Single-Malt Scotch Whisky: The Fine Chocolate of the Beverage World

Since I have been scarcely old enough to consume alcoholic beverages, I have had an interest in Scotch Whisky. At the age of 21 as I tried to figure out what in the “spirits” category appealed to me, I kept feeling drawn, again and again, to Scotch. At first I just ordered whatever was affordable, but gradually I became more interested in pricier blends, and upon arriving in Columbia, MO to finish my B.A., I was introduced to the multifaceted world of single malts. I’ve never looked back. Now I have enough familiarity with the whisky-making process, various distilleries, and their geographical locations and styles, that I don’t feel completely lost, but at the same time, I realize that there is a great deal left for me to learn, and so I persevere–let me tell you, it’s a tough life. 😉

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Chocolate: The New Fine Wine?

Those of you who have heard me speak, who follow this blog, or my tweets at http://www.twitter.com/PatricChocolate, know that I always dwell upon the many similarities between fine chocolate and other fine foods, with a specific emphasis on wine. I do this not because I want to charge more for fine chocolate, but because I truly believe that the similarities are clear when carefully considered, and that my comments will help people to think about chocolate in new and different ways. Of course, I work with chocolate each and every day, so this is something that is on my mind more than it will be for the average person, but lately the issue has been on my mind even more than usual.

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Chocolate Aftertaste and Microbes in Your Mouth

Hi all,

Yes, I know it is an odd title for a blog post, but I came across an article at Science Daily that really got me thinking about the impact of our invisible little friends on the flavor of chocolate. Of course I’ve already talked about the impact of bacteria and yeasts on the flavor of chocolate as regards post-harvest processing of cacao such as fermentation–where I’ve compared the result to wine and beer–but the flavor impacts that I’m thinking about now have nothing to do with changing the chocolate itself, and everything to do with what happens after the finished chocolate is in your mouth.

The authors of the study cited in the article above have noted that certain chemical compounds that are normally tasteless, when exposed to microbes that are naturally present in the mouth and/or throat, are transformed into aromatic compounds that impact flavor in interesting and unique ways, in some cases giving off what we would consider to be the “characteristic odor” of a particular food. Specifically, the paper focuses on what we often call “aftertaste.” The idea is that it takes some time–maybe 20-30 seconds–for the bacteria to carry out the transformation from the odorless compound to the aromatic compound, so it isn’t until the end of a tasting experience that certain flavors become obvious.

Thinking back to all of the chocolates that I’ve tasted, some with magnificent, long-lasting finishes, and others that seem to spiral so quickly to an unsatisfying demise, it makes me wonder once more about the reason for the differences, and whether the microbes in my mouth had any say in the matter. There are a million implications to all of this, including whether the compounds that these bacteria might be processing are naturally present in cacao or not, and if not, how they get there–fermentation, oxidation during drying, roasting??

Lots of food for thought, so to speak, and speaking of thought, who knows, maybe they’ll find out that there are microbes that change the way we think as well.

‘Til next time,

Alan

The Chemistry of Chocolate Part 2: General Cocoa Bean Chemistry

Chocolate doesn’t just grow on trees. Well, actually it does…kind of. Chocolate is made from the fermented and dried seeds–often called cocoa beans–of a fruit, a large berry in fact, that grows on a tropical tree between approximately 20ºN and 20ºS. It was once commonly thought that two subspecies of cacao trees existed, Theobroma cacao ssp. cacao—commonly called Criollo—and Theobroma cacao ssp. sphaerocarpum—commonly called Forastero. However, more recent research suggests that the idea of two separate subspecies is incorrect, since though Criollo and Forastero populations certainly have differing phenotypes, they are sometimes far more similar than different, with some Criollo and Forastero populations being much more alike than either is similar to various hybrid populations. We will touch on this issue more in this installment of The Chemistry of Chocolate, as it is quite relevant to the chemistry-based role that genetics can play on the flavor of cacao. First, however, let it be noted that it is common in the chocolate industry, and especially in chocolate marketing within the industry, to talk about the following three categories of cacao: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario.

