Time for Chocolate and Cocoa

By Nick Saxby  ·  18th April 2021  ·  Craft Chocolate in Conversation, Pairing Craft Chocolate, Tastings, The Science of Chocolate, The World of Chocolate

At our craft chocolate and wine tastings, our wine partners put forward an enviably neat explanation of how a wine develops flavour, texture and taste on its journey from the vine to the bottle and through time in bottle:

  1. What happens on the vineyard: the grapes, terroir, etc. create the ‘fruity’ flavours in both red and white wine, like citrus, berry, jammy etc.
  2. What happens as the wine is made: pressing, barrels, etc. generate flavours like toasty, creamy, smoke, etc.
  3. What happens as the wine ages and oxidizes: results in flavours and sensations like leather, caramel, roundedness, etc.

(For more on this, come to a wine & craft chocolate tasting; see here).

Chocolate, sadly, isn’t quite as simple. Or if it is, we haven’t found as concise a segmentation.

Chocolate has the same complexities of flavour, taste, texture and mouthfeel as wine, but these complexities are interwoven. Each stage of growing, crafting and even ageing a craft chocolate bar (yes you can get vintage chocolate; we sometimes have some!) can yield similar results. For example the ‘citrus’ or ‘berry’ flavours in a bar can be the result of bean variety, fermentation, roasting and conching.

The common theme that really drives flavour and quality in chocolate is the TIME taken at each stage. So for the next two weeks, below and on the blog, we’re going to try and give a high level summary of how TIME (which is partly a proxy for care) impacts each stage of cocoa on the farm and chocolate as it’s crafted.

Please also see our recent blog post for more on how time and savouring are important when enjoying chocolate with the Flavour Wave.

Below we have recommended some bars to illustrate these differences. Please do try them! And we’d hope that even though our time in lockdown is starting to end (yippee!), you will still find the time to join us at some of the great new virtual tastings we have lined up with Rachel Khoo, Simon Rimmer of Sunday Brunch, and a few more wine and chocolate pairings, to delight in these complexities (see here).

The Tree, Pod and Cocoa Varietal

As with apples, wine and almost every fruit, different cocoa varietals have very different flavour profiles. A great way to experience this is to compare how different makers can produce radically different sensations with the same machinery from very different beans (see below for examples from Tosier).

To grow the cocoa trees that yield these pods and beans takes time and effort; once a seed or seedling is planted it takes at least 3-5 years before it’s first harvest (and they will continue to produce fruit for decades to come, as well as adding to biodiversity in the rainforest). And you have recognize the best time to pick the fruit; as with wine, ripeness is incredibly important. Many farmers know their trees and their pods, the colour change is just right, the texture of the pod and it ‘sounds’ right when you knock it. To compare how amazingly different flavours can be from different varieties, see the pair of taster bars below from Mikkel Friss-Holm.

By contrast, most mass produced chocolate uses only a few varieties with limited diversity, with the emphasis on rigorous productivity. But all too often these clones are planted at the expense of the rainforest; as with other commodity crops, rainforests are destroyed and mono-cultures are planted. Mass produced cocoa is harvested when it’s convenient to harvest with no account for ripeness. To quote an industry expert “Ripeness in mass-produced cocoa is more about picking the time when you can get the most volume“. And these clones don’t have fine flavour (that’s why most mass-produced dark chocolate bars have tonnes of additives and flavourings).

Harvesting and Fermentation

Depending on where the cocoa is growing, trees can be harvested a few times a year (normally twice, but sometimes more and occasionally only once). When cocoa is in harvest, it’s in season for a few months, but farmers harvest traditionally every two weeks to allow only ripe pods to be harvested, this is why central fermentation among smallholders is important, aggregating these small volumes give better ferment to ripe cocoa. And specialty sources of craft cocoa do their utmost to ensure only ripe pods make it into the next step

And then the magic of fermentation occurs. This is where the flavour of the cocoa really starts. Before fermentation a cocoa seed is incredibly bitter and astringent, but surrounded by a delicious pulp. Once opened, the pulp reacts with local bacteria and yeasts to kick off a fermentation that turns the bitter, and astringent, cocoa seed into a cocoa bean that is recognisably ‘chocoalatey’.

Again, a magic ingredient in fermentation is TIME. The differences between, for example, a 5 day and 6 day fermentation are staggering; see Krak bars below. And for the differences that small changes in fermentation make, also see these double versus triple churned bars from Mikkel Friis-Holm.

By contrast mass-produced cocoa is often not properly fermented. Sometimes the beans are immediately dried leading to high levels of bitterness and astringency, they are then pressed for the cocoa butter (used for cosmetics etc. and far higher priced than the remaining cocoa mass). Indeed sometimes the beans are immediately pressed for the cocoa butter. The residual compressed cocoa mass is then turned into cocoa powder and used to make ‘chocolate’ ice cream, biscuits, cakes, etc. And even when the beans are fermented this is often lackadaisical, with beans piled into a heap for an indeterminate period with random raking. It’s a world of difference to the way farmers and makers ferment in wooden boxes for set times with specific turns at specific times.

Drying

The final stage on the farm is drying, and again time and care needs to be taken to dry the beans so that they neither go mouldy nor dry out. The way craft chocolate is dried plays a huge role in generating flavour. Most cocoa is sun dried to allow slow transition from fermentation and rich flavours continue to evolve. And huge care needs to be taken; too much time and the drying beans can bake; too little time and they will go mouldy.

One more twist at drying: in places such as Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Fiji it can be too rainy to rely on the sun to dry the fermented cocoa. Instead nearby fires are used to dry the beans. And the smoke from these beans can permeate the beans. This can generate intriguing flavours for those who are fans of Islay Whisky, Smokey Teas or even smokey bacon crisps. Try the Firetree and Solomon’s Gold bars below (note: the Firetree beans are fully sun dried but the finished chocolate still display the hidden deep forest, woody, earthy, truffle aroma characteristic of this environment and terroir).

Provenance

One of the easiest ways to tell craft chocolate apart from mass-produced chocolate is by making sure you know where the beans are grown, harvested, fermented and dried. And by this we don’t mean the continent or country. “From Peru” works for Paddington Bear 😊, but it doesn’t work for chocolate any more than it works for fine wine or speciality coffee or artisan cheese. You need to know as much as possible about the farm, co-operative and plantation as with other artisanal products.

What’s Next

Once the beans are dried they are sent to be ‘crafted’ or ‘processed’. And again, there are HUGELY different approaches between mass-produced confectionery and craft chocolate which explain their radically different flavours, textures and tastes. And again, TIME is a critical element. For the sake of brevity, we’ll cover this next week! And returning to provenance, we will also explain why mass-produced chocolate bars not only don’t detail where they source their beans but they also don’t (and arguably can’t) specify where their bars are made and processed.

In the interim, please do try some of the bars below. In addition, please spend some time with us at a craft chocolate tasting and join our upcoming conversation with Rachel Khoo, plus the various wine and gin tastings we’ve scheduled (see here and below).

As ever, thanks for your support and wishing you all a great Sunday!

Spencer

P.S. I asked a number of people for their help and expertise to write this post. But I didn’t ask their permission to acknowledge them. However I’d still like to ‘hat tip’ and thank them. So here are their initials: MOD, KC, CC, MFH, JB, RP.