December 13, 2006

Kowalski's Almond Dark Chocolate

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When the local supermarket starts carrying a particular product, you know that product has gone mainstream. Fortunately, we are speaking about dark chocolate here and not something horrifying like cheese in a bottle. Unfortunately, the growing presence of dark chocolate in the supermarket aisles is by no means a guarantee of good taste. Its not that supermarkets purposely aim for cheap product, but rather, the economics of the retail business are fundamentally different the business of a traditional chocolatier. In selecting chocolates for retail, consistency becomes more important than innovation and value becomes more desirable than quality. Of course, I am speaking in generalizations here and it is entirely possible that some supermarkets in the world are offering excellent chocolate under their own label. In fact, I am aware of a couple of such products and will review them in future entries.

In the meantime, I have come across my first bar of Kowalski's chocolate, Almond Dark. Kowalski's is a family-run supermarket from the lake-filled state of Minnesota. Somewhere between the racks of delectable deer jerky and luscious lutefisk, Kowalski's has introduced its very own line of dark chocolates. The chocolate wrappers are notably sparse on wording and I personally don't know too much more about Kowalski's, so I can't offer much background on the chocolate. I can describe its taste, or rather, in the words of a real Minnesotan describe it as "Mmmm...Sweet. Very sweet. You bet!" That pretty much sums up the Kowalski's Almond Dark chocolate experience. Of course, there are also almonds too, but a few nuts doesn't make the chocolate a sensation. I'm giving it 1.5 cocao beans based on the sugar-laden chocolate base, but I have to admit that I have a weakness for dark chocolate and almonds and, if given the chance, I could feast on this chocolate all day.

Cocao Beans:1h beans


November 20, 2006

Goldkenn, Cacao Origins Venezuela

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Goldkenn may not be the best known of Swiss chocolate brands, but it does seem to have cornered the duty free market. While chocolate connoisseurs and perhaps even other chocolate producers will shrug at this interesting, but seemingly useless tidbit of information, let us consider the broader implications of this fact. What begins as an impulse purchase on a business trip or a vacation, may actually be many people's first introduction to the world of real dark chocolate, the moment when one breaks away from old conceptions of "chocolate" based on years of Hershey's kisses, Cadbury's eggs, and Mars bars. If this is the case, then Goldkenn sits right on the frontlines of the dark chocolate revolution, an un-sung chocolate missionary in the battle for the hearts and taste buds of the people.

Fortunately, Goldkenn happens to produce some pretty decent chocolate. Two of the company's country origin bars have been a hit, at least in this humble author's opinion. Trindad and Sto. Domingo managed to delight with complex, but very accessible, flavors. Venezuela, a 72% bar made presumably from Venezuelan criollo beans (although the packaging does not mention it), is also an accessible bar, especially for those still pondering the merits of high cacao chocolate. The chocolate is sweet and buttery with no hints of the more complicated aromas found in many premium dark chocolates -- however, this formula is also the major downfall of this bar. An edge on the sweetness levels works well for trinitario and even more so for forastero chocolate bars, where a pinch of well placed sugar can mask the flaws of a lower quality beans and simultaneously bring out the more positive aromas in the beans. In a criollo chocolate (assuming we are dealing with a criollo chocolate), too much sugar is disastrous -- the depth and personality of criollo is lost, leaving behind a still good, but somewhat plain chocolate bar. Goldkenn Venezuela reminds me of Frey Venezuela, another sweet and sumptuous chocolate bar that lends itself to copious amounts of consumption, without ever revealing the true character of its cacao beans.

Cocao Beans:3h beans


September 16, 2006

Villars, Noir (72%)

Chocolate Villars is often overshadowed by its better-known compatriots, such as Cailler, Nestlé, Toblerone, and Lindt, despite the fact that the company is one of the oldest producers of chocolate in Switzerland. Founded in 1901 by Wilhelm Kaiser, who was just 28 years old at the time, Chocolat Villars was an instant commercial success. The company's rapid growth and focus on the consumer (considered an innovation at the time) soon brought the company and its founder into conflict with the rest of the chocolate industry. Kaiser pulled his company out of the chocolate cartel, which had been fixing prices at the expense of the consumer, thus touching off a period of collusion and infighting in what became known as the "Chocolate War".

Only Switzerland could hold a "Chocolate War" and actually find sufficient combatants to participate. In fact, a more accurate description of the conflict would be everyone from the chocolate cartel against Villars. Amazingly, Villar emerged from the hostilities with an even greater market share, due to a brilliant marketing coup on the part of Kaiser. With producers and distributors lined up against him, Kaiser slashed his prices and built a parallel distribution chain with branded stores selling Villars chocolates. We see this kind of business model all the time today, but back in 1910, this was a true paradigm change. Today, Villars co-exists on store shelves with Toblerone triangles, Lindt boxes, and Cailler bars, but for a long time the company held a reputation as the black sheep in the industry.

