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Please feel free to email me for any reason. I'd like to keep accurate information as well as incorporate ideas from fellow chocolate connoisseurs.

Sincerely,

Brady Brelinski, Founding Member of the Manhattan Chocolate Society

Email : bradybrelinski@hotmail.com

Manhattan Chocolate Society : manhattanchocolatesociety.com

 


INTRO
So what is the website Flavors of Cacao about?  It started out as an attempt to make sense of chocolate.  The original idea was to identify and categorize the flavors you’d experience when tasting chocolate based on the country of origin (and region in some cases) it’s main ingredient, cacao, derived from.   It’s true, there are regional differences in flavor, but there are many other factors along the chain of chocolate making that are responsible for the taste experience and flavor as well.  For starters, when attempting to base a flavor profile on the origin alone, a country is far too broad of an area.  Conditions can change from one farm or plantation to the next and there can be hundreds of plantations in a country.  So if basing a flavor profile on origin alone the most specific location would be useful in forming accurate expectations of flavor based on origin.  In chocolate though, plantation level is not shared often enough to collect significant data and one reason may be that the maker doesn’t know the plantation.  More commonly though, it really doesn’t come from a single plantation, but actually is a mix of beans from many plantations of varying quality.  And besides origin, there are many more factors that have an effect on the final flavor of chocolate, therefore complicating any attempt to make sense of chocolate.  Flavors can vary as a result of (A) genetics, (B) terroir and (C) post harvesting practices all before the cacao beans even reach a chocolate maker.  Then once the chocolate maker begins to work with it, their own (D) style, skill and recipe can have flavor altering effects.  Consider that a variation in any factor from genetics, terroir and so on down the line could alter the effects of any factor that came before or after it.  Since there is often some regional consistency in some of these factors we often are able to place broad labels of flavor on cacao with some success.  For example, bright fruit flavors are often associated with cacao from the Sambirano Valley of Madagascar and spicy flavors are often associated with Ecuadorian cacao.  Yet we know that not every chocolate of Madagascar or Ecuador will taste the same.   The writing that follows will outline in more detail the factors mentioned above that help shape the final flavor of chocolate.   In addition, some insight to (E) who the many people responsible for the result of the final chocolate are and how the (F) models of chocolate companies vary will be discussed.

A.  Genetics
Knowing the bean type or genetics is part of the equation that could effect flavor.  There are different flavor characteristics between bean types and within a type too. But the forastero, criollo, trinitario system that we use today provides little insight to actual flavor and has been outdated for decades.  Even in 1944,  E.E. Cheesman acknowledged in his “Notes on Nomenclature”, that these categories were too broad to be of much use. Yet this is the system still in use almost 70 years later.  Genetic testing in 2008 has sparked a renewed interest and has even proposed a new classification system with 10 varieties, and the list is growing.  Much work is yet to be done, but hopefully it will lead to a more meaningful classification system that could be adopted by the cocoa trading industry.  Bean type will only provide so much and could still be confusing when trying to determine the end flavor of a chocolate even when it becomes more accurate.  Take for example the Maranon Fortunato 4 beans of Northern Peru.  They have been tested by the USDA and are considered genetically the same as the Ecuadorian Nacional, legendary for it’s floral flavors.  Yet this Peruvian version does not produce a flavor profile anything like that of the Ecuadorian Nacional. Would you expect a New Yorker who was born and raised in L.A. to have a Brooklyn accent?  Probably not.

B.  Terroir
On the Hacienda San Jose in Venezuela, you can find the famed Chuao.  This is not a bean type but an origin.  In fact, as in many plantations, Chuao village consists of a mixture of genetically different bean types.  Yet the village is still known for producing a distinct flavor profile often described with intense acidity and fruitiness.  In other words, H. San Jose is producing a precisely named origin cacao at a location hundreds of miles from the origin of name.  That sounds crazy enough but it has been done before with beans from Ocumare Valley.  Is it intended as an interesting experiment or a slick marketing technique to gain profits?  The H. San Jose Chuao was probably taken from stock of one of the many different trees in Chuao village located on the other side of the country, but the cacao coming directly from Chuao village produces a distinctly different flavor profile as compared to Chuao San Jose.  The flavor difference is believed to correlate to the high humidity and heavy rains that wash rich and fertile silt down the mountainsides to create unique soil conditions in the Chuao plantation. This is an example of the terroir, considered as the soil, weather conditions and farming practices of a specific region.   Soil and weather both being factors effecting flavor that the chocolate maker and farmer have little to no control over.  Consider that there is a wide range of soil types within a single country alone and then expand that across the globe in countries that cacao can grow.  Although there is suitable range that is needed, soils will vary by PH level, content of nutrient and organic matter as well as it’s ability to either retain moisture in dry climates or allow for drainage in regions with lots of rain.  Furthermore, weather or climate changes are believed to have an effect on cacao growth also.  Most notably effecting cacao growth is the amount of rain and sun.  Seasonal changes in weather are one reason some makers include harvest dates on the package too.  In turn the climate differences can influence the farming practices. For example, cacao grown in Java is often fire dried because the amount of rain often doesn’t allow for proper sun drying that is possible in countries like Ghana.  As a result chocolate made with cacao from Java often tastes smokey, which is arguably a characteristic of terroir.

