Fine Cacao

Chocolate comes from a fruit!

You read that right—the deep, dark, chocolaty goodness that you love so much starts with a pod that looks a lot like a melon and grows on a tree. The process by which that very fruity melon-like pod becomes chocolate makes all the difference when it comes to flavor.

We make single origin chocolate, which means we use beans from only one farm or region when making each batch of chocolate.  Why do we do this?  Because different cacao beans have different flavors, much like wine grapes or coffee beans.  By carefully sourcing our beans and crafting our chocolate (for more on how our chocolate making is different check out our “Our Process” Page) we’re able to highlight the incredible, distinct and unique flavors within the cacao beans.

Why is our chocolate so different from mass market chocolate which dominates store shelves?  One of the many reasons is because of our commitment to personally sourcing the best cacao beans.  Another is because mass market bars are made using lots of different beans from different areas, without regard for their individual flavors.  We travel to origin to find fine flavor beans, ensure the farmers we work with can deliver quality beans on a consistent basis, and carefully craft our chocolate to highlight their unique flavors.

The cacao beans that are turned into chocolate are the seeds from the fruit of the tree Theobroma Cacao, which grows only within twenty degrees north and south of the equator. Cacao pods come in many different shapes, sizes and colors, and these variations are due to the many genetic differences in the trees. These differences also have a big impact on flavor.  So, let’s get right to it – cacao sourcing 101!

 

Monica on the Costa Esmeraldas cacao farm in Ecuador
A typical cacao tree. The fruit grows right out of the main trunk and branches!

For many years it was thought there were only three genetic varieties  of cacao – Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario.  In reality there are many more varieties – a 2008 study identified ten distinct genetic varieties and since then even more have been found.  With the relatively new focus on fine flavor cacao beans new genetic varieties are still being discovered!

While genetics certainly plays a role in cacao flavor it’s not as big as some marketing approaches make it out to be.  Because of the way cacao trees are pollinated, just about all cacao in the world today is a mix of different genetics.  Plus, when cacao is harvested, even from a small area or single farm, additional genetics are usually included in the harvest due to the large volume of beans needed to properly drive fermentation.  So, while genetics is certainly something we consider while searching for fine flavor beans, it’s only one factor.

One thing to note is that if a bar is labeled with the genetics of the beans used in creating it, that label is at least somewhat misleading.  While the majority of the bar could very well contain that genetic type there are also other genetics mixed in.

Almost more important than genetics is the approach taken to the post-harvest practices of fermentation and drying.  How these processes are handled make all the difference – an incredibly flavorful bean can end up tasting terrible if the fermentation and drying aren’t done correctly.  On the other hand, a highly skilled approach  can enhance the best qualities of a bean.  This is one of the many reasons we travel to the source for all our beans. – it’s important to see this process firsthand to understand how it’s being done, that it’s carefully monitored and tracked, and can be replicated consistently.

Since these processes are so important we’ll explain them in a bit more detail.

Harvesting a ripe pod.
The beans are the seeds of the fruit, surrounding by a sugary pulp.

The first step, of course, is to harvest the beans. We limit the geographic area from which the beans we receive are harvested – in this way we have a better understanding of the genetics we’re receiving, and also it allows the fermentation protocol to be more customized.

Pods are opened with a machete...
…and the beans and pulp are separated from the shell.

Ripe pods are cut down and then carefully broken open, usually with a machete.  Care must be taken to not cut into the beans.  The beans are then placed in bags for transportation to the fermentation facility.

The beans must arrive at the fermentation facility the same day they’re opened to avoid uncontrolled fermentation.  In the areas where cacao is grown transportation is often difficult to come by so farmers growing fine flavor cacao must develop reliable transportation networks.

 

Beans being moved to another box to begin the next stage of fermentation.
Wet cacao beans (known as baba) being loaded into a fermentation box. Typically at least a half ton of beans are needed to ensure proper fermentation.
Tom turning the cacao beans in Ecuador.

