Judging Chocolate: How Would You Design a Chocolate Competion?
Chocolate competitions. They exist.
In the end, most competitions end up with tiered awards (gold, silver, bronze) with some special achievement recognitions. The winners get to use a seal to identify that they have won, and the seal can be used in marketing and packaging to build sales.
To get to that point, competitions need entry guidelines, category definitions, judging methodology, judging guidelines, scoring forms, and more. And competent judges. The goal is to recognize good work, but there is also the need to communicate what exactly that means.
In 2008 I was the head judge for the Next Generation Chocolatier competition, organized by industry veteran Curtis Vreeland. In that role I had to come up with the entire fabric of the competition – and oversaw the judging itself. In 2011, I worked on defining the Chocolate category for the Good Food Awards and in 2012 I worked on defining the Confectionery category for the Good Food Awards and was a judge in the confectionery category for two years as well.
So I know first-hand how difficult it is – and that’s with a relatively small number of entries and categories. When the number of categories balloons, the number of entries rises into the hundreds and thousands, and the number of awards skyrockets, the complexity becomes incredibly difficult to manage. That complexity belies the simplicity of putting a seal on a box that says the product is a winner.
So, the question is, if you were to start up a chocolate competition today, what would it look like? What would you want to recognize and how would you do it?
Another question that came up is about the disconnect between what the awards are for (which is open to debate, see prior paragraph), how the winners use the awards, and how the lay public uses the awards to guide purchase decisions. One major challenge, IMO, is that when it comes to some categories, especially the microbatch category, the chocolate the consumer buys is likely not the batch that won the award – and is likely different if not very different. How does that get communicated to the consumer who is relying on the award to help guide a purchase?
I like the idea of makers needing to prove the chain of provenance by supplying bean samples but I would extend that to liquor samples — that’s one of the reasons I am a fan of the Cocoa of Excellence awards. Beans, liquor, and chocolate are all judged during the process. 150+ entries are reduced first to 50 which are then reduced to 7-12 winners. Ultimately it is the grower who is rewarded for producing beans which can be made into interesting chocolate.
Product sustainability is an issue that needs to be addressed as well. Often, the awards sticker is placed on the packaging of a batch that is different from the one that won the awards. This is a very bad practice for all and could be considered prima facia deceptive practice.
I also agree that awards inflation is a huge problem though the awards organizers do not see it that way. What happens to the value of an awards when there are 12 bronzes, 16 slivers, and 2 golds given in a single category in a single competition, as happened in Peru this past July?
I am all in on the idea of a recognized governing body where members pay fees to support the activities of the organization. When can we start working on such an organization?
Here are some ideas after watching the industry grow for the past 12 years.
1. Bean to Bar Category: Every submission must accompany a roasted AND unroasted sample of the beans used to create the chocolate. I am aware of entries in previous competitions where the chocolatier simply bought chocolate, melted and molded it and then submitted it as a bean to bar category. A good screener will be able to follow the profile of the beans from the bean to the bar when samples are submitted.
2. ONE GOLD. ONE SILVER. ONE BRONZE. PERIOD. Sorry millenials. In the real world not everyone wins!!! The Academy of Chocolate Awards are as farcical as watching 20 clowns climb out of a Volkswagon Beetle and try herding cats at the circus. With their competition everyone wins. It’s like… Mail them a chocolate bar and they will mail you back a medal you can flog to the public to persuade them to like your crappy chocolate. The real good chocolatiers out there don’t need awards. Their product speaks for itself.
3. Competitions should be Graduated. Start with Regional. Then National. Then World, with only the best being allowed to proceed. It’s been known all along that different cultures have different tastes. North Americans like a sweeter product than Europeans, and Central Americans like a rougher more rustic product. It’s how we were raised and what we’ve grown to like. It’s neither good or bad. It’s just the way it is. Regional and National competitions should be judged by regional and national residents.
This isn’t rocket science. Every sport works this way and it seems to work well.
4. Judging is done by at least 100 people, and not some panel of 6 (or whatever) judges who have their own egos, agendas and ideas of what chocolate is supposed to taste like. Chocolate is not about the chocolatier. EVER. It is about the consumer. PERIOD. NO CHOCOLATIER HAS EVER ENTERED A COMPETITION SO THAT HE/SHE CAN SIT IN HIS/HER BASEMENT, GLOAT TO THEMSELVES OVER THEIR WIN, SHARE WITH NOBODY, AND EAT ALL OF THEIR CREATIONS BY THEMSELVES. THEY ENTER COMPETITION TO GET VALIDATION OF THEIR EFFORTS AND HELP SELL THEIR STUFF.
