeds so be careful if you're feeding these to your kids.

The juice is a yellow orange color, similar to a yellow peach. The aroma is sweet with both tangerine and grapefruit scents readily discernible. The flavor of the juice is quite sweet as well. The sweet tangerine taste seems to be the dominant character here, but there is a nice red grapefruit kick as well. The sweetness of this juice along with some of the interesting undertones would make this an excellent choice for tropical drinks like a rum runner or mai tai. I think you could substitute it not only for orange juice in drink recipes, but for pineapple juice as well because of the sweetness. Definitely worth a try.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lake Champlain Sao Thome Dark Chocolate 70% Cocoa

Produced by: Lake Champlain Chocolates
Cocoa content: 70%
Manufacturer website
Rating: A+

I was eager to taste my next chocolate bar during a brief reprieve while my head cold medication has kicked in. Tonight's selection is from Lake Champlain Chocolates. This bar is from their "Select Origin" collection. The source of the cocoa in this bar is from Sao Thome (also spelled Sao Tome), which is an island of the west coast of central Africa.

The chocolate bar has a nice firm snap to it. The color is a dark mahogany, with a hint of red where the bar was snapped. The aroma is of roasted chocolate with a noticeable vanilla scent. The flavor is rich chocolate with a pleasant bitter kick. There are smoky, roasted notes as well as a fruity, citrus acidity. After the initial flavors start to fade, a pleasant earthiness complimented by salt and vanilla starts to show through. Chewing the chocolate really accentuates the vanilla flavors in this bar. This chocolate bar has a velvety mouthfeel and a nice finish with sweet cocoa and a hint of roast coffee on the palate.

So far, my recent trip to Whole Foods has provided me with an impressive selection of dark chocolate. This most recent tasting was one of the best new chocolates I've tried in a while. After trying the Sao Thome Dark Chocolate from Lake Champlain, I can't wait to get my hands on some of the other bars in their Select Origin chocolates.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hale Groves Red Navel Orange (Hand-Squeezed Juice)

Grower: Hale Groves
Variety: Western Red Navel ("Ravel")
Grower website

So this one definitely falls under the "anything else interesting" category. My inlaws sent us a nice selection of oranges for Christmas. While I'm not a big fan of eating oranges out-of-hand, I could drink OJ all day long. I decided to hand-squeeze some juice from a few of the varieties to give them a taste. I figured I'd give them the old Critical Tastings treatment here. I tried to Google "how to taste orange juice" and "orange juice tasting" to see if there was any expert advice available on juice tastings, but I didn't find much useful info. Maybe we can start our own trend here...

Prior to juicing, I grated off the zest with a microplane. I figured I'd try to get as much as I could from these oranges, so I saved the zest in the freezer for later use. I then gave the uncut oranges a few hard squeezes on the counter to get the juices flowing. Since I don't like pulpy juice, I squeezed the oranges cut-side up over my second hand to catch as much of the seeds/pulp as I can. Squeezing them cut-side down (after removing the seeds) will net you more juice as well as more pulp. FYI - be prepared for your kitchen to smell awesome if you try this yourself. I then put my fresh-squeezed juice in the fridge to chill. (Tip: room-temperature oranges will give you more juice than chilled ones.)

These Red Navels look just like a navel orange in their outward appearance, but when you cut into them the flesh is a pinkish-red, like cutting into a red grapefruit. Interestingly, the juice itself is golden orange, much like any store-bought OJ. There is only the faintest hint of pink. The aroma of the juice is just like a fresh-cut orange (no surprises here). The juice is quite sweet, with fairly light acidity. I do detect a hint of bitterness, but I suspect this is from the oils in the skin that I released by zesting the oranges prior to juicing. It's not too distracting, but I think I'll wait to grate off the zest until after I juice the next batch. All in all, this is a nice sweet juice with a natural low acidity. It may be a bit of work, but it rivals any premium store-bought juice in flavor.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Chocolate Tasting Tips

I'm sure many of you, like myself, have been to various brewpubs, wineries, and possibly the occasional scotch or cigar tasting. Over the years, I've learned many wine and beer tasting tips from vintners, distillers, brewers and sommeliers. I have not, however, had much prior experience with chocolate tastings. I recently found this article at and thought it was a good primer on chocolate tasting.

Even as a kid, I always noticed that chocolate tasted different whether you chewed it or let it melt in your mouth. I'll definitely start being a bit more deliberate in that regard with my tastings. Also, I found Paul Young's notes on color interesting. That's something I will be sure to pay closer attention to in the future well.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Thomas Hardy's Ale 2004 Vintage

Brewer: O'Hanlon's Brewing Company Ltd
Style: Barleywine
Location: England
Brewer website
Rating: A+

What better way to bring in the new year than with an old beer? Tonight I'm dipping into my secret stash and cracking into a bottle of 2004 Thomas Hardy's Ale. It is with great sadness that I recently learned that the Thomas Hardy Ale will no longer be produced. This is truly a one-of-a-kind beer, and I hope a new brewery decides to pick up production of this ale in the near future. Tonight I am tasting bottle No. P49102.

The Thomas Hardy Ale is a deep molasses brown. With no head to speak of, it looks remarkably similar to black coffee. The nose brings scents of bread and raisins, with a caramelized sweetness. It has the aroma of a fine sherry.

Sweetness, acidity and bitter notes are all present on the palate in delicate balance. There are flavors of raisins, caramel, honey and bread. There are both bitter and fruity hops notes as well. Despite 5+ years in the bottle, the Thomas Hardy still has a ever-so-slight bit of carbonation. This faint hint of a fizz quickly gives way to a light syrupy mouthfeel that clings to the tongue pleasantly. The finish is reminiscent of dark wheat toast covered with honey and jam.

This is truly a classic beer that will be sorely missed. While this isn't a beer for everyone, it's proof that a well-crafted beer can stand the test of time and age as well as a vintage port. If this beer interests you, I strongly suggest you snap up a few bottles if you can still find them. I am already eagerly awaiting 2014 to open my next bottle and celebrate its 10th anniversary.