The Chocolate Life

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How Chocolate Gets Its Taste - A Presentation and a Request

To All ChocolateLife members -

I gave a talk last night to the Experimental Cuisine Collective at NYU. Attached is a PDF of the slides I used for the talk, entitled, "How Chocolate Gets Its Taste."

The idea for the talk was to examine - in as much detail as possible given the time available - the various factors that contribute to flavor development and perception in cacao and chocolate, from the genetics of the bean through terroir, manufacturing, and finally sensory evaluation.

Of course, the slides cover only the high level concepts, there was a lot of additional material presented and a bunch of very interesting questions in follow up (my audio recording runs to about 1h45m).

I am interested in getting feedback and questions as I am considering gathering all the information and self-publishing in various eBook formats.

Interesting idea? Useful? Any topic area you think should be covered (or not)? I'd be happy to explore and answer questions and other areas of interest here in this discussion, though obviously the book will be more organized and focused.

:: Clay 

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Nice presentation Clay! That picture at the end is amazing of the wild (?) cacoa in Beni! Is that all the trunks of the cacao?

Will you release the audio recording? It'd be interesting to fill in some of the gaps in the slides, e.g. you mention the Maillard reaction at the beginning which is key to understand but I didn't see mention of it later. I bet you described something about it. I'd also like to hear the 3 cautionary tales.



Nat Bletter, PhD

Chocolate Flavormeister

Madre Chocolate  


The picture at the end is me standing next to an "old man of the forest" a wild cacao tree estimated to be at least 300 years old - and still producing. All of those are trunks as the chupons are never cut. 

I am not going to release the audio recording as there are audience interactions that are inaudible. However, I will be reviewing the tape and using it as source material for the eBook.

The Maillard reaction are not the same thing as caramelization and people get them confused. Both are non-enyzymatic browning reactions, with the Maillard reaction being between amino acids and reducing sugars, but do not need (high) heat to happen. Caramelization occurs under conditions of pyrolysis (lack of oxygen) at high temperatures.

Cautionary tales - The one about Hershey is about how his original condensing process soured the milk, but because chocolate was then an industrial product and the hallmark of industrial products is repeatability, the company is still reproducing the mistake, over 110 years later.

Why Belgium - asks why Belgium is known for "the best" chocolate. They didn't invent any machinery or process and there is no magical yeast in the air (as there is in SF for sourdough bread). The answer is (probably) ... Campbell Soup Company.

As for the last one - it'll be in the book. And all the rest will be covered in greater detail.

Being very new to chocolate, and after looking at your slides, I would want more application of the principles discussed (maybe you cover that in the lecture). 

For example, how does the soil/elevation/harvesting/drying specifically affect the chocolate? What would I do to get the flavors I want?

How do I grow beans with alpha-amyl cinnamyl acetate or cocoa hexenal?

If I grew cacao, and someone said, "hey be careful because it affects the flavor," I wouldn't know what to do with that information. But If someone said, "if you continually expose the pods to degrees over 100F, they will begin to develop a strong coffee flavor," then I would be able to apply that.

Those are just things that would interest me.


This discussion is here to help me decide how to flesh out the book. It takes a lot to go from a two-hour lecture to put something together that really meets the needs of the community. Questions like yours will help me do just that, so I really appreciate them.

One thing to note is that each of the areas covered in the presentation is a career's worth of research, and most of the areas may not actively have any formal research going on. So - I can't tell you what exactly in the soil affects flavor, all I can tell you is that the micronutrient chemistry of the soil, and its microbiology (e.g., rhizome population) can. 

Chances are, all cacao that's grown contains some amounts of the two chemicals you mention - how do you change the balance of those, deliberately? I don't think anyone knows the answers to those questions.

I can work to be as specific as possible (which addresses the question of applicability of the information) within the limits of what's known.

:: Clay

Mr. Gordon!

This is quite incredible! Once a month, in my shop I give a very, very humble by comparison presentation similar in concept to this one. How would I go about getting some of these types of photographs to help my visual presentaion?

Did you and Mr. Pollard work together on this?

Wonderful, indeed!




Thanks for the kind words. I will post the photos here w/ copyright notices embedded in them in the next couple of days.

You (offer open to all ChocolateLife members) are free to use them for classes, with attribution.

They should not be used on a web site, publication, printing for display, or other form of promotion, without seeking my permission first.

Thank-you, Mr Gordon! I am grateful!




I enjoyed the presentation. Great points, images and solid type work.

