Cocoa bean quality

How do we know the quality of cocoa beans when they show up in one of those giant burlap bags? How can we tell they’ll be tasty once we’ve put them through the intensive processes that result in a chocolate bar?

We did some research and asked some friends, but we’re always learning, so don’t take this post as the be all end all of cocoa bean evaluation. The best way to learn to evaluate beans is to travel to cacao-producing countries and learn from the makers and farmers themselves.

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve learned so far: it takes all the senses and some background research to determine high quality cocoa beans.

Let’s start with the basics… what are we looking for in a batch of cocoa beans?

  • Well fermented – not too much, not too little
  • Well preserved – as few bugs as possible
  • Well bred – good genetics (read more about genetics in this post)

This is all in addition to the circumstances on the farm where the beans came from, including working conditions, wages for farmers, pesticides, farming practices, etc.

The question is, then, how do we know the beans are good enough to import in larger quantities and potentially serve as the source of one of our chocolate bars? The process looks different depending on how big the chocolate-maker is. Check out this description by the ICCO about checking the quality of cocoa beans. Without a panel of tasters or any fancy instruments, here’s how we do it:

1. Look at the bean

Beans have a wide variety of appearances, depending on how they are processed at the farm. Here are some pictures of drastically different beans from our visit to John Nanci’s warehouse in Oregon. Can you tell the difference?

Jamaican beans

Jamaican beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Papua