Bean there, done that: Everything Matters.
Whether you make chocolate, work with chocolate or simply enjoy eating chocolate, there’s always something to learn, and who better to learn the complexities of flavor development from than your fellow chocolate professionals, who have “bean there . . . done that!”? We’ve enlisted bean-to-bar chocolate makers to share with you an experience, good or bad, from their chocolate exploration.
Who are we? We’re David Arnold, Brady Brelinski and George Gensler, founding members of the Manhattan Chocolate Society, and we’ve been focused on bean-to-bar chocolate since 2007. Our goal is to promote the highest standards and innovations of the craft of chocolate. Our hope is that our contributors and readers will learn from each other and collectively advance the chocolate-making process.
This issue we hear from Rob Anderson. Rob is founder & craft chocolate maker at award-winning Fresco Chocolate. Fresco produces origin bars which include information on roast and conche times. Here’s what he told us:
We had no idea what to expect when over 400 pounds of Jamaican cocoa beans arrived on that March day in 2004. Our first experience with Venezuelan cocoa several months earlier went surprisingly well. The Venezuelan Carenero Superior cocoa was transformed into pretty good chocolate with very little effort. A couple of days in a grinder with a little sugar produced remarkably flavorful chocolate. How hard could this be? Equipped with a countertop rotisserie oven for roasting, a wheat grinder-shop vac creation for cracking and winnowing and a small spice grinder, we were making chocolate. The Carenero formula was sure to work on the Jamaican cocoa. What happened? Why did our guinea pig chocolate tasters generously designate our Jamaican creation as having notes of “lawn clippings” and “wet cigars”? The dismal Jamaican results drove us to do additional research on the chocolate making process. That’s when we discovered the existence of machines called conches, dedicated to mixing and heating chocolate to develop flavor. Easy, we just need to make a conche.
Enter heat lamps stage left, and our spice grinder doubled as a conche. Using the heat lamps we tried to force this flavor development to happen in our little grinder. First, we tried mixing the chocolate at about 150°F for around four hours. Our toxic Jamaican mess magically improved. If less is good, then more must be better. Heating the chocolate to about 200°F for eight hours would be awesome. Other than grinder parts melting, the results were encouraging. We’re not sure if fumes from the melting grinder components had contaminated the chocolate. We may have unknowingly cooked up a Jamaican-polymer blend. At the time we didn’t know what we were doing. Melting parts was our first clue that we needed to upgrade equipment for our chocolate experiments to continue. So we redesigned portions of the grinder to allow higher temperature experiments. After all, being engineers, that’s what we do. Eventually our goals outpaced this early equipment and we upgraded our operation. With a combination of larger capacity equipment (some purchased and some we designed and built ourselves) work could continue. What we didn’t realize until much later was those little stone grinders that we started out with generate heat from friction and cause a limited amount of “self conching” effect, whether you want it or not. This unintentional heat must have been enough to accidentally develop a nice flavor from that first Caranero experiment.
An important outcome of these early experiments was the realization that chocolate could be made with almost endless variations. Early on, we discovered that cocoa roasting time and temperature were both important to chocolate flavor. Of course, the ratio of ingredients is important as well. Cocoa, sugar, milk powder, vanilla, cocoa butter, lecithin and so on, each affects the outcome. On a side note, we used soy lecithin in our first few batches of chocolate because we read somewhere that chocolate needed lecithin. When we realized this information was erroneous, we stopped adding it and never looked back. During our conching experiments a few new variables hit main stage. The chocolate temperature, mixing intensity and duration each affects the flavor. Wow, this was getting complicated. How many permutations of chocolate recipes could there be? A quick calculation and I was completely overwhelmed: Even limiting the variability of each parameter results in a staggering number of potentially unique chocolate recipes. To illustrate, run a quick calculation with these limited variations: number of bean types = 10, different roast temperatures = 3, different roast durations = 5, different ingredients and ratios = 8 (stick with dark chocolate only for now), conche temperatures = 4, conche durations = 6. These limited parameters have the potential of producing over 28,000 different and unique chocolate recipes. I guess we better get started.
Going back to our Jamaican vs. Venezuelan experience, we found that the unprocessed Jamaican beans had an unpleasant flavor note that needed heat and time to eliminate. In those early days a “chocolate expert” told me that the Jamaican beans were no good and that I should throw them out. When we finally figured out that the Jamaican cocoa needed a longer conche time at a higher temperature, the results turned from bad to pretty good. We discontinued production of Jamaican-based chocolate in 2011, but several of the retail shops that carry our products still ask for our Jamaican recipe because of its unique flavor profile. This really highlighted to me that there are many unique flavors hidden inside those little beans from around the world that are yet to be discovered.
Since that first bag of Venezuelan Carenero we’ve made just over 300 batches of chocolate. Some were good, others were pretty bad, but all were different. I tell this story to illustrate a point: everything matters. No two cocoa origins or harvests are the same, changing the cocoa roasting time or temperature affects all the steps down the line. Grinding and conching can be accomplished in many different ways, and on it goes. We have a motto that represents how we approach chocolate making, and it goes like this: “Exceptional chocolate is created through a series of events, change any one event and the outcome is a new creation.” We believe this to be true. For chocolate makers, the possible outcomes are endless. If you’re just starting down this path or thinking about starting, be patient, learn something from every misstep, enjoy the process and remember, everything matters.