Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

life is like a $500 box of chocolates

Life is like a $500 box of chocolate


All that chocolate is not gold

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Sweet 55 muscovado box of chocolates
This box of chocolates from Sweet55 definitely impressed

Being a food judge of any type sounds like a pretty good gig: You get to taste food that people created to impress. And if you are judging chocolate, how awesome is that? Definitely falls under the ‘Life is Good’ category.

Except like Forrest Gump’s momma always said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

I judged 3 chocolate competitions this year (not counting the annual SF Chocolate Salon), and I can testify to the truth of that statement. I tried a lot of chocolate, some great, some loathsome, and everything in-between. And I never knew until I bit into a piece what it was going to be.

I might know the entry’s name, maker, and ingredients. But chocolate is a multi-layered experience, and words can only describe so much.

Plus, maybe some contestants lied.

In short, it was just like everything in real life, only covered in chocolate.

Chocolate-covered front porch

The judging started when I came home one day to find 2 boxes full of chocolate on my front porch. Those boxes were heavy; and upon opening them, I found one box contained 36 full-size chocolate bars; the other contained 23 spicy chocolate entries.

This is the point in every judging where I start to freak out. I love chocolate, but the sheer amount of chocolate entered in these competitions feels overwhelming to me.

Interestingly, this is usually the point in telling the story where people respond most enthusiastically to the challenge. Everybody thinks trying that much chocolate would be heavenly.

CocoVaa Rose bar
Nothing can divide chocolate lovers quite like floral flavors, such as CocoVaa’s Rose bar

Fantasy vs. reality

It’s not. Luckily, I had several weeks to get through all of that chocolate; and I got a couple of my fellow CBTB chocolateers to try it all with me, so even when I hit a run of sub-optimal entries, they made it fun with plenty of snark.

There were some high points, and those chocolates I will name and urge you to seek out. Ones that I hated will remain anonymous, if I speak of them at all.

Top-flight chocolate bars

Out of 36 bars I judged for the 2017 Chocolate Bar Awards, I loved 7, liked 4, hated 7, barely tolerated 9, and was indifferent to 9.

That might sound harsh, but in general, my other tasters agreed with me. The one strong exception being CocoVaa Chocolatier’s Rose, a 62% Peruvian dark chocolate sprinkled with candied rose petals. I thought it tasted like crayons, but one of the other CBTB tasters pronounced it: “Delicious. It’s a little crunchy, like rice crispies, with a delicate rose that becomes quite intense. It’s a very rosy, good chocolate.”

It also won a Gold for Best Taste and rated 4 stars in the judging. Obviously, this is one of those bars where you have to like the flavoring to enjoy the bar. I am generally not a fan of rose as food. If it’s subtle and blended with other flavors, I might like it. For example, I like Cowboy Toffee’s Texas Rose Toffee, Socola Chocolatier’s TCM Spring chocolate, Jade Chocolate’s Lychee Rose Green Tea

Endorfin Passion bar
Endorfin Foods’ Passion bar is a floral done right

And Endorfin Foods Passion Bar, a coconut “mylk chocolate” with ginger and rose, which was also entered in the competition. Endorfin’s chocolate is minimally processed, so it’s grittier and softer than conventional chocolate. And it’s labeled “mylk chocolate” because it contains no dairy, they use coconut instead.

Surprising floral

We found that the rose top notes made the chocolate taste better than their plain bar, and the bite of ginger balanced out the floral notes nicely. It won a Silver for Most Unique and several Bronze, plus earned a 3.5 star rating in the judging.

I liked it as much as their Turkish Coffee bar, which is their top seller with its strong coffee flavor. To us, it tastes like a creamy version of Turkish coffee or a coffee hard candy. The Turkish Coffee bar won a Gold for Best Chocolate Bar and a Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations, and earned 4 stars.

Chocolate love

ticket Lemon Lavender
Ticket’s Lemon Lavender was a welcome surprise: white chocolate & lavender were 2 of the main flavors — and I still liked it!

Of the bars I loved, the 3 entries from Zokoko Artisan Chocolate in Australia blew us away: the 72% Tranquilidad Bolivia, the 78% Guadalcanal Solomon Islands, and the 40% Milk Chocolate Goddess bars. I won’t go into detail here, because I already raved about these bars, but know that you can get them locally at Chocolate Covered, and they are worth seeking out. They won Golds, Silvers, and Bronze in a variety of categories in the judging — and 4.5 to 5 stars each — so you don’t have to take my word only on this one.

