What Else Can Cacao Do?

Some time ago I asked you, the loyal Patric Chocolate blog readers, to speak up and let me know what you would like to see me write about. Those who responded had many great suggestions, and they have been heard! Here is just one of the suggestions:

“I know we get chocolate from cacao beans and […] alcoholic drinks are possible from the pulp. I’ve even had a pulp fruit spread. What else can the fruit (berry) be used for? Do we always discard the large outer shell?”

–D in NYC

Many parts of the cacao fruit are delicious, from the unique “chocolate” notes of the fermented and roasted cacao seed to the sweet-tart floral qualities of the seeds’ fresh pulp; the cacao fruit truly has a lot to offer. The one exception seems to be the exocarp of the fruit–normally referred to incorrectly as the “pod”–from which no food or beverage seems to be derived. I have tried to keep things reasonably simple, so I haven’t touched upon foods such as chocolate pastries and candies for which many ingredients are needed, and in which chocolate often plays only a supporting role. Here are just a few of the uses to which people have put cacao throughout the years:


Cacao Fruit: The Mystery Continues

Out of all of the interesting chocolate-related facts that surprise people, one of the most surprising tends to be the fact that cocoa “beans,” far from being true beans, are actually the plump, buttery-pulp-covered seeds from a somewhat melon-shaped fruit that grows on the trunk of a tropical tree.

This fact, however, often overshadows a lesser known point of interest, which is that the fruit, often called a “pod,” is not a pod at all. It is also not a fruit type called a “drupe,” though even many academic papers and books make this mistake. Examples of actual drupes are “stone fruits” such as peaches, plums, cherries, and almonds. In other words, drupes have their seeds encased in a hard shell, or endocarp, and this “pit” or “stone” is then surrounded by the, generally, fleshy and edible part of the fruit. Cacao, on the other hand, is arranged quite differently. Cacao fruits have a somewhat thick and tough, though not hard, skin, within which is contained the many pulp-covered seeds. The seeds themselves do not have a hard shell. The fruit is, therefore, not a drupe in the least. What is sometimes referred to as the “shell” of the cocoa bean is nothing more than the dry seed coat of the fermented and dried cacao seed. When the seed is still moist, the seed coat could not be further from anything resembling a shell.

All of this being the case, and after a 2007 conversation with Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate really drove this point home, I began to wonder what the accurate botanical classification of a cacao fruit should be, if not a drupe. With this in mind I stumbled across a paper by Douglas Lehrian and Gordon Patterson of the Hershey Foods Corporation, in a collection published in 1983, that mentions quite clearly that the cacao fruit is a berry! The discovery was exciting, but still, I was a bit hesitant to rely on this information alone. I forwarded this find to DeVries, who promised to pass it by some botanists that he knew, and after some weeks, the botanists seemed not to have any major problems with the classification. At last, I thought, we can be relatively certain that the cacao fruit is actually a berry, and at this point I finally shared the findings with my Patric Chocolate blog readers. Yet, this certainty was not to last…

Unknown to me, the cacao fruit drama crept quietly along in the shadows, hidden by the busy chocolate holiday season which runs from October through April. Come June, however, I got an e-mail from DeVries in which he shared the updated opinions of the previously mentioned botanists. Time had allowed them to reflect more thoroughly upon the issue of the cacao fruit, and they were now of a slightly different opinion. Interestingly, the botanists felt that the cacao fruit was actually not a true berry, but instead was closest to a pepo, one of many types of false berries. However, they still did not feel strongly enough about this to make a final pronouncement, and this fact in itself led to additional skepticism on my part.

As I did some research into what exactly a pepo was, having never before encountered the classification, I wrote back to DeVries with my thoughts, some excerpts of which follow:

“As for cacao, it does seem very pepo-like, but I’m starting to wonder if this is a case of the human desire to classify something within an extant system that is really not complex enough for it.

It seems to me that generally in pepos, most of the edible fruit is not directly surrounding each seed as a pulp, but instead there is a type of internal seed layer with a fleshy edible layer right behind it (cucumber, various squash, [most] melons), and right before the “rind.” The cacao fruit certainly looks similar externally to some pepos, though, but I still wonder. Could Theobroma fruits, including cacao, be different types of fruit, yet to be named? Maybe this is why the botanists could be having some reservations–because they are wondering similar things.”

