Madagascar Battle: Bonnat vs. Amano

Rather than just review chocolate against some ideal, I thought it might be interesting to parallel taste chocolates made from the same origin beans to see the difference that the chocolate maker’s technique can make on roughly the same raw ingredient. We’re lucky enough to be alive at a time when there are a wealth of single-origin bars that, in addition to showing the characteristics of individual bean types, make this kind of comparison possible. Note that different bean harvests can also make a large difference, so any comparisons are necessarily approximate until we get chocolate labelled with origin and harvest. The point here is not to conduct an “Iron Chocolate” battle (as fun as that idea is…), but to see the different qualities that can be coaxed from similar cacao.

For this tasting, I’m matching up chocolate made from cacao grown in Madagascar, a “criollo-heavy” bean. The two bars are from very different chocolate makers. The first is Bonnat, a family company from Voiron, France, that has been making chocolate since 1884. The second is Amano, an artisan chocolate producer in Orem, Utah. Amano, started by Art Pollard, released it’s first commercial bar last year.

Let’s start with the basics, the ingredients in both bars:

  • Bonnat Madagascar (75% cacao): Cacao, cocoa butter, sugar
  • Amano Madagascar (70% cacao minimum): Cocoa beans, pure cane sugar, cocoa butter, Tahitian vanilla pods

From the ingredients, we can see some different choices. From the order of ingredients, we can speculate that Bonnat has used more cocoa butter, while Amano probably has a higher proportion of cacao from the bean. This should yield a slightly smoother texture, or at least less viscosity in the Bonnat than the Amano, while the Amano should have a more intense taste. Amano has also added vanilla, which will make a significant difference.

So, how does American ingenuity compare to 123 years of French history?

Both bars exhibit the basic qualities of the Madagascar cacao. The aroma is a fruity, figgy and citrusy nose with a fair amount of underlying smokiness. Both bars start with solid notes of smoke, leather, and wheat, and then smoothly transition to a delighful apple/grape/peach finish, with a woody aroma. In contrast to a typical African Forestero bean, which is full of that classic “brownie” chocolate flavor, the chocolate note plays out in the middle, and unifies the nutty and fruit flavors.

The bars are quite different in how the chocolate makers have chosen to elaborate those flavors, especially the end notes. The Bonnat melts on the tongue faster, so the initial smoky and wheaty note arrives earlier, and is more dominant. The Amano has more of a “snap”, less of the wheaty note, and releases the initial flavors notes more slowly, so the flavors arrive in more of a blend. The end fruity note lasts longer in the Amano bar, and the vanilla helps emphasize the sweetness of those flavors. The Amano also has a more pronounced astringency throughout, while the Bonnat is more bitter. Overall, the Bonnat bar has more dramatic flavor transitions, while the Amano is a more unified taste. (My co-taster feels the Bonnat “jumps off a cliff.”) I’d be quite curious to know how the chocolate makers roasted the beans, as that may also account for some of the difference. One could speculate that a gentler roast on the Amano is the reason that some astringency is still present, but that delicious end note lingers on for a longer time.

The textures are also quite different. The Bonnat has a more yielding initial bite and melts quite rapidly, (probably due to the higher cocoa butter content), while the Amano has a crisper snap and more sustained melt. Both are well conched, but the Amano has a slightly smoother texture. Bonnat says on it’s site that they conch for at least 20 hours, and I suspect the Amano has had a much longer time in the conche. It feels more unified, which can be a result of a longer conching time.

Amano has done a superb job here, producing a bar that surpasses in many respects the efforts of a top-class old-line European chocolate maker.

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