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Is there a legitimate role for the mild West African cocoas in the Gourmet Chocolate industry?

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Yes.

Thanks. Can you expand on that?

In this years Cocoa of Excellence competition in Paris, 14 of the 50 cocoa's that were judged were from W. Africa.  Now, many, many more were submitted, but only 50 get entered.  Most of them were trying to deliver something other than conventional West African flavor profile, and many did just that.  I tasted each and every one of them - some were better than others.   However, there's currently a very vivid fine flavor profile that exists in many W. African countries already, predominately appealing to consumers in Europe and Japan - I'd hate to see the entirety of W. African flavors shift to something else (not that I think there's any danger of that happening, however the breadth of flavors across the world i think is quite marvelous, and to see them shrink would be less than ideal).

"Gourmet" means different things to different people.  For some, "gourmet" is nothing than fancy packaging.  For others, it has more to do with *absence* of flavors to give them a blank pallet to work from to allow their other ingredients room to shine.  Yet others, it's defined more by the physical handling characteristics of the the chocolate (low viscosity).  For some - it's very much defined by a unique flavor.  W. African cocoas can deliver on all of these.  The last one is probably the hardest to break into, as for many who are peripherally involved with cocoa/chocolate (even for those who believe they are experts, often times), there may be a perception gap equating W. African with bulk commodity and nothing special.  Of course, that may be true 90% of the time depending on how you define your parameters; however it's also quite possible to make quite a range of products by manipulating your growing materials, the post harvest practices, and of course the chocolate production process/formulation itself.

Edit - sorry, i miscounted - i'd originally indicated 10/50 cocoa submissions were from W. African countries - upon recounting, it's 14.  Time for new glasses.

Thank you so much for this.

I don't think there is a danger of mainstream mild WA cocoas being lost to flavour. Take out Cameroon and the minor producers and we have basically CI, Ghana and Nigeria and 60% of world production. If that became flavour it would then be bulk flavour and consequently too mainstream to be unique. The bulk boys could not/would not pay a premium for such big quantities! (They might charge for a resulting product but certainly would not pay!!)

I agree on Gourmet. For me it is a tag people give themselves for their own ego trips and to prove they are "superior" to mere mortals like me with disturbingly underdeveloped taste buds and a dastardly poor knowledge of the 'finer' aspects of life, or, they give to their products to charge inflated prices. (I have a similar opinion of wine and wine connoisseurs who are really tripping most of the time.)

However, would you say that where planting materials, post harvest practices, etc are givens in that the trees are where they are in a given soil with a given climate (albeit variable season on season) and customary fermenting and drying systems, that a (unique) flavour can more usually be developed during the roasting? Is this the only time during processing?

I recall from PNG when I lived there that Rowntree went great lengths to identify and approve particular plantations and would buy by "plantation mark" only. (The fact that we used to buy in from other plantations to increase our supplies to them is purely incidental!!) However, my point is, would it be necessary to go to these lengths to identify good sources of WA flavour cocoa sources?

Are there other fora around the world where cocoas compete for the same kudos?

No new glasses required - you changed it to 14!!

Scarcity and uniqueness can also drive premiums.  There are plenty of absolutely wonderful fine flavor cocoas out there that have amazing flavor profiles that people would (and do) pay premiums for.  One of the Asian submissions this year to the aforementioned competition tasted like caramalized pears - now, i've been in cocoa for a long time, and this is the first time I've seen a cocoa that tasted like that.  It's one of the reasons I've stayed in it, no matter how much one knows, it seems in cocoa there's always something new to experience and learn!

Most regions are heterozygous collections of multiple clonal varieties to begin with, primarily a function of their disease resistance, productivity, or just dumb blind happenstance with not much thought given to why that particular tree was planted.  There are many, many clones to choose from, and numerous ways to approach planting materials - you can plant a new tree, you can side graft, you can shoot graft, etc.  Your planting material absolutely, unequivocally influences the flavors you can get from your cocoa.  Where it's grown and the agronomics at play also can have a huge impact on your flavors (soil nutrition, composition, elevation, climactics, etc). As I'm sure you're aware,  by altering the fermentation and drying conditions, you can get a 100 different flavors from the same beans, so obviously there's much that can be done here as well.

Oftentimes, cocoa buyers are buying from 4000 miles away, and may rarely have 'boots on the ground' to know exactly what's occurring, regardless of what they think they're buying and what they think is happening 8-)  Hence I'm guessing why you reference your experience in Papua.  There are lots of reasons a corporation may have for identifying specific locations, of which flavor may be only one element.

Interestingly, on the wine - I enjoy wine.  I'd say given my work in chocolate, my taster is a bit more developed than your average person.  Last year, I had the experience of having a $25,000 bottle of wine.  Now, it was good, to be sure, but I'm not sure it was that much better than a $50 bottle - I've had some pretty darn good $50 bottles.  It could be that for me, in wine, my taster isn't sufficiently developed to appreciate that level of sophistication; if that's the case, the wine is $24,950 too expensive for me - there may be those out there who experience the same wine very, very differently than i do, and appreciate it much more - for them, the price may be justified.  I find that to be the case for me with cocoa quite often - i 'see' things in cocoa that others simply don't pick up on, just because I've been doing it for so long and I'm so familiar with it. Generally speaking, those cocoa's that I love the most, I find that the general population has very little interest in, as they're too different from what they've come to expect as 'chocolate' as defined by their mainstream experiences.

However, it could also be that the wine's really meant to be a $50 bottle, and what we're seeing here is the power of marketing.  Either way, the fact someone bought it reflects there's a value proposition there, be it on the merits of the intrinsic properties of the wine (it's flavor), or the extrinsics (marketing panache)

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