Elizabeth Bear Review: Berkshire Bark – Chocolates from the Exotic Reaches of the Bay State

Review by Elizabeth Bear: I received three bars of Berkshire Bark for review –Tropical Heat, Jumpin’ Java, and Midnight Harvest. This is not my first experience with the confectioner: Tropical Heat is one of my preferred road-trip snack foods. However, I had no previously sampled the other two varieties.

As a sensory experience, the bar itself is truly satisfactory. It’s a great big rough-hewn chunk of chocolate (the packaging indicates two servings to a bar, but I generally get three.) I am not opposed to Things In Chocolate as so many are (although Things In Brownies are a great disappointment: we don’t mess with perfection) and I very much like a dark, even bitter chocolate. I usually keep a bag of bittersweet Callebaut chips in the cabinet for noshing and baking purposes, except when my room-mate has stolen them all.

Berkshire Bark appears to be a local Massachusetts company (I live in Connecticut; the states up here are small enough for that to count as “local” even by most locavore standards) and there’s no hint on their box or website that they’re owned by anybody larger. The chocolate comes packaged conveniently, in a plastic sealed pouch inside a box you can close up and stick back in the cabinet or glove box without getting crumbs everywhere.

I don’t hold with refrigerator chocolate, so all of the bars were sampled at room temperature.

I tried the Midnight Harvest first, on the theory that it was the one I was least likely to enjoy. It bills itself as “Premium quality Belgian dark chocolate [with] whole roasted almonds and hazelnuts, fresh orange zest, and Cape Cod cranberries.” I tend to dislike packaged foods with hazelnuts in them, finding the flavor cloying, although I like filberts in the shell just fine. Imagine my surprise when these hazelnuts added crunch and flavor, but no off-taste. I suspect that means they are, indeed, excruciatingly fresh. If anything, I had a hard time telling them from the almonds without visual inspection.

The orange note isn’t strong, either in the aroma or the taste. If I hadn’t read the package, I would not have noticed this–although the cranberries are plump and juicy. But what about the chocolate? Surely the chocolate is the star of the show!

Well, sort of. It’s very nice chocolate, if without the strong personality of a really good bittersweet. But it’s creamy–especially so for a dark chocolate (I’d call it a “dark and sweet”) and it works fairly well with the associated flavors.

Jumpin’ Java came next, while my palate was still relatively fresh. This may have been a mistake, as this is a very intensely flavored bar. It contains big chunks of coffee beans and cacao nibs, as well as almonds and espresso toffee, bound together with (again) “Premium quality Belgian dark chocolate.” I don’t know what couverture Berkshire Bark uses, but it’s definitely a mild one–though velvety, without the waxy characteristics of cheaper chocolates. Surprisingly, it pairs very well with this aggressively flavored (and aggressively crunchy) bark, mellowing out the harsh edges of the cacao nib s and coffee beans. The toffee got lost, frankly: like the orange zest above, its main purpose may be cosmetic.

A brief inspection of the ingredients list indicates that the most suspicious thing in these bars is “soy lecithin,” and the fruit is sulfite-free: not too shabby. It also tells me that the Jumpin’ Java (which does seem to contain a significant amount of caffeine) has milk chocolate in it as well, so the vegan and dairy-averse would do well to be warned. I suspect the extra sweetness helps offset the coffee bitterness.

The aroma of this one was heavenly–in fact, I think I’m going to go throw on a pot of coffee as soon as I finish typing this column.

Last but definitely not least, my old standby, Tropical Heat. This is that same “Premium quality Belgian dark chocolate” we’ve come to know so well, this time in combination with chilis (ancho and cayenne), mango, papaya, coconut, pineapple, and roasted macadamia nuts. It’s like trail mix in a convenient candy shell!

The aroma is fruit and chocolate, unsurprisingly. I think you could get a dopamine hit just sniffing the wrappers. The level of heat is very mild, to my palate, and brings its own endorphins. Pretty much, this chocolate bar makes me happy, and while it may be entirely biochemical, it’s real.

The overall result of all the tropical fruit in this bar is that it comes across as fairly sweet. The fruit chunks are quite large and toothsome, big enough that each bite comes with a different array of flavors–pineapple here, mango there. (The bars are all approximately the thickness of the width of my ring finger nail; I wear a woman’s extra-large glove, so there’s plenty of room for stuff in there.)

All in all, good respectable snacking chocolate, high quality, not a trace of bloom or unintentional grittiness in any of the bars, but not a lot of depth or nuance either. (The espresso beans are a bit gritty, of course.) It’s not the nuanced, rounded flavors of a Callebaut or a Schokinag, but it’s about as good as supermarket chocolate is going to get.

I’m just sorry they didn’t send me a Pretzelogical bar to test, because I admit, I’m intrigued.

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