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Chocolate Zen

June 4th, 2007

The legends preceded it: chocolate so dark it ceased to taste like chocolate. Chocolate so intense it required cautionary statements. Chocolate so fine it cost $32 per pound. One of my coworkers is a fan of dark chocolate, and he was the one who first told me about the 99%-cocoa Lindt chocolate bar.

Such purity is exceptionally rare. A normal Hershey bar is rumored to contain about 11% cocoa (and could get worse). The “Special Dark” Hershey bar is just 45% cocoa. Even the “Extra Dark” variant clocks in at only 60%. Connoisseurs must look to a more exotic manufacturer.

The Lindt Excellence line of fine chocolate bars is widely available in the United States. Dark chocolate versions with 85% cocoa can be found with relative ease at chains as plebeian as Target. Such ubiquity is not shared by the 99% bar. For it, one must travel to a Lindt chocolate store. One exists in the Mall of America.

At the store, I was greeted by two pleasant young women offering free chocolate samples to browsers. My goal clear, I declined their truffles and proceeded straight to the chocolate bar section. There, on the wall, I saw it: a 99%-pure bar of cocoa. One of the saleswomen regarded my choice with concern. She made sure that I knew what I was getting into, that I knew I should enjoy the bar slowly, at home, with proper reverence and plenty of water. Undeterred by the cautionary statements, I asserted my comfort with the chocolate and completed my purchase. On the way home, I picked up a more mundane 85% bar for comparison.

The 85% bar and the 99% bar

The first thing I noticed was that the 99% bar was smaller than the 85% bar. Although the external packages shared identical dimensions, the 99% bar had a net weight of only 50 grams — half that of the 85% bar. That smaller size was not reflected in the price, for the 99% bar cost 10% more than the 85% bar, or 120% more by weight. The ingredient lists were very similar (chocolate, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and sugar), but the 85% bar contained vanilla while the 99% bar had none. Both were made in France — odd, seeing as how Lindt is a Swiss company.

The 99% bar's back side

I carefully opened the cardboard shell of the 99% bar and pulled out a foil tray. I was more than a bit surprised to find warnings on the wrapper that instructed me to work my way up to the 99% bar via the 70% and 85% versions.

The 99% bar's cardboard and inner foil container

The notice about how to eat the chocolate

Not wanting to disobey a piece of foil, I pulled out my 85% bar and warmed up my palate with a few nibbles. Suitably prepared, I returned to the main event.

The remainder of the foil warning cautioned the consumer to limit indulgence to small pieces left to melt on one’s tongue. Oddly, that part of the warning existed only in the English and German versions of the instructions. Perhaps the French and Italians are naturally better versed in the art of chocolate appreciation.

I took a deep breath and peeled back the wrapper from the fancy tray. Inside was a thin wafer of the darkest chocolate I have ever seen. I cautiously broke off a square, an act reported with a crisp snap. Ready to experience Chocolate Zen, I closed my eyes and laid the square on my tongue. My mouth closed, and my body heat began to release the essence of the bar.

Opening the inner foil container

I was at first struck by a mild bitterness, but that quickly passed (and was not to return for the rest of the session). The super-dark chocolate melted quickly and imparted a decidedly creamy mouthfeel, not unlike a fine caramel. Perhaps the most surprising trait was the absence of chocolate flavor, at least not in the traditional sense. The confection was not tasteless — no, it was simply unlike any chocolate I had ever experienced. Even the 85% bar was a world apart.

One piece of heaven

The 99% chocolate was an experience of purity. No chemical aftertaste. No waxy mouthfeel. Nothing to distract from the singular cocoa focus.

To compare the 99% bar with a Hershey’s dark bar would be to insult the Lindt creation, for they exist not in the same realm. Whereas the Hershey’s bar is overtly bitter and artificial, the 99% cocoa is soothing and natural. Neither are very sweet, but while the Hershey’s bar longs for sugar, the Lindt imparts an air of balance in its lack.

I sampled the 85% and 99% bars in turn several times, exploring different consumption techniques and speeds. All methods were enjoyable in their own ways.

After consuming just three squares of the 99% bar, I felt it was time to bring the experience to an end. The richness of the chocolate was leaving me satiated, and I didn’t want to waste either bar when I was not in the proper mindset for full enjoyment of the act.

If you get the opportunity to try high-quality, high-purity chocolate, I recommend that you indulge. If nothing else, you will gain a new appreciation for the rift between American commodity chocolate and what is possible from the world’s elite chocolatiers.

