Cacao was brought to Madagascar by the French in the 19th century to provide a supply of quality chocolate to metropolitan France. Throughout the 20th century many countries focused on planting and growing bulk cacao beans to increase yields and meet a growing global demand for chocolate (at the expense of fine flavour). Madagascar was one of the few countries to not to follow the trend. Their extremely high quality trees continue to produce some of the most flavorful chocolate beans in the world.
Cacao grower Bertil Åkesson’s father was a Swedish diplomat in Paris before starting a trading company and traveling the world. The family eventually settled in Madagascar in the 1970s and took over plantations on the island. A pioneer of the bean-to-bar movement, Bertil was one of the first people to start selling high quality, Madagascan cocoa beans to small makers. The history of the beans contributes to their high quality, but so does the post-harvest preparation. Bertil and his team are darn good at fermenting the beans, and the fermentation process happens to be the main flavour determinate.
The vast majority of Madagascar cacao comes from Bertil Åkesson. Go ahead and look for Madagascar bars and check where the beans come from. For perspective, in my chocolate collection I have 22 Malagasy bars, 16 of which come from the Åkesson estate (and four are unmarked). To make a long story short: these are some of the very best beans in the world.
The Flavour Profile
Common notes are variants on tart, fruity and tangy.
The McGuire Chocolate Saga
This bean sparked much debate in factory about how to prepare the batch. As we performed the cut test and assessed the flavour of the raw bean – which was delightfully fruity – we asked ourselves, light or dark??
The argument for light is clear: the flavour is there all on its own. Keep it simple. Looking at other chocolate makers (those that are willing to disclose their notes), a light roast is consensus and based on fundamentals it is the obvious choice.
The argument for the dark roast: we have had a lot of success recently navigating heavy roasts. New flavour notes develop with a dark roast and typically with a fruity bean some of those can caramelize creating a very balanced chocolate.
The dark roast was seen as a much bigger risk. We understand how special these beans are and squandering our chance with them was an intimidating thought. But, we dare to be different.
THE SOLUTION: we split the beans and do both.
One light, delicate roast. To preserve the vibrant fruity flavour that was so evident in the raw bean. These beans are a delight and a light roast should compliment nicely. The result was largely as expected. Maybe even better. The post roast nib was golden in complexion with a beautiful oily layer of cacao butter..wow. Should we just do all of the beans like this?
No, this experiment much commence. Living out our days wondering “what if?” isn’t an option. We push forward.
For the dark roasted beans we decided to gradually increase the temperature and hold for a painfully long duration. There would be no question whether this was truly a dark roast. When cacao beans are roasting the fat content in the bean pushes out and snaps the shells resulting in a popcorn-like crack. Typically 5-10 cracks for a dark roast is standard but can vary widely depending on the bean. These beans were so oily there were 40 cracks, the first of which came about two minutes earlier than expected! The intense concern felt by Mark was evident by his face in the final 5 minutes of the roast. The temptation to pull them early was strong. It was truly gut wrenching. Starring at the roaster spinning, nose right up against the glass searching desperately for the very first scent of burning (an irreversible flavour stamp)… It never came. Rest easy, young chocolate maker. We made it.
These two chocolates are from the very same lot of beans, with the same amount of sugar, refined for the same amount of time. So many parallels. I imagine the beans were all growing on the same tree, spent their fermenting days alongside each other in the Akesson bin, shipped and bagged together at the Meridian warehouse in Oregon. The same beginning but with two very different destinies.
We won’t comment on how they turned out. You be the judge.
Where do you side?
M + V
Cacao is the most important ingredient in chocolate. The cacao bean shapes the flavour and makes or breaks the quality of the chocolate. But not all beans are the same. In fact, beans are incredibly unique based on the bean gene and the fermentation process.
1) The bean gene
There are over twenty identified natural genetic strains of cacao beans and they are finding more and more all of the time. Layer on top the hundreds of cultivar strains (human bred). Most beans are a mix of multiple strains and a single tree can grow multiple pods which hold different strains..It’s not unlike a family. Every sibling is holding a completely different mix of ancestry genes.
The fine chocolate industry is working hard to map flavour to genetic strain but as the layers get peeled back it has become difficult to make solid correlation. This will help preserve fine flavour chocolate.
Flavour has only recently become a priority for research (and it only is the case for a small subset of the research). For the past 50 years the focus has been more on yield, weather and disease resistance.
I won’t talk about origins just yet (A South American bean vs. a Caribbean bean for example). That’s a post all on it’s own!
2) The fermentation process
Cacao is a tropical fruit and what we refer to as beans are actually seeds. The seeds are naturally bitter and come covered in a sweet white pulp. Within days of being picked from the tree the seeds must be fermented in the pulp – this process kills the seeds and is the most critical factor in developing the flavour of the chocolate.
The pulp turns into an alcohol and is drained after the fermentation which normally takes between 3-6 days. A lighter ferment will produce acidity in the chocolate. Fermenting too long will create a flat, less complex flavoured bean.
Most of the world’s cacao is grown in the deep, remote jungles without access to roads. A quality ferment can be tough to achieve. On top of that the average farmer owns 3 hectares of land and cannot afford to invest in the infrastructure required for a controlled ferment. In the past 10 years we have seen more and more farmer co-ops that coordinate centralized fermentation. This is the biggest contributor to the significant increase in fine flavour cacao in recent years.
With a skillful ferment, quality beans produce a chocolate that stands up on it’s own. That is the reason so many craft chocolate makers, like myself, do two ingredient chocolate. The intense flavours are showcased without dilution.