Just the ticket

Another bar, well, actually a bark, we loved was Ticket Chocolate’s Lemon-Lavender Chocolate Bark. Ticket makes super pretty barks: The barks are irregularly shaped handmade tiles that look like abstract art. They are a mix of dark and white chocolate with the additives sprinkled over the top, very wabi-sabi looking.

This is a piece that proves to me that I can like almost any flavor if it’s done well, because this had 2 flavors I am not a fan of: lavender and white chocolate. I kinda dreaded tasting this one, and sure enough, the first note was lavender — even before it was in my mouth, I was tasting lavender. But it was followed immediately by the lemon taste. And the dark chocolate was great. So I wasn’t bothered by the white chocolate or lavender because the other flavors were more assertive, and the 4 flavors all balanced.

My fellow CBTB tasters described it as “sophisticated” and “adult candy.” It won 3 Silvers in the judging and an overall 4.5 stars.

We also liked Ticket’s other entry, Coconut-Almond Chocolate Bark. It was pretty too, but sweeter than I would have liked, and while it had a good coconut flavor, the almonds were kinda lost, too subtle. It earned 3.5 stars. You can buy Ticket’s barks and other chocolate online.

Bene Benne bar
Such an eye-catching bar, it’s a shame they hide it in a brown cardboard box

Open sesame

I loved la Cascade du Chocolat’s Bene Benne, which is a milk and white chocolate bar with lots of toasted white and black sesame seeds mixed in. The bar is embossed with the company’s cascade logo, which is mimicked by a big swirl of white chocolate down the length of the bar. It’s a very eye-catching bar — it’s a shame they wrap it in brown cardboard with not even a corner peeking out, because I think people would buy it on looks alone.

If you like sesame, try this bar: The top note is toasted sesame, which balances out the sweetness of the 2 chocolates; and all those seeds give the bar a nice chewy texture. I also liked that the white chocolate served just to enhance the sesame flavor and was basically undetectable. It won 2 Golds and a Silver, and earned 4.5 stars.

There was another sesame bar, which I did not like as much, but one of my fellow CBTB tasters preferred. It was the Black Sesame White Chocolate bar from CocoVaa (again!). I thought it was too much white chocolate, not enough sesame. The sesame taste comes first, and salt comes at the end. It was the middle white-chocolate sweetness I didn’t care for. One taster expressed that ambivalence saying, “I hate it… but I do think it’s pretty good.”

The other taster, however, preferred it to the Bene Benne bar, and said, “This is better than a milk or dark chocolate bar because nothing competes with the sesame flavor.”

It won 1 Gold and 2 Silvers, and earned 4 stars.

Nutty nibs

The last 2 bars that I loved we all agreed were top-notch. One was the Nicaragua Matagalpa 70% with roasted cacao nibs from Zak’s Chocolate. The chocolate by itself was an excellent, fruity type, but the roasted nibs gave it something extra — a nutty top note. The nibs were also good because they were not too hard, a common problem with nibs I find very off-putting. This nibby bar won 2 Bronze and 4 stars.

The other was a mysterious bar — no label, no branding, no info, just a turquoise blue wrapper. The bar itself was a dark chocolate row of 5 blank pillows, like a CocoTutti CocoQuintet bar, but without any decoration. The chocolate was a nice, slightly bitter chocolate that enhanced the fruity caramel inside.

From the judging form, we deduced this was ChocolaTas Vancouver Chocolates’ Raspberry Caramel in 71% dark chocolate. I think there is no labeling because it might be a seasonal or special offering. I couldn’t find that flavor on their website, nor could I find any bars for sale. Maybe they are testing the waters with competitions like this one. They won a Bronze for Best Ingredient Combinations and a 4 star rating.

ChocoTas Raspberry bar
This plain turquoise wrapper hid a very tasty mystery

Finally, a note to chocolate makers: Do not enter 100% cacao bars in a chocolate bar competition. You are competing with pleasurable chocolate experiences. You will never win.

Supa hot fire

Chubby Chipmunk Cucumber
Hot? Or not?

The other telecommute competition was more of a slog, to be honest. While there were fewer entries to judge, there were also fewer that I enjoyed: Out of 23 entries I judged for the 2017 Spicy Chocolate Awards, I loved 4, liked 2, hated 9, barely tolerated 6, and was indifferent to 2.

I think spicy chocolate was not as good for us because while some chocolatiers were able to balance the heat with the sweet, others seemed to be trying to just shock our taste buds. Names like Inferno, Scorpion, Hot Little Number, or that included super hot peppers (datil, ghost), seemed to be about food as a dare. No thanks.