Of course, I am no botanist, and my common-sense pronouncements certainly don’t settle the issue entirely. For this reason, I was interested to receive a further e-mail from DeVries that included a quote from an 1861 publication of the American Pharmaceutical Association. The following botanical description of the cacao fruit was given:

“The capsule (berry-like,) not dehiscent, quinquelocular, with polysper-
mous compartments, and a ligneous leather-like bark. Seeds
nestling in a buttery fleshy pulp. ”

Once again, it is stated that the cacao fruit is not a true berry; rather, it is “berry-like.” Still, it doesn’t seem that we know enough yet to say what the fruit truly is; we simply keep stating what it isn’t. Are we happy enough to note that the cacao fruit is the perfect specimen of the rare and little-known Pepo-Like, False Berry? Perhaps not. So, if luck is on our side, the botanists will not lose interest in the issue either. After all, if they finally conclude that there is no extant classification that accurately includes cacao, then, at last, the botanists might be able to come up with a new classification that finally takes cacao into consideration.

Until then, the cacao fruit mystery continues, but we have come a long way in only one year. I’ll be sure to keep you posted if any further botanists decide to weigh in on the issue. Until then, fine, dark Pepo-Like-False-Berry-seed paste maker, Alan McClure, signing off.

Chocolate: The Best Known, Least Known Food

Not long ago, during a friendly conversation about chocolate–as if there were any other kind–culinary historian, and NYC chocolate tour director, Alexandra Leaf, said to me that she thought of chocolate as the “best known, least known food in existence.” That comment got a chuckle out of me as I realized that not only is it true, but that the reason it is funny in the first place is due to the irony that something as well-loved as chocolate, a food to which people are exposed, in one form or another, virtually from infancy, a food that impassions a large part of the the human community with its complexity, unique flavor and texture, is virtually a stranger to us in terms of how it actually comes to be chocolate!

To some extent this is to be expected; after all, with expanding globalization it is rare nowadays that many of us know from whence all, or even most, of our food comes. Still, it is probably safe to say that even if we are not sure whether the orange that we are eating comes from Florida, most of us are reasonably certain that the orange did originally come from a tree. Even this much is not generally known about chocolate. In conversations I’ve had over the past several years, with people of all backgrounds, levels of education, economic statuses, sexes, and everything in between, most people truly are astonished when I tell them that chocolate has its ultimate origin in the bitter, pulp-covered seeds of a fruit that grows on a tree. This need not be the case!

Personally, I have dealt with the issue of chocolate’s complex provenance many times, and in many ways, in the posts of this blog, and there is a good chance that all of you reading this post have seen me mention these facts in one way or another. However, my blog posts are not enough. They simply cannot reach the majority of the population. That is why you, as the choco-literati, must take it upon yourself to help educate others about the glory and the beauty of cacao and its long and difficult voyage to chocolate. You can do it! You can spread the good word, the chocolate gospel, the truth about the best known, least known food in existence! The next time a friend of yours bites into a chocolate bar in front of you, by all means drop a little chocolate knowledge in their general direction. After all, though most people know only a little about chocolate, it is a subject that few can resist. You might even get to share a bit of their chocolate as a sign of appreciation.


P.S. My utmost appreciation goes to Alexandra Leaf for the inspiration for this post, and for her work as a culinary and chocolate educator!

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.

Chocolate and Percentages: What Does It All Mean?

I often get asked what the percentage on the front of a chocolate bar means. As is the case with many things chocolate-related, the answer is not quite what I would call simple:

Percentages on chocolate bars get tricky because there is no clear and consistent legal standard for their usage. You may see one or more of the following terms on the front or back of the chocolate bar packaging:

cacao (or cocoa) content
cacao (or cocoa) mass
cacao (or cocoa) solids
chocolate (or cocoa) liquor

“Chocolate” is defined by the FDA as a product containing ground up cacao–cocoa beans–minus their shells. It can be 100% chocolate with nothing added, or there can be some other ingredients added such as sugar, vanilla and other natural flavorings, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and some additional dairy products as well as emulsifiers such as lecithin.

The funny thing is that sometimes on the back of a chocolate bar you’ll see that the ingredients list includes “chocolate” as the first ingredient. You may wonder how the first ingredient of “chocolate” can be “chocolate,” but this oddity is simply because the roasted and refined cocoa beans can be called “chocolate” by themselves, even without sugar added. However, the FDA prefers the controlled term “chocolate liquor” which signifies the same thing (i.e. ground up cocoa beans). Sometimes if the cocoa beans have too low an amount of cocoa butter—as in the case of low quality cacao—cocoa butter must be added, but need not be listed in the ingredients because it is seen as a correction rather than an addition.

“Cocoa mass” is a controlled term used in the EU to signify the same thing as “chocolate liquor” here in the US (i.e. ground up cocoa beans). This term, like “chocolate liquor”, does not include “added” cocoa butter or cocoa powder. These items must be listed separately.

