Sorting Cocoa Beans

This step in making chocolate does not usually get a lot of attention. Perhaps that’s because it’s such a tedious, manual process in most cases. Perhaps it’s because until recently, it seemed uncontroversial.

Well, let me try to make this topic as exciting as possible for our readers. I promise it’ll involve threat of violence, betrayed trust, and the potential for incredible flavor variety… Here we go!

First, When does this even happen in the process? Sorting is the very first step in making chocolate for most bean-to-bar makers. It happens as soon as we pour the beans out onto a surface to visually inspect them before roasting. Ok, now let’s dive into the intrigue around sorting!

The case for sorting

Let’s say your adorable 5-year old niece, Peggy, (let’s include a frilly dress and pigtails in this image) opens the wrapping of a high quality bar of chocolate (assuming you give children expensive chocolate bars…) and as she brings the bar of chocolate toward her mouth, you notice that one corner of the bar is shiny, and before you can run over and rip it out of her hands, her teeth are sinking into a piece of glass.

Ok, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but you understand the danger and violence in this example? Sorting would eliminate the threat of dangerous foreign objects in the chocolate far before little Peggy tries to eat it. Besides foreign objects, like this one found (and thankfully sorted out) in a batch of beans Dick Taylor intended to roast, sorting can also remove other undesirable items that could be included in your bag of chocolate beans. This image on Dandelion’s blog provides a useful list. We have some friends who are also testing the flavor of the germ (a tiny stick-like part of the bean that supposedly contributes either a bitter or woodsy taste to the chocolate).

My biggest concern, and not one included on Dandelion’s list, is actually bugs. Think about where the cocoa beans are coming from. In most cases, they sat out in long wooden trenches, in a farmer’s backyard, for days. That’s right – outside, subjected to the elements and whatever other living things wanted to check them out. Specifically, there’s a species of small moths that love to live in fermented & dried cocoa beans. They burrow into the beans, eat the cocoa mass, build a web, and lay eggs inside the husk. Ew, right?! That’s right. It’s actually pretty easy to see the beans that have moths in them, since they have big holes along the side of the husk, where the moth crawled in (not to be confused with a tiny hole at the tip, which we learned means that the bean has partially germinated and is not nearly as gross).

Moth-infested bean

Moth-infested bean

Many people believe that sorting cocoa beans leaves only the best beans and therefore makes better chocolate. You can read more on Dandelion’s blog about a machine they’re considering to do this for them.

Ok, pretty good reasons to sort. Why would anyone NOT sort? Good question… let’s discuss.

The case against sorting

To put it bluntly, there are two reasons: sorting reduces some of the flavor variation and sorting means you don’t trust your supplier. Let’s start with the second. If you have a wonderful working relationship with your cocoa bean supplier, you would hope they would provide you with beans that would make the best chocolate possible. We learned from John Nanci, Chocolate Alchemist, when we visited him in Oregon, that he screens his suppliers carefully before selling beans to his customers. He believes that any beans he sells you shouldn’t need to be sorted. Maybe he’d recommend a cursory glance for any obvious foreign objects, but other than that, we should trust him on the rest of the beans. He writes more on his opinion on sorting here.

Ok, what about flavor? Here’s where I start to understand the case against heavily sorting. I will say that there’s no doubt we will continue to remove the foreign objects, coffee beans, and anything that could be dangerous to the health of the eventual consumers (see Peggy above). However, jury is still out on whether we’ll sort out the abnormalities in the batch of beans we receive. This is for two reasons.

First of all, the really bad stuff should get winnowed away. The flats, moth-infested beans, and large pieces of shell should fly away with the husks, so it’s possible that sorting them out would be a waste of time.

Secondly, the flavor variation loss is a legitimate concern. Who would want to deny our consumers the potential for such incredible flavor?! Those doubles that are clearly unevenly fermented, the cracked beans, the partially germinated beans… these all contribute to the overall flavor profile of the batch and therefore, are integral to the ultimate quality of the chocolate. I’ll take it one step further, to market analysis. A fellow chocolate-maker did A/B testing with a group of consumers on their preference between chocolate whose beans he had sorted and chocolate made from unsorted beans. Unanimously, the consumers preferred the unsorted chocolate.

Sorted beans

Sorted beans

The Root Chocolate Conclusion

So, what’s our conclusion? We haven’t decided yet. This goes on our list of ideas to try. Maybe we’ll hold onto all the doubles for a while and make a batch of just doubles! Maybe we’ll do two some A/B testing ourselves. We’ll keep you updated on our findings either way!


4 thoughts on “Sorting Cocoa Beans

  1. Another great post. Sorting is something I do but have not talked to anyone about. The weirdest thing I ever found was a rusty nail. Have never looked for germinating cacao seeds but will start to pay attention, thanks.

    I just received 6 kilos of beans and sorted out 3 oz. of cracked, broken, flat or super small seeds. I generally leave the doubles and are rare. Eric and Cristorie Reid gifted me beans from their farm which I have been roasting for the last year. I generally sort 3-4 oz. out for every 10 pounds.

    The only think I disagree with what John wrote was about the cracked beans. My fear is as they roast they may burn slightly and I really do not want that in the chocolate. I don’t mind the variety of sizes being you get a lower and higher roasting profiles in the same batch.

    I see farmers sorting the black seeds out of the wet glob after they open the pods and before it is bagged.. Sorting should happen if mold builds up on parts of the seed mass in the fermentation boxes. Sorting happens after the beans are dried and before they are bagged for export. I sort before the roast so there are at least 4 sorting steps in the process and maybe one or two more.

  2. Moth-infested beans still have nib in them that will not get winnowed away. So, if they’re not sort out, they’ll end up in the final chocolate. Gross. 🙂

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