  1. June 4th, 2007 at 22:20 | #1

    Interesting read… next step: find a good port to accompany such a fine delicacy. Mount Pleasant Winery here in Missouri has one that would be just about perfect…

  2. Whitney
    June 4th, 2007 at 22:42 | #2

    How did I miss the Lindt store?!? πŸ™‚

    I really enjoy reading about chocolate.

  3. June 5th, 2007 at 00:02 | #3

    i got an 85 and a 99 on my way back from europe last time. i actually could not enjoy the 99%, my sister put it this way “way to ruin chocolate alex.” of the three lindt varieties i prefer the 70%

  4. Tom
    June 6th, 2007 at 11:00 | #4

    Hershey’s milk chocolate is garbage, but Special Dark actually does reasonably well at competitive tastings, and in my opinion just demolishes fru-fru chocolate in bang-for-the-buck ratio (ie, the stuff that is 500% more expensive isn’t 500% better).

    I really like Valrhona’s “Le Noir” which is “only” 56% cocoa solids.

    Great pictures!

  5. Brian
    June 17th, 2007 at 05:26 | #5

    I found some Ghirardelli that’s 100% if you want me to mail you a bar.

  6. keacher
    June 17th, 2007 at 16:35 | #6

    Hmm… I think I’ll have to give the Ghirardelli bar a try. Their web site suggests that those bars are sold in the Twin Cities, but if I can’t find one, I’ll drop you a line.

  7. keacher
    June 18th, 2007 at 22:14 | #7

    I found a Ghirardelli 100% Cocoa bar at Target and just tried a bit. Sadly, it can’t compare to the Lindt 99% bar. The Ghirardelli bar is just too bitter for my liking.

    Methinks it will become fudge in a few days.

  8. Kenny Cox
    August 14th, 2007 at 22:04 | #8

    I picked some 99% Lindt chocolat up in a German chocolate museum while I was studying in Europe this summer. After hearing about your experiment from one of the other brothers, I went and bought some 70% and 86% to ‘progress my palate’ as the wrapper says. I found the 70 to be fairly good and the 86 to be fairly bitter, but not bad. Then I moved onto the 99.
    I had one square.
    I think I’m going to make some fudge with it now…

  9. belleferret
    August 30th, 2007 at 06:17 | #9

    The Hershey’s Cacao Reserve (single bean) is quite good. I tried a bar of Santo Domingo, 67%, very intense, miid bitterness, excellent taste and mouth feel.

  10. choccoch
    September 9th, 2007 at 05:11 | #10

    A couple of years ago I was visiting a friend of mine in the USA. He knew that I’m a chocolate fan par excellence and tried to please me with a selection of the finest north american chocolates. I didn’t even try to be polite because all of them tasted like rotten chemical variants of cocoa soaken charcoal mixed with soy lecithin. Not even one of them had a texture or flavour like the cheapest chocolats from Switzerland or even Germany. You must be very happy to get some Lindt bars in the US but let me tell you: this bars are just in the upper segement of the standard quality chocolate available in 99% of all supermarkets.

  11. September 9th, 2007 at 05:16 | #11

    try some all-organic 100% cocoa chocolate:
    > 100% cocoa pure

  12. alister
    September 9th, 2007 at 05:16 | #12

    Lindt has at least 3 factories Swiss German & French, I prefer milk chocolate, so my preference in factory order is Swiss then closely German Then a wide margin to french. The Swiss factory makes the wide range of bars from milk to semisweet to dark to very dark

  13. JD
    September 9th, 2007 at 05:21 | #13

    Hershey recently petitioned the FDA to legally redefine the term “chocolate” to include artificial sweeteners, milk substitutes and trans fat…

  14. Jason
    September 9th, 2007 at 06:03 | #14

    Any over 70-75% is just unpleasant and has little value other than novelty and cooking.

  15. September 9th, 2007 at 06:05 | #15

    99%? pah! If you want to taste real chocolate goodness, try a 100% Domori Pasta di Cacao Chocolate bar.It is composed of Sur del Lago and Rio Caribe Cacao-Paste and nothing else. Nothing comes close.

  16. September 9th, 2007 at 06:07 | #16

    No, that is definetely not true. You need to use good cacao though, not the cheap ones in Lindt or Milka.

  17. Anonymous
    September 9th, 2007 at 06:56 | #17

    You don’t need to go to a Lindt store to buy the 99% bar. It’s available here in Canada at a variety of locations. Shoppers Drug Mart carries it. I bought one at a dollar store!

  18. Erin
    September 9th, 2007 at 08:26 | #18

    We regularly buy the Lindht 99% and Ghiradelli 100% bars for eating; I guess I like the Lindht bar better, but I won’t turn the Ghiradelli one away :^) They are definitely different animals, and it’s worth experiencing both. The Lindht store cashier won’t even bother to caution you if you pay for four at once.