“Cocoa content” signifies a combination of cocoa beans, cocoa butter and cocoa powder altogether, but it has no legally defined meaning.

“Cocoa solids” is the really tricky term. It also has no legally defined meaning and some companies apparently use it to signify the same thing as cocoa content—again butter, beans, and powder—but other companies use it to signify only cocoa powder, or more accurately, the non-fat solid portion of the cocoa bean–and this is how I have seen the term used by most people. However, it is apparently not always used in this way.

Here is an interesting blog post by Emily Stone of Chocolate in Context, based on statements by several chocolate professionals with different ideas of what this term means.

Note that the first two comments are from Americans, and the last one is Australian. There could well be a difference in general usage of these various terms between the two countries. Note also that all three disagree to some extent; however, I believe that the first person, Ed Seguine from Guittard Chocolate, is the most accurate in terms of legally-defined terminology and general usage of terminology as regards chocolate in the United States. Still, as I mention, there is obviously inconsistency in usage in the industry, which is why there is really no completely correct way to use these terms in relation to each other without clarifying what one means by them, and such lengthy descriptions will certainly not find their way onto a chocolate bar package.

“Cocoa” is another tricky term because in common language, it often refers to “cocoa powder,” which is ground up cacao that has had some of the fat pressed from it, but it is also sometimes used generically as a catch-all for anything derived from cacao, and therefore the cacao itself, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder.

“Cacao” seems clearer, as one would think that it surely refers to only the fermented and dried seeds of the cacao tree, or what often are called “cocoa beans,” but do not expect that every time you see the word “cacao” that it will only include the ground up cacao seeds. “Cacao” is becoming quite a buzz-word now, and so it is just a matter of time before even more confusion sets in as it becomes the #1 catch-all term to describe a combination of all cacao-derived products. The shift in usage and meaning has already begun.

One small US chocolate maker has noted that he sees “cocoa beans” as the clearest way to differentiate the roasted seeds of the cacao tree from other cacao-derived products. This may be the case, but at the moment, the terminology is still rarely used.

Because of this, out of all of the above terms, the clearest commonly used phrase may be “cocoa content,” as it is openly and obviously inclusive of all cacao-based products, which is what the percentage on the bar will almost certainly signify anyway–as companies generally want to use as high a number as possible–and doesn’t risk confusing as does the term “cocoa solids” due to multiple possible meanings since molten cocoa butter can certainly be thought of as a liquid.

So, it is perfectly reasonable to say: “This bar is a 70% cocoa content dark chocolate”, which would mean that 70% of its weight comes from ground up cocoa beans with the possible addition of cocoa butter, and/or cocoa powder in some combination. The simplest 70% bar would be ground up cocoa beans and sugar, which is what the Patric Chocolate 70% Madagascar is.

But, now we have run into a further problem:

The fact that “70% cocoa content” can mean different things is exactly why, though its meaning may be clear, it is still quite imprecise. In fact, 10 different bars that all use the same terminology (i.e. 70% cocoa content), can all have very different proportions of cacao, cocoa butter and cocoa powder in them. Fine chocolate generally does not include cocoa powder, but even so, different brands have highly variable proportions of cacao to cocoa butter. In fact, it is possible, for example, to have a 74% bar that has less cacao–due to added cocoa butter–and is therefore less robust in flavor, than a 71% bar with no cocoa butter added. The problem is compounded by the fact that most chocolate makers/manufacturers do not include the varying percentages of the different components added. Though texture and flavor can give some indication, one would hope that the lack of transparency in the chocolate world as regards percentage will, at some point, be a thing of the past; on this note, please see our web store for in-depth descriptions of the actual contents of our bars.

One final thing to mention, which is something that is probably clearer to most people than what we have already discussed, is that a high percentage does not guarantee quality chocolate. Many mass market brands have caught on to putting percentages on their bars as a marketing technique, because up to a point, only the European fine chocolate companies were listing percentages. As you can imagine, there is a very large difference between a 70% made with what is called “bulk” cacao, from a mixture of many uninteresting origins, and filled with massive quantities of vanilla, and a bar that is made from what is called “fine flavor cacao” from one of many different interesting origins, and that really showcases the beauty of the flavor of the cacao due to the artisan’s hand in the manufacturing of the chocolate. This being the case, the oft-quoted term “buyer beware” is certainly relevant here.


