HomeGeneralThe Flavor Lab: How Chocolate Tasting is Changing the (Chocolate) Game

The Flavor Lab: How Chocolate Tasting is Changing the (Chocolate) Game

Sponsored by TCHO Chocolate

Chocolate, one of the world’s most beloved flavors, is also one of its most misunderstood, even by the people who produce cacao. The flavor we know as “chocolate” is actually an amalgamation of hundreds of different flavor compounds found in cacao, which can vary wildly due to plant varietals (genetics), terroir, climate, and the practices used for harvesting, fermentation, and drying the cacao. Truly understanding how to analyze and shape flavor from pod to palate is the key to producing high-quality, great tasting cacao. TCHO Chocolate, a craft chocolate producer from Berkeley, CA, has been at the cutting edge of this work for more than ten years. Laura Sweitzer, TCHO Source Manager explains “TCHO Source, TCHO’s innovative sourcing program, was developed in the pursuit of this understanding. This important tenet is incorporated into every single product we make and into our corresponding years of direct collaboration with cacao farmers.”

Fermented and dried cacao beans in jute bags.
Fermented and dried cacao beans in jute bags.

TCHO Source brought the first mini bean-to-bar chocolate making labs to the cocoa growing world. These were designed to facilitate collaboration with farmers and cooperative workers (many of which had never tasted chocolate made from their own cacao) to better understand and improve the flavor of their beans. Sweitzer continues, “now with ten TCHO Flavor Labs in place around the world, farmers are taught how to make chocolate, but more importantly, they are taught how to taste it and analyze the flavor using a specific protocol. Through sensory training and analysis, cocoa producers can, not only, identify if there are any defects in the cocoa, but also where those defects came from. Was the cocoa harvested too early, not fermented properly, not dried properly?  This way producers can adjust their processes to improve quality, flavor, and command a higher price for their beans.”

TCHO Source Manager, Laura Sweitzer, tastes cacao liquor with Oro Verde Production Manager, Karen Gisella Macuado
TCHO Source Manager, Laura Sweitzer, tastes cacao liquor with Oro Verde Production Manager, Karen Gisella Macuado

Even with these flavor labs in place, creating cacao with an intentional, consistent flavor takes time. A lot of time. Cacao farmers must have cocoa varietals that produce cacao with desirable flavor potential, or gradually introduce a carefully researched new varietal and wait the necessary years for these trees to bear their first cacao pods. Continued training on the importance of harvesting the cacao pods at just the right time and starting the fermentation of the beans immediately after harvesting is essential. Technical staff need to adopt strict protocols for fermentation and drying, as well as knowing just when to alter them based on weather, temperature, or what flavors they are tasting. “In the TCHO model, cooperative farmer members and staff must turn their own cacao beans into liquor (sugar-free chocolate) and taste them. This process is honed over many years of cacao tasting trainings to develop a calibration flavor palates between TCHO and the coop so we are truly speaking a shared language of taste when discussing cacao flavor,” says Sweitzer.

Improved Infrastructure_Drying Bed
Covered and raised drying beds, installed by TCHO, ensure cacao is dried slow, evenly, and away from contaminants

Cultivating delicious cacao is without a doubt a long-term journey. This is why it is important to foster long-term relationships with cacao producers around the world. “TCHO has long term partnerships (and big visions!) with the cacao growers we collaborate with and purchase from. Years ago, as a nascent tiny company, we came to these cacao growers with the proposal of investing in quality, working hard, and growing together. Today, we are proud to work with many of the same groups we bought our very first beans from in 2007” Sweitzer continues. “One of those groups is Oro Verde Cooperative in Peru. TCHO has sourced cacao beans from Oro Verde for over ten years.  We’ve co-designed and constructed improved fermentation and drying infrastructure at the cooperative through our TCHO Source program in partnership with the USAID funded Cooperative Development Program. In 2011, we installed a TCHO Flavor Lab at Oro Verde. We’ve done countless cacao tastings together with Oro Verde – virtually and in person. We are now at a point in our shared history where we have a mutual understanding of what TCHO’s ideal cacao flavor profile is from Oro Verde, which the coop is able to consistently produce.” Yet there is still always ongoing work and collaboration to be done for the sake of the relationship and the quality of the cacao.

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