  19. Steve Bennett
    September 9th, 2007 at 09:06 | #19

    Fwiw, you can get the 99% in supermarkets in France. I bought some once for a kick. Yeah, it’s fun. A bit over the top for everyday consumption though.

  20. Laurentino
    September 9th, 2007 at 10:21 | #20

    It is nice that you like “pure chocolate” but have you ever tasted REAL PURE CHOCOLATE, with no cocoa at all. Well that can only be found in Mexico. And believe me, it is delicious.

  21. September 9th, 2007 at 10:44 | #21

    All the products you have discussed are good in their own right.
    If you wish the best I have ever had, try the Heritage Chocolate researched by the Geography Dept of U Cal Davis made in limited batches by Mars Candy to the ancient recipes of the land and time from which chocolate originated: Southern Mexico.
    Be very careful, real chocolate, even in small doses of less than 10g is an aphrodisiac

  22. September 9th, 2007 at 10:59 | #22

    God damn it..why hath you made me so poor o’ lord that I can’t afford to leave this wretched 3-rd World country and seek out “MY” dark-chocolate zen πŸ™ ?

  23. adam
    September 9th, 2007 at 11:00 | #23

    check out “maison du chocolat,” a paris chocolate shop (i think they have a store in new york, too, and ship). their darks are nearly as rich as the 99% lindt, but sweetened of course (try their various 70-80% ranges).

  24. Matt
    September 9th, 2007 at 11:43 | #24

    I found some of that 99% stuff at a grocery store in Barcelona. I didn’t follow directions and work my way up to it though, so I didn’t fully appreciate it. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m okay with 85% dark, so I’m going to try and go from there now.

  25. jenipher
    September 9th, 2007 at 11:45 | #25

    you know, i really don’t think its fair. you guys bitch and moan about how this chocolate isn’t really up to par compared to that chocolate. this ones to bitter. that ones to waxy. that one over there has to much sugar, that one doesn’t have enough. fuck you guys.

    not a single one of you really appreciates chocolate. until it will kill you, you can’t really understand. develop a chocolate allergy so bad that even being in the candy isle makes it hard to breath. then try to say anything negative about chocolate. you shouldn’t be able to do it. not and still respect yourself as a person, anyway.

    i’m so jealous and angry at all of you. die in a fire.

  26. andp602
    September 9th, 2007 at 12:41 | #26

    what about my poor diabetic soul ? How much sugar is in these bars?

  27. JD
    September 9th, 2007 at 12:48 | #27

    While I like dark chocolate and dispise the “candy” chocolate from Hersheys and others; I did not like the 99%; way to bitter (almost zero sugar) for me. 85% is ok, but best is 70%.
    jenipher, you seem to be the one to me most intense about this chocolate “issue”.
    Breath and relax!
    Our search for chocolate perfection is not just to annoy you… ^_^

  28. Qt
    September 9th, 2007 at 12:54 | #28

    I don’t know, i usually eat dark chocolate in 60%-85% range but i didn’t liked Lindt 99% when i tried it, it had a “dusty” taste. Maybe it was that not having around the 70% and 85% i didn’t warmed up my taste bud.
    Well, after all they write it INSIDE the package and not in italian (my own language)! πŸ™‚

  29. jenipher
    September 9th, 2007 at 12:56 | #29

    i understand. and its nothing personal i promise. i just get obsessed about it sometimes because i can’t have it. i don’t think it would be such a problem if i had always been allergic to it. no. its a developed allergy that has only gotten worse over time. so i know exactly what i’m missing out on.

  30. rupert
    September 9th, 2007 at 13:10 | #30

    While I was living in France I purchased all sorts of dark chocolates. They have all sorts of them in ranges from 70% to 99%. I tended to prefer the 90-95% ones the best.

  31. September 9th, 2007 at 13:25 | #31

    My aunt, who is now 95, also developed a severe allergy to chocolate by eating too much of it in Switzerland (in her 30s, I think), so jenipher is not alone. How much did you eat, jenipher? I ask because I want to be careful. I would not want the same to happen to me.

  32. September 9th, 2007 at 13:47 | #32

    you think you’re hardcore? i eat my chocolate STRAIGHT OFF THE TREE.

  33. Jessalynn
    September 9th, 2007 at 14:15 | #33

    I like carob too…jenipher? You dont like carob at all? Its pretty close to chocolate..

  34. September 9th, 2007 at 14:23 | #34

    the chocolate is to dark and is black what did you do to the chocolate burn it.