We have already seen the terms Criollo and Forastero, and the name “Trinitario” stems from the hybridized trees of Criollo and Forastero parentage in Trinidad following a “blast”—either disease-based or hurricane-based—in the first half of the 18th century. Because the name Trinitario had relevance in speaking of the first well-known hybrids of cacao, it gradually also came to be used in a generic sense by many people, for almost any hybrid, despite the fact that many hybrids have nothing to do with Trinidad as their origin. Therefore, though in Trinidad there is still said to be true Trinitario cacao, in the sense of it being closely genetically related to the original, and though some of this cacao was spread to other geographical regions, the term is generally more confusing than it is helpful. For this reason, I will not use the term Trinitario, but will use the more generic term “hybrid,” which, though leaving much to be desired, since it lacks the specificity needed to delineate the hundreds—at least—of cacao hybrids that now exist, will serve the purposes of the Chemistry of Chocolate series just fine. Finally, then, for ease of discussion, we can generally say that there are three main categories of cacao: Criollo, Forastero, and hybrids, and within each group there are certainly countless populations with divergences in phenotypes and flavor profiles of prepared samples, and this means that none of these categories can be seen as a single homogeneous “variety.” However, there are also some general rules that can be stated, which are gleaned from a study of the various populations that are generally seen as fitting within the three categories listed above. Let us first discuss Criollo.

We know that Criollo cacao was historically cultivated by the Olmecs–perhaps as early as 1000 BCE– and then the Maya in Central America and Southern Mexico, and it is likely that these Central American cacao populations had originally come from populations in western Venezuela and the surrounding areas, where such Criollo populations continue to exist, though often in slightly hybridized forms. Interestingly, Criollo matures more slowly, produces fewer fruit, and has low disease and pest resistance. With all of these seemingly negative qualities related to Criollo, one might wonder why the Olmecs and those pre-historic peoples who came before them even bothered to propogate it. The answer is likely in the flavor, in that the Criollo cacao populations are generally particularly nutty, mild, lacking bitterness and astringency, and therefore are often more subtle and pleasing as regards flavor. This being the probable case, despite the drawbacks of such cacao, it gradually came to be favored by certain indigenous peoples of Central America, finally making its way from its likely origin in Venezuela, up to Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico. The underlying chemical reasons for the flavor of the Criollo cacao, which are related to the genetics of this type, are also quite interesting, and will give us a foundation for dealing with the chemistry of the other cacao types.

One clue that helps to unlock the mystery of the general flavor differences between categories of cacao, is that while Criollo seeds have white interiors prior to fermentation and drying, Forastero seeds have purple interiors. The missing purple chemical in Criollo is the same one that colors polyphenol-rich blueberries: a flavonoid bound to a sugar that, when taken as a whole, is called an anthocyanin glycoside. Though this compound itself is not thought to be bitter or astringent, it has been noted that where it is present in cacao, certain other flavonoids are present as well, and in higher amounts than in cacao with no purple pigment. These other flavonoids, such as catechin and epicatechin, tend to be bitter in their simpler non-complexed form, and in their complexed forms, somewhat less bitter but more astringent. Astringency is a dry/puckery feeling in the mouth caused by the higher molecular weight flavonoid polymers–often referred to as tannins–reacting with protein in the saliva and on the tongue, and though always present in cacao, in excess, the sensation can be quite unpleasant.

Interestingly, not only does the relative lack of these particular flavonoids lead to a less harsh product in the case of Criollo, which has about 2/3 of the amount that Forastero has, but the balance of flavor is shifted even further, as other flavor notes within the cacao become more noticeable in the absence of the flavonoid harshness. Therefore nutty, fruity and other positive qualities of the cacao tend to be more noticeable. However, flavonoids aren’t the only bitter chemicals that are present in Forastero. Theobromine, an alkaloid related to caffeine, is also quite bitter, and present in perceptible quantities in Forastero. We will touch upon theobromine in more depth when discussing roasting later in the series, where it will have a large role to play. Another potential difference between Forastero and Criollo cacao, though the amounts of data present to support it are still limited, is that Criollo or Criollo-heavy hybrids may generally have more free amino acids in their composition. This could well play a role regarding flavor differences between Criollo and Forastero during roasting, a possibility that we will also discuss later in this series.

