Hello and good day!
The three most important factors that determine the flavor of fine flavored chocolate are genetics, fermentation, and roast. These drive flavor.
The texture will be determined by other factors, the most important of which is the machines that are used.
Note the expression "fine flavored chocolate".
The flavor of mass produced, cheap chocolate depends much more on roast, which is always dark enough that all you taste is the roast, and the flavorings added to the recipe.
In fine flavor chocolate, we make the assumption that you actually want to taste the cacao.
Mass produced chocolate makes the assumption that what you crave is the taste that you've come to associate with the brand, and that is driven by the recipe, not the cacao.
The cacao is only there to meet a legal requirement that a certain percentage of cacao must be included so that "chocolate" can be used on the labeling and be listed in the ingredients panel.
The reality of just how little the industrial chocolate supply chain cares about the flavor of cacao became immediately obvious to us when we first started visiting cacao farms back in the day.
We had already done a good amount of research and attended some conferences.
We more or less understood the importance of fermentation and what some of the best techniques were.
In the end, my brother Brian ended up creating his own fermentation protocol from the ground up, but that only happened after 2 years of experimentation.
The general thrust of what we knew was that you want to put fresh cacao in a wooden box and cover it for 5 - 7 days.
Freshly harvested cacao is covered in a sugary, white mucilage, or gel, inside the cacao pod.
The gel is sweet and citrusy and tastes nothing like chocolate. Cacao seeds straight out of the pod are delicious to suck on, but they are not chocolatey.
Anyhow, you put the seeds in the box and cover them, and they start to ferment. This is because environmental yeast from the air starts to eat sugar when there is no oxygen available.
Covering the cacao, thereby cutting off oxygen, kicks off the fermentation process. After 5-7 days, you take the cacao out of the wooden box, and it will have developed chocolate aromas.
You then dry the cacao under the sun and you end up with the base ingredient for chocolate.
There are a lot of details that need to be monitored during fermentation if you want to end up with cacao that will make really delicious chocolate.
For example if cacao is under fermented, it comes out very sour and with an obvious off flavor.If you over ferment cacao, it tastes rotten.
When we first started poking around on cacao farms, we saw that fermentation meant nothing to cacao farmers, nor to the folks who bought their cacao.
For the most part, farmers would harvest their cacao and then throw it in a plastic garbage bag to ferment.
They would leave it there for a few days, with no real rhyme or reason for how long it would remain in the plastic bag, and then spread the cacao out on the farm floor when they got around to it.
When the cacao buyer showed up, they bought the cacao at the world commodity price and that was that.
Nobody cared about how good or bad the cacao was going to taste. We were totally taken aback.
That was a real eye opener about how industrial chocolate, and I'd imagine many other industrial food products, actually work.
As we studied the issue, we came to realize that you couldn't blame the farmers.They were simply giving their customers what they wanted, the cheapest thing that could possibly be produced.
There was only one customer out there, so what could they do? They have to sell the cacao to survive.
To do the fermentation correctly would require a capital investment on the part of the farmers They'd have to build wooden boxes.
They'd have to spend time monitoring the outcomes and tending to the cacao.
However, even if they did all that, their remuneration wouldn't have changed and the company buying the cacao wouldn't have noticed.
It would be a real waste of time and resources to try and do it right under those circumstances.
This cost benefit situation is happening all over the world in chocolate. Probably 95% of all cacao farmers are incentivized to do the absolute minimum.
Anyhow, we started looking into how to do it right.One of the really cool places we visited on a research tour is in the photo above.
This is a co-op in Peru that built a centralized processing facility, similar to ours. They are using a very popular method of fermentation called step fermentation.
Cacao ferments at different rates depending on where it is located in the box. Cacao at the bottom ferments faster than cacao in the middle and at the top of the box. You get an even ferment, mixing is required. Step fermentation is an ingenious solution to this problem.
At the beginning of the process, cacao is loaded into the boxes at the top of the pyramid.
The front part of the boxes open up, and each day a worker with a paddle sweeps all of the cacao out of the box and it falls into the box at the next level lower. This gives you a mix.
After researching the issue thoroughly, Brian decided to reject this style of fermentation. It is a good method.
The great benefit is that it saves on labor, but ultimately Brian determined that the way the cacao falls is too uniform.The cacao isn't mixed up enough for an optimal ferment.
What we discovered is that for the best possible ferment, you need to take all of the cacao out of the boxes, mix them by hand for a good ten minutes on a plastic bed, and then put all the cacao back in the box.
As a result, in our facility we have several dozen wooden boxes sitting directly on the ground and our team goes to each one, every day, takes all the cacao out, mixes it by hand, and puts the cacao back into each box.
We use a plastic bed on rolling wheels to facilitate this.
When my dad heard that this is what Brian wanted to do, we had to do some deep philosophical soul searching.
Our company went a couple of years without income at the beginning while we tried to figure this all out.
My dad was a 68 year old man when the project started and he was spending his savings funding the project.
It wasn't too heartening to hear that after all that, Brian wanted to pursue the most labor intensive method imaginable.
But the question we had to ask ourselves was whether we were serious about making the best product possible, or not.
Eventually we answered in the affirmative and Brian started hiring people to help with our daily fermentation process.
Over time, we ended up becoming the biggest employer in the little town where we operate because a lot of people need to be on hand to mix cacao every single afternoon during the harvest season.
That step method is a great method though. It is so, so much better than what usually happens and it is admirable when a cacao growing community decides to take their post harvest processing seriously.
These cacao farming communities should be supported!
While FairTrade premiums are a good start, even higher prices would be better to offset the capital investment that farming communities have to make to do fermentation correctly.
The way to make that possible is to cut out all the middle men from the supply chain, thus freeing up money to pay more to cacao farmers, but that is a whole different topic.
Anyhow, I am running out of steam on this for now.
Thank you so, so much for your time today!
I hope that you have a truly blessed day!