Chocolopolis has become internationally known for our curated craft chocolate collection. We retail a selection of bean-to-bar chocolate that we arrange by cacao origin, devoting space to individual countries of origin, such as Madagascar, Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as to broader regions, such as Central & South America and Southeast Asia. Our approach is meant to tell the story of cacao and fine chocolate to our customers as they discover a world of chocolate.
I opened Chocolopolis in 2008 at the beginning of the craft chocolate movement in the US. At the time there were about seven American small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate makers who were already producing and selling chocolate. These included Amano, Askinosie, DeVries, Patric, Rogue, Taza and Theo. We carried these makers' chocolates along with chocolates from European makers such as Amedei, Domori, Cluizel, Pralus and Valrhona. There were a handful of chocolates to choose from when it came to small-batch chocolate makers - we didn't have a lot of choice and we carried what was available.
Fast forward to 2018 and there are about 200 small-batch chocolate makers in the US, not to mention a few hundred more worldwide.* The craft chocolate market has changed a lot in the past ten years as many new chocolate makers have appeared, offering us opportunities to strengthen our curation process and allowing us to help our customers choose chocolate they will enjoy. We receive samples for evaluation from all corners of the globe. It's an understatement to say that we have a lot to choose from. So how do we choose?
In order for us to consider adding a bar to our collection, it must pass the most important test, a blind tasting. Our employees and a panel of our customers regularly conduct blind tastings of chocolates. These blind tastings are held once a month and draw 10-15 people from a list of 40 who have agreed to participate. Our panel comes with a wide variety of chocolate palates, some preferring lighter roasts with more delicate flavor complexity, others enjoying the bold notes of roasted, smoky or earthy flavor profiles. We evaluate on both taste and texture, so it is possible that the flavor of a chocolate is good but the texture is not, and vice versa. With that said, it’s more often the case that when one of these variables isn’t up to snuff, the other isn’t either.
Why do we care so much what the group thinks? Individuals have their own tasting biases – some may like fruity flavor profiles and a light roast, others may prefer earthy flavor profiles and a dark roast. When we have data points from a wide group of tasters with many different preferences, we have a much stronger group by which to evaluate the chocolate. It’s a more representative sample of our customers and what they like in a chocolate bar.
The majority of chocolates we taste during these blind tastings rate average or below average. Given the diversity of chocolate palates present at these tastings, there is a range of ratings, but it is rare that a chocolate receives high ratings across the board. When a chocolate is well liked by the group as a whole it is a good indicator that the chocolate is a good fit for Chocolopolis. We are currently accepting less than 5% of what we taste during these blind tastings. I wish I could say that it's a tough choice because we have so many great chocolates to choose from, but the reality is that most of what we taste does not measure up to our standards.
We're looking for bars that knock our socks off. Sometimes a chocolate will fare respectably in the ratings, but not well enough to add it to our collection. It could be that the bar offers smooth, creamy texture and nice flavors, but that the flavors aren't complex. If we're going to recommend a bar of chocolate that costs $10+ to our customers it better be fantastic.
We continue to refine our process to remove as much bias as possible. For example, the members of the tasting panel recently asked me to remove the cacao origin from the evaluation sheets. While we have always kept the name of the chocolate maker off of the evaluation sheet, we usually list the origin and the percent cacao of each sample we are tasting that day. Some members have tasting biases by origin, Ecuador in particular, and they were finding themselves biased against chocolates from Ecuador before they had tasted them. Now we list only the percent cacao so that origin biases are less likely to come into play in the evaluations.
Another process improvement we've made over the years is adding two questions to the evaluation sheets that help me gauge the panel's relative interest in purchasing a bar of chocolate. While the panel might like a chocolate, they have to like it enough to purchase it on a regular basis. The questions we've added are:
"Would you buy this bar?"
"Would you replace another bar in the store with this bar?"
These are hypothetical questions that not all of my tasters love (we've gotten into debates about them - e.g., "WHICH bar would you replace it with?"), but they are helpful in providing a scale for evaluation. If a bar receives respectable ratings but it's not something customers would purchase, then we won't add it to our collection. If they would purchase the bar, but they wouldn't replace another bar that helps me understand how excited they are about this chocolate. When we purchase a bar to add to our inventory, we're investing our cash in that bar and we're putting our name behind it. We can't afford to have bars sitting on the shelves that don't sell. Similarly, the Chocolopolis team has to like the chocolate or it won't sell. Our sales team is the gateway for our customers discovering new chocolates. Our excitement about a chocolate, and our ability to share samples with customers is what helps sell the chocolate.
At the end of the day, ours is just one opinion. We've set up our criteria based on traditionally European-style chocolate bars that offer smooth, creamy texture and complex flavors. We appreciate the passion and the hard work of the artisans who have created the chocolates we taste, so it is difficult when we don’t love a chocolate. We’re always happy to re-consider a chocolate that didn’t fare well the first time if a chocolate maker has made changes to their chocolate making process that might produce a bar that better fits what we're looking for. There have been instances where a chocolate was not a good fit for us, but upon re-evaluation a few years later we added it to our collection.
Our detailed vetting process helps us curate a fantastic collection of chocolate bars that appeals to a broad range of palates and enables our customers to spend their money wisely on chocolate bars we think they’ll love. While there are many approaches to chocolate choice, this is our approach, and it works for us.
*These numbers are estimates provided by Dr. Carla D. Martin of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI). For more information on her methodology for sizing the craft chocolate market, please visit