Back in 2005 during my second trip to Ecuador to attend the University of Chocolate, our handbook contained a "formula" for how chocolate gets its flavor.
The formula included variables for the inherent flavors of cocoa beans and ways to think about the effects of fermentation, drying, and roasting on the final flavor of the chocolate. Because of this formula and conversations with chocolate makers I had come to believe what people told me about the need for fermentation for flavor development - which is to say that fermentation is absolutely necessary for any chocolate flavor to fully develop.
I learned on my recent trip to Belize during our time with the family of farmer Eladio Pop that that assessment is not entirely accurate. Here's why, using the framework of the formula for cocoa flavor development.
Cacao beans have inherent flavors. There are two "types" of inherent flavors, stable and unstable. Stable flavors are those that do not change during fermentation, drying, and roasting. Unstable flavors are those that are changed.
If you take cacao beans, wash the pulp off, and dry them, you do not subject the beans to the effects of fermentation and drying so both the stable and unstable flavors remain in the bean more or less unchanged. The stable flavors remain present through roasting and the unstable flavors change in ways that are different than if they had been fermented and dried. There are strong chocolate flavors in roasted unfermented cocoa beans but the range of flavors is pretty much limited to chocolate, roasty notes, nutty notes, and earthy notes.
During the fermentation process, sugars in the pulp surrounding the beans are first converted to alcohol and then to acetic acid. Proteins in the beans are broken down into amino acids, complex sugars in the beans are broken down to simpler sugars, and a wide variety of not-very-well understood chemical and thermal changes occur in the beans that create chemicals that contribute to the flavors found in fermented beans.
It is these new chemical elements that are created through fermentation that are responsible for the other flavors (e.g., red fruit, dried fruit) that show up in the finished chocolate. The availability of more sugars for the roasting process enhances sensations of sweetness and the chocolate, roasty, and nutty notes. The chemical and thermal destruction of the polyphenol compounds responsible for cacao's inherent bitterness contributes to these other flavors becoming more present through the effects of simultaneous contrast as they apply to taste. (Normally the principle of simultaneous contrast is applied to color in the fine arts.)
My epiphany was that fermentation is not necessary for the development of chocolate flavor in chocolate, it's necessary for the development of all the other flavors and for the development of more finely nuanced flavors. The demonstration of a traditional Mayan technique for making cocoa water was what showed me this. Farmer Eladio Pop does not ferment the beans his family uses to make cocoa water because it's too much work. Instead, the beans are washed free of pulp and dried. These beans are then roasted on a comal (a traditional flat metal griddle) over an open wood fire, cracked, winnowed, and then ground (using a hand corn mill) into a paste with black pepper and other spices (especially local allspice).
The mass that will not be used right away is rolled into balls and wrapped. The mass that is going to be used is mixed with water to form a more malleable paste that is then mixed with cold water and sugar to make the cocoa water. Even without fermentation the cocoa water had a very strong chocolate taste with the flavors of roasting and a strong nut (reminiscent to me of cashews) flavor. What was missing, I realized, was any trace of any of the other flavors that can be found in chocolate and it was at that point that I realized the real contribution that fermentation makes to flavor development.
It also explains, to a great extent, why cacao varieties that do not require much fermentation have flavor profiles in which nutty roasty flavors often predominate.
For me, it was a rather humbling realization as it became clear to me that I did not understand something I thought I understood very well. It also reinforced my opinion that travel to cacao-growing regions is absolutely necessary to develop a well-rounded understanding of cacao, cocoa, and chocolate.
There is general forum thread on this topic that is very in-depth. Thanks to Sam Madell for her contributions to this conversation.
[Moderator's Note: - the link above no longer works. Sam left TheChocolateLife and removed all of the content she contributed when she left.]