Alan McClure

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…

What Is Fine Chocolate? An Essay

Recently Pam Williams, of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), asked me if I would repurpose some of the information from an interview on Cacaolab into an essay dealing with fine chocolate, or more specifically, responding to the question of just what fine chocolate is. After a few drafts and revisions I have come up with a brief essay that deals with the subject. You will notice that I am not talking about bonbons or truffles here, but of chocolate per se, as a food in and of itself, or as an ingredient to be used by chocolatiers or confectioners. However, this does not mean that I deny that chocolate bonbons can fit into the category of “fine chocolate,” but simply that I don’t deal with the issue in any way, as I believe that it will be better served by a skilled, talented and knowledgeable chocolatier. A final point is that I don’t specify that what I am talking about as pure fine chocolate includes only couverture or molded chocolate bars, squares, etc., as I feel that the term fine chocolate should be more expansive than that. Of course chocolate has commonly come in bar or other molded form, but I see hints that the concept of fine chocolate within the minds of various chocolate makers is undergoing an evolution that may lead to different expressions of this delicious item. What these various forms may be is anybody’s guess, but I think that we would do well to keep an open mind, and a willing palate.

Very Best,

Alan McClure
Chocolate Maker
Patric Chocolate

What is Fine Chocolate? An Essay

The term “fine chocolate” gets thrown around quite a bit, both online and in print, but what does it really mean? If we take the word “fine” to literally refer to the fineness of the cacao and sugar particles within the chocolate, which is a reasonable thought given the importance usually placed upon texture in fine chocolate products, then we must expect that any manufacturer of fine chocolate should have the necessary machine(s) available to refine and conche said chocolate until it has a very smooth texture—something that we can objectively refer to as “fine.” However, there are many mass producers that also manufacture chocolate with fine particle sizes, so there must be more to fine chocolate than that. Additionally, there are companies with products on the market that have taken a different approach to fine chocolate, feeling that cacao has, up to this point, been too processed, and have, therefore, created products with varying amounts of refining and conching, using processes that seem to fly in the face of traditional ideas–based primarily on French practices–concerning fine chocolate. This being the case, though texture is usually still quite important to fine chocolate makers, it seems that the definition of fine chocolate must move beyond the issue of texture. I suggest the following three-part definition:

Fine chocolate is produced by a chocolate maker, relatively small in size, who:

  • Makes every effort to source the best quality cacao

  • Has a vision for how to get the best out of such cacao, and carefully and consistently applies that vision using specialized machinery, chosen specifically for the task, in order to create an intriguing and delicious product

  • Effectively conveys to the chocolate-loving public, both through delicious flavor of the product and the philosophy underlying it, the relevance of said product

It will be useful to briefly look at each of these three points.

Quality Cacao:

Various fine chocolate makers will certainly have differing views on many aspects of fine chocolate manufacture, but quality cacao is one issue that many makers can generally agree upon. For example, when looking at the difference between a mass-producer of chocolate and a small or micro-producer of fine chocolate, the fine chocolate maker’s relative focus on quality cacao, as opposed to bulk cacao, is apparent. However, not all companies handle this issue in the same way. Some source directly from farmers, estates, or co-operatives, some work even more closely with the farmers, either directly, or through a hired agent or agronomist, some buy cacao from brokers who specialize in “flavor” cacao, and some use a mixture of all of these practices. Though there is not full agreement between chocolate makers on just how far one must go in sourcing cacao to get the best quality chocolate, it is generally believed that the more direction the chocolate maker can give to the farmers or co-ops that are growing, harvesting, fermenting, and drying her cacao, the better and more consistent the end product will be. Additionally, since happy farmers will undoubtedly care more about the product with which they are working, it also is fair to posit that paying more for each pound of cacao than market rate, or even Fair Trade rate, and rewarding farmers for excellent cacao with investment in tools, such as better fermentation boxes and drying floors or solar dryers, to help them create still better quality cacao, might be a path that fine chocolate makers should consider. In fact, many fine chocolate makers claim that this is the only path towards consistently increasing product quality, and so are attempting to work toward this often difficult goal. Whatever the cacao-sourcing decision, however, what we do with such cacao, as directed by our personal visions for quality products, is equally important.

Vision and Follow-Through:

Each manufacturer of fine chocolate takes this aforementioned cacao, and uses processing methods, which stem from the unique vision or philosophy of what fine chocolate should be, to create interesting, flavorful, and sometimes surprising products. These differences add to the beauty of the fine chocolate market, and in fact are necessary to keep fine chocolate consumers from growing bored with copy-cat products. Though many people may enjoy Valrhona, for example, would such people really want to find that every new bar released by another company was created in the same style of this French chocolate maker? Where would the art and the vision be in such chocolate? Rather, it is better when new companies each focus on what is personally important to them in terms of flavor and texture, adding a distinct and fresh vision to the field. This variation in vision is what creates excitement in the fine chocolate market when each new bar is released. It allows us to look forward to seeing what happens over the next 5-10 years, as we hope to taste, and of course enjoy, interesting products from new and relevant companies. We can call such growth in the fine chocolate market “creative growth,” and so long as such growth is occurring, then we need not worry about the palates of fine chocolate lovers becoming tired and bored, and we need not worry about saturating the market with fine products, as people will continue to clamor for more!

