I was very impressed when I had the opportunity, through the Scottish Chocolatiers Network, to go to Abertay University in Dundee and find out more about their specially trained chocolate tasting panel.
We were given a great insight in to how the tasting panel operates, and it was intriguing how the group had created a lexicon on which to grade different well known brands of milk and white chocolate. The chocolate is marked by the members of the panel on appearance, aroma, texture, flavour and aftertaste. Control flavours and aromas are provided so the chocolate being analysed can be compared to the control, for example, a diluted vanilla sample, a piece of granular sugarpaste or a pot of cocoa nibs. This is how the panel accustom/train their senses to the attributes of the chocolate.
The tasting panel went through their usual tasting process while we were there, on several well known brand chocolates. Each person looks at, smells and tastes the chocolate in a particular manner so they can detect all of its attributes. The group mark down their individual findings on the lexicon, and then they collate all the information and compare. The results vary from person to person, but are usually in the same area of the gauge.
An average is taken or group decision made so each chocolate is panel rated. If any of the tasters have a vastly different opinion, another round of tasting can be done and decisions streamlined. The results are fed in to a computer program, which displays the information as a spider chart. The full tasting results are then fed back to the company who required the information.
We saw the food laboratory where analysis takes place, and it included machines to measure chocolate particle size, nutrition and water activity/microbial growth.
I the future, we hope to be able to have our own 'from the bean' chocolates analysed and tasted, so we can provide an official 'sensory description' when talking about or labelling them.