Once at the facility the beans are placed in wooden fermentation boxes, usually one ton at a time, and then covered with banana leaves or plastic to seal in the heat.  Depending on the bean, they’re fermented for anywhere from three to six or more days. During the fermentation they’re periodically “turned” to ensure the beans ferment evenly. This can be done in several ways, but usually involves moving the beans from one box to another.

 

Checking the sugar content of the baba. Among other things, sugar content determines how hot the fermentation will get.
A cut test. This is done to determine how the drying is progressing — these beans are still very wet.

So, what exactly happens during fermentation?  It’s an extremely complex process, but in short:  in the anaerobic phase of fermentation yeasts feed on the sugars in the cacao pulp to create ethanol, and then Acetobacter (primarily) bacteria feed on the ethanol to create acetic acid.  The process of breaking down the ethanol also generates heat, and the temperature in the fermentation box can reach 120 degrees or more.  The ethanol and the acids are both able to permeate the shell of the cacao bean, and this combined with the intense heat breaks down the cell walls, which creates conditions which allow the development of the flavor precursors which are so important in the final flavor of the chocolate.

One important thing to note is that the beans themselves don’t actually ferment – the fermentation occurs in the pulp and the byproducts of the fermentation (ethanol and acetic acid, among other things) are able to permeate the bean and cause chemical reactions crucial to flavor development.

To create fine flavor chocolate the entire fermentation process is carefully monitored.  Data collected includes heat levels, ph levels and sugar content.  Some farmers and facilities even use data loggers to collect a complete record of the temperature curve of the fermentation, among other factors.  Knowing when the fermentation is complete requires skill, and several different data points are considered – not the least of which is organoleptic (tasting them!).  One test which is used to determine whether fermentation is complete is a cut test – looking at the fissuring in the bean and checking the moisture content can help determine when the beans are ready for drying.

The covered El Carmen drying area, with beans at different levels of dryness.
Tom with drying beans at Cacao Bisiesto.

Once the fermentation is complete the beans are moved onto drying platforms or racks. These are usually covered to protect the beans from the elements, and sometimes are on wheels or have retractable covers that can be pulled back to fully expose the beans to the sun.  It’s important not to let the beans dry too slowly or too quickly – either approach can result in the creation of off-flavors or other undesirable characteristics, such as high astringency.  Conditions at origin can often making drying incredibly difficult – changes in the weather affect how fast or slow the beans will dry.  Being able to account for this is part of the skills needed to produce high quality cacao consistently.

Preparing to test the beans with a hygrometer, which measures moisture content.

After the beans have been drying for several days they’re tested for moisture content. When they reach a level near 7% they’re dry enough to be bagged.

Weighing the beans prior to shipment.
Beans bagged and ready for shipment.

Finally the beans are weighed, bagged, labeled and sent to a warehouse in preparation for shipment.  How the beans are shipped depends on the individual farmer.  In some cases they’re loaded on container ships and brought to a warehouse in the U.S. where we then pick them up.  In some cases they’re sent air freight.  In the case of our Almendra Blanca beans we have a truck pick them up at the farm and drive them here to our farm!

Although cacao has existed for thousands of years the process of creating fine flavor cacao is still very new.  The practices used to identify fine flavor beans, and ferment and dry them in such a way as to truly highlight the unique flavors of the beans have only been in use for about twenty years, and are constantly evolving based on new information.  Part of our job as chocolate makers is to work with the farmers and post harvest processors to constantly build on the skills that have been developed to maximize the flavor potential of these fine flavor beans.

To truly appreciate the flavor differences of the fine flavor beans we use to make our chocolate we recommend trying our Signature Line bars, which are crafted with nothing more than our carefully sourced cacao beans, organic sugar, and our own cocoa butter which we fresh press from the same premium beans we use to make our chocolate.  It’s an eye-opening experience!