This is why, following the pattern of the Napa Valley revolution in terms of fine American wine, it is not necessary for micro-producers of fine chocolate to worry that serious new companies will put those of us already in existence out of business. The more excellent-quality chocolate that is made worldwide and the more people who have access to such chocolate, the better off all of the small chocolate makers will be. This is because the increase in exposure of people to fine chocolate will result in an inevitable education regarding appreciation of fine chocolate, and a larger percentage of chocolate lovers will be able to distinguish between the quality products of such small and micro-producers and those of the mass-producers that simply pretend. Speaking of education, this leads us to our next point.

Conveying the Fine Chocolate Vision: Education

Since our products, which are hopefully interesting and exciting, do not conform, in terms of flavor and texture, to those currently being manufactured by chocolate mass producers, or to those of each other, which due to different visions is bound to be the case, then it is up to us to educate the consumer about the merits of such products. This education extends far beyond simple marketing, and must include substantial detail about how our processes result in exciting and delicious products. This education will allow the realm of fine chocolate to expand into new and interesting frontiers as long as we are open and honest with the public about our actions. A great deal of transparency in this education is equally important, as this is what will differentiate the true chocolate artisans from those companies that are simply looking to make a quick buck off of a growing trend in fine chocolate. As much as we would like to believe that consumers will immediately know the difference between a lower quality, single-origin bar in pretty packaging, manufactured by a large, publicly-traded company, and a bar of the same origin manufactured by a creative and conscientious chocolate maker, that does not necessarily make it so. Thus, we must work both single-handedly and as a group, for example through organizations such as the FCIA and other related organizations yet to be formed, in order to bring such important information to the public. Cordoning ourselves off in our own separate corners will not only negatively impact our own companies, but will also negatively impact the fine chocolate market in general. Through cooperation in education, we can make a difference that will impact us all: farmers, chocolate makers, chocolatiers, and fine chocolate consumers.

If you would like to learn more about the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), the organization that was a catalyst for the above essay, please visit them here.

Patric Chocolate’s Chocolate-Making Flowchart:

If one searches online, there are actually quite a few flowcharts that visually describe chocolate making from bean to bar. Many of these flowcharts attempt to show every permutation possible within the realm of chocolate making. This adds confusion because certainly not every possible process is relevant to every type of chocolate. So, we decided to create our own flowchart that narrows down the processes to only the steps utilized at Patric Chocolate to create fine dark chocolate from bean to bar.

For those of you who have read our post about Patric Chocolate’s production processes from late September, the content that has been translated into graphic format will already be familiar. However, explaining information graphically can certainly add clarity to a complicated process such as chocolate making, so hopefully many of you will find the flowchart to be helpful. There will be a bit of commentary after the chart.

The process starts in the upper left-hand corner and moves downward.

*Cacao “pods” are not true pods at all. You can read more about what they really are in a another Patric Chocolate post.

In the flowchart above, you will notice that sometimes we create cocoa liquor for the purpose of removing cocoa butter, which is then added to some chocolate. Not all chocolate needs extra cocoa butter, and in fact, adding extra cocoa butter can sometimes negatively impact the texture and the intensity of flavor chocolate. However, in cases where the chocolate percentage drops below 70%, extra cocoa butter must be added to the chocolate to maintain a luscious and smooth texture. In this case, it is important to note that we are adding cocoa butter that comes directly from the same cocoa beans from which the chocolate is made. Most of the time companies add inexpensive bulk cocoa butter that either does not share the same flavor profile, or has been deodorized, a process which weakens the overall flavor profile of the chocolate. Patric Chocolate will never use bulk cocoa butter, deodorized or otherwise.

One final note: Patric Chocolate begins the chocolate-making process at step five with cleaning the cacao by hand. Cacao must be harvested, fermented and dried in the country of its origin. This means that we can’t be entirely involved in every part of the first few steps. That being the case, we are, and have been, actively working to grow and strengthen relationships with small farmers so that we can better control these very important parts of of the chocolate making process.

