Interview with Hazel Lee, Bean to Bar Maker & Consultant, NW Chocolate Festival, Chocolate Ecstasy Tours with Victoria Cooksey

Note:  This interview originally appeared on my Dark Matters Fine Chocolate blog on blogspot on 10-21-16.

I’m so pleased to bring you this interview with Hazel Lee!  Hazel is a bean to bar chocolate maker, chocolate consultant, social media director for the NW Chocolate Festival, is a tour guide with Chocolate Ecstasy Tours in England, a judge for both the Academy of Chocolate, and Quality Food Awards, and more!  Wow!  She is clearly a very busy lady, so I’m very grateful she made time to answer questions for my blog.  Thank you Hazel!  (She also gets my vote for best smile in the chocolate industry! Her smile will make you smile too, and it’s so clear she loves what she does).

Hazel Lee

Victoria Cooksey:  What was your first experience with fine chocolate?

Hazel Lee:  I walked into a Hotel Chocolat store in 2008 and tried a free sample of chocolate-enrobed rum-soaked raisins and instantly tasted the difference in their chocolate compared with high street confectionery. The quality was a whole new level and from that moment I was hooked!

VC:  Through your experience as a chocolate judge do you have any tips on tasting chocolate that would work for people doing a fine chocolate tasting at home? 

HL:  The main tips would be to eat the chocolate slowly and to use all of your senses. Fine chocolate is not just about the taste. First, take a good look at the chocolate, notice the colour and if it has a shine. Then listen to the chocolate as you snap a piece in half, what sound does it make? Then place a piece on your tongue and allow it to melt without chewing. Notice the speed at which it melts and the texture of the chocolate; what does it feel like? Creamy or maybe sandy? Then, as the chocolate melts, the flavours will slowly release from the chocolate. What flavours do you find? I believe that a truly great chocolate will tell you a story; different flavours will be released at different stages of the eating from beginning to end and even in the aftertaste. It’s always fun to taste chocolate with friends and share your thoughts. We all taste things differently and other people’s thoughts may help you discover more from your chocolate!

VC:  Is the single variety approach towards chocolate by makers important, why/why not?

HL:   I think that it is important for makers to promote direct trade with farmers for ethical reasons and to help educate consumers about where cacao comes from and the amount of work that goes into making a bar of chocolate, starting from the cocoa farm. From a taste perspective, I enjoy comparing different origins because each origin has a unique flavour and different chocolate makers will bring out different flavours from each bean. This is what I find truly fascinating, like wine(different origins = different flavours, amongst many other factors which can influence the final flavour of a bar).

VC:   What trends did you notice during the Specialty Chocolate Fair in London this year?  Do you think similar trends will be occurring at the upcoming NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle? 

HL:  One trend that I noticed in particular at the Speciality Chocolate Fair was the use of the word “raw”. Quite a few chocolate companies were using this word in very large font on their advertising materials. I personally feel that the word raw is misleading to consumers for a product which has gone through various processes with various temperatures (with minimal temperature control), and it was disappointing to see this continue as a big trend. An emerging trend that I noticed is incorporating new flavours into the bars by infusing the cocoa butter with herbs or spices and adding other ingredients into the grinder for flavour too. Chocolatiers are also experimenting a lot with sweet and savoury. I’m a bit of a purist so I usually go for single origin, but I do enjoy tasting innovative flavoured bars and chocolates as well!

I think that the term raw is decreasing in the US as opposed to Europe (with makers using the terms unroasted or virgin instead) which is great! I think that many trends in the chocolate world become global (ageing chocolate in whisky barrels for example, from Fruition and Raaka to Damson in London!), so I expect to see some similar trends at the Northwest Chocolate Festival. I very much look forward to seeing what’s on offer this year!

VC:   How important is it for a chocolate maker to have a strong social media presence, and why?

HL:   I think that it’s important to have at least some presence because social media is becoming a huge part of everyday life for consumers. It’s basically a free marketing tool and it gives consumers a chance to get to know the maker and the chocolate more and build trust with the brand.

VC:   When you give a tour with Chocolate Ecstasy Tours how have you seen people’s opinions/ideas towards chocolate change by the end of a tour? 

HL:   Most guests come with a love for chocolate but actually have no idea about where cacao is grown or how chocolate is made. As we progress through the tour and I share more information with them, they get more and more curious and I can see their appreciation for chocolate develop! This is my favourite part of the tours. I’ve had a few guests email me after the tours just to find out more and get advice on where they can discover more fine chocolate, which is wonderful.

VC:   How have your experiences of travel, chocolate tasting, and judging chocolate changed the way you approach your own experiments with making bean to bar chocolate?  

HL:   It’s kept me very open minded; there’s certainly never one way of doing things. And everyone has a different palate and different preferences, so there is no “perfect” chocolate either. There are the main processes: roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering and moulding. But there are many different ways of doing these processes and other processes in between which can influence the final bar.

VC:   When you are eating chocolate at home do you typically eat chocolate on its own, or do you like to pair it with cheese, tea, port, scotch, etc., and if so, what is your favorite pairing?  

HL:   95% of the time I eat chocolate on its own, but I quite like a weekend morning with some fresh black coffee and a few chunks of chocolate. I’ve attended a few pairing events and I’ve found them really fun and interesting. I think that my favourite pairing would have to be cheese. Together they can create some incredible new flavour experiences and, for me, cheese helps balance a large consumption of chocolate (somehow I feel less sick!). Cheese is a close second on my list of my favourite foods, with a fascinating variety in flavour.

Hazel Lee

Thanks for reading!  Keep an eye out for Hazel at the next NW Chocolate Festival in Seattle, WA this coming November.  I can’t wait to be around that much chocolate again!  See you there, and thank you again Hazel Lee!

Victoria Cooksey

Victoria Cooksey & Hazel Lee hanging out at the NW Chocolate Festival 2016 in Seattle, WA

Learn more about Hazel Lee:

NW Chocolate Festival:

Chocolate Ecstasy Tours;

Victoria Cooksey:

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