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Chocolate Flavor


The original idea for FlavorsofCacao.com was for it to be a project set out to identify and categorize the flavors you’d taste in plain origin chocolate based solely on the country of origin of the cacao (the main ingredient of chocolate).  It’s true, there are regional differences distinguishable in cacao flavor, but there are many other factors along the tree-to-bar chain that are responsible for the taste experience of the final chocolate bar.  So what follows is an introduction to many of the factors involved in flavor development of plain origin chocolate.  To begin, 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 traceable origin would be more useful when attempting to formulate expectations of flavor based on origin.  Although it is becoming more common today, it is not an industry standard for the name of the plantation to be indicated on the chocolate packaging.  One reason may be that the purchaser 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 other factors that have an effect on the final flavor of chocolate, therefore complicating any attempt to simply categorize flavor based on origin.  Flavors can vary as a result of (A) genetics of the cacao, (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 will impact the final chocolate flavor.  Furthermore, 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 floral notes are often associated with Ecuadorian cacao.  Yet we know that not every chocolate of Madagascar or Ecuador will taste the same.   What follows will outline in more detail the factors mentioned above that help shape the final flavor in 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.

Chocolate Flavor

A.  Genetics
Knowing the bean type or genetics is part of the equation that could define the chocolate flavor.  It is actually considered one of the most important factors as it represents the potential flavor.  It all starts here, and everything that follows can help reach that potential.  There are different flavor characteristics between bean types and within a type too.  The most common classification system used today divides cacao into three main varieties: forastero, criollo, and trinitario.  This system 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, well known for it’s floral flavors.  Yet this Peruvian version has a flavor profile that does not resemble that of the famed Ecuadorian Nacional even though they share the same genetics.

B.  Terroir
The impact of terroir can be noticed when comparing the same beans grown under different conditions.  In addition to the Maranon Fortunato and the Ecuadorian Nacional example above, similar comparisons can be made elsewhere.  At the Hacienda San Jose located on the Paria Peninsula of northeast Venezuela you can find Chuao, another legendary cacao.  Chuao is not a bean type but a name that delineates its’ origin.  Chuao village is located on the north central coast of Venezuela over 300 miles west of the Paria Peninsula.  And like many plantations, Chuao consists of a mixture of genetically different bean types.  Chuao is still known for producing a distinct flavor profile often described with intense acidity and fruitiness.  The Chuao grown at the Hacienda San Jose was taken from the original Chuao village.  Although it carries the same name and genetic makeup, harvesting it in a very different environment changes it’s flavor profile.  This is not an uncommon practice and  can potentially add to the value and characteristics of the chocolate it is manufactured in to when skillfully done. The flavor from Chuao village 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.  There is a wide range of soil types within a single country alone and certainly across the globe in countries that cacao can grow there is even a greater variety.  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 and climate changes are believed to have an effect on cacao growth too.  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, a characteristic that can be attributed to terroir.

C.  Post-harvesting practices
Fermentation and drying are two of the most important post harvesting practices a farmer can control.  There are recommended guidelines regarding the length of time for proper fermentation, but that will vary regarding bean type and other conditions. Chemical reactions during fermentation are what cause the development of flavors but since most farmers in cacao growing countries never taste the finished product they may not care to learn much about the processes of fermentation and drying.  Furthermore, cacao farmers have often been paid the same for their cacao regardless of the level of care they provided.  Flavor developed as a result of fermentation is not only dependent on the temperature and 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.  It is also possible to introduce non-local bacteria or yeast during fermentation to produce a desired flavor.  Although not widely performed today, it is an interest that can change flavor profiles even further.

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 or incomplete, 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 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 repurposing a clothes dryer as a roaster in their early days) 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 are used 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 with the desired recipe will establish a chocolate makers’ skill level.   One American chocolate maker, Fresco, sells bars of the same origin, same percentage and then alters either the conch or roast level in a series of 3 or 4 bars. This gives the consumer an opportunity to compare the different flavor profiles for the same cacao bean created by altering only one process while keeping the others consistent. 

The maker also creates a recipe for each chocolate by determining which ingredients to add to the mixture, the amount and type of each (natural, artificial, origin specific).  Some makers will add only beans and sugar while others add cocoa butter, vanilla and lecithin.  Grenada Chocolate Company uses Costa Rican vanilla, Michel Cluizel a Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, Amano a Tahitian (as there are regional characteristics of cacao, there are also regional differences in vanilla) and Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory has used a vanilla powder. Types of lecithin vary too, whereas Pacari uses sunflower lecithin most makers who choose to add this ingredient use soy lecithin.  Large amounts of vanilla and/or sugar can easily overpower the cacao and translate in to a cheap “Easter candy” profile.  Of course there are many different types of sugars to choose from as well.  With the right balance of sugar it is possible to enhance the flavor of the cacao, but many sugars do more than sweeten and enhance, many have a flavor of their own that compete with the flavor of the cacao bean.  For example, brown sugars or light brown sugars will have a molasses flavor that can easily change the chocolate into a flavored bar when the molasses notes of the sugar are noticeable in the chocolate.  If the maker adds cocoa butter, too much cocoa butter can easily mask the inherent flavors of the cacao making them less distinct and often times bland.  Although not comprehensive, the examples just provided all highlight just how important it is to select the right ingredients and the impact selecting certain ingredients can have on the final flavor of the chocolate.

E.  Who else is responsible for flavor?
Who else is responsible for the chocolate bar you just had?  It is easy to give all the credit to the chocolate maker.  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 of the bean.  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.  Pralus makes chocolate from origins of over 15 different countries and although Pralus must make the most educated decisions they can, they also place a reasonable amount of faith and trust in their partners along the way.

F.  Models of chocolate companies
Commonly we refer to “bean-to-bar” makers with the most respect, but the number of different models that chocolate companies work under varies greatly.  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 with the right materials can help 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 who use their creative marketing techniques to define their own world and impose it on to the consumer. All chocolate is made bean to bar somewhere, 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 "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. Being bean-to-bar does not always signify quality either.  It is possible for anyone to follow a manual on how to make chocolate.  This does not guarantee the maker has any impact on the quality of the cacao or 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 their end product. 

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 consumers around the world.  Thanks for visiting!