Chocolate Tasting and Appreciation: A Brief Guide

The point of tasting chocolate as an organized practice is to learn more about a specific chocolate, but also chocolate in general, and how our senses interact with it so that we are better prepared to appreciate the next bar to an even higher degree. Each time we taste chocolate is, therefore, a learning experience. Of interest here is the fact that though each person will perceive the flavor of a particular chocolate somewhat differently, preferences aside, we are still all members of the same species, and that being the case, we sense the flavor and texture of chocolate in similar ways. So, in our quest to better appreciate chocolate, it is also useful to better understand our own body’s sensory reactions to this fine food. The chocolate tasting guide below will, by talking about the qualities of chocolate, delve into the parts of the human sensory realm which are relevant in terms of better understanding chocolate. If this sounds too complicated, just remember that in the end, it is all about flavor and enjoyment of the chocolate in question.

We will be ignoring anything that has no reasonable impact on the flavor of the chocolate, and therefore the artwork of the package, bar design and the like will not be discussed.

Preliminary Definitions:

Flavor: Since “flavor,” as understood by flavor technologists, is quite complex, we will use a simplified working definition. “Flavor” is a combination of taste (sensed by the tongue/gustatory sensation) and aroma (sensed by the nose/olfactory sensation). These two components impact the overall flavor sensation of a particular food. Contrary to common usage, then, in the following guide, the terms “flavor” and “taste” will not be used interchangeably.

Cacao: Also known as “cocoa beans” and sometimes simply “cocoa,” cacao is the fruit of a tropical tree. Though the tree’s fruit is often referred to as a “pod” or a “drupe,” in reality it is a very large berry. The berry is harvested, and the pulp-covered seeds are removed, fermented, and dried, all of which are complicated processes that clearly impact the flavor of the cacao. The cacao is then ready to be used in chocolate manufacture where, among other things, it will be roasted, have its thin shell removed, and be ground into a flavorful and viscous liquid.

Conching: A process in chocolate manufacture, which takes place during/after refining, and where textural and flavor refinement continues to occur, though the size of the cacao and sugar particles within the chocolate are not substantially reduced.

Tempering: A process where chocolate is melted, and then the cocoa butter within it is recrystallized in a controlled way using heat and agitation. Tempering chocolate prior to molding it into bars results in a substantial impact on the flavor of the product as the temperature at which it melts, and therefore gives off various tastes and aromas, is brought to within a very specific range.

Tasting Chocolate:

Chocolate is best tasted with a clean palate. This means that other foods or beverages, especially strongly-flavored ones, have not been eaten immediately beforehand. As with all senses, the nose and tongue can be impacted by sensory adaptation such that over time–even a relatively short period of time–as food or beverage is consumed, taste and smell will become less specific and refined. This is especially the case when one particular food is continually tasted or smelled, but even with different foods and beverages being consumed in succession, the palate will not be as accurate as sensory adaptation will have taken place in relation to the previously consumed food, and will therefore impact the perception of the chocolate flavor. This being the case, some people believe that the best time to taste chocolate is first thing in the morning before breakfast. Another option might be to wait several hours after a previous meal. At any rate, it is important to give the mouth and nose some rest from sensations prior to tasting chocolate, and especially to give them rest from strong sensations such as those of spices, coffee, cheese, and from long-lasting sensations, such as aromas from a cooked stew, or perhaps a vase of flowers or a scented-candle.

One other important issue is that between types of chocolate it is good to “cleanse” the palate. This is best done with room temperature water, and very mild food such as salt-free “saltines.” Cleansing the palate in this way will actually help to minimize inevitable sensory adaptation as one moves from one chocolate to the next.

We will now begin our discussion of chocolate tasting by looking at a bar in the way that one would logically experience it in real life. The order will be: packaging, appearance, aroma, snap, and then flavor (including aroma and taste) and texture. Remember that we will disregard anything which does not impact flavor, such as package design.

1) Packaging: Unwrapping the bar

Though the packaging of the bar has little bearing on the flavor of the chocolate, certain elements of the packaging can impact the chocolate flavor. First of all, the expiration date on the package should be checked. Though chocolate can be stored in perfect conditions for quite some time with little degradation in quality, most retail stores do not store or display chocolate in such conditions. Therefore, it is advisable to purchase chocolate from most retail stores well before the expiration or “enjoy by” date. Also be sure that the conditions in the retail store are cool, that the chocolate is not in direct sunlight, and that it is not stored next to any heat-emitting machinery or strongly scented items. Any of these conditions could destroy the aroma, taste and texture of the chocolate.

As for packaging types, common chocolate bar packaging includes an outer wrap and an inner wrap. While the outer wrap generally contains the product information, it is the inner wrap that can more readily impact the flavor of the bar. As for inner wrap, there are a number of options that are commonly found: foil, paper-backed foil, clear plastic flow wrap, and aluminized plastic flow wrap. Foil and especially paper-backed foil are not entirely air tight, potentially allowing flavor degradation over time, but are both more easily re-sealed after opening the bar, thereby preserving freshness. Plastic flow wraps can be virtually air tight, but do not reseal as easily.