After trying one of these horribly hot chocolates — one with Jamaican jerk seasoning in addition to 2 types of hot pepper — and feeling our lips burning, one of our tasters said it best, “What a jerk!”

And please, people, stop with the sriracha chocolates. Just stop.

Warm & cozy

One spicy combo that seemed almost foolproof was cinnamon and cayenne in dark chocolate with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) sprinkled on top. We tasted 2 versions of this, both were good, but one I loved.

Blink’s Azteca bark was a really big (150g/over 5 oz.), but thin, slab of 68% Belgian chocolate flavored with cinnamon and cayenne and topped with salted pepitas. It came in its own tray in which it had been molded. We assume that they do that to minimize breakage, although it did arrive broken into a few large pieces.

Blink Azteca bark
This bark was almost as big as a sheet of paper

It’s a good dark chocolate with some heat at the end. The pumpkin seeds added a note of quiet to the dark chocolate and hot pepper. The cinnamon came through nicely, and it wasn’t too salty. We liked the thinness — it wasn’t a dense hunk.

Our only complaint was that the aftertaste seemed a little off. We wondered if it might be leaching something from too-long contact with the plastic container. It won 2 Silvers and 2 Golds, including one for Best Spicy Chocolate, and a total of 4 stars, so our experience might have been a fluke. And we still really liked it a lot.

I loved the other version of this Mexican-inspired flavor: Laurie’s Chocolates’ Aztec Spicy Bark was not as big and pretty as Blink’s, but I liked the taste better. They use a 72% chocolate mixed with Ancho peppers, cayenne and cinnamon, then topped with salted pepitas. They pour the chocolate thicker, and the bark seemed to have a greater seeds-to-chocolate ratio. It had a chewy, almost brownie-like texture. It won Gold, Silver and Bronze, but only 3.5 stars, so it was not as popular overall, but among us 3 CBTB tasters, it was the winner.

Tombo Cayenne toffee
We liked Tombo Toffee’s entry before we even opened it up — that packaging!

Sugar & spice

A similar flavor profile came from Oakland based Tombo Toffee. We had high hopes for the Tombo Toffee entry after being wowed by their toffees at the last International Chocolate Salon. Tombo’s Cayenne No. 2 did not disappoint.

From the moment we opened the very attractive package, the experience was spot on. The aroma of the dark chocolate was good. The chocolate-almond tastes were topped with cinnamon, then a little saltiness, and the heat came later.

Like the other Tombo Toffees we have tried, the flavorings were well balanced with the sugar from the toffee. It won Gold, Silver and Bronze, and was rated 4.5 stars, the highest rating in the Spicy Chocolate competition.

Artful chocolates

The last entry we loved was Xchocol’Art Gourmet Chocolate’s Box of Spicy Chocolates. It included 2 flavors. The Hot Passion Fruit Heart was a pretty molded heart splashed with color a la Jackson Pollack. It was a well-made piece with a super thin shell, and a smooth ganache. It had a good strong passion fruit flavor with a small bit of heat at end.

The Artful Chili Truffle was just as nice with a fluffy light ganache that had more heat but not too much. As one of our tasters said, it was “heat done just right.”

It seems the rest of the panel agreed with us. The Box of Spicy Chocolates won 2 Gold and 2 Silver, and was rated 4 stars.

Xchocolart truffles
Pretty arty, pretty tasty

What was that?

Black Thai Affair truffle
Looks harmless enough

An unusual spicy combination that worked for us was The Chocolate Fetish’s Black Thai Affair Truffle. It started with a strong jolt of lime, then peanut, then some confusing flavors that we realized were traditional spices you would encounter in dishes like Pad Thai. It was complex but subtle, with a creamy texture, and ended hot. We ended up loving it, even though it only got 2 Bronze and 3.5 stars.

Another unusual spicy chocolate we liked was Chuao Chocolatier’s Firecracker. I tried their truffle version of this in a previous judging and thought it was great fun. This time it was in a bar, which is also fun, but they eliminate the caramel, so it’s a less luxurious experience. It still has pop rocks, salt and chipotle, so you get the fireworks burst in your mouth of popping heat. Plus it’s easier to find than the truffle: Chuao bars are distributed nationwide. I get them at my local cheese shop, Sacred Wheel. The Firecracker bar won a Gold, 2 Bronze and 3.5 stars.

