It's becoming common to hear craft chocolate makers talk about aging their chocolate to improve flavor. But does it really work? In my experience the answer is, it depends. Here's why.
First we have to understand what the purpose of aging is. I know, it's to improve chocolate's flavor. Under the hood, though, we have a few more specific goals in mind. First, we want to get rid of any bad or "off" flavors. Second, we want to help the good flavors integrate into a pleasant overall tasting experience.
There is little question that aging can help achieve these things. The off flavors? Some of them are volatile, meaning they like to float away into the air rather than stay in the chocolate. And over time, yes, some of them will float away. What about integrating good flavors? After chocolate is molded, its crystal structure continues to develop for a few weeks--the details are complicated, but the result can be a more rounded flavor profile.
How much potential aging has to improve flavor, then, just depends on how the chocolate tastes when it's fresh. Lots of off flavors and an unbalanced flavor profile? Sure, aging is going to help correct those flaws. Few off flavors and a naturally balanced flavor profile? Aging is a waste of time--no flaws to correct!
So, we have to step back one more time to learn what determines how the chocolate tastes when it's fresh. Simply put, there are two factors: cocoa bean quality and production techniques. Some beans have a lot of off flavors, some don't. And some production techniques remove a lot of off flavors, some don't. You get the idea: there are as many scenarios out there as there are cocoa bean origins and production techniques--many, many, many.
Hopefully by now you see that it would be wrong for me to make a blanket statement about aging. However, there are a couple things I will say about aging and craft chocolate. For the most part, craft chocolate makers deliberately select higher quality beans with nice flavor profiles and few off flavors, and use longer running production techniques. This combination of beans and techniques doesn't leave much "bad stuff" behind for aging to fix.
That's why you should take claims about the importance of aging with a grain of salt. Yes, aging can improve flavor in some craft-chocolate scenarios, and rarely would it hurt, but it's certainly not always beneficial. In fact, I have no trouble finding many different beans that produce chocolate that is wonderful without aging, and no more or less wonderful a month or two later. And since these are the beans I choose to work with, aging doesn't make sense in my process.
A final tip: in this post I am talking about aging's ability to make objective improvements to chocolate--like removing musty dirt flavors that we all would find offensive (yes, such flavors can be present in chocolate). Chocolate that does not objectively need improvement when fresh can still change with age. Whether you prefer the fresh or aged version is totally subjective. There's no reason you can't enjoy both.