One of the points that caught my attention was the breakdown of some aroma/flavor chemicals. I'm dying of curiosity to smell/taste these pure chemicals and train myself to recognize them better.

Have you ever tried the alpha-amyl cinnamyl acetate, some 2,3,5,6-tetramethyl pyrazine or cocoa hexenal directly? Do you know if there's a way of getting a hold of an aroma/flavor kit? 

A few points to consider Felipe:

1) Some of the chemicals ID'd in chocolate are not commercially available via food safe production methods

2) Often times, a chemical's flavor will vary by it's concentration.  That is, if you have a very little bit of it present, it may taste 'earthy'.  if you have that same chemical present at higher concentrations, it may taste 'moldy'.

3) Often times, flavor perception changes with the addition of other chemicals.  A chemical that, by it's self, may be perceived as, oh say toasted bread, may when in the presence of other chemicals taste like fruit.

Flavor chemistry in chocolate is very, very complicated.  It's one of the reasons there are no good artificial chocolate flavors out there - very few folks know chocolate flavor chemistry well enough to pull it off.

Sebastian -

While I don't make the point in the presentation that some of the chemicals can't be directly experienced, I do make all of the rest of the points, using analogies I learned as an art student about color theory.

The concept is called the "theory of simultaneous contrast," which basically says that any colors next to each other are perceived a particular way. If you change any one of the colors, your perceptions of all of them is going to change. You can change the color itself (shade, tint, and/or hue) and/or you can change the area of color relative to the other colors.

Flavor perception works the same way. It's not just the presence of specific aroma and flavor chemicals, the total quantity and their relative proportion are also important. As you point out, the presence of one aroma chemical and alter the perception of another - the combination is different from each separately. Simultaneous contrast.

More generally to the ChocolateLife community -

All of this is moderated by the way in which aromas and flavors are released in the mouth over time by heat, a process which is in turn moderated by saliva and complicated by the fact that some compounds are water soluble and are encapsulated in fat. And, finally, there are some "tastes" that are actually sensations - astringency is one.

Another point I make in the words that accompany the slides is that each one of these areas is worthy of careers' worth of study. What I am doing is providing an overview that provides a peek at the level of complexity involved.

How does soil micronutrient chemistry affect flavor? We know it does, but I don't know of any credible research that definitively points to the presence (or lack) of a particular nutrient in the soil that leads to the presence of particular chemicals  in beans (by what mechanism - uptake, metabolic?) that, when fermented (wild yeast? controlled?) in a particular way (time, temp) will lead to the presence of a particular set of flavor precursor compounds that, when roasted, will result in aroma and flavor compounds that when ground, refined, and conched will lead to a particular flavor being present in the final chocolate.

You're certainly headed in the right direction with that approach, which is why i didn't say anything earlier.  The comment was most directed to Felipe's request around getting individual components, which, in my opinion, if one doesn't have a certain level of background understanding of what drives flavor perception in chocolate, isn't going to be very useful - because while that one compound may be present, it may not be perceived very, very differently in it's pure state at a given level than how you perceive it in chocolate.  It's a terribly, terribly complex field - some parts of it are fairly well understood, others less so.  You're going to have a hard time finding much publicly published; however that doesn't mean the work's not been done 8-)  only that it's a closely guarded valuable!  I've been doing this for a long time, and there are many things that i understand pretty well.  I'm not even going to let the ink dry on that statement before i follow it by saying there's also lots of things that i don't understand very well, which is part of what makes the world of cocoa so exciting - there's always lots to learn!  I need to parse my time somewhere here, because i dont have much of it, and as you point out, many of these topics can easily be a lifetime of study for anyone.  I need to be somewhat judicious in what areas i get involved with, as i don't want to leave someone 'hanging' by giving a partial response, knowing that i often disappear for long stretches at a time where i simply don't have the physical means to respond, much less the time to do so 8-)

Dear Sebastian, 

I appreciate how you always come through with a healthy dose of reality. It should've been obvious that if the components had some sort of chocolate taste, it would be possible to have decent artificial flavors. 

Either way I am looking to training taste buds through familiarity. Just like a musician learns to recognize the characteristics and sounds of his favorite musicians or tunes. I can't help it but recognize most of the major sax players I've heard in the last 10 years just by listening to a few seconds of a solo. They all have characteristic traits that I've learned to pick.

Familiarity breeds confidence but I understand curiosity gets one into vast territories that will take a lifetime to master. 

All the best, 



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