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With that little history lesson out of the way, we turn to the real task at hand: checking out the wares. The verdict is mixed. Villars Noir 72% is a straightforward dark chocolate bar. The taste is mild, with virtually no hidden flavors or tones aside from a slight woody taste. There is a nice balance between sweet and bitter and a very crisp consistency which makes a pleasing snap when you first bite into the bar. However, that is all the bar has to offer -- there is nothing extra to appeal to your palate, take hold of your taste-buds, and leave you craving for more.

Cocao Beans:2 beans


August 29, 2006

Dolfin, Noir (70%)

Most people would agree that a deep love of chocolate would be an essential prerequisite for starting a chocolate company. Here is what Michaël Poncelet, one of the founders of the family-owned Dolfin, has to say about the Poncelet family:

We fell in a chocolate vat when we were small.

Apparently, the Poncelet boys used to hang around Augustus Gloop when they were little. The Poncelets, unlike Augustus Gloop, fortunately survived this ordeal and have gone on to create one of Belgium's more innovative chocolate companies. Dolfin bills itself with the slogan "the art of skillful combinations" and, indeed, the Poncelet brothers have been busy combining basic chocolate with almonds, peppercorns, orange peals, mints, and all sorts of interesting ingredients. The time will come to try all these variations, but, to start, we are just going for one of Dolfin's straight-up dark chocolate bar.

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Dolfin Noir, 70%, comes packaged in the company's trademark plastic pouch, which looks a bit like a tobacco bag, but is also a brilliant way of keeping the chocolate both fresh and water-resistant, in case you somehow resist the urge to eat the bar in one sitting. Belgian dark chocolate tends to be fairly mild and without complex tastes, and Dolfin Noir definitely falls into this type cast. Dolfin Noir takes a few moments to reveal its smooth consistency and fruity aromas, but eventually does come out with a faint apple and banana taste. There is really nothing to complain about this bar, but the taste might also be considered almost bland. It is a great bar for a quick fix of dark chocolate or, come to think about it, the perfect chocolate to use in combination with other ingredients...

Cocao Beans:3.5 beans


August 22, 2006

Cailler sees the Darkness

Since undergoing a marketing makeover earlier this year, Cailler chocolate has battled a deadly, but predictable, consumer and retailer backlash to its eco-unfriendly packaging and aggressive pricing policies. The local press smells blood in the water and has taken to frequent and dire predictions (link in German) for Nestlé, Cailler, and, most notably, Nelly Wenger, the Nestlé marketer behind the makeover.

Indeed, a most ominous dark cloud hangs over Cailler. As soon as the new Cailler bar hit store shelves, environmental groups were in an uproar over the plastic packaging, as reported by NZZ:

...about a month after the relaunch a consumer association from French-speaking Switzerland, the FRC, published the results of a study into the amount of non-recyclable waste that the sexed-up chocolate would create. It dropped a bombshell: the wrapping around 100g of Frigor chocolate, a popular Cailler brand, weighs 50g.

Sales were down 20 percent from January to May and local retailers have taken their case to the consumer with below-the-belt advertising about Cailler. The discounter Denner was particularly nasty, while being creative, with a poster campaign announcing:

Cailler sells packaging. Denner sells chocolate.

Having completely alienated its traditional consumer base in Switzerland, Nestle is apparently moving forward with an export strategy for its battered Cailler brand. Sweets Global Network reports that the importer Wilms/Impuls intends to launch Cailler chocolates in the German market.

In fact, these tribulations in the Swiss market might be worth it, if Nestlé could achieve sufficient growth in international markets to compensate for its losses domestically. Unfortunately for Nestlé, Cailler is a pretty "Swiss" product. Exports have accounted for only 5 percent of Cailler's turnover until now, meaning there is hardly any international presence to leverage for new, immediate sales.

Nestle insists it is too early for a post-mortum and notes that the coming holiday season traditionally accounts for the majority of sales. To be fair, it is indeed too early to pass judgement, but one has wonder if the execs in Vevey might just be praying for a little miracle now.