As for hybrids, they can have many different combinations of the above Criollo and Forastero traits. They can seem remarkably similar to Criollo, with only slightly bitter and astringent, very light, pink cotyledons, or they can seem far more like Forastero, with purple, more bitter seeds, and sometimes hybrids can actually include many more bitter and astringent compounds than even average Forastero populations. Hybrids can, thus, not be lumped into one category for the sake of flavor description or internal seed chemical composition, especially since the degree of variation within the whole range of hybrid populations far exceeds variation within Criollo and Forastero populations. This is one reason why, though all three terms–Forastero, Criollo, and hybrid–can be tricky in terms of usage, almost always requiring a bit of supplementary definition, the aforementioned term “Trinitario” is almost useless unless very clearly defined. That said, Criollo also risks becoming a useless term as some people have tended to refer to any hybrid with some amount of noticeable Criollo parentage as Criollo, when, as a hybrid, it obviously cannot be. It is reasonable, therefore, to want to know the whole story behind someone’s usage of the terms Criollo or Trinitario before taking them at face value.

Moving on–so far we have taken a brief look at what role genetics can play in terms of determining cacao chemistry and flavor, but though genetics play a large role regarding cacao flavor, due to flavonoid, theobromine, and, potentially, free amino acid levels, the environment and climate in which the cacao trees grow also substantially impact the chemistry of the cacao seeds and therefore their flavor. As with all fruit trees, the health of the tree itself is important, and so weather patterns that impact temperature, rainfall, humidity and solar radiation levels all play a role in the flavor of the seeds within the cacao fruit. In addition to these various climactic conditions, soil-type, other plant species growing in close proximity–for example shade trees or leguminous atmospheric nitrogen-fixing plants–and even mycorrhizal fungi in the soil that have a symbiotic relationship with cacao, all make substantial impacts on the health, and therefore the cellular chemistry, of the tree and its fruit. In fact, all of these conditions could arguably be combined underneath a single umbrella-term that the French call “terroir”, a word that one normally hears used in relation to grape vineyards and wine. However, it is equally applicable to other crops, and cacao among them. Terroir is responsible, to quite a degree, for the flavor of cacao that comes from different regions, origins, or even given plots of land within regions. Additionally, the various impacts that terroir can have on cacao stretch beyond the growing location and reach into post-harvest processing, as each location, or origin, has different microbial populations that impact the chemistry and flavor of the cacao in dramatic ways. The next part of the Chemistry of Chocolate series, therefore, will delve into this realm of post-harvest processing, as we cover harvest, fermentation, and drying.

Global Threat to Fine Chocolate Revealed:

Scientists have discovered a molecule that some believe may lead to the destruction of fine chocolate. The molecule (left), known as 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, and with the empirical formula C8H8O3 is white and needle-like in appearance, and has been found, often in large quantities, in cheap chocolate, though it is also to be found in fine chocolate in varying quantities. When this molecule is present in small numbers it poses little risk to the destruction of fine chocolate, but in much larger quantities can lead to the constriction of muscles in the throat and nausea in some individuals.

Alright, enough kidding around, the molecule above is simply vanillin, the major constituent of vanilla, which, as most people know, is quite common in chocolate. What spurred this satire was a combination of a few conversations that I have recently had that have gotten me thinking about vanilla in relation to chocolate even more than I had in the past. So, I decided to explicitly state my position on vanilla, which is as follows:

I don’t put vanilla in Patric Chocolate. My philosophy is to choose cacao that is of such quality that it tastes delicious with only small amounts of pure cane sugar. Sugar, while certainly adding a component of sweetness to chocolate that is not present in the source cacao, is not aromatic, and therefore does not interfere with the aroma of the cacao as do aromatic substances. Aroma, as we know from the post about chocolate appreciation a few weeks ago, is the largest component of the perception of flavor of any food, and so makes quite an impact on the overall flavor of chocolate. With this in mind, small quantities of sugar, by helping to balance bitter and acid tastes in the cacao, actually allow the full bouquet of the cacao to shine in all of its delicious glory. Vanilla, on the other hand, which adds its own set of aromatic notes to the mix, based mostly on vanillin, but also upon a number of other compounds–some of which can seem minty or citrusy– muddies the waters of the chocolate as the aroma of the cacao itself becomes confused and hard to decipher.