That being said, the more people who taste the product and give honest (to them) feedback, the more likely the submission will get an accurate representation of what people really think of the product. If a person is going to submit an entry to a competition with the hope of winning an award and promoting it to sell more chocolate, they can afford to cough up the samples necessary to get feedback from at least 100 people.
Case In Point: I am a nationally ranked archer. I don’t go to a competition and shoot one arrow. I shoot 144, and my average score determines my overall accuracy.
5. One recognized governing body dedicated to celebrating the chocolate industry. It needs its own website and staff, and membership will require payment in order to cover the overhead of running such a “business”.
6. Proof of supply sustainability. What I mean by this is if a submission to a competition is to be valid, the submitting party MUST be able to create a certain pre set minimum volume of the chocolate submitted to win the award. Right now, it seems that bean to bar chocolate makers are popping up everywhere with a website and ecommerce, using tiny little counter top wet grinders. They make enough for a few bars and call themselves chocolate makers. Try order off their website and they are always out of stock. Uh…. NO… When they quit their daytime job and pay their bills with the chocolate they make, THEN they are chocolate makers. As a professional chocolate maker, I can hand pick 1kg of the absolute best cocoa beans that money can buy and make a stellar, award winning chocolate out of it too. However when I win the award I won’t be able to sustain a supply to those who want to buy it. What good is the award???
Let the dabblers dabble with their mini grinders and restrict competitions to allow the celebration of the craft by those who legitimately work hard to make their living creating craft chocolate.
I think that’s a good start.
When this happens I think something really special will be born and bring credibility to the chocolate industry with respect to awards and accolades for great work. Until that happens I don’t believe in the validity of ANY award, and compare the credibility to those currently in existence to a bunch of clowns trying to herd cats at the circus (referenced earlier).
Case in point: I have never submitted entries to any of the competitions over the years and it certainly hasn’t hurt my business. I’ve sold millions of dollars worth of chocolate and am growing my company every year not because of awards, but because I listen to my customers and as a businessman give them what they want. After all that’s what chocolate is about – making OTHER people happy.
But from my side I will give some thoughts.
One of the problems I see is that it is a taste competition and taste is very personal.
Part of it is also about technique, e.g. the tempering. We handtemper on the marble plate which is a skil, but you could also say mastering your machinery is also a skil.
When looking at the different outcomes worldwide you see often the same beans/origins doing well. It would be nice if somehow it would be possible to value the chocolate in relation to the starting point, what have you achieved with the beans available and not just everyone going for the same bean.
If you compare it to wine, a wine maker is in control of the grape (as far as the elements permit), the harvest, post harvest, wine making up to the bottling. The number of cocoa growers who are also chocolate makers is very small.
So from a skil perspective a competition where all contenders have the same beans would be interesting, although this would of course only work for small batch makers.
Anyway I am intriged to see what will follow in this thread.
The chocolates sent to the competitions are usually very well packed and are maintained in good conditions. Chocolates on the market may suffer different transportation and storage conditions. Craft chocolates are made in small batches and are known for the diversity of flavor derived from different beans, post harvest treatments and production details, which means not every batch is the same (and that’s ok!). Of course the best batches will be sent to competitions. The question is: if something goes wrong on a batch, does that batch is discarded or sent to the market anyway? Each maker has his own rule on that and we, consumers, may get “not so good” chocolates.
In this competition, each competitor would have to inform a list of stores where that chocolate is for sale, and also the fee for the competition would have to cover the costs of buying the bar (price + shipping). The organizers would choose where to buy the bar and be responsible for purchasing it.
This could be a very long discussion, but to make it short, in terms of prizes, the awards should be limited to a small percentage of winners and divided in 2 types: 1 for those chocolates competing for the first time (to discover new good products) and other for those who have already won other editions of the same competition (to show their consistency through time). Each “type” would have the same categories.
For those who don’t know me, I recently organized the first bean to bar award in Brazil (Premio Bean to Bar Brasil), it will happen again next year and I may also organize other types of chocolate competitions, like this one I’ve just described above.