Monday, April 07, 2008

Chocolate Consultation: A Meeting with Joan Steuer

Almost a year has gone by since I made a spring trip out to the Bay Area to attend the San Francisco International Chocolate Salon. And before I turn my attention to the 2008 version of the event, I'd like to look back for a moment. I was one of the official judges last year, and I quickly filled up my scorecard with incoherent scribbles and chocolate smudges. But one of my fellow judges was Joan Steuer, the chocolate industry consultant who greeted the task with a stack of typed-up evaluation forms and a complete set of cross-referenced zip-lock bags in which she stashed samples of the chocolate bars, truffles, or bon bons we were assigned to evaluate. Once she wrapped up her rankings, she let me interview her about her methodology and her passions.

Emily: My first question for you is about your tasting method, which is absolutely fascinating to me. What are you looking for?

Joan: I checked with Andre and his team just to see if there was any quantitative methodology, because what I try to do is take subjectivity out of it as much as possible. There were some chocolates that I’d already tasted in my other life and some that I hadn’t. And when I tasted them side-by-side I wanted to make sure that I had samples from everyone and that I was able to compare likes to likes, so that I wasn’t comparing a bar to a truffle, or a caramel to a ganache, etcetera, so that it really was somewhat in the same ilk.

And those tasting sheets that you brought...

So I have rudimentary all the way up to professional hedonic rating scales depending upon what the "sensory evaluation" needs are. These were basic sheets for each chocolatier on appearance, aroma, mouth feel, flavor, overall flavor, aftertaste, those kinds of things. It was fun. I love it.

Can you give me an example, maybe with one chocolatier, of something that you picked up and made a note of?

I made notes on all of them, which is probably why I was—I didn’t mean to be rude—but I try to focus just because you’re tasting (what did we taste--about a hundred?) you know easily a hundred chocolates in a three-hour, four-hour period. And you’re catching me at the end of a few days where I’m sort of wiped out. I don’t know if I could, without my sheets, if I could recall exactly one specific chocolatier. I did have a three-way tie for truffles. I thought there were some really, really good truffles there, and I often look at the truffle as the quintessential chocolate experience because it’s so pure. At least it should be.

So you’re talking a ganache enrobed in couverture?

Yes, or rolled in cocoa powder. Piped and rolled, or balled and rolled, or scooped and rolled, any of those. The definition of a truffle is certainly up for grabs, but I always believe it involves ganache, which generally should be chocolate and cream, with or without butter.

In a truffle, what do you look for taste-wise, what do you look for appearance-wise?

Well, that was one of the reasons that I brought in the quantitative criteria because so many different people call a truffle something different. There were lots of shapes, even some with screen-printing on them or with transfer sheets, etcetera, and they were still called a truffle. So one of the things I look for, if it is a molded chocolate, is a shine, that the chocolate’s actually in good temper and has a high gloss. If it is more of a traditional truffle, that it’s what I call "imperfectly perfect," that it’s irregularly shaped much resembling the original fungal truffle and it’s dusted in cocoa powder to replicate the earth or the dirt that surrounds the real fungal truffle. And then texture is really critical. There were a couple of truffles that actually had broken ganaches, which means that it wasn’t creamy and smooth; clearly there were some emulsification issues. When you add liquid to chocolate, as you know, it can break. So that’s something that I would put in my disqualify category.

Oh, wow.

At least for the best. It can taste good but it won’t have that really silken smooth texture.

What about in a chocolate bar--what are the characteristics that you’re evaluating?

In a chocolate bar, I’m also looking for surface shine as well as any breaking or creasing or holes when you break it open, no bubbles or anything like that. Certainly the aroma is one of the things I do before I taste. I think aroma is really critical, and it often isn’t as much an indicator of flavor to come as you think, as I know you know. There’s a hint, which may or may not play out more fully in the taste, but I think that aroma is such an important factor in our appreciation of any food, chocolate particularly. So certainly aroma, mouth feel (Is it smooth? Is it creamy? Is it gritty? Is it sandy? Is it coarse?), and then the actual flavor release I find quite fascinating. And it’s very different--it depends if it’s a blend or a single-origin. Is it one note that hits your mouth or is the flavor layered? This is too much detail...

No, it’s great.

Oh, mouth feel, aftertaste, off notes, any type of off flavor, overall flavor, chocolate flavor...