C.  Post-harvesting practices
Fermentation and drying are two of the most important post harvesting practices a farmer can control.  There are guidelines regarding the length of time for proper fermentation, which vary regarding bean type. Chemical reactions during fermentation cause the development of flavors but most farmers in cacao growing countries never taste the finished product so they may not care to learn much about the processes of fermentation and drying. Especially since they will often get paid the same for their cacao no matter the level of care they provided. Flavor from fermentation is not only dependent on the length of fermentation but also the yeast and bacteria that are absorbed into the bean during the fermentation process.  Naturally occurring or local bacteria often translate into specific flavors.  Yet it is possible to introduce non-local bacteria or yeast during fermentation to produce a desired flavor.  Although not widely performed today, it is a growing interest that will complicate flavor profiles even further, and a few companies (Ie. Cacao Prieto) are known to have the sophistication and access to perform this.  The next major step after fermentation is drying.  Ideally, sun drying produces the best results as it is a more gradual process that allows the chemical reactions started in fermentation to complete the processes.  Yet if the drying is too slow, there is risk of developing molds and off flavors.  Also, to protect against off flavors, a clean segregated drying platform would also be needed.  Farmers in Central or South America are often too poor to be able to afford proper drying platforms and are known to dry cacao on the side of the road where they can easily be contaminated by car fumes, tires or the asphalt itself.  After drying, proper baggage and storing of beans is just as important to preserve the quality of the process’s completed prior.  The beans should be protected from moisture, insects, smoke or aromas that can contaminate the beans.  Who controls this? It is often not the farmer or chocolate maker but some intermediary.  Then shipping and transportation is often under the supervision of another party.  What type of container the cacao is shipped in and where it is kept is important to protect against contamination since cacao beans can absorb aromas.  Is the container itself already contaminated by other chemicals or products that will be absorbed into the cacao?  Is there traceability once the cacao leaves the farmer until it reaches the maker?

D.  Chocolate maker style, skill and recipe
Once the beans get in the hands of the chocolate maker(s) there are some steps in the chocolate making process that have major effects on flavor.  Roasting, conching and ingredients have a major impact.  Part of a chocolate makers signature style is a result of the type of equipment (roaster and conche).  Some search out antique equipment (Ie. Amano) from early 1900’s, some experiment with handmade or improvised equipment (Ie. Holy Cacao tried a clothes dryer as a roaster) and some are modern devices that perform more than one process (the Universal used by Pierre Marcolini and Pralus grinds, refines and conches).  Types of equipment and how they use it can alter the end experience a consumer has with the chocolate.  Does the maker seem to prefer a heavy roast with more intense notes (Ie. Bonnat) or do they generally conche long for a smoother texture and lighter notes (Ie. Felchlin).   The skill of the maker is tested with these processes.  Roasting and conching each have major effects on flavor and finding the right combination to match the beans and the desired recipe will separate the artisans from the novices.   An American chocolate company, Fresco, sells bars from the same origin, same percentage and then alters either the conch or roast level. Allowing the consumer to experience very different tasting chocolate based on the variation of only one process while keeping the others consistent. 

The maker also creates a recipe for each chocolate by determining which ingredients, the amount and type (natural, artificial, origin specific) of each.  Grenada Chocolate company uses Costa Rican vanilla, Michel Cluizel a Madagascar Bourbon vanilla and Amano a Tahitian (as there are regional characteristics of cacao, there are also regional differences in vanilla). Types of one ingredient vary too, whereas Pacari uses sunflower lecithin (vs. soy) and Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory has used vanilla powder.  All of these examples can have a distinct impact on the final flavor of the chocolate.  Some makers will add only beans and sugar while others add cocoa butter, vanilla and lecithin.  Large amounts of vanilla and/or sugar can easily overpower the cacao and translate in to a cheap “Easter candy” profile.  Too much cocoa butter can easily mask the flavors of the cacao making them less distinct and often times bland.  If they did add extra cocoa butter, is it sourced from an origin different than that of the cacao beans used or did the chocolate maker press their own (Ie. Askinosie and Mindo Chocolate) from the same origin as the cacao? 

E.  Who is responsible for flavor?
Who really is responsible for the chocolate bar you just had?  It is easy to give all the credit to the brand name on the package.  Yet, as we’ve seen already, there are a lot of people who had an impact in the end product, including the farmers, cooperatives, exporters/ brokers, transporters and those who grade the quality.  Before cacao leaves it’s country of origin it is handled by transporters and storers and then when it reaches the destination country it must be trusted to be handled carefully again.  In the U.S., Atlantic Cocoa is one such importer responsible for the storing and transporting of beans to many small American chocolate makers.  As will be discussed shortly, the chocolate making process can be the result of efforts by more than one individual or company.  Even though the bar says “Pralus”, in most cases Pralus doesn’t own the plantation and has little control over effects from growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying, storing and transporting.  Consider Pralus makes chocolate from origins of over 15 different countries.  Pralus must make the most educated decisions they can and place a reasonable amount of faith and trust in their partners along the way.