Tasting a dark chocolate with a poor quality bean can be a sobering experience. That is why the ingredients in most chocolate is sugar, milk, cacao, soy, and vanilla. At that point it doesn’t matter if the cacao bean has been prepared with quality post-harvest preparation. Or that the beans that went into the large batches came from multiple origins. At that point the flavour of the beans has been sufficiently masked.
Cacao beans and cane sugar! That’s a chocolate with nothing to hide. Most fine chocolate makers do add extra cacao butter. This can smooth some of the intense flavours and give the chocolate a lower melting point which can lead to a better mouth feel. The two ingredient makers are a new breed of chocolate makers that put the emphasis on flavour.
That’s my spiel. I hope you enjoyed it and/or learned something new..but really, I’m grateful just to have you read it.
It’s bean a pleasure!
Each of us tastes differently. Our perception is guided by past experiences, which makes your palette as unique as your personality. So what makes a good chocolate? If you enjoy it, that means it’s good!
The cool thing I discovered about chocolate is that every batch is remarkably different because of the beans, how they are harvested and prepared. I had heard this, but it didn’t really stick until I started tasting chocolate side by side for comparison.
It started at Ecole de Chocolat (Chocolate School) where we tasted structured flights. We would do controlled flights to discern quality, sweetness, origin, and more.
After my first flight I was hooked and it’s actually the inspiration for me packaging my bars for sale in groups of three. So you can taste different bars together. I now consider it a shame to eat just one bar! Though I never finish a bar if I can help it. I actually have over 150 half eaten bars in my growing collection..but I digress. I am not write about my catalog of chocolate bars.
At the beginning, it really helped me to follow some general tasting principles to assess chocolate. It is not unlike wine. Without further ado, here is what is taught at chocolate school.
The following parameters will help you to develop a methodology for taste comparisons between chocolates. The steps don’t have to be strictly followed – use them as a guideline towards developing your own tasting habits.
How to taste chocolate
First use your eyes
The visual qualities that distinguish a fine-origin, well-tempered chocolate include a shine/gleam finish for molded products and a satin/gleam finish for enrobed products. Dull, marked, scuffed, or bloomed chocolate is aesthetically off putting and may be cause from a broken temper, however, will not adversely affect the flavour.
Chocolate can range in colour from a deep dark brown to a reddish brown. Colour depends on the origin of the cocoa beans, and how they were roasted. Depth of colour is NOT an indication of quality.
Then your fingers
If possible, break a piece of the chocolate – you should hear a distinctive “snap”. This is the sound of stable crystallization breaking cleanly. The opposite of clean snap is crumbly texture.
Hold the piece of the chocolate between your fingers and notice how quickly it melts. Rub your fingers together with the chocolate to test its smoothness. Cocoa butter melts more quickly than sugar so the higher the proportion of cocoa butter, the more quickly it will melt.
Lift your hand to your nose and smell the aroma
Lift your fingers with the melted chocolate to your nose cupping your other hand around your fingers in front of your nose. This will help to capture the aromas. It should smell like chocolate with no off odors.
Fine chocolate can have floral, fruity or sugary (caramel) aromas.
Taste the chocolate
Place a small piece of chocolate on your tongue and let it slowly melt. Once the chocolate is melted, run your tongue around your mouth to get the full “mouth feel” of the texture of the chocolate – it should be full and velvety. As a result of the conching process, fine chocolate will be very smooth compared to cheap chocolate which will be gritty.
There should be a good balance between bitter and sweet. If vanilla is present, it should be a subtle note and not mask the other flavours in the chocolate. If additional cocoa powder has been included in the manufacturing process to boost the flavour, there may be a slight metallic aftertaste.
Notice the “finish”
There shouldn’t be a waxy or greasy film left in your mouth after you swallow. Cocoa butter dissipates, leaving only the flavour behind. If that flavour lingers for a while in your mouth, the chocolate is said to have a long “finish”.
A good aftertaste is the mark of a quality chocolate!
Cleansing your palate between tastings
Most experts recommend room-temperature water as the best palate cleanser between tastings – this can be either still or bubbly. Mild, lukewarm tea is also recommended. If your “nose” is getting a little befuddled and you’re finding it hard to differentiate aromas, you might want to try smelling a cup of brewed coffee or coffee beans to clear your smell receptors between tastings.
Chocolate making typically begins with roasting fermented cacao beans. The fermentation happens within days of picking the fruit off the tree – in some of the most remote places in the world. The beans have quite the journey before the chocolate maker ever touches their most critical ingredient.
The four most influential factors to the flavour of chocolate are; 1) the genetic stock, 2) the fermentation 3) the roast 4) the conch. The latter two are under complete control of the chocolate maker and are dependent on the first two factors.
Bean to bar chocolate making is a relatively new phenomena. Over the past 15-20 years, the industry has moved from less than a handful of participants to a bustling craft marketplace with hundreds of participants, growing every month. In a way, the term fine chocolate is being re-defined with Bean to Bar Chocolate Maker’s attention to the details essential to flavour development; cacao genetics, fermentation/drying, roasting, and tailored processing methods.
It is worth noting that chocolate making is a separate craft from chocolatiering. To over simplify for the purpose of a quick understanding – Chocolatiers use chocolate as an ingredient to create truffles and other confection items.
This blog spot is intended to explore the world of chocolate from the Maker’s perspective. I will talk about my operation, the art and science of chocolate and flavour development, sourcing cacao beans, and much more. I hope that you’ll participate and we can learn about the wonderful world of chocolate together!