Chocolate tasting “Las Vegas style?”  No, not spinning roulette tables, pulsing neon and sparkly leotards. Red, White & Chocolate’s (RW&C) first chocolate tasting was a bit more, well, tasteful. But my inaugural group told me we hit the jackpot with the six craft chocolate bars and an extra special salted caramel truffle that we tasted.

We tasted six craft chocolate bars and the famous Gray Salt Caramels from Fran's Chocolates.
We tasted six craft chocolate bars and the famous Gray Salt Caramels from Fran’s Chocolates.

On my Red, White and Chocolate (RW&C) travels, I’ve been collecting some of the best chocolate in the US.  Time to stop hoarding and share. I’m excited to relive some of my travels and give my tasters a little bit of insight into the people who created what we’ll be tasting.

Since this was the first of what will be a series of RW&C tastings, I tried not to make myself crazy about my selections. We’ll get to them all.

For my inaugural tasting, I selected:

Guittard’s Soleil D’Automne 45%, Blend #30, a milk chocolate with notes of caramel, apple and Creme Fraiche-Dairy. I love milk chocolate and this won the Good Food Awards in 2015.  And, Clark Guittard of Guittard Chocolate Company personally gave this bar to me at the Fancy Food Show last June in New York. And it didn’t disappoint.  This was one of my favs.

 

Next we tasted Fruition Chocolate‘s Marañón 68%.  Alright, admission.  I don’t know how to separate my feelings about the people behind the chocolate from my total experience of it. Knowing them and their inspiring stories make me love the chocolate all that more. I guess I’m going to have to rely on the tasting group to keep me honest.

Two giants of the chocolate community joined forces to bring this bar to us:

Dan Pearson, Founder of Marañón Chocolate and discoverer of a once thought to be extinct cacao strain is one of my all-time favorite chocolate adventurers. He provided that special cacao to Fruition Chocolate.

Dan Pearson and me at a past FCIA event.
Dan Pearson and me at a past FCIA event.

And Bryan Graham, Founder and Chocolate Maker at Fruition Chocolate has a total commitment to coaxing the most unique qualities from the bean. My fledgling tasters confirmed this bar was a winner. Fruity, spicy, clean finish and smooth texture.  I saw more than one person in the group annoit this with five stars!

Nathan Miller Chocolate Ghana 70% was also a sure bet (sorry about all the gambling references, but I am in Las Vegas).  Another Good Food Awards Winner, it was the wrapper that first won me over – textured rag paper;  distinctive.  It got me ready to unwrap and enjoy the exquisite chocolate inside. One taster loved it because it wasn’t too sweet.  Another loved its unique character. And another loved the earthy, fruity, nutty combination.  This one garnered 4-5 stars.  A big hit.

Then we focused on Letterpress Chocolate Tanzania 70% and did I have stories to tell them about David Menkes.  He was one of the first chocolate makers I interviewed when I started out on my 10,200 mile drive around the US.  I thought I had the wrong address, a second floor condo in a residential area. When I walked in, there wasn’t one flat surface that didn’t have a melanger whirling.

And this was the first time I got to smell a bin of beans – Kokoa Kamili fromTanzania. The astringency almost knocked me off my feet.  But then he walked me through the process and let me taste the end result.  It was a revelation. He’s since moved to a professional kitchen, but there was nothing unprofessional about my first taste of Letterpress Tanzania-style.

Now my tasting group was experiencing the same chocolate and handing out exclamation points like that were one dollar chips!  Fruity. Berries. Citrus fragrance. Clean finish. Smooth texture. Five stars!  Big hit. Of course, we live in a culinary democracy, so one person said it was too fruity.  Great!  More for the rest of us. (While writing this, I’m tasting the last piece left. Heaven!)

The chocolate that had the most distinctive taste according to this fledgling tasting group was Raaka Virgin Chocolate Madagascar 75% (Akesson’s Farm). We talked about Ryan Cheney and Nate Hodge’s unique approach to processing the cacao beans – no roasting, a process very different from the others we were tasting and controversial in some corners. But they are winning awards and the hearts and minds of the RW&C tasting group.

They all agreed that the flavor seemed to connect them more to the bean. One said there was a lingering flavor, but in a good way.  It was nuttier and more astringent than the others. One of our group gave this one four stars (out of five).  The others all found it intriguing and would definitely try it again.

Then we came to the pièce de résistance, The Blues Bar from Dancing Lion Chocolate.  Now, Rich Tango-Lowy is not a chocolate maker.  He is a chocolatier extraordinaire. He approaches chocolate with the eye of the artist but the brain of the chocolate maker. This bar is a Liona 70% Dominican Republic Dark Chocolate produced in collaboration with Bryan Graham of Fruition Chocolate.

Rich added dried blueberries, toasted pecans and his amazing design.  I know and love the work of both of these guys, so I was delighted that it won the hearts of my tasting group – five stars!

And, for fun, I shared my box of Gray Salt Caramels from Fran’s ChocolatesFran Bigelow gave me the box herself at FCIA’s recent Elevate Chocolate – Summer 2016 in New York this past June.  I wanted it all to myself, but I also wanted my new tasters to get out of their heads and just enjoy. I think it is fair to say there aren’t enough stars in the sky to fully denote this groups’ happiness quotient.

A conversation with Fran Bigelow at FCIA's June 2016 event in New York.
A conversation with Fran Bigelow of Fran’s Chocolates and moderator Curtis Vreeland of Vreeland & Associates at FCIA’s June 2016 event in New York.

 

Meet the first ever Red, White & Chocolate tasters of Las Vegas:

Since none of us were expert chocolate tasters, we relied on Eagranie Yuh’s The Chocolate Tasting Kit to get our group started.  But we all got over our shyness about talking chocolate very fast with the great selection we had to inspire us.

Eagranie's kit helps even the novice chocolate taster get started.
Eagranie’s kit helps even the novice chocolate taster get started.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, after our tasting, Megan Giller of Chocolate Noise linked us to an informative piece about tasting chocolate in, Nine Essential Tools for Tasting Chocolate.

With all this great chocolate information on how to enjoy it and an obvious hunger for culinary adventure, I think RW&C will be doing a lot more of these tastings!

Las Vegas – are you ready?