August 16, 2006

Sprüngli, Grand Cru Arriba, Ecuador (72%)

Sprüngli has tempted many a hungry tourist with it delicious power-covered truffles and delectable Luxemburgerli, colorful cream-filled cookies which disintegrate if you attempt to take them beyond Switzerland's borders. In recent years, Sprüngli has started to apply its flair for confectionary creativity to the budding world of dark chocolate. I've come across dark chocolate truffles covered with a fine layer of cacao powder and Santa Claus figures molded entirely from premium dark chocolate. On a recent trip to the local shopping center, I found myself *accidently* in the Sprüngli shop, where I *accidently* discovered that Sprüngli now has a line of dark chocolate bars. Accidents aren't always bad, you see.

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As with all good things, moderation is the best guide. Fighting back the urge to devour the whole Sprüngli dark chocolate line in one go, I picked out just one bar, the Grand Cru Arriba. It turned out to be a good pick. Grand Cru Arriba makes use of the Arriba cacao beans from the Esmeraldas region in northern Ecuador. High-end chocolate bars tend to use Criollo cacao beans, but occassionally Arriba, supposedly one of the better Forestaro varieties, makes an appearance. Sprüngli Grand Cru proves that Arriba can be the centerpiece of a very good chocolate. In fact, everything about this bar is dedicated to dark chocolate purism, from the the crisp break of the thin wafers, to the subtle, but unmistakeable dark chocolate aroma, to the lightly smoked and fruity taste. Grand Cru is neither as complex in flavor nor as smooth in consistency as some other high-end bars, but these features are ultimately personal preferences. The bar is otherwise quite flawless and, therefore, earns a well-deserved five beans in my book.

Cocao Beans:5 beans


August 12, 2006

The irresistible lure of the dark side

The world is coming around to the attractions of dark chocolate. Confectionarynews.com reports that dark chocolate is one of the fastest growing segments in the global confectionary market Enticed by growing consumer demand, mass-market producers, such as Nestlé, Ferrero, and Hershey, have seen the darkness and are racing to bring forth new dark chocolate creations. Milk chocolate and filled variations still hold the lions share of the market, but their grip on the world's sweet tooth is slowly slipping away. The dark side is tempting indeed.


July 29, 2006

Wellauer, Grand Cru Java (64%)

wellauer_64.gifChocolate has never been the exclusive province of big brands and mega-corporations in Switzerland. There has always been room for smaller players and even one-man shops to offer new chocolates to the market and carve out a loyal regional, and sometimes international, clientele. The dark chocolate market, while fairly new to Switzerland, is proving to be no exception to this rule. Confiserie Wellauer, a small chocolate maker (perhaps the right word is "micro-chocolatier"?) in Amriswil, has come out with a line of hand-made dark chocolate country origin bars.

As tempting as it is to try all seven origin bars at once, I've managed to resist this urge and settle for just one at a time. We start with the Grand Cru Java, made from Criollo beans harvested in Java, Indonesia. The bar is obviously of similar composition to the Pamaco Indojaco, another premium dark chocolate produced with Javanese Criolllo and previously reviewed here. Before commenting on the taste, it is worth mentioned that Wellauer's Grand Cru Java has been exquisitely designed and packaged. The golden-wrapped chocolate is slipped in a dark corrugated exterior container. Nestled within the layers of packaging is a large red-hued bar with fine impressions of the cacao beans and the Wellauer logo.

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Despite its 64% cacao content, Grand Cru Java is fairly sweet and notably lacking any hint of bitterness. The text accompanying the chocolate mentions coffee and tobacco tastes, but these particular flavors are fairly subdued. Instead, the bar delivers more fruity notes, including a strong hint of figs. Overall the taste is multi-faceted and balanced, which makes for an excellent chocolate. Grand Cru Java is particularly suited as a sumptuous after-dinner dessert, given its sweetness and creamy consistency. And, yes, it is as good as, if not better than the Pamaco Indojaco.

Cocao Beans:4 beans


July 9, 2006

Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo

Coop's Fine Foods line of premium products is a bit of a hit or miss affair. Some products are truly innovative culinary creations, such as the Wasabi Peanuts or the Mango Lassi, while others are weak imitations of well-established (and often better tasting) competitor products.

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Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo has the potential for gastronomic greatness, by subverting plain-old chocolate mousse with a good dose of dark chocolate goodness. Unfortunately, Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo falls short where it most counts. Good mousse must be smooth and creamy; anything else will not lead to a memorable mousse experience. Mousse au Chocolate Maracaibo is more like a frozen custard. With sufficient time out of the fridge, it does evolve into something more creamy, but it is exceedingly difficult to get beyond its dry, brittle texture. The result is disappointing, especially since the Maracaibo cacao flavors remain sadly locked in the mixture and are never really given a chance to show their superior tastes.
Cocao Beans:2 beans