Misery loves company

In the middle of judging these 59 entries, I complained to a group of friends about the amount of chocolate, especially the amount of un-delicious chocolate, that I had to eat.  They couldn’t believe that 1) such a gig exists, and 2) I would complain about eating chocolate. They had tons of questions. Some even expressed envy and wished they could be a judge.

So after I finished the judging, I shared the rejects with them. (You know we CBTB taste-testers kept the ones we liked.) They tried the overly sweet, the harshly hot, the soapy, the perfume-y, the crumbly, boring, burnt, bitter, grassy, sour, musky, powdery chocolates, even after I warned them. They were game.

Reactions were all over the board. One person liked the hottest entries. Other people liked ones I had been indifferent to (meaning I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t love them either). But in general, everybody hit something they DID NOT LIKE.

Then they could appreciate my pain. Still, no one seemed willing to spit out unpleasant chocolates (amateurs!).

It was fun to watch though that when confronted with so much chocolate, they did discern subtleties and develop strong opinions, whereas before they would just register, “Chocolate!”

If they keep this up, I might just have a whole new crew of CBTB chocolateers.

Once more, with feelings

CocoVaa Cherry caramels
CocoVaa impressed me with these Morello Cherry Caramels

If the spicy competition was too hot, and the bars competition was kinda blah, the 3rd chocolate competition I judged this year was just right. There were 25 entries in TasteTV’s 2017 Caramel Awards, of which I loved 3 and liked 9. That’s about half of all of the entries. And one of the ones I loved was local!

While there were not a lot of entries in this competition, it was more intense than the other competitions because instead of a few weeks to taste everything, we judges met in downtown SF and went through all of the entries in a few hours.

That of course requires a system. The overall system is that Andre Crump, TasteTV’s CEO, presents each entry, in no particular order, and tells us something about the entrant and their entry. Then we sample, discuss, and judge.

Some of us take notes along the way too. One judge had a cool way of taking notes: On a flexible cutting board, she placed strips of masking tape horizontally. Then as she sampled, she would put the uneaten half of an entry on the board and write on the tape underneath it what it was and some impressions. I might have to steal that idea.

Vaa Vaa Voom!

The competition started strong with 3 entries from CocoVaa Chocolatier, which I liked! Visually, CocoVaa’s chocolates are top-notch (even when I don’t love the flavors, see beginning of article) from the packaging to the individual piece’s appearance. I love the look: a silver/white theme with embossing for the packaging, and distinctive shapes and decorations for each flavor. These would make impressive gifts.

Coover Caramels
If this package had cheeks, I would pinch them

The 3 caramels submitted, Hazelnut Macciato, Morello Cherry, and Chipotle, were all tasty. The Chipotle was warm with a little salt highlight. And the Hazelnut Macciato tasted like a hazelnut flavored coffee, although it was definitely sweeter than I drink my coffee.

The Morello Cherry was my favorite: a dark chocolate shell encased a slightly sour cherry caramel. It was a nice balance between the bitter/sour side of chocolate and cherry with the sweet side of caramel. It won 1 Gold, 1 Silver, and 3 Bronze, plus an Honorable Mention for Best Packaging, and rated 4 stars.

Cute as kittens

The next entry we tried was a straight-up caramel. Coover Caramels’ entry won me over before we even opened it up with the cutest packaging: a pint ice cream container in a bright orange/white/brown color combo, covered in sweet little graphics. I wanted to hug it. The caramels inside were classic, very nice, but no chocolate, so I liked the package more than the present. It received 2 Bronze (one for Best Packaging), and rated 3.5 stars.

Then I sampled the first piece I loved in this competition, and it wasn’t chocolate. Dallas Caramel Company submitted a Lemon Meringue Caramel that was unusual, messy, kinda weird looking, but delicious. I didn’t get a good pic of it, but imagine a classic caramel — the kind that is twisted in a piece of wax paper — but on one side it’s got a dollop of white fluffy meringue.

Dallas Caramel Co Bags
Dallas Caramel Company’s simply appealing burlap bags

I recommend gifting yourself these if you like lemon meringue pie because it has a very light but distinctively lemony flavor just like meringue. The caramel adds an interesting chewiness to it, and it’s not too sweet because the lemon balances the caramel.

It was a popular entry, rating 4.5 stars and winning 2 Golds, 2 Silver and a Bronze. The Bronze was for the packaging, which is attractive in a low-key, homey kind of way with the caramels in little drawstring burlap bags. And if lemon meringue is not your thing, Dallas Caramel Co. also had a very nice classic salted chocolate caramel with the slight surprise of large salt granules.