As for other ways than inner wrap can impact flavor, some people claim that any plastic flow wrap tends to give a slight plastic aroma to the chocolate, a flavor exchange process called scalping. Some people also claim that paper-backed foil gives off a “papery” aroma that is absorbed into the chocolate bar. Confectioner’s foil without any backing is a neutral option that does not impact flavor or aroma negatively, but again, it is generally not fully air tight, so the freshness of the bar depends upon how it is wrapped in the foil, and the aroma of the outer wrap within which it is packed. These packaging-related issues are all things to keep in mind when tasting a new type of chocolate, or perhaps a familiar chocolate that seems to taste different than usual. Each type of packaging certainly has benefits and drawbacks, and combined with the age and storage of the product can potentially impact the flavor and aroma in a variety of ways.

2) Bar Appearance: Inspecting the bar

Though the appearance of the chocolate bar does not always impact its aroma, taste or texture , there are defects that impact both. Generally, fine chocolate has a glossy finish or sheen, though it may be matte or textured instead due to mold design. However, from time to time a chocolate bar may have a condition called “fat bloom,” which can manifest in a variety of ways, from a pronounced yellow blotchy/spotty finish caused by poor temper, or poor handling techniques (i.e., it was allowed to melt and re-harden), or a more subdued dulling of the surface sheen with a hazy white film. Pronounced bloom does negatively impact the flavor of the bar as it results in a crumbly and unpalatable texture, and chocolate with such bloom does not readily melt as a tempered bar would, and therefore the flow of tastes and aromas are impacted in a negative way with harsh notes often being accentuated and subtle notes obliterated. Subtle fat bloom may be primarily a surface defect, and therefore may not impact the texture or flavor of the bar in a noticeable way. However, such bloom does show improper storage or handling conditions.

Another defect called sugar bloom is also possible when chocolate is exposed to conditions where humidity is relatively high, and results in a dull whitish and somewhat grainy coating covering the parts of the bar that have been exposed to the high-humidity. It may be the whole bar, or just the parts near the folds of the inner packing. Though sugar bloom does negatively impact texture it does not destroy the bar’s flavor. Yet, sugar bloom is still a flaw that will effect your overall enjoyment of the chocolate. As for other marks on the bar’s surface due to transport or handling prior to packaging, they should not impact the flavor. The rule, then, is that bloomed chocolate bars—sugar or fat–should not be purchased as the mishandling that they have endured will quite possibly impact the overall flavor and texture of the product in a negative way.

3) Initial Aroma

Let us back up and take another look at the definition of “flavor.” There are two components to flavor, “taste” and “aroma.” Taste consists of the aspects of flavor that are sensed by the tongue. These notes are generally broken down into the five basic tastes of acid, salt, sweet, bitter, and umami. However, flavor technologists now know that the human tongue can distinguish not only different levels of each type of taste, such as more or less bitter, but also different qualities of each taste such as the bitterness that results from roasting (caused by diketopiperazines for example) as opposed to the bitterness caused by raw cacao (primarily caused by low molecular weight flavonoids). However, even with the complexity of tastes that the tongue can sense, it is almost useless without the sensory data from the nose called aroma.

Aroma is arguably the most important part of any perceived flavor, and therefore the most important part of the chocolate-tasting experience. Not only does the initial aroma of the chocolate, once it has been unwrapped, foretell of the flavor to come, but the flavor of the chocolate itself, while it is in the mouth, is composed primarily of aromas that move from the melting chocolate up the retronasal passage way and into the olfactory organ—the nose. When we add aroma to taste, the tartness of malic acid may become noticeable as the tartness of an apple. The bitterness of a particular chemical called a pyrazine may become noticeable as the bitterness associated with roasted coffee. Aroma allows the flavor to be fully elaborated by the brain, and therefore it is quite important never to hold one’s breath while tasting chocolate, or any food for that matter. Inhaling the chocolate’s aroma both before and after it is placed in the mouth allows one to distinguish between extremely complex, subtle and profound flavor notes. One may even wish to pull extra air in through the mouth, and across the molten chocolate, to accentuate the flow of air to the nose, as is done in wine tasting. Sometimes particularly subtle notes may become apparent in this way.