  35. September 9th, 2007 at 14:25 | #35

    the best way to enjoy this 99% chocolate would be if they conditioned it in their “thin” format. when i was younger, i used to eat thin dark chocolate with my eyes closed and then kept the boxes just to smell them.

  36. September 9th, 2007 at 14:25 | #36

    even if i like dark chocolate i still wouldn,t eat it, nasty i don,t even see how that person ate it.

  37. September 9th, 2007 at 14:29 | #37

    phitar that was a stupid coment i don,t even get it.

  38. grammarnazi
    September 9th, 2007 at 14:35 | #38

    people, please learn the proper use of “to” and “too” – thanks.

  39. mrmouse
    September 9th, 2007 at 14:43 | #39

    Interesting comments about Hershey’s. Consumer Reports recently rated Hershey’s Cacao Reserve 65% with Cocoa Nibs excellent. It was the only one with this rating. The Lindt 70%, Chocolove 61% and Valrhona 71% were rated very good. I tried the Hershey’s Cacao Reserve 65% with Cocoa Nibs and it was very tasty. Maybe worth a review?

  40. Anonymous
    September 9th, 2007 at 14:53 | #40

    Dark chocolate is my favourite…personally, I think it pairs perfectly with a well made shot of espresso, a vegan latte, or a damn fine beer.

  41. Anonymous
    September 9th, 2007 at 15:24 | #41

    u have a ugly thumb >:{

  42. Anonymous
    September 9th, 2007 at 15:37 | #42

    Lindt’s chocolate isn’t fair trade. Of all the ingredients that go into chocolate, slavery shouldn’t be one of them. I don’t care how wonderful it tastes.

  43. Anonymous
    September 9th, 2007 at 17:25 | #43

    If I’m not mistaken, I have a similar chocolate bar and have two pieces of it with an oatmeal breakfast on most days. The main thing to note about the percentages as you go up from 45%, 75%, etc, is that the amount of sugar listed on the nutrition label goes down. Theres no added sugar in bars that have big labels of 99% or 100% chocolate.

  44. Anonymous
    September 9th, 2007 at 17:51 | #44

    Any chocolate lovers in S.F./Oakland should scrap the Ghiardelli and check out the Scharffen Berger factory if you want truly excellent chocolate.The 70% (Blue) bar is a great introduction. Though is is lower in actual cacao content, it is made from well roasted specially selected beans and it really brings out the aroma and fruitiness that most people don’t realize chocolate has. Trader Joe’s also has an excellent single-source bar from the Occumare region of Venezuela which can hold it’s own against some of the best boutique chocolates.

  45. Chocolate Hater
    September 9th, 2007 at 17:56 | #45

    You people need to get a life. Freaks.

  46. Brian
    September 9th, 2007 at 18:10 | #46

    Calling a 99% bar “worthless” is like calling beaujolais worthless. It’s just another variety, and some like it, while others don’t. Personally, I find that anything beyond 75% is so bitter as to be unpleasant, but then I’m pretty sensitive to bitter flavors. So it’s not as if there’s a fixed scale.

    I do find it interesting that the discussion here seems to revolve almost exclusively around the larger manufacturers. Certainly Valrhona and Lindt are capable of producing good chocolate. Even Hershey can make a couple of decent bars (owing largely to their purchase of and learning from artisan houses). But you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t tried bars from smaller, artisan makers.

    My two personal favorites are Scharffen-Berger and DeVries. Give them a try…you won’t go wrong.

    Oh, and the bit about tasting in order from lighter to darker is standard procedure. The darker chocolates frequently overwhelm lighter ones.

  47. September 9th, 2007 at 19:02 | #47

    just for curiosity, here in Italy Lindt is sold everywhere and it’s not considered “top quality” but “very good”, or at least is so where I live!
    Maybe you should try an italian Venchi that is one of the best I’ve eaten. Venchi is considered something like “top premium quality” πŸ™‚

  48. mmcclellan
    September 9th, 2007 at 19:12 | #48

    I have not worked my way up to 99% yet, but I do have a couple tips. 70% seems to be a “sweet spot” for us unrefined americans. YMMV, but I honestly find the 70% Sam’s Choice bar to be competitive with more expensive bars including 80% Lindt. Try it before dismissing it. Also, the Hershey’s Cacao Reserve 65% with Cocoa Nibs is also legitimately good.

  49. Ben
    September 9th, 2007 at 20:27 | #49

    Chocolate is disgusting

  50. Claire
    September 9th, 2007 at 20:34 | #50

    in some countries chocolate is eaten pure, 100%. to break the bitterness, it is served with sugar. speaking from experience, it’s wonderful.

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