Yes, it’s as fun as it sounds, but it’s also harder than you might think.
Most people think that being a chocolate judge must be the best job in the world, and they’re absolutely right. You might struggle to make a full-time career of it, especially in a country as small as New Zealand, but there’s really nothing better than being paid in chocolate for tasting chocolate. I know a lot of people prefer payment in money, but I’ve never found it nearly as delicious.
So, how do you become a professional chocolate taster? There are qualifications that can assist your education, such as IICCT (International Institute of Chocolate and Cacao Tasting) courses, but mostly it’s a position gained through years of experience and phenomenal amounts of chocolate tasting. My journey started around nine years ago, when I fell in love with the world of bean-to-bar craft chocolate. I’d always loved “normal” chocolate, but when I discovered there was another world of much higher-quality chocolate made with rare types of cacao, and offering a vast spectrum of different flavour notes (just like wine), I dived into the culture and started tasting as much as possible.
Shortly after that I started my former business, The Chocolate Bar, an online craft chocolate retail site and subscription service. Throughout my time running the business I was constantly learning as much as I could about chocolate and cacao – reading books and blogs, speaking with chocolate makers all over the world, attending talks and events, and tasting, tasting, tasting. I don’t know how many bars of craft chocolate I’ve tasted in the past nine years, but we’re talking thousands.
Through all of this tasting and learning, my palate has become very attuned to different flavour notes, and I’ve discovered how all of these flavours are created. From the planting of cacao seeds, through to the fermenting and drying of the beans, then the transformation of the beans into chocolate, there are many, many steps that affect the final flavour of a chocolate bar. The job of a chocolate judge is to decipher the journey the beans have been on and assess where things have gone right or wrong.
Judging chocolate is a very fun and rewarding job, but it’s more difficult than you might expect, and you have to be extremely passionate and knowledgeable. Judging days are often long and intense, and they can leave you feeling a little worse for wear. Unlike wine or beer tasting, where you can spit out samples, it’s essential to consume all of the chocolate you judge, because the way chocolate melts and the aftertaste it creates are all part of the quality assessment. You have to eat every last bit, and it can be a lot! I usually end up on a major sugar high, before crashing and burning in the evening.
I’ve been a regular judge for the New Zealand Chocolate Awards since it was founded in 2017, and I’m also a judge for the NZ Vegan Chocolate Awards, which started last year. Both of these competitions are judged in one day, and I’ll usually assess between 30 and 50 chocolates, depending on how many entries and judges there are. We have to calibrate our palates regularly, to make sure we’re not losing our sensitivity or being influenced by previous flavours, and we use palate cleansers between samples – usually plain couscous or water crackers, along with hot or sparkling water.
This year I had the honour of judging the International Chocolate Awards’ Asia-Pacific competition. This is essentially the Oscars of the chocolate world, and I assessed some of the finest and rarest chocolate from throughout Asia and Oceania. I had almost 300 samples shipped to me from Hong Kong, and over the course of three weeks I worked my way through each category, getting up at 6am each day to judge chocolate before I started my other job. It was a lot to take on but an incredibly fascinating, rewarding and educational experience. I tasted some of the rarest cacao in the world and enjoyed a lot of new and unique flavours.
It’s vital for a chocolate judge to remain as objective and impartial as possible. Of course, we all have things we like or don’t like, but we judge on a technical basis. We look at things like balance, complexity, technique and creativity – all of which can be scored without consideration of personal preference. Judges also think about the quality of the ingredients and look for off flavours caused by things like improper bean fermentation, poor drying methods, contamination from storage, or stale ingredients. It can be hard for entrants to hear negative feedback, especially when they’ve paid a lot of money to enter, but receiving an in-depth critique from a panel of experts can be tremendously helpful, especially for up-and-coming businesses.
Some people in the chocolate industry (and many other industries) have mixed feelings about awards. They can be expensive to enter and the results always cause a lot of debate, as everyone has their own ideas about who deserves to win (and who doesn’t). My advice to chocolate makers is to not get too hung up on winners and losers, but to look at awards as a business development and marketing tool. The feedback you receive can be invaluable, and if you win an award it’s likely to bring you a host of new customers, at home and overseas. Consumers are overwhelmed with choices these days, and awards help them make decisions. They may not always be an accurate representation of what’s the best, but chocolate with a notable award is likely to be good, at the very least.
Having come from a career in craft beer and events work, I never expected to become a professional chocolate judge, but I’m so glad things worked out this way. It’s a fascinating industry full of passionate and fun people; there’s an important ethical element to the work, and there’s an endless amount of learning. Plus, I no longer dread the question “what do you do?”. “I’m a chocolate judge” is a great conversation starter.