Chocolate lovers are constantly looking for ways to recognize fine flavor.
They educate themselves attending tasting classes and industry conferences, following blogs, organizing meetups with fellow chocoholics, talking to the experts, trying out many brands from different origins. They train their palate to detect fine flavored chocolate with the ultimate goal to say “YES, this bar is worth the money”.
But something’s not right.
Why do chocolate lovers have to make all this effort just to be sure of getting a quality product?
The current BIG problem in the chocolate market is the lack of objective indicators that can direct chocolate consumers towards fine flavor. The innocent chocoholics are forced to rely on indicators that have little to do with the quality of cacao used and that can be very misleading instead.
For example, an Organic Certification is nowhere near a guarantee for flavor. Fine chocolate makers can confirm that there is a lot of organic certified cacao out there that tastes plain horrible.
Fairtrade is another false sign of quality. EVEN IF a Fairtrade certification actually did guarantee a better income and higher life standards for farmers (which actually does not), that wouldn’t mean that the cacao has fine genetics or has been processed correctly at origin.
And not even the indication of origin has something to do with fine flavor.
How are “Ecuador” and “Venezuela” indicators of high-quality per se? Also big chocolate manufacturers are now including exotic names of countries from Latin America on their packaging, and this should say a lot about the reliability of such indication.
It is clear that chocolate consumers face some challenges in recognizing fine flavor. What about professionals like chocolate makers, chocolatiers, cacao sourcerers and producers that work with cacao every day?
They sure have some kind of objective tool that allow them to always make the best decision, right?
NO, they don’t.
On June 25th the FCIA (Fine Chocolate Industry Associaton) organized its annual conference in NYC that saw many chocolate professionals from all over the World discussing together the latest news and trends of the industry. The biggest concern that kept coming up through focus groups and private discussions was the lack of physical standards to identify fine cacao.
The subject was first introduced by Emily Stone, CEO and co-founder of Uncommon Cacao Group, that explained how the flavor of cacao develops at origin.
She explained that there are 6 stages that influence the flavor of cacao:
- GENETICS – DNA is the first contributor of a specific flavor depending on the cacao variety.
- TERROIR – soil, climate and time of seasons are the natural factors belonging to a specific region that influence the flavor of cacao.
- HARVESTING – if cacao pods are not harvested when the right sugar content is developed, the taste of the cacao beans is negatively affected.
- FERMENTATION – it is the crucial stage where the typical chocolatey flavor and color appear.
- DRYING – if done too fast, the acidity doesn’t have the time to evaporate from the beans, leaving them too acidic. If done for too long, an unpleasant flavor of mustiness (or even mold itself) can occur.
- STORAGE – often an underrated stage, a great storage is needed to preserve the flavor of the beans.
Therefore fine cacao is not a product developed in one sit, but it is THE RESULT of a long process.
FCIA participants had the chance to try the cacao liquors brought by Emily from several origins. Some professionals could recognize if the beans were correctly processed or were mishandled at some point. A few in the room were also able to identify the exact country from which the cacao came from.
How did they do it?
With no current physical standards that can help us identify fine cacao, chocolate professionals can only rely on their sensory skills. Therefore, the only tool that they have at their disposable is as simple as it is also hard to get: EXPERIENCE.
Tasting, tasting, and tasting again.
A chocolate maker needs to taste a great number of cacao beans to better understand what is available on the market and to make conscious decisions during production. Since taste is subjective and sometimes deceiving, every chocolate making company organizes tasting panels. Samples of cocoa beans and/or cocoa liquor have to be scrutinized by several evaluators before being approved for production.
During another table talk focused on sensory standards, Brad Kintzer from TCHO shared with the audience the Cacao Sensory Analysis Form used by the tasting panel at his company.
Even though sensory skills can be trained and refined, the problem of not having physical standards still remain.
As John Kehoe, Director of Sustainability at Guittard Chocolate Company, addressed during Emily’s table talk:
“There has been a great interest in chocolate tasting lately. We need a more standardized approach so it can be taught consistently. Only with public standards for tasting the industry will be able to speak the same cacao language”.
The urge for physical standards to identify fine cacao is clear.
But if chocolate professionals can at least count on daily experience and expert colleagues, how can consumers win the battle against frauds, false claims and deceiving marketing?
A new type of certification might have the potential to become THE BEST WAY for chocolate consumers to recognize fine cacao: the HCP Certification.
HCP (Heirloom Cacao Preservation) was launched in 2012 in partnership with the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. The aim of this non-profit organization is to recognize, categorize and sustain fine cacao to defend it from extinction.
Cocoa producers can submit their beans for evaluation, and the process goes something like this:
- A genetic evaluation is performed by the USDA.
- The beans are anonymously processed at the HCP Lab at Guittard Chocolate into chocolate for sampling.
- A qualitative evaluation is performed by the tasting panel.
- The USDA verifies on site that the cocoa beans submitted actually match with the ones at the farm.
- If all the results are positive, the Heirloom designation is achieved.
The HCP logo on fine chocolate bars could be the sign that chocolate consumers have been demanding for a long time.
Finally, they’d be guaranteed that the product they are buying is made with fine cacao. If the certification grows in popularity and becomes largely recognized, it could have the potential to be a game changer on the market. A guarantee for chocolate consumers, an incentive for farmers and a defeat of fraudulent marketing strategies.
In conclusion, what emerged from the last FCIA conference is a growing need for physical standards that make the entire industry speak the same cacao language. A standardized approach could make it easier for cocoa farmers and chocolate makers to identify fine cacao, and consequently pass a clearer message onto more aware consumers.
Do YOU believe that physical standards for chocolate tasting are possible?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.