Of course, this is the opinion of only one chocolate maker in a field of many who do use vanilla. So it is fair to wonder if I have wandered too far off the beaten track in my rejection of vanilla. All that I can say is to trust your own mouth and your own nose. Next time you taste a fine chocolate bar without vanilla (they are rare, but do exist), pay attention to the clarity of the tastes and aromas. Note the beauty of the experience. Then, taste some chocolate with vanilla in it and ask yourself if the experience of the chocolate has been helped or hampered by the addition of the vanilla. You might just surprise yourself with your own answer.

Fine chocolate lovers of the world unite; In cacao we trust!

Alan McClure
Patric Chocolate

Note: I realize that there will always be chocolate makers and chocolate lovers who prefer vanilla in their chocolate, that this is a subjective preference, and that quantity of vanilla certainly does matter; I respect all of this. My goal in this post is really to make the case that though historically we have added vanilla to our chocolate in the West, making it normal and accepted, it is not necessarily the case that it actually enhances the flavor of fine chocolate made with excellent quality cacao, and that its addition to such products may, to some extent, be a cultural holdover.

The Chemistry of Chocolate: An Introduction

Photo: A cacao fruit containing white, pulp-covered cacao seeds. Though the pulp is sweet and tart, the inner seed itself– there is a blown up inset of one of them cut in half– which is what is eventually ground into chocolate, is quite bitter and un-chocolate-like. (click the photo to enlarge)

Chocolate has perhaps the most complex flavor of any food in the world. This is due to the chemical makeup of the cacao (or cocoa beans) with which the chocolate is made, but also to the very complicated processes to which the cacao is subjected, including harvest, fermentation, drying, roasting, refining, conching, aging and tempering. These processes ultimately lead to a food with a flavor that is so chemically complex—with the running count now numbering over 600 possible volatile compounds–that scientists cannot even tell us exactly which compounds give chocolate its magnificent, delectable and unmistakable “chocolateness.” Researchers think that this quintessential chocolate note is probably due to a multiplicity of chemicals, or maybe that it is due only to a handful of chemicals that are present in very small quantities–but since they have very low odor thresholds, are nevertheless quite important–or maybe that it is due to both; how’s that for clarity? And so it is, that at the start of the 21st century, as we find ourselves capable of regularly flying into space, cloning plants and animals, and building supercomputers the size of wristwatches, we still don’t yet understand the essence of chocolate.

However, even though there is so much we don’t yet know about chocolate, we do know one thing: Chocolate is delicious, and many people, if asked to choose between their favorite chocolate and any other beloved food, would not hesitate to choose the item made from the fruit of a plant that Carolus Linnaeus deemed Theobroma, or “Food of the gods”—yes, chocolate (Theobroma cacao in full). Yet despite the fact that cacao has such a delicious sounding name, in reality, cacao just off the tree tastes quite bitter, astringent, otherwise harsh and not chocolaty in the least. How can this little seed that initially tastes quite awful be chocolate’s number one ingredient?

The answer is to be found above in the title of this series. Indeed, every step of the chocolate-making process involves quite complex chemical changes within the cacao, and it is our control over the processes that cause these changes that eventually reveals to us a flavor of beauty: that of finished chocolate of course!

Over the next several months we will be looking in some detail at the various steps of chocolate making, starting with the cacao tree itself, as we discuss the chemistry involved in each step, and where applicable, the history of developments in cacao processing that have led to changes in the chemistry of the finished product. We will answer many chocolate-related chemistry questions along the way, and our answers will raise new questions, but in any case, by the end of this series readers will have a very good idea of the types of changes undergone by our friend cacao during its metamorphosis into chocolate. Let the fun begin…