Hello and good day!
Please take a look at the photo.
That is my brother Brian on the left. He is explaining our cacao drying protocol to Anthony Bourdain and world-renowned, Michelin starred chef Eric Ripert.
Note the raised black mesh dryer beds and the thick, clear, plastic tarps up above. The entire set up was purpose built with one goal in mind. We want chocolate made with our cacao to be as delicious as possible. However, there are additional benefits to this method of drying cacao beyond the impact on flavor.
A wonderful customer named Brenda Kitchens brought a recent study to my attention. The study focused on the problems caused by drying cacao on the ground, next to roads, as is done in many cacao producing countries. The conclusion was that drying cacao on the ground near roads contributes to higher levels of toxic heavy metals in cacao.
Full disclosure. I have not read this particular article or study. I am summarizing from the email sent by Brenda.
As you may be aware, a large-scale study was carried out not too long ago revealing that many of the most popular brands of dark chocolate have toxic levels of heavy metals in them. In that more widely read study, soil was identified as the culprit.
Drying methodology is a new angle on the issue. We have a lot of experience with the outcomes of drying cacao on the ground, both on farm floors, and near roads. And I'd like to share a few things we've learned over the years.
However, before delving in, I want to remind you that we've been heavy metal testing every lot of our cacao and chocolate for the last fourteen years. Because our chocolate is manufactured in Switzerland, we have been subject to EU regulations the entire time we've been in business. This far predates the recent studies.
Our testing results are posted on the FAQ page of our website, and we've always tested very far below the legal limit. For all intents and purposes, our chocolate is heavy metal free.
When we first started doing business in the jungle of northern Peru, literally every single cacao farm in the region dried cacao on the ground. And they fermented their cacao mostly in garbage bags.
Both practices lead to awful tasting cacao that must be dark roasted and slathered in vanilla and sugar to be edible. No matter the genetic variety, if cacao is poorly processed after harvest, the resulting chocolate will be of low quality.
As it pertains specifically to drying, there are two different floor environments.
One is the farm floor. The other is near the road. On the farm floor, you have a lot of creepy crawlies intermingling with the cacao and you have animals coming around, sniffing, stepping, and defecating.
Its gross, but that is reality. Let's just take the case of a farm dog urinating on cacao. I'm sorry to tell you this, but it happens all the time, all over the world, including on the cacao used in just about every grocery store chocolate.
When cacao comes out of the fermentation process and is put out to dry, the outer skin that dries into a hard shell is still wet and porous.
If a dog pees on the cacao before the shell forms, the urine will dry into the cacao, leaving its flavor and aroma forever more.
That is a flavor consideration.
When cacao goes to a chocolate manufacturing factory, they have two or three processes for killing off anything that could make you sick.
They apply bacteria killing heat during several phases of the chocolate making process. However, the aroma and flavor of dog piss must be burnt over or covered up somehow. It never leaves the cacao.
I'm sorry to be so graphic.
And this is just one example of the many things that animals can do to cacao. There are chickens and goats and cows out on these farms as well. Use your imagination.
Getting away from the flavor aspect and thinking in terms of health, imagine a beetle that dies in a batch of drying cacao. Said beetle can easily be packed into a bag of exportable cacao. If the beetle is roughly the size and color of a cacao bean, it is very likely to be roasted, ground up, and included in the chocolate. This could happen with roaches and worms and a lot of other bugs you can think of.
Now let's think about cacao left out to dry on the side of a road. The big contaminate here is exhaust from vehicles. Again, while the skin is wet and porous, particulates from the air can float down and settle on cacao. When the shell dries around those contaminants, they are in there.
If we had to guess, this is probably the mechanism by which heavy metals in the more recent study showed up in tested cacao.
In many poorer countries, the exhaust is not catalytic converted, and this leads to much grimier smoke coming out of the tailpipe. As far as debris goes, you still have bugs out on the road. You are also talking about dirt and rocks and litter getting mixed in with the cacao that could end up going through the entire chocolate making process.
What you really want, both for flavor and hygiene, is a raised dryer bed in a centralized processing facility away from the road.
A mesh surface with good airflow is ideal. Where cacao grows it usually rains a lot. Constant rainfall on cacao can cause a bad moldy flavor. You need a nice strong plastic tarp to protect cacao from rain and the tarp should be clear so that light can still pass through it.
And just for good measure, we employ a team of single mothers who sweep through all of our cacao before it is exported. Their job is to remove anything off the dryer bed that isn't a perfectly sized and shaped cacao bean.
If somehow a weird piece of debris makes it through the several checks in our post-harvest process, which it almost never does, it will be caught during the dryer bed sort.
A good smoking gun question to ask a chocolate supplier is how their cacao was dried. If they can't answer, it was probably dried on the ground somewhere and everything I've written above will apply.
Thank you so much for your time today.
I hope that you have a truly blessed day!