One Thing an Award Can’t Tell You

Have you ever tasted a bar of small batch craft chocolate with an awards sticker or seal (or more than one!) on the wrapper and wondered what the heck the judges were thinking?

You’re not alone.

The reason behind the puzzlement is simple:

It’s a virtual certainty the chocolate you purchased is not the chocolate that was judged and was given the award.

Most craft chocolate makers make chocolate in batches of 35kg or less. As a general rule they don’t do any blending, not even the bags of cocoa beans. Variability between bags is common, especially when the cocoa comes from a cooperative of many farmers.

That means every batch of chocolate can be (and often is) different from every other batch. If each bar weighs 100gr, then no more than 350 bars from each 35kg batch can be made. As you might imagine, it does not take very long to sell and ship a couple of hundred chocolate bars.

By the very nature of the process, the sticker cannot be applied to the box until after the chocolate is given the award. Even if the sticker is applied the day after the award is given, that sticker is, in most cases, applied to packages that do not contain the same chocolate that was judged.

Complicating this process is the fact that the taste of a chocolate can change significantly as it ages. A one-week-old bar can taste very different from a one-month-old or three-month-old bar.

This disconnect is just one of many challenges that face consumers of craft chocolate who are becoming increasingly accustomed to - and reliant on - awards seals. And it not just an issue for consumers, it is an issue for the organizers of awards programs if they want to maintain credibility and utility for the awards in the long run, and as the number of awards programs grows.

What are your thoughts on what chocolate makers and awards programs can do to address this disconnect? Do you think it's an issue at all?

Comments (20)
No. 1-20
Keith_Ayoob
Keith_Ayoob

Clay, count me in!!!!! Would be the best job.

Keith_Ayoob
Keith_Ayoob

...continued...that a lot can happen during transport. I think of it almost in the same vein as food safety, which I know more about. You can have the greatest tasting meat/vegetables/ice cream, but how the consumer transports it home, handles it, and stores it makes all the difference. Ice cream is a perfect example. Haagen-Dazs is rich and creamy, but I worry when I see it in the grocery aisle for half an hour at room temperature, only to be re-frozen. Ditto for the consumer who purchases it, then goes off to run errands for an hour, then takes a while to re-pack into the home freezer. It's a recipe for making ice cream crystals and surely not the taste experience the maker had in mind. Probably the same thing for chocolate. Personally, I'm particular about how I keep my chocolate bars. Wrapped in plastic in a part of the fridge that is left alone, so fewer concerns about absorbing off flavors, etc. Interestingly, I just dove into a bar I bought in Paris, made by Jean-Charles Rouchoux about 10 months ago. It's 72%, Venezuelan Trinitario and it's fabulous. Don't like freezing my chocolate, although others do. My point is that a lot can happen between bean and bar and consumer unwrapping and eating. As with food safety -- everyone plays a role here.

DiscoverChoc
DiscoverChoc

Editor

@Keith_Ayoob - I was thinking it might be an idea for an extended tasting series. Buy the award winners and critique them. Are you in?

Keith_Ayoob
Keith_Ayoob

OK, as an "outsider" I'm a little embarrassed. Yes, I've purchased the "award" chocolates and to be fair, many of them really are excellent. But I've had a few others... So this is a good conversation from people in the business. What Clay explained in his post seems quite obvious and makes me think, "Duh" because I hadn't put it together. Yes, it's likely impossible that the "award" chocolate bar I tasted couldn't possibly have been the one that was judged. I'd really like to taste one of those someday, just for comparison. That's not a bad idea for an article, just saying... I do think

DiscoverChoc
DiscoverChoc

Editor

The overall issue, I think, is that there are disconnects between why the awards exist and are given, and how the awards are used. Communication with consumers is not clear at many levels. Just one is that a product that wins a World's Best is not the best in the world, it's just "the best" that was entered into the competition.

I don't think that the money paid is the white elephant, it's undisclosed potential conflicts of interest.

Why does one company seem to always win? Maybe it's because of a subtle recognition bias. Do judges rate products they know from companies they like higher than truly anonymous samples?

Another example of potential bias pops up when the judge is a distributor or retailer. Now they have a financial interest in the outcome of the judging. Does this influence them? It's not supposed to ...

Another example of potential bias arises when the organizer of the competition has undisclosed sponsors. Could such sponsorship sway decisions?

What I am fairly certain of is that the answers to these and many other issues do not lie in creating still yet another competition that issues still yet more awards that can be applied to seals on wrappers. In that direction lies only more consumer confusion.

DiscoverChoc
DiscoverChoc

Editor

@OliviaChocolat - was looking for a URL to the World's Best site.

OliviaChocolat
OliviaChocolat

International, Best implies World and all discussions imply World. It's obvious and I don't need to defend the obvious.

OliviaChocolat
OliviaChocolat

I'm just speaking the truth here and it's not sour grapes; we've won best bean to bar before years ago.

OliviaChocolat
OliviaChocolat

International, Best.

OliviaChocolat
OliviaChocolat

It does cover the cost of the entries usually but only depending on your market and a lot have very small markets and little or no distribution but a lot don't win these subjective awards based on bias of very few judges likes and taste preferences. What IS the cost to run an award competion anyway? I can calculate the revenue from published number of entrants and it's a windfall compared to what craft chocolate makers make in a year after all their real costs to support a manufacturing facility and inputs. I'd like to see the proceeds of a competition go to a registered charity or a good cause instead of in the pockets of a few organizers. Judges get all the free fine chocolate they can manage for a long time worth hundreds of dollars retail. They should use volunteers and I think most or all of them already are so even less cost to support a contest... So they rent a venue for a week and put in their time and run a website? I know my self as a budding Chocolatier from 10 years ago worked for a year for $0 before we made our first sale with carrying costs like this and more but for year on year.