True grit

The next entry that I loved was the Caramel Muscovado from Sweet55, of Half Moon Bay. First off, the package was stunning. The logo includes a small replica of the Swiss flag, which makes sense when you know that Sweet55’s founder and Chief Chocolate Officer, Ursula Schnyder, is from Switzerland. The color scheme adds black to the flag’s red and white, and the package decoration includes a subtle image of the Swiss Alps done in varnish only —like painting glossy black paint on a matt black background, so it’s only noticeable when the light hits it just right. It defeated my meager photography skills, so no pic.

Sweet55 Caramel Muscovado
Sweet55’s lovely caramel

Muscovado sugar is a dark brown sugar that is grainer and less refined than white sugar. It has a stronger flavor too that leans toward molasses. Supposedly, it’s healthier with more minerals than refined sugars have. It made for a grainy caramel, but it was actually a pleasant texture, maybe because the graininess was very consistent and small-grained. The molasses taste was also a plus, and the sea salt and balsamic vinegar added a deep savoriness to the caramel.

I loved this not-too-sweet caramel. Other judges agreed: It won 2 Golds (for Top Caramels and Best Packaging), 2 Silvers, 2 Bronze, and rated 4.5 Stars the highest rating in the caramels competition.

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

GerDan’s Rhubarb and Ginger
GerDan’s handpainted Rhubarb and Ginger Caramels

I liked the looks of the next entry, GerDan Chocolates’ Rhubarb & Ginger: Little dark domes splashed with pink, green and gold. I was also intrigued by what a rhubarb caramel would taste like. Rhubarb is super tart, so sugary caramel seems like a good partner. Instead, it was so gingery that I think they should switch the order of the ingredients in the name. I still liked it a lot; instead of being chewy or liquid, the caramel’s texture was jelly-ish (from the rhubarb, I suppose), and the ginger bite was a good balance to sweet. It won a Gold for Best Exterior Design and a Silver for Most Unique, plus 2 Bronze and 3 stars.

Another gingery entry that I liked was cochu chocolatier’s Ginger Caramel. It didn’t have as much bite as GerDan’s entry; instead it started as a very smooth, straightforward caramel with ginger at the end. It won a Bronze for Top Caramel and rated 4 stars.

Serena Lissy
Serena Lissy’s refreshing looking Tropika

After some disappointment and dread (cigar, again?), we tried a very fruity caramel from Serena Lissy Chocolate that cleansed my palate and gave me hope. The Tropika combines mango and passion fruit with coconut and caramel in a white chocolate shell. It was a bit too sweet maybe, but the classic tropical fruit combo won me over. It won 2 Silvers and 2 Bronze and was rated 4.5 stars (the highest rating awarded in this competition), along with Dallas Company’s Lemon Meringue and Sweet 55’s Muscovado Caramel.

Ended on a top note

The event ended for me with the next chocolatier. Gem Chocolates’ 2 submissions were beautiful and tasty. Their Toasted Black Sesame Caramel was not too sweet and full of crunchy sesame seeds. The sesame taste lingered afterwards. It received 2 Golds and 2 Silvers, and rated 4 stars.

Gem Chocolates Packaging
Excellent chocolates in simple but elegant packaging

But the piece I really loved was their Rosemary-Olive Oil Caramel with Sea Salt. Olive oil is an interesting ingredient in chocolates: It makes for a slippery feel that is quite unique, and I think it modulates the sweetness of the chocolate, and in this case the caramel too. The rosemary was a light but distinctive touch. It wasn’t quite as big a hit with the other judges, earning only 2 Bronze, but rated 4 stars, so it was obviously liked, if not stanned like I was feeling.

Unfortunately for me, there were still 5 more entries to judge, and none of them made it further up my scale than mere tolerance. At least they were pretty to look at.

Overall I was happy to have found so many entries in this last competition that I enjoyed. And judging in a group setting is fun. We all have our own preferences, which makes for interesting comments, and we can learn from each other as we develop our chocolate expertise.

$500 a box

For example, I found out at this judging how big a deal these competitions are. Andre Crump, TasteTV’s CEO, told us that each chocolate bar judging box that we received contained $500 worth of chocolate.

That’s not the total amount of all the entries submitted, that’s just the amount each judge received for one of these competitions — and there were more than a few judges. Wow.

So thanks TasteTV for inviting me to judge this year, and thanks to all the chocolatiers for participating. I understand this represents a big investment of time and materials, and I appreciate your contributions.

But some of y’all…

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Published September 19, 2017