How we figured out the best chocolate in Vancouver
An inside look at how the first Van Mag Taste Test champion was crowned
February 22, 2016
Being asked to determine the best chocolate in Vancouver probably sounds like a dream assignment. But while it was certainly an enjoyable one for Peter Van de Reep, Pam Williams and Stacey McLachlan, the three judges in our first-ever Taste Test, there were also some tough moments. After all, how do you choose between a really, really good chocolate and another really, really good chocolate? It’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.
What were they looking for? Campagnolo’s Peter Van de Reep says it’s a balance between assessing the technical merits of a given piece of chocolate and listening to what your gut is saying. “I’m looking for texture, intensity of flavor, balance, and finish. Are there any faults or off-flavours that you wouldn’t expect? And is it enjoyable? Is it delicious? Do you want to eat more of it? That’s how I approach all tasting of all things—it’s the number one criteria.” For Pam Williams, the founder of Ecole Chocolate Professional School of Chocolate Arts and someone who’s judged her fair share of chocolate competitions, it often comes down to presentation and execution. “When it comes down to picking the best, it’ll be 50 percent. That separates—and excuse this—the men from the boys. The guys who are consistently very careful in what they do are the ones that will end up being the winner if the flavor is exactly the same. And that’s what it’s going to get down to with us too, probably.”
Because we’re big fans of the bracket challenge format (and because it’s March) we decided to use that in order to pit our eight contenders against each other in order to find the best chocolate in the city. Here’s how the brackets went down.
Thomas Haas vs. Temper Chocolate and Pastry
Thomas Haas is something of a legend in Vancouver’s community of pâtissiers, and his North Vancouver shop is a destination for anyone who has even a passing interest in chocolate. Steven Hodge, who apprenticed under Haas for four years, is hoping to get there one day. He opened his own shop in Dundarave in 2014, almost 10 years after Haas opened his landmark North Vancouver location, and it only made sense to put the two against each other in the first round.
It was, by all accounts, a close contest. Temper’s truffle scored slightly higher in terms of its craftsmanship, but the judges found the ganache to be just a shade on the dry side, and they preferred the bitterness of Haas’s creation to the fruitier flavours in Hodge’s.
The Winner: Thomas Haas
Chocolate Arts vs. Chez Christophe
This segment of the bracket featured a battle of the balls, as Chocolate Arts’s cocoa-dusted sphere went up against Chez Christophe’s own orb. The Chocolate Arts creation scores slightly higher in terms of execution, as it doesn’t have the tiny foot that Chez Christophe’s does. Then again, as Van de Reep says, that foot combined with the confectioner’s sugar that it’s dusted with makes it look a lot like a Death Star. When it comes to flavour, the judges prefer the Chocolate Arts ball just a little bit more, noting that while the ganache is sweeter it’s nicely offset by the bitterness of the cocoa powder on the outside. “I think the bitterness actually helps it out in terms of balance,” Van de Reep says. Williams, meanwhile, says the flavour in its ganache is coming through just slightly more clearly. “I’m getting just a little bit more of the chocolatey flavor in the darker one. But we’re talking degrees here. It’s very, very close.”
Winner: Chocolate Arts
Gem Chocolates Vs. Beta5
The luxurious finish on the shell of Gem’s truffle draws rave reviews, and it gets full marks for the balance in the shell itself. But all the judges pick up on the slightest hint of sourness in the ganache inside, and while it’s barely perceptible—Williams says it’s “just a tiny bit”—it’s enough to put it behind Beta5’s gorgeous square, which suffers from no such deficiencies. “This is really well done,” Williams says. “There’s a little bit of a foot, but that’s about as good as you can get.”
Purdy’s vs. ChocolaTas
Given that these two entries look like members of the same chocolate family, it only made sense to pair them together in the first round. And while the Purdy’s entry holds its own, its relatively dryer and chewier ganache can’t quite hang with the flavour that the ChocolaTas truffle brings to the table. But, Williams says, Purdy’s is at a significant disadvantage to its fellow competitors given that it has to make chocolate that will last for months rather than weeks. “It’s not selling it across the counter that is the challenge in terms of shelf life. It’s what people do with it afterwards. So if you give these to grandma at Christmas, she may not finish them until Easter. Purdy’s, because they have to have this longer shelf life, has a dryer ganache. That gives you a longer shelf life because you don’t have as much moisture.”
ChocolaTas vs. Beta5
Now it starts to get difficult for the judges. “Neither one is better than the other as far as their craftsmanship goes,” Williams says. “I’m having a really hard time.” McLachlan is a bit less conflicted, though, and comes out strongly in favour of Beta5. “I really like the coffee flavor to it,” she says. “They’re quite similar in texture and composition, but they taste so different to me.” Eventually, after careful deliberation, Van de Reep sides with McLachlan. “I think I like that one a little better,” he says. “The texture was just a tiny bit finer in the ganache. That’s what won it over for me.”
Thomas Haas vs. Chocolate Arts
This one’s another “toughie,” as Williams puts it. “From a craftsmanship perspective, they’ve both done their jobs as best they could,” she says. “I don’t think we can fault them there.” McLachlan prefers the Chocolate Arts ball, while Williams sides with the Thomas Haas’s square, noting that the ganache in the ball is just too sweet for her. Van de Reep deliberates again, but this time he goes the other way. “Yeah, it’s the square,” he says. “Sorry.”
Winner: Thomas Haas
Thomas Haas vs. Beta5
The Beta5 entry is clearly growing on the judges by now, and it doesn’t take them long to come to a consensus around it as the winner. “The craftsmanship on it is better, by far,” Williams says, while everyone continues to appreciate its Coffee Crisp-esque flavour profile. “We did it,” McLachlan says. “We figured it out. You’re welcome, Vancouver.”