How Cacao (and Chocolate) Gets Its Flavor, Part 2

We love chocolate because of its sensational flavors…

It can be fruity, earthy, floral, nutty, or just good old "chocolatey." And these flavors come directly from the magical tropical fruit cacao.

This month, we're talking all about cacao and where flavor comes from. We started off two weeks ago with some of the basics about cacao. And last week, we talked about genetics - the primary factor in cacao's flavor

Today, we're sharing the second two most important contributors to cacao's flavors - growing conditions and post-harvest processing.

Let's dive right in, with growing conditions…

You may have heard the term "terroir" used with wine. It refers to the flavor characteristics that come from the soil, climate, geography, and other conditions where the grapes grow.

Cacao and chocolate have flavors of terroir, too...

Cacao needs hot temperatures year-round. So even in the tropics, it doesn't grow everywhere – especially at higher altitudes (above about 1,000 feet). It requires humidity and a lot of rain (at least 60 inches per year is best). And as we noted, it prefers shade – especially in its early years.

Ideal growing conditions allow cacao to develop its full flavor potential. They add complexity to the flavor. Anything less than ideal conditions, including any major stresses, can have a negative impact on its development... and on its flavor.

Next up is post-harvest processing, which starts at removing cacao pods from the trees, includes fermenting and drying the cacao beans, and ends only when the chocolate making process begins. This is where the humans can make or break all of nature's hard work...

Post-harvest processing is the most important step in developing and locking in cacao's flavors… And it has a greater influence on a chocolate's flavor than anything else in the chocolate-making process.

Sometimes cacao growers handle their own post-harvest processing. But often, collection centers run by co-ops or corporations buy the "wet mass" (the cacao beans covered in pulp), then process and sell it.

Here are our friends Ben and Blanca – owners of the fabulous cacao post-harvest and chocolate-making operation CocoaEthika, in Costa Rica – in their cacao-drying tent…

Whoever handles the post-harvest need to consider the following questions...

  • How ripe was the cacao when it was harvested?
  • Was the pod aged before opening?
  • What was the size of the pod?
  • What time was it harvested?
  • What was the temperature when it was harvested?
  • What is the ideal PH level for the fermentation?
  • Are the cacao beans mostly uniform in size (for even fermentation)?
  • How many days and hours will it take to ferment the cacao completely?
  • How long will it take in current weather conditions to dry the cacao?
  • What is the moisture content after the drying process?
  • Can the cacao be stored and transported in a moisture-free environment to prevent molding?
  • How long should the cacao age to optimize its flavor?

Gathering and using all of this information properly requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience on the part of farmers and post-harvest processors. And it's critical to bringing out the best qualities of a bean. And this level of care is needed to produce fine-flavor chocolate.

Imagine doing all the hard work of growing, harvesting, fermenting, and drying, only to have the cacao mold in storage. Since folks usually store cacao where it was grown – in the humid tropics – this happens all the time. And it's devastating.

Getting anything wrong in the post-harvest can either ruin or damage what otherwise would have been world-class cacao.

As we say in Costa Rica, pura vida,

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