Food: January 2007 Archives


January 2, 2007's 10-part expose of NoKA Chocolate is making the rounds. For those of you not familiar with this story, NoKA is a hyperexpensive luxury chocolate, coming in at between $309/lb and $2,080/lb (other high-end chocolates come in under $100/lb). Aside from a flashy box, the NoKA branding comes with a number of claims about the high quality of their chocolate. Here's the relevant FAQ section:
What is Single-Origin Chocolate?
Each NOKA truffle or chocolate contains dark chocolate made of the finest cacao from select plantations in a specific origin. For example, our Vivienté truffle is made from the finest Venezuelan dark chocolate (min. 75% cacao): from the luxurious ganache (center of the truffle) to the thinly enrobed shell and delicate shavings that decorate its exterior - only pure Venezuelan dark chocolate is used. By using only a single- origin chocolate it enables the tasting of the terroir or "true essence of the origin". A fitting analogy to our single-origin chocolate is to that of tasting fine wine - for example, a bottle of Californian Merlot will have a different flavor profile than a French Merlot - the resulting differences are due to a number of factors including soil and climate. The same is true with the finest single-origin chocolate.

How is your chocolate different than other dark chocolate?
Regular dark chocolate contains a blend of cacao from a variety of different origins. Most regular chocolate also contains vanilla, added to round out quality imperfections and create a consistent flavor. We focus solely on the highest quality single-origin dark chocolate and as such there is no vanilla in any of our chocolate. Our passion is tasting real chocolate, in its rarest and purest form, unadulterated by vanilla and any other flavorings.

Anyway, Scott at did a bunch of background research on NoKA. First, NoKA doesn't actually make the chocolate. Rather, they buy pre-made chocolate (called couverture), temper it and pour it into molds. They don't hide this fact, but Scott makes the case that they imply that they have a larger part in the production process than they do (in particular referring to couverture as "semi-refined" when it's the finished product). Second, the claims that NoKA makes about their chocolate aren't that unusual (and not necessarily benefits). A number of chocolatiers can make similar claims. Finally, Scott uses the descriptions of each of the offerings plus taste testing to make a very persuasive argument that Noka's chocolate is simply couverture bought from Bonnat—which chocolate can be bought far cheaper directly from Bonnat (though without the shiny box).

Naturally, this revelation has provoked a fair amount of anger and feeling that NoKA misrepresented their product. I suppose that's true, but say they hadn't. Say they were actually manufacturing the product themselves or had outsourced production to Bonnat with some custom recipe of their own design. You'd still be paying an outrageous price for the product, but you wouldn't have the option of buying it cheaper under a different name. Presumably that's what NoKA customers thought they were getting, right? So, what's the problem?

Here's another way to look at things. Say you're in the market to buy some high-end chocolate. Presumably you buy some small quantities and taste it and then buy whatever you like the best. If after you've followed this procedure you still end up buying NoKA, then either your background research failed (you didn't try Bonnat) or your taste isn't very good.


January 1, 2007

The other day I caught PRI's "The World" segment on "Open Source" Beer. The web site is here or maybe here. The uh, developers have a good line of patter going on about how they have the "the world's first open source beer!", but it's hard to see what's going on here that's special.

First, you can't copyright recipes (at least in the US), so the whole notion of their being an Open Source beer recipe is kind of silly. At that level, all recipes—at least those published in the US—are Open Source. Unless the European laws are substantially different, which I doubt, then the restrictions that the designers are trying to levy "you are free to earn money from Our Beer, but you have to publish the recipe under the same license (e.g. on your website or on our forum) and credit our work" are unenforceable. Note that they could potentially copyright a particular expression of their recipe, but if you look at their page, it's just the ingredient list along with relatively standard brewing directions.

One could imagine that they've filed for a patent, but that would require that there be something inventive. Let's take a look at the recipe:

  • 6 kg pilsner malt
  • 4 kg m√ľnsner malt
  • 1 kg caramel malt
  • 1 kg lager malt
  • 60 g Tetnang bitter hops
  • 50 g Hallertaver aroma hops
  • 300 g Guarana beans
  • 4 kg sugar
And here's the boiling instructions:
The malt extact is brought to a boil in a large pot with the hops and approx. 70 ltr. of water.

After half an hour, the Guarana beans and sugar is added.

The mixture simmers for about an hour, and is then filtered and cooled in a sealed container.

This is a pretty typical beer recipe, with fairly standard ingredients. If anything it's underspecified. For instance, the Beer Recipator lists three different varieties of Hallertauer hops, but we're not told which one to use. This kind of stuff matters. There are only two unusual (and I use the term loosely) features of this recipe. The first is the addition of the mild stimulant Guarana. It's not clear why anyone would want this in their beer, but Guarana is a standard ingredient of energy drinks, so there's not much use here. The second is the use of 5 kg of sugar (by the way, it would be nice if the authors told us whether they meant sucrose or corn sugar; again, details matter). This is a not uncommon element but there's some controversy over whether it leads to off flavors. Oh, yeah, one more unusual element: there are two uses of hops in beer. The first is for "bittering" and bittering hops are bolled with the wort (the malt extract and water). The second is for aroma and aroma hops are only added towards the end. The recipe here only seems to use bittering hops, which is a bit unusual in my experience, though might be appropriate depending on the style of beer this is supposed to be (they don't say).

So, as we've seen there's nothing unusual about this recipe. But maybe it's hard to find recipes? Actually, not so much. The Beer Recipator has something like 5,000 recipes listed. There's also the Cat's Meow, which has a zillion recipes. So, there's no shortage of perfectly good, much clearer, beer recipes. Absent some Cooks Illustrated style research, there's no reason to believe that this recipe is any better than any other (and given the broad variety of beer styles, it's not like there's one best recipe anyway).

Most importantly, beer isn't at all like software in that the informational component of production is very small. Given that you have the source code for a piece of software and a platform reasonably similar to that where the software was developed you'll get pretty much the same binary as the authors did. By contrast, with beer, even if you have a good recipe and reliable ingredients, you still need quite good technique to get solid results. Back when I was homebrewing, I lost several batches because they were infected due to improper technique. The problem is even worse if you're a commercial brewer because you not only need to turn out decent beer but you need to turn out beer that tastes the same batch after batch (as an aside, I've heard it said that this the real proof of the skill of Budweiser's brewmasters that their consistency and quality control is so good. You may not like their product but it's the one they intend to make and every can is near-identical) even in the face of inconsistency in the ingredients. Having a good recipe is only the very first step and one that's not at all hard to take without help from a bunch of Scandinavian students.