I’m curious because you work with so many different types of companies so far across the spectrum in the chocolate world, with companies of such varying identities from really big companies to something that’s not quite as big. And the quality of the products...

Somebody told you who I work for? I’ve never even shared that.

Well, I feel like I know.

You might, you might. But seriously, I can’t even have it one my website.

Maybe I don’t know, but I feel like I do.

You might. I work with little guys, I work with big guys. I work with manufacturers, I work with retailers. I work with lots of companies.

Here’s my question that I’m not asking very successfully: The products you work with go across the spectrum, from a very from a very artisan chocolate to a more mass market bar. So what do you look for in a mass market bar where the emphasis is not the same as with a high cacao-content product? What do you look for there? What’s a success?

Without saying who I work for, because I really can’t do that, generally, one of the areas that I specialize in is trends. So it’s really predicated on, What is the consumer looking for? And as you could tell there’s a wide range of knowledge among people who are attending something like this event. They all love chocolate. Some are super snobs and really truly, truly only go for extremely bitter chocolate and/or extremely refined chocolate that’s made by artisans who really know what they’re doing. Some just love chocolate and they want as much as they can have for the price that they just paid. So I think that what I try to do is help companies create products that will have either broad or deep appeal, depending upon what they’re trying to accomplish, to everybody who loves chocolate, so that there’s something for everybody. And that is absolutely my passion. My passion is to create products that chocolate lovers love.

That’s really interesting. I didn’t ask you that to make you uncomfortable.

No, I know, and I mean that. This is my truth, truth, truth, truth, that drives me every moment from the moment I wake up.

And it fascinates me because I’m not involved in the marketing aspect at all and it’s not something that I can kind of philosophize about on my own.

It’s funny. Trader Joe’s had colorful chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. And the definition of marketing to me is, What makes someone choose one product versus another? What is it that makes it different or better than something else? And to me there’s a wholesome perception of a sunflower seed, even if it’s covered in a candy coating. There’s chocolate there, but I think there’s that forgivability there because it’s made from a sunflower seed. So, that’s okay. I think it’s the same person who’s buying those big caramel-coated apples drenched in everything. Well, it’s an apple! There is that whole wholesome, healthful indulgence that I think the mainstream American consumer justifies. And it’s not necessarily chocolate as hero--those of us who are really seeking a different chocolate experience look at chocolate as the hero.

So you’re looking for a chocolate that works. And in the artisan chocolate industry...

Creativity. I mean, there are some things that people do with chocolate that just amaze me. Different forms, different flavors, different occasions. Matching sweet and salty...

Now, how do you know Jeff from Lillie Belle Farms, which is a fascinating friendship to see?

Oh, Jeff Shepherd? I know him through this industry, have actually visited his farm, have offered to pick fruit. Many of these guys and girls in there, I love what they do and I just chose to support them in whatever ways I can. Whether I get paid by them or not. No, it’s true. I just love what they do. That’s why I don’t do PR for companies. I’m never going to represent someone because my goal is to be fairly unbiased. It’s a lot easier to talk about companies whom I like.

So that’s where you draw the line?

You know, at this point, there are many little artisans that want public relations or they want you to help them with buyers. And I know a lot of the buyers as well, but I can’t talk about individual products that way. I just consume them and when I like them and if someone asks me I tell them I think they’re great.

So how do you describe what you do?

I have a consulting firm and I specialize in trends forecasting the future, and really what will sell and what won’t. I actually specialize in the strategic part of marketing which is trying to figure out where these people can play, where there is what we call "white space opportunity" for a company to go into, whether it’s the premium market, the mass market, the mass premium, the super premium, wherever it is, what makes them different or better than someone else. And then the product development piece is truly my love--conceiving something out of air and then actually working with the team to create it.

Joan isn't judging this year and neither am I, but some of last year's award-winners (including Charles Chocolates, Poco Dolce, and the Xocolate Bar) are returning to the Chocolate Salon this Sunday, April 13.


Blogger Avory said...

How interesting! Thanks for posting your interview :-)

9:52 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a great interview! Thank you! Amazing how much goes into the making of a really good chocolate (or in some cases, how little:-)

7:28 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chocolate flows in deep dark, sweet waves, a river to ignite my mind and alert my senses.Chocolate doesn't make the world go around ... but it certainly makes the ride worthwhile.
I do have chocolate site, check this out :


12:21 AM GMT-5  

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