Spotlight: Milk & Inclusions
Milk chocolate is pretty straightforward: milk powder is added to the ground cocoa beans and sugar that would otherwise make dark chocolate. There is a huge range of milk chocolate, including everything from super sweet bars with just ~20% cocoa solids to dark milk bars that contain 65% or more. And, with the availability of non-dariy milk bars such as oat and coconut milk, there is really something for everyone.
"Inclusions" is the industry term for anything added to a chocolate bar, such as nuts, salt, or candied citrus peel (as well as more outlandish inclusions like sourdough bread, salted licorice, reindeer moss, wild gorse flower, kumquat, pho spices, porcini mushroom, soursop, sweet potato, spruce shoots, sasparilla, puffed quinoa, black pepper, fried corn, pop rocks, fennel, cardamom, green banana and more - you can find all of these on Bar & Cocoa). I'm not endorsing any of these combinations (except Soma's berries and pop rocks bar), I'm just saying ~they exist~.
I think fine cacao is best enjoyed as plain chocolate in the 65-85% range, with nothing but sugar and maybe cocoa butter. Inclusions distract from both the flavor and the texture. That's not to say they can't be tasty, it's just not my preference to eat chocolate that way. Milk can dilute and mask the flavor, but I can't pretend I don't enjoy a good dark milk bar. Done well, you still get lots of chocolate flavor, plus an added richness and lots of caramel flavors.
Somehow, I've still ended up trying a handful of inclusion bars that are worth mentioning.
Uganda 71% Maple with Nibs
Flavor: Good, little bitterness, light astringency, fruity, but well rounded – not particularly acidic; like a mixture of hazelnuts and dried raspberries with some creaminess as well, like cream with a hint of vanilla. The nibs work well here and add pleasant textural contrast. Maple not particularly apparent, but I like that: it complements rather than dominates the flavor.
Recommendation: Recommended. Raaka seems to have perfected the art of coaxing complexity from unroasted beans, and these Uganda beans shine in this bar. The crunch of the nibs makes it great for snacking.
Batch info: 189; Enjoy by March 2022
Brazil & Madagascar 73% Brown Butter, Nibs, and Sea Salt
Flavor: Very good. Banana bread, butter adds complexity and mellows it a bit. The unique flavor of their Northerner blend (Brazil and Madagascar) still comes through. Dried tart cherry, bright fruity, and pleasant unrefined earthy notes from the nibs are a fun contrast with the chocolate itself, which is complex, with little bitterness and little astringency. Nibs are excellent.
Recommendation: Highly recommended.
Mexico Soconusco 73% with Piñole (Limited Edition)
No longer listed on Sirene’s website but I bought it at Yahara Chocolate. This bar is sprinkled with piñole, a mixture of roasted heritage corn and a traditional brown sugar known as panela.
Aroma: cocoa powder, popcorn, corn flour, brown sugar
Flavor: Very sweet, with notes of dark honey, raisin, molasses, grape, and cooked peach. The unrefined sugar flavor comes though a little. Also a hint of spices – ginger. Corn flavor is mild, but a distinct pleasant roasted note is there – like corn on the cob or kettle corn.
Recommendation: Recommended. The lovely Soconusco cacao flavor comes through, and the delicate flavors of corn and brown sugar complement the chocolate. It’s pretty sweet for a dark bar, owing to the natural mildness of the beans and the extra sugar. This is one of those rare inclusion bars that actually works, offering a unique synthesis of flavors that don’t compete with each other.
Dominican Republic and Peru Oat Milk
Aroma: oatmeal cookies, oats, creamy chocolate, cookie dough
Flavor: Oatmeal raisin cookies, cookie dough with lots of butter and brown sugar richness, a little bit of red fruit too as it melts. Nice balance of rich chocolate flavors from the blend of Peru and Dominican Republic beans. The flavors are softened by the oats but not drowned by them. The oatiness is mild and integrates well with chocolate. Evokes richness of butter and brown sugar.
Recommendation: Recommended. In terms of oats as a vegan milk chocolate option, this bar works well. The oats do add a noticeable flavor, but it’s mild and pleasant, and well-integrated with the chocolate. Definitely more of a cookie dough flavor than plain dairy richness, but it achieves a really nice kind of creamy, mellowed chocolate flavor that you might want from traditional milk chocolate.
Batch info: Batch 20110; Best by November 2021
Peru 70% with Birch Leaves and Forest Crystals
This unique bar, made in Finland, combines Peruvian criollo cacao with classic Nordic forest elements: birch and spruce, in the form of dried birch leaves, spruce sprout powder, and birch sugar.
Flavor: Strong flavors of sap, terpenes, lemongrass, herbal. To the degree that you can taste the chocolate, it’s good. Smooth texture and nothing unpleasant in the flavor.
Recommendation: Recommended with reservations. It’s actually a really interesting flavor experience, but definitely dominated by the inclusions. If you don't like the flavor of spruce, you are not going to like this. Conversely, if you enjoy strong herbal flavors, you'll love it.
Batch info: Batch # 090221; Best by March 2022
Madagascar 70% with Reindeer Moss and Lingonberry
Another unique Nordic bar, this one features lingonberries that complement the bright, fruity flavor of the Madagascar cacao and reindeer moss, which is visually and conceptually cool while not adding much in terms of flavor.
Flavor: The lingonberries highlight the natural tanginess and red fruit flavors of Madagascar cacao in a really cool way. And while the moss doesn’t taste like much, it’s an interesting concept that would make this bar a fun gift or addition to an inclusion tasting.
Haiti PISA Milk Chocolate with Brown Cheese 45%
Brown cheese, also known as brunost or gjetost for varieties made from goat’s milk, is a mixture of caramelized whey and heavy cream with a flavor reminiscent of dulce de leche or butterscotch with a little bit more savoriness.
Flavor: This bar works well! The dulce-de leche-like flavor of the brown cheese comes through, but we still get plenty of chocolate flavor. The texture is sandy, but pleasantly so, and it melts smoothly. I haven’t liked most Haitian cacao that I’ve tried, but it works here. Notes of ripe fruit, port wine, spices, and licorice come through. You can tell it’s an intensely flavored cacao, and it balances out well here with the sugar, milk, and brown cheese.
Recommendation: Highly recommended, especially if you like milk chocolate or are looking to try something unique!
Philippines 50% Dark Milk
Review coming soon
Tanzania Kokoa Kamili 60% Dark Milk
Review coming soon
Ucayali Peru 60% Dark Milk
Review coming soon
Brazil 57% Dark Milk
Review coming soon
Fossa + Pekoe & Imp
Tea-infused dark chocolate: Duck Shit Dancong (yes, that's really the name; no, there's no actual duck excreta involved) and Liu Bao Hei Cha
Flavor: A balanced synthesis of tea and chocolate flavors. The quality of the cacao comes through (Ecuadorian in one, Malaysian in the other); the tea is distinct but not overwhelming.
Recommendation: Recommended. If you like tea, these bars are a unique and pleasant addition to a tasting.