One Thing an Award Can’t Tell You

Have you ever tasted a bar of small batch craft chocolate with an awards sticker or seal (or more than one!) on the wrapper and wondered what the heck the judges were thinking?

You’re not alone.

The reason behind the puzzlement is simple:

It’s a virtual certainty the chocolate you purchased is not the chocolate that was judged and was given the award.

Most craft chocolate makers make chocolate in batches of 35kg or less. As a general rule they don’t do any blending, not even the bags of cocoa beans. Variability between bags is common, especially when the cocoa comes from a cooperative of many farmers.

That means every batch of chocolate can be (and often is) different from every other batch. If each bar weighs 100gr, then no more than 350 bars from each 35kg batch can be made. As you might imagine, it does not take very long to sell and ship a couple of hundred chocolate bars.

By the very nature of the process, the sticker cannot be applied to the box until after the chocolate is given the award. Even if the sticker is applied the day after the award is given, that sticker is, in most cases, applied to packages that do not contain the same chocolate that was judged.

Complicating this process is the fact that the taste of a chocolate can change significantly as it ages. A one-week-old bar can taste very different from a one-month-old or three-month-old bar.

This disconnect is just one of many challenges that face consumers of craft chocolate who are becoming increasingly accustomed to - and reliant on - awards seals. And it not just an issue for consumers, it is an issue for the organizers of awards programs if they want to maintain credibility and utility for the awards in the long run, and as the number of awards programs grows.

What are your thoughts on what chocolate makers and awards programs can do to address this disconnect? Do you think it's an issue at all?

The overall issue, I think, is that there are disconnects between why the awards exist and are given, and how the awards are used. Communication with consumers is not clear at many levels. Just one is that a product that wins a World's Best is not the best in the world, it's just "the best" that was entered into the competition.

I don't think that the money paid is the white elephant, it's undisclosed potential conflicts of interest.

Why does one company seem to always win? Maybe it's because of a subtle recognition bias. Do judges rate products they know from companies they like higher than truly anonymous samples?

Another example of potential bias pops up when the judge is a distributor or retailer. Now they have a financial interest in the outcome of the judging. Does this influence them? It's not supposed to ...

Another example of potential bias arises when the organizer of the competition has undisclosed sponsors. Could such sponsorship sway decisions?

What I am fairly certain of is that the answers to these and many other issues do not lie in creating still yet another competition that issues still yet more awards that can be applied to seals on wrappers. In that direction lies only more consumer confusion.

OK, as an "outsider" I'm a little embarrassed. Yes, I've purchased the "award" chocolates and to be fair, many of them really are excellent. But I've had a few others... So this is a good conversation from people in the business. What Clay explained in his post seems quite obvious and makes me think, "Duh" because I hadn't put it together. Yes, it's likely impossible that the "award" chocolate bar I tasted couldn't possibly have been the one that was judged. I'd really like to taste one of those someday, just for comparison. That's not a bad idea for an article, just saying... I do think

@Keith_Ayoob - I was thinking it might be an idea for an extended tasting series. Buy the award winners and critique them. Are you in?

...continued...that a lot can happen during transport. I think of it almost in the same vein as food safety, which I know more about. You can have the greatest tasting meat/vegetables/ice cream, but how the consumer transports it home, handles it, and stores it makes all the difference. Ice cream is a perfect example. Haagen-Dazs is rich and creamy, but I worry when I see it in the grocery aisle for half an hour at room temperature, only to be re-frozen. Ditto for the consumer who purchases it, then goes off to run errands for an hour, then takes a while to re-pack into the home freezer. It's a recipe for making ice cream crystals and surely not the taste experience the maker had in mind. Probably the same thing for chocolate. Personally, I'm particular about how I keep my chocolate bars. Wrapped in plastic in a part of the fridge that is left alone, so fewer concerns about absorbing off flavors, etc. Interestingly, I just dove into a bar I bought in Paris, made by Jean-Charles Rouchoux about 10 months ago. It's 72%, Venezuelan Trinitario and it's fabulous. Don't like freezing my chocolate, although others do. My point is that a lot can happen between bean and bar and consumer unwrapping and eating. As with food safety -- everyone plays a role here.


Clay, count me in!!!!! Would be the best job.