With this in mind, before putting any of the chocolate in your mouth, open up the bar and breath in the aroma multiple times. Make notes, either on paper, or mentally, about what you smell. Is the aroma filled with fruit, earthiness, roasted qualities, even the smell of brownies? Perhaps there are even notes that you wouldn’t associate with chocolate such as those with a vegetal quality, tea, or even leather or tobacco. Also, note whether the aroma is strong or weak. A weak aroma may be the result of certain chocolate making techniques, sub-par cacao, or perhaps chocolate storage issues. A strong aroma may be pleasing or off-putting. It is up to you to take all the pieces of the aroma puzzle and decide what to make of it. Just remember that once you put a piece of chocolate in your mouth, these same aromas will come into play yet again, and so keep them in mind.

4) Snap: Breaking off a small square

Break off part of a square of chocolate and notice whether you hear a distinct “snap” as it breaks. Problems with the chocolate’s temper or later storage and handling can result in bars that are very hard and crumbly. Another problem is adding fats to the chocolate that aren’t cocoa butter. Chocolates with non-cocoa butter fats, such as milk fat, may have a soft or mushy snap. Chocolates with a good snap show that they have a higher percentage of cacao, have been tempered properly, and usually are without non-cocoa butter fats of any type. Remember that temper greatly impacts overall flavor even if the snap of the chocolate may seem to be of little importance. A chocolate without a good snap should make one suspicious.

5) Flavor and Texture:

With all of the above information in mind, when we do put a piece of room-temperature chocolate in the mouth (preferably 70 F-78 F or so), and gently break it apart to let it slowly melt across our tongue, we are looking for the two aforementioned components of flavor: taste and aroma, as well as texture.

a) Taste and Aroma:

Place a square of chocolate in your mouth and break it up a bit. Move the melting chocolate around so that all of your tongue comes in contact with it. Is it tart (acidic), bitter, sweet, is there any trace of salt (some chocolates have some)? Are all of these components relatively balanced? Common imbalances are chocolates that are too sweet, or too bitter. Also note that “balanced” does not mean “boring.” A chocolate should certainly have character in addition to being balanced, which means that each chocolate should be balanced according to its particular own merits. As you notice the chocolate’s balance, or lack thereof, continue to breathe through your nose, and look for some of the same aromas that you noticed previously. Do these aromas seem the same; are they more or less powerful; are other aromas coming into play? Do the aromas add to or detract from the balance of tastes that you have noted? Continue to taste the chocolate paying attention to the following things (of course taking another square or two if need be):

Look for new qualities to the chocolate and note that at the beginning, when the chocolate first melts on your tongue, there are flavors that you may taste and smell that may change during the middle of the melting, or at the finish, when the chocolate is gone. Additionally, the chocolate may seem to have a greater depth or complexity of flavor at some points than at others, and this can certainly impact the overall impression that you have of it. Does the chocolate leave a pleasurable aftertaste of cacao, or is it primarily bitter, or cloyingly sweet, or perhaps the flavor doesn’t linger at all. All of these qualities of a chocolate help distinguish it from another, and as you become familiar with the different qualities, you can compare and contrast them with other chocolate bars.

b) Texture

When first breaking up the piece of chocolate, pay attention to the initial texture. Do you notice any textural oddities? Is it waxy or mushy? As you continue to move the molten chocolate around your mouth, pay attention to whether it is it sticky, smooth, or grainy? Chocolates that are too refined can seem sticky and too creamy, and on the opposite side of the spectrum you might notice a rough, grainy texture, or perhaps simply a textural inconsistency with hard bits standing out every now and then. You will quickly realize what you find most pleasurable. Another textural sensation that you might experience is astringency. This is a puckering dryness that is due to tannins (high molecular weight polymeric flavonoids) interacting with proteins in your mouth, both in your saliva and on the tongue. This type of textural sensation, called a “trigeminal sensation,” is technically also considered to come under the umbrella of flavor, though it is not a taste or aroma. Too little astringency can result in a chocolate with little body, length, or character, whereas too much can make the chocolate seem dry and unpleasant. Astringency and other textural sensations greatly contribute to the experience of the chocolate, adding further information to the flavor, so take notes.

6) Overall:

It is up to you to pull together all of the information that you have gathered, from packaging type, appearance, snap, and tasting of the chocolate, to final textural sensations, and to figure out what you think of the bar. Over time, you will probably find that you have a preference for the products of certain manufacturers, or perhaps for certain origins, such as Venezuela, Madagascar, or the Dominican Republic. You may also find that you prefer certain strengths of chocolate, with more cacao content, more than others, and that you find the texture of bars with or without added cocoa butter to be preferable. You may also decide that you prefer a fruitier chocolate, or perhaps an earthier one. All of these decisions are ones that you will gradually make by paying close attention to your reaction to each of the bars that you carefully taste. The more that you learn, the more you will be able to appreciate and enjoy the fine chocolates that you purchase.