Every Friday morning as you sip your (Equal Exchange!) coffee and settle into your day, something remarkable is happening. Promptly at 10 a.m., highly trained tasters are assembling in a quiet corner of the Quality Control lab at Equal Exchange for an hour of intense product evaluation. This is the Tasting Panel, a hand-picked group of the best mouths at Equal Exchange.
This is not an informal tasting. The members of the tasting panel have undergone extensive sensory training and calibration as a group, honing their skills and continually developing their pallets. This is a well-oiled tasting machine.
Did you know that the differences between two products can be assigned a numerical score? The panel does. For an hour every Friday we are transformed from people with opinions and preferences to unfeeling, scientific tools, capable of assigning a number to every sensory attribute of a product. Whereas at lunch, we may remark that, “This almond is crunchy,” in panel we would say, “This almond has a hardness of 9 and a fracturability of 8.” It sounds ridiculous, but it is important to track these qualities to ensure consistency from batch to batch of product.
Like any tool, we must remain sharp. But how do you sharpen your tongue? Not by studying witticisms! No, the panel uses food to keep our palettes active and at attention. How do you know if a chocolate bar has a hint of hazelnut if you have never actually tasted a hazelnut? A chocolate bar may have a note of cherry, but it is better to name the kind of cherry (maraschino or bing? Fresh or dried? Cooked or raw?) and therefore it is best to eat every kind of cherry.
The panel often devotes entire sessions to developing our tasting vocabulary by eating reference foods. This can be fun, like when we have to eat caramelized sugar references, but it can also be taxing. As you may know, Equal Exchange offers a milk chocolate bar. We thought it would be useful to familiarize ourselves with as many kinds of dairy products as possible and dove into whole milk, buttermilk, cream, cooked milk, malted milk, butter, and cream cheese. Whew!
So who are these masters of mastication, these gurus of gastronomy? Meet a few of our panel members below and see what they have to say for themselves!
Suzanne Keleher: Customer Service Representative
“I feel very privileged to be a member of our tasting panel. We are an important tool for making sure we are selling top quality foods.
When I tell people outside of work that I eat chocolate as part of my job, they're jealous. And, I am really awesome at detecting rancidity!”
Kelsie Evans: Chocolate Products Coordinator
“I love that Equal Exchange has the panel. I think it's a testament to our commitment to producing high quality products. There's so much involved in tasting, in really being able to taste chocolate, identify each flavor and put words to that experience. I definitely learn something new each session. And really, who can complain when tasting chocolate is part of your job description!”
Beth Ann Caspersen: Quality Control Manager
“Panel has been a great way to enhance our culture of quality at Equal Exchange. Getting folks from around the organization trained in tasting leads to more discussions by more people about what they eat and why it's important to seek out quality ingredients.”
Joe Driscoll: Equipment Coordinator
“It makes for great small talk at parties. The conversation usually goes something like this:
'What do you do for work?'
'Well...among other things, I eat chocolate.'
'You get paid to eat chocolate?!'"
Michael Mowry: Coffee Quality Coordinator
“Panel has been an incredible tool for my learning. I'm used to spending my work week tasting and judging coffees, so some serious time analyzing our chocolates and cocoa is not only a lot of fun, but also super useful to me professionally. After all, chocolate and coffee can have a lot in common!”
Ashley Symons: Content and Social Media Coordinator
“Doing a descriptive analysis of chocolate isn't as easy as it sounds! It definitely takes training and lots of practice; my skills get better with every session.”