Chocolate Education: A Note on Taste
As many of you who have been on our tour have discovered, there is so much more to chocolate than candy bars. Along with numerous health benefits come a wide diversity of flavors. Fine chocolate can taste fruity or nutty, like flowers, spices, herbs and more. Chocolate tastes like a lot more than chocolate! Discovering what makes the flavor of chocolate is part of your journey as a chocolate connoisseur. All of that flavor originates at the farm — not the factory.
It starts with the genetics or varietal. Just as a granny smith apple tastes different than a honeycrisp apple, or one kind of grapes taste different than another, so too strains of cacao have different flavors. These strains are referred to as varietals or under the umbrella term of cacao genetics. Here at Lydgate Farms we have a mix of about 10 different sets of genetics. Some of them are varieties bred or identified in a research setting, some of them varieties that have been on Kauai for a long time, and some are hybrids of the two that are only found on our farm. One of the things that most excites us here is finding trees in that latter category that have both robust growth and also delicious flavor, because they are unique to our farm. Our plan is to plant more of the delicious and robust, and so to evolve our flavors and productivity. We look forward to offering single varietal or genetic blends of beans in addition to our all farm single estate mix.
Genetics carries a lot of influence on flavor, but it is only a starting place. The flavor of a varietal is also influenced by where it is grown. Terroir (rhymes with car) is a word you hear a lot in the craft chocolate world. It’s a French word from the wine industry whose literal definition is soil. In both chocolate and wine, terroir represents the flavor that is imparted through place. For example in wine, pinot noir grapes grown in Burgundy taste different than those grown in Napa valley. An amelodano type cacao grown in Ghana will taste different than the same type grown on Kaua’i. While there is still a lot of debate around cacao terroir (further studies are needed), it does have a real world impact. Another major aspect of flavor is fermentation, I’ll be covering that in more detail in our next newsletter.
One thing we have noticed on the farm is that each season tastes a little bit different. This could be from differences in the sunshine and rainfall patterns, from changes in the post harvest processes, or from the maturing of our orchard over the years. Subtle changes lead to different flavors in the bars. Because of this we decided to start vintage dating our chocolate. To do this we teamed up with our old friend, the wonderful flavor evaluator Tamara Butterbaugh. Tam, as her friends know her, is one half of our dear making partners Manoa Chocolate. Tam created a set of tasting notes for our Spring 2019 harvest that are now posted on our website, along with some fun pairings! Check them out here.Because flavor preference and associations can be so subjective we encourage you to write your own tasting notes. As you taste our chocolate be sure to let it melt in your mouth and enjoy the flavors. And please, take notes on anything you taste and send them over to us. We’d love to see what you, our most important flavor evaluators, have to say!
Let’s talk about cacao fermentation and how this step can make or break good flavor. Poor quality fermentation=poor quality cacao. Different parts of the world seem to have different fermentation characteristics, and Hawaii is unique in that our ferments here seems to behave in a different way from anywhere else in the chocolate world. The regional variability of fermentation and its impact on flavor potential are not fully understood, but I’ll do my best to explain some of what we know here.
Yes, chocolate is a fermented food! Most cacao growers use wild yeasts for fermentation, these microorganisms are everywhere and find their way naturally into the process. This stands in stark contrast to the wine industry where standardized yeast strains are used. At Lydgate fermentation happens right here on the farm, and most cacao farmers have a fermentation facility close to their farm. This is because fermentation is a time sensitive process that must be started a short time after harvest. Wild yeasts from the farm mean that cacao has fermentation terroir — as balance and types of local microorganisms are site specific. This is on top of the terroir or place based growing conditions of the farm discussed in our last newsletter. This means our Lydgate Farms bars are unique not just in growing conditions, but also in the microorganism balance of the fermentation process.
It bears mention that not everyone in the chocolate world is in agreement on the variability of cacao fermentation — some say flavor is all genetics and that the fermentation merely potentiates those genetics. But, as someone who is working with this process month in and month out, I can tell you that not every ferment tastes, or behaves, the same.
The basic process of cacao bean fermentation involves a large amount of wet cacao seeds – perhaps 40,000 of those slimy seeds covered in sweet white pulp with the purple bitter insides you ate on the tour. This wet seed is loaded into a vessel or box of some kind (we use 2’x2’ untreated maple plywood boxes here at Lydgate). Wild yeasts along with lactic acid bacteria and acetobacter have already inoculated the mass through environmental exposure during harvest. Oncein the box will begin their magic process. During the 5-7 days of fermentation there are two main phases. In the first anaerobic phase the sugar in the pulp of the cacao seed is converted to ethyl alcohol by yeasts. During the second aerobic phase alcohol is converted to acetic acid by acetobacter which is aided by increased turning of the mass to introduce oxygen. It is during this second phase when the beans can get really hot! The exothermic reaction (internally generated temperature) can get as high as 126º F in the later stages of our ferments. That is hotter than a hot tub folks! This hot acetic acid (vinegar) permeates the cacao seed and begins a series of wonderful metabolic changes and flavor improvements and gives off a pungent smell of fruit vinegar, delightful!
This acetic acid denatures the proteins of the cacao seed, (similar to what happens to fish soaked in lime juice for all you ceviche fans) and causes chemical changes that turn simple bitter flavors into the fine flavors we associate with great tasting dark chocolate. Knowing when to turn the cacao boxes to mix and add oxygen is a decision that is influenced by sight, smell, and by temperature readings that track to various fermentation phases. It is a fine art that takes patience and practice to master.
How the flavor of chocolate is affected by fermentation and all the microbial changes that occur are complex topics that I will attempt to cover in the next Chocolate Education post! Anything else you’re curious to learn about? Please let me know.