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December 1, 2015

Today I would like to speak about flavour. In my opinion, it is in the flavour that the mastery of the cocoa grower and chocolate manufacturer is shown. The chocolate bar consists of multiple layers (like packaging, shape, story etc.) but flavour is always the defining factor of the product’s quality.

I would like to analyze several aspects of chocolate flavour that are of the most importance:

Flavour genetics. Every cocoa bean has its flavour profile. While chocolate begins with the seed, the seed begins with the chemical flavour components that form its volume. Similar to human beings, cocoa has its own genetic code. I would like to note that there are 10 main cocoa variety clusters. These clusters consist of hundreds of different sub-varieties. Most of these are kept under guard in cocoa gene banks such as the one in Costa Rica. So, cocoa is different because its genetics are different. The genetics define not only the difference in cocoa shape, bean size or pod colour but also the differences in flavour.

Just a small example: criollo cocoa beans are known for their mild, cookie-like flavour with little bitterness. The forastero variety however is very chocolatey with noticable bitterness. Sometimes varieties of cocoa mix with each other and new flavour characteristics are born. Selecting the specific variety will define the final product flavour, so the chocolate master should think carefully about the flavour profile he wants to have. And his meticulous selection process should start from the tree the cocoa grows on.

Postharvesting methods. Postharvesting procedures are as important to the final flavour of the cocoa as genetics. Some say that they are of equal importance; others say they are a little less important. In my opinion, there are so many ways of tweaking cocoa during the post-harvesting procedures that cocoa genetics accounts for only a third of the total significance. By applying different fermenting techniques you can make it sour, but you can also make it sweet. You can ferment it to taste like chocolate cake or you can make it spicy. The possibilities are endless if you understand the fermentation at a deep level.

You can also adjust the flavour by drying the cocoa in a different way. The options here are infinite.

Manufacturing techniques. Every batch of chocolates starts with the roasting. Roasting is the most important factory phase for flavour development. Here time and temperature are very critical. The roasting master needs to make decisions with every batch. Is it ready or should it be left be for an extra 1.5 minutes? Should I increase the temperature by 2 degrees? To roast is to morph the bitter and heavy chemical flavour components into more palatable ones. And yes, it is very subjective.

The roasted cocoa beans are then refined into smooth paste together with other ingredients such as sugar or milk. Different refining methods will give a different feel to the chocolate in the mouth. So the perception of the flavour would be different as well.

Last, but not least, refined chocolate is mixed and kneaded in the so-called conching machine. Intense volatile acids are evaporated during the conching phase so the more delicate ones can shine through. Some say that it is the conching, not the roasting, that is the most important phase for flavour development. I do not necessarily agree with this statement, but conching can indeed greatly affect the flavour.

Every chocolate maker (or at least every good one) has a chocolate flavour profile that is unique. Some like low bitterness with berry-like flavours in their chocolate. Some like deep nutty flavours or very chocolatey tones. There is no rule as to which is better. It would be the same as to argue which colour is best (white, of course!). My personal flavour profile is diverse. Some time ago I was only looking at bright and light cocoas but now I am shifting my interest to heavier ones. But I always look for something different. Be it a high fruit-tasting bean or a very chocolatey one – I have my own subjective preferences and I love to share them with our eaters. But one things is for sure – the chocolate flavour is one of the most complex of all food flavours on the planet.

Domantas Uzpalis