The Chocolate Life

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After a year and a half of gear up and a dozen experimental batches, I still consider myself an extreme novice at chocolate making.

Although we've made some huge improvements and the confections we make with our chocolate are highly sought after in the region, I don't consider the chocolate we're making as bar quality. I would not mold up chocolate into bars and sell it in that manner.

My wife calls it "wang". I agree there is an off taste. It is borderline bitter. I've read research papers suggesting that the roasting is not quite right. I've spoken with a friend who has a Phd in agriculture and is helping small African farmers make their own bars. He was telling me that bitterness is a result of under-fermented cacao, which would be difficult for me to do anything about.

I've even tried to add some baking soda in order to offset any remaining acid in the chocolate, but there's still a bit of a bite to it after that. For you purists out there, please don't cast any stones about the soda. :-)

Anyone else have suggestions? I typically conch/grind the chocolate for 48 hours. I have started using a forced air roaster that I rent from a neighbor, though we might have taken it to too high of a temp (150C) on our first attempt.

If it's a fermentation issue I will have to stop buying cacao at the open market and try to find a producer who will set some aside to ferment just for us. I spoke with one producer who says he ferments four days. I am told that six days is ideal.

Tags: conching, fermentation, roasting

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If only it were that simple, everyone who has a PhD in an general field would know the answer 8-)  not to diminish your friend's field, but i get the impression he's a generalist, and not a specialist.  It's a bit like going to your family doctor for specific advice on cardiomyopathy.  There may be a general familiarity with the topic, but i'd not wager my life savings on the advice.

The bitterness could be a result of the fermentation or the roasting, but it also may  have absolutely nothing to do with either.  Chocolate mfr requires SUCH a holistic understanding of the process it's often difficult to attribute blame or success on any one single process step.  And for what it's worth, the baking soda's actually a very, very good idea.   I've used it a time or two myself.  

Do you have any control over your bean sourcing and processing, or are you simply working with beans that you ordered?  If the latter, i'm afraid it may be be exceptionally difficult for you to affect any change, depending on what's causing the problem.   4 days of fermenting may be ideal for some beans, and 6 days ideal for others.  "Ideal" is also a pretty ambiguous term - which is idea, a red car or a blue car?  Much of "ideal" is personal preference, so if you have examples of finished chocolates  you find "ideal" that helps to pinpoint what's required to get there.

Which origin beans are you using, do you have any firsthand knowldge of how they're processed (vs the guy who sold them to me said they were xxx), have you cut 100 of them in half to look at their color, etc?

Often times defining what attributes you want before you start is helpful, vs starting and then saying 'it's not what i want, what can i change'...

Here's a starting point for looking at the cut test Sebastian refers to for your beans

I live in Honduras, where the cocoa is grown and sold at local markets. Most of what I've batched with so far is from the local market, but I just ordered a 100 lbs. sack from a neighbor who has a cocoa farm down in the lower altitudes. I asked him how long he ferments and he said four days. Until your reply I'd been trying to figure out how to ask for six day fermentation, a special order, without offending him. He is very proud of the fact that his beans and those of his neighboring cocoa farmers, are exported to Europe. I don't know if that is any sign of quality, or if they are just used to press out butter.

As far as what I want, at this point I'd be elated to have something as bland as Hershey's. The selling point here is not some special dark chocolate that might sell for $40/lb in the USA. The selling point will be that it is "good enough", and made in Honduras, with Honduran products; the sugar and cacao are both produced here. There are no national nor regional brands of chocolate here. So for now I'm not looking to make "artisan" quality stuff, I just want something that I would not mind molding into a bar and selling like that, even if I never intend on getting into the bar market. Until then, we are gaining a name for ourselves by selling confections, which help mask the flavor of a chocolate I'm not real proud of. Although to be honest, a local vendor has tasted one of our bars and liked it.

Honduran beans can be very good - but there's more to just a 4 or 6 day fermentation - the quantity of beans in the fermentation impacts the output, if the fermentation is done in a box/sack/heap, if the fermentation is drained or not, if/how frequently the heap is turned (aerated), etc.   By manipulating one or more of those variables, you can get very different flavors from the exact same beans.

I'd encourage you to cut 100 beans in half, and count how many are purple, how many are brown, how many are 'soft/squishy' inside, and how many are moldy.  That'll tell you an awful lot about the fermentation and drying. What is it about the flavor of the beans you've currently got that you don't like?  does it take acidic/sour?  do they smell like vinegar?  Depending on what it is you do'nd tlike about what you already have, going to a 6 day fermentation may actually make you like it even less!

Thanks, I was reading the cocoa quality chart that Gap posted the link to. I will do the bean splitting. It looks very useful. I don't remember a lot of off colored beans after the chopping, but I will take the 100 bean challenge when I receive them. I assume this should be done before roasting, or does it matter?

Judging by the chart and my short memory, I would say if there is any problem, it's that the beans are over-fermented, or dried too slowly, possibly even moldy, but I can't wait to do the count.

Before roasting

yup, take a photo of them to post if you're able to, pictures are always helpful

Just a little update on this. I do not have any unroasted beans at the house, so I asked someone to buy a pound from the market. Meanwhile I cut open about 20 roasted beans. The colors vary. None are very dark, most are dark gray, some are brown, some are yellow and brown. I know I need pre-roasted beans, but I think I'm seeing a problem already.

no, you want to cut your unroasted ones.  what your description tells me is that it's a mixture of what is likely many 'lots' of beans from various sources, or perhaps made over various times with multiple qualities blended into it.  photos of course are helpful too.

OK, unroasted cacao was cut and inspected. I would say 70% of them are purely purple, another 15% have at least a purple hue. The rest are brown and seem OK. So, it seems the initial theory, that the beans are under-fermented, was spot on. I would send a photo, but I don't have a camera capable of taking a quality photo.

These beans seem to be the bulk, I would say "Folgers" quality, in a coffee comparison. What I mean by that is, here in Honduras, you have specialty growers who cultivate export quality coffee, but they are the exception. The rest grow as many beans as they can, dry them and sell them in bulk to buyers. The buyers lump them all together and sell them all together to the highest bidder. From the taste of it, I would say Folgers is one of those bidders.

That appears to be what I'm buying in the way of cacao. The beans might have had potential at one time or another, but the fermenting was cut short.

So now I am waiting for my neighbor to finish his harvest, ferment and dry. The harvest started this week. He said that he ferments four days, but I had told him that a friend recommended six days. We will see what he produces. I am going to take the purple beans to him and show him what I don't want to buy.

Hi Sebastian,

Well, a couple weeks ago I gave up on my neighbor and combed the web for two days straight, looking for a better source of cacao in Honduras. Honduras does not have much of an online representation. Finally, I found a couple good sources of cacao and immediately ordered a 100 lbs sack from one source. The name of the farm is Finca Patricia, which also sells cacao to the Askinoosie chocolate factory. I am buying the same beans as Askinoosie uses. Askinoosie sells 3 ounce Honduran bars for $8.50 (~$45/lb.). Now, if anyone reading this, try not to go ballistic. I can buy the beans here for $1.15/lb. I dissected a sampling of the beans and they were all perfectly fermented, at least compared to the online guides.

I did get the beans properly roasted yesterday, but got impatient over the weekend and roasted some in the oven. Even oven roasted, what this cacao made was far superior to the beans I was buying before. Now I can sell a bar without any shame. :-)

So now I am happily buying new equipment and looking to hire some part time salesmen.

Great result Mark


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