F.  Models of chocolate companies
Even though it is popular to talk about “bean to bar” makers with the utmost respect, the number of different models that chocolate companies work under varies greatly.  At the time of this writing, “bean to bar” has no official definition but it is generally accepted as a company who starts the chocolate making process working with a whole bean, then performs cleaning, roasting, winnowing, grinding, refining, conching, tempering, molding and wrapping.  *Some companies skip conching altogether (ie. Domori and Olivia) and some add a process before tempering and molding that allows chocolate to ‘age’(ie. Patric, DeVries, Ritual and Woodblock).  Wrapping is considered by some a final step that is important to secure the quality of the product by not allowing it to leave the hands of the maker, wrapping it tight to secure freshness and preserve flavors as well as protect from aromas (note, some packaging materials may impart an aroma into the chocolate too).

Due to all the attention given to the label “bean to bar”, many companies claim it even when it is not true.  Consumers are left to dig deep and fend for themselves when deciphering the ambiguities and sometimes out right lies on packaging.  Because there is no official governing body to control chocolate labeling, companies are free to make their own definition of a “chocolate maker”.  Beware of the marketing experts, and there are many of them, who use their creative thinking skills to define their own world and impose it on to the consumer. All chocolate is made bean to bar by somebody, but placing “bean to bar” on the package implies the company/brand on the label is actually performing the bean to bar maker process. Claiming to be a "producer" or "maker" of anything should involve both an intellectual and physical component. Intellectual oversight alone is not an equivalent to making.  So the company should be physically making the chocolate rather than partnering or hiring freelancers in order to accurately claim itself as a bean to bar producer. For most consumers, the end product is what matters most, but making a claim that "might" make the product seem better is disserving. What these marketing brands don’t realize is that “bean to bar” does not always signify quality either.  Today it is possible to buy beans online(often of questionable quality) and then follow a manual on how to make chocolate.  This does not guarantee the maker has any real intuition or understanding for chocolate making.

Defining and naming all the possible categories of different models of chocolate making would be a very arduous task too. There are numerous models in existence today, and whether they are working with the bean, liquor or subcontracting the work they could all produce a quality product.  What is important is that the chocolate is enjoyable, interesting and has value.  Look to see if the company has an identifiable vision that leads to the quality of the end product. Assuming the company had expertise across the board, the best model would be for the chocolate maker to have direct control of all the steps from farming through processing. There are a few (Claudio Corallo, AMMA and Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory) who do this or come very close.  Although, you should admire a company who has this level of control, you should also admire those who realize they are not experts across the board(and/or often don’t have the means to own and run both a farm and factory).  Those are the companies who will focus on their skills and collaborate with people or separate companies with different expertise in the chocolate making process. Below is only a short list of examples as there seem to be countless possibilities.

  • Idilio is a company who’s expertise is sourcing cacao and working with farmers to ensure fermentation and drying quality.  Then Idilio contracts an expert chocolate maker in Felchlin to produce the line. 
  • Akesson is a step further compared to Idilio in that the company actually owns the farm and performs processes from grafting, maintaining, harvesting, fermenting and drying on the farms. Then it contracts another expert in Pralus to produce the chocolate.
  • Artisan du Chocolat, citing high costs of running a full production, starts with blocks of chocolate liquor and controls the process starting at the conching and refining phase using machinery called a ChocoEasy, with interesting results and a large line of origins.
  • Amano specializes in sourcing and production from bean to conche, but do not temper, mold or wrap.
  • Republica del Cacao claims to source pods, and perform all process from opening the pods, fermentation and drying at their facilities before taking the beans to a factory (Confecta) where Republica oversees production from bean to bar.

 

Overall, flavor development and preservation throughout the entire chain of chocolate making is an amazingly complicated process.  Hopefully the content of Flavors of Cacao will add to the appreciation and enjoyment of chocolate connoisseurs and novices alike.  Thanks for visiting!

 

Sincerely,

Brady Brelinski
Founding Member of the Manhattan Chocolate Society

Acknowledgements:

This site wouldn't exist without the talent of my wife, Andrea (also a founding member of Manhattan Chocolate Society). She created this site as a class project and as the webmaster, will maintain any updates going forward.

Although the content and photographs are mine, there are many resources from which I attained this information. Personal contacts with many chocolate makers and experts who have shared their knowledge with me, internet and New York City libraries. Education and inspiration can also be credited to the Manhattan Chocolate Society, David Arnold, Matt Frederick, George Gensler, Alexandra Leaf, Ivo Turkedjiev, Rumena Turkedjiev, Chloe Doutre-Roussel, Maricel Presilla, Clay Gordon, Lowe Bibby, Jay Olins, Margaret Bodriguian, Adrienne Henson, as well as online communities like Seventypercent.com and TheChocolateLife.com.