In Pursuit of Flavor
I've been listening to David Nilsen's Bean to Barstool podcast lately. If you haven't listened to it yet, you ought to. He uses bean-to-bar chocolate and craft beer as "lenses for exploring the world of flavor" and his anecdotes and conversations are thought provoking and worth savoring, especially if you get as excited about flavor and culinary experiences as I do.
I was listening to his latest episode about coffee on a recent drive. His purposefully chosen intro music for the episode had a ringing percussion in the background that instantly transported me back to my childhood kitchen table. The sound was reminiscent of my parents making their morning coffee, spoons jangling against the sides of the porcelain cups as they stirred in their Folgers instant granules and milk.
David's guests are talking passionately about the flavor profiles of their chosen coffee beans, specifically how different origins and roasts lend themselves to both chocolate bars and beers. My mind drifts to working on the coffee and cacao farm in Hawaii where I first tasted the possibilities of what coffee and chocolate could be. Coffee wasn't just instant, nor was it overly roasted and burnt. Chocolate wasn't just this sugar hit that I grew up thinking it was supposed to taste and smell like. Both had layers of flavor that unraveled in my mouth. The chocolate in particular had berry notes and citrus undertones that lingered on my palate. That first bite of "tree to bar" chocolate quite literally changed my life. When I returned to the mainland, I pivoted my career and began working with this delightfully complex medium.
On his instagram page earlier this year, David asked what chocolate bars stood out for anyone during 2020. It's a great reflective question, and for me it was a Michelada-inspired bar from Rio Sierpe Cafe and Chocolate in Costa Rica. It was both lime- and salt-forward, like a refreshing margarita on a summer day. While I wouldn't normally pair margaritas and chocolate, I was so impressed at a.) how well the acid and sweetness from the lime came through and b.) how well it was balanced with salt. All of this combined with a citrus-heavy cacao made for a beautifully enchanting bar.
I wasn't a beer drinker in college, and am still not a huge one now, but I do love going to breweries, grabbing a flight, and tasting my way through their menu. It's a smaller commitment for me than a whole pint, much like how my sampler boxes of chocolate serve as a flight of small tastes rather than being stuck with a single bar of one flavor. During a weekend trip some years ago to Half Full, my local brewery at the time, I recall my shock and delight after my first sip of their lime gose. It was the first beer I'd imbibed that wasn't your average pale ale or overly hopped IPA. It was salty in the best way possible with a kick of citrus and funk. Anyone who dines with me knows I'm not a big salt person, so to be pleasantly caught off guard by this sour/salt concoction was mind blowing. That gose forever changed the way I look at beer. The Michelada chocolate bar I had last January was excitingly reminiscent of that pour, and not surprisingly, my go-to beer these days is a lip-puckering sour.
As the podcast continued, and the tasting notes were explored, I thought to myself, maybe this is what I'm really after with my chocolate; exploring the possibilities of flavor. It's been there since the beginning, it just hadn't donned on me in that way. There are so many facets about cacao and chocolate that interest me, but none really grab hold of my attention and excite me quite like the range of tasting notes one can achieve. Maybe this is why David's podcast speaks to me so much. Of the "great" meals and drinks I've enjoyed over the years, it's not the most elaborate or expensive, Michelin-starred plates I remember. It's the nuances that catch me off guard, the ones that expand my mind and my thinking of what I thought I already knew to be true. Environment and memory play a role as well, but perhaps that's a subject for another day.