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!