At MIT, a hunger for chocolate knowledge

Jayson Lynch (center) hands out samples at an MIT Laboratory for Chocolate Science tasting. Jayson Lynch (center) hands out samples at an MIT Laboratory for Chocolate Science tasting. (aram boghosian for the boston globe)
By Courtney Hollands
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - Conversations about chocolate typically revolve around the obvious: flavor, intensity, milk vs. dark. But for the students in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Chocolate Science, the discussion runs a bit more, well, technical.

You may learn, for instance, that chocolate has six crystalline states and that heating it too quickly can separate its molecules and cause it to become gritty. Or: When chocolate absorbs moisture, fats and sugar crystals rise to the surface or "bloom," causing it to take on a whitish sheen or oily texture. (Hence the film you might find on last year's Christmas candy.) "It's fun to explore the different sides of chocolate," says Allison Kunz, 23, who graduated last year and still attends the group's events. "There are scientific, political, and business aspects."

The laboratory, which is essentially a chocolate appreciation club, formed in 2003 as an extension of then-student Ariel Segall's truffle-making parties. Today, there are about 10 active members - mechanical engineering, chemistry, material science, and mathematics majors united by a love of cocoa - and close to 500 people on the lab's mailing list. They come together regularly for tastings and chocolate classes; most events are open to the public. To generate interest, the chocolate enthusiasts don matching pink or brown T-shirts featuring molecular diagrams of chocolate and coffee and set up a table near the entrance of freshman orientation or activity fairs. "We'll have fondue - people can dip strawberries or try chocolate flavored with strange spices," says sophomore Anna Waldman-Brown, 19. The spread, not surprisingly, is popular and draws in members.

During the school year, the group raises money through truffle sales. They make white, dark, and milk chocolate varieties, flavored with everything from habanero pepper to chai tea. Two of the more unique (and potentially off-putting) flavors the group has experimented with are wasabi-lime truffles and Marmite truffles. Members joke that they should create a "Beaver Bar" - a treat named for the school's industrious mascot. Students are known to serve hot cocoa during finals and hold brownie bake-offs. Earlier this year, a representative from Kallari - a sustainable chocolate-making cooperative in Ecuador - spoke at the school.

At a recent dinner the lab put on, self-described "chocolate freak" Ian Hawkins and his wife, Bronwyn, sampled white-chocolate potato curry and chicken mole. The couple, who live in Boston, found out about the Lab for Chocolate Science at "I'd love to have the bank account to only buy good chocolate," Hawkins says. But not with today's "financial apocalypse." He'll be back at MIT for more tastings.

Students may adapt the tasting terms used to describe wine and other foods - i.e. fruity, oaky, and earthy - to chocolate. Small San Francisco-based chocolate manufacturer TCHO, for example, uses a flavor wheel to differentiate and label its products.

This group has a thirst for chocolate knowledge, but the students are also motivated by a sweet tooth. "We just love chocolate - we're really passionate about it," says senior Meghan Reedy, 21.

For more information about the Chocolate Lab, go to Check out a video of the MIT chocolatiers in action at