DiscoverChoc
DiscoverChoc

Editor

@conversation - There have been some interesting comments on my FB page - where I cross-posted this topic. Thank you to those who have cross-posted your comments here. One reason I want to move the conversation here is because of search engine visibility. It the conversation is only on FB it will not get the visibility I think the topic deserves.

DiscoverChoc
DiscoverChoc

Editor

@OliviaChocolat - can you provide more information about the World's Best Award? I am interested to know more about it.

cocoahub
cocoahub

I agree with Lauren Adler on the quality of a lot of chocolate. I too have eaten way to much chocolate and am pretty shocked by how much is not very good at all. Even from some better know/respected makers. I'm sure this is mostly down to the condition of the beans as they arrive with the maker for further processing. One of the bars I had just last week, won a bronze award recently, it had some major flaws, bad temper and tasted stale, but to be fair, the chocolate could have been poorly transported. Either way, very disappointing.

OliviaChocolat
OliviaChocolat

No one is talking about the real elephant in the Room about awards. What about the world's best bean-to-bar award that is an award, awarded only to the entrants that have paid $400 per entry? ...World's best only among the World's bars that paid to be judged. How about A World's Best contest that at least purchases all the craft bars at fair market value so that all the World's craft bars are at least represented? Or doesn't require a hefty fee per entrant to even be considered? Or Do Not award a Worlds Best under this pretense? What could possibly cost $400 per entrant to operate a contest? The whole craft Chocolate award contest is a bit of a sham to begin with based on this never discussed fact of the matter. That's just my opinion as a chocolate maker for 10 years.

Lauren Adler
Lauren Adler

Editor

I have served as a judge for a number of awards competitions. In addition to judging competitions, I, along with a panel of my customers, taste and rate hundreds of chocolate samples before deciding which ones to add to our curated collection at Chocolopolis. I've easily tasted hundreds of bars in the last three months, and I'm pretty frustrated by the chocolates I have been tasting of late. We've tasted so much poorly-made chocolate that we're adding less than 5% of what we taste to our collection. While I applaud the passion of the craft makers, most of what I'm tasting these days isn't fit for sale. Another point of frustration for me is the variability among batches and origins of a craft chocolate maker. I don't expect each batch to taste exactly the same or to have the same characteristics, but I do expect a consistent level of quality among batches, and among origins, from the same chocolate maker. In the past, if we'd had good experiences with a particular chocolate maker, we'd add their new origins to our collection without tasting each origin, mostly from a practical standpoint. It's come to the point where we're going to taste every origin because the variability in quality among the origins of a chocolate maker are significant. I've tasted excellent chocolate from one origin, followed by unpalatable chocolate from another origin, all from the same maker. This brings me to awards. Awards are important from a marketing perspective - they help small brands grow - but awards are only as good as the pool of chocolate makers who enter the competition in the first place. While a chocolate maker may win an award, the consumer doesn't know which companies the winner was up against in the competition, and which companies didn't enter. I would like to see the awards organizations publish a list of all entrants so consumers can understand the competitive landscape. Another wish of mine is that more competitions take the approach of the International Chocolate Awards in saying that they will not offer an award in a category if none of the chocolates is worthy of an award. Then they need to remain resolute and not offer an award unless it's warranted.

Tranquilidad
Tranquilidad

The award should be given only to the chocolate maker. Or give awards only to larger batches that have to be controlled.

DiscoverChoc
DiscoverChoc

Editor

@DanyM - I think that one way to address the structural challenges associated with existing awards programs is to shift away from a focus on product to a focus on the maker/company. In fact, I will talking with people in Seattle this coming weekend about this idea.

DiscoverChoc
DiscoverChoc

Editor

@cocoahub - While it's nice to hope, I think it's important that we address the reality of the market. One of the main philosophies of many small batch craft makers - and many of the most famous makers - is to celebrate the uniqueness of every batch ... the exact opposite of industrial makers. (In fact I make the point that this point - consistency - is the defining difference between craft and industrial producers.) I don't disagree with you about the need for makers to be more consistent but it's not a priority for many of them.

DanyM
DanyM

It's a big issue. The competition should be based on the maker and not on the product. And when the competition is going, and if you win, you will be able to say that you won this competition. That you were the best maker for this competition, in a specific category. Almost like weight class in boxing. What is twisted is to nominate a product for eternity. And we all know that the manufacturer who participates in a competition will put all his ressource to provide perfect samples. And that the fault tolerance is not the same as in normal production. Example, if a bar has a bubble, a small one, you will let it pass fo the retail. But for a competition, you will keep the perfect one. Then the consumer will never taste the same bar than the jury.
So I think competitions should be inspired by sports competitions and put manufacturers in the foreground instead of the product. This night, this maker did the best in this category.

cocoahub
cocoahub

Awarding a product that is inconsistent in its manufacture and it's life span, is a challenge. My feeling is that the award should represent a snap shot of the moment in time of a great flavoured sample that the judges tasted on a particular day/days. Of course, the consumer would hope and expect the bar they buy with the award sticker to be as close as possible to the judged sample. The maker, in turn, should do their best to keep consistency in their production and have firm control over all the variables that they can, and do their best with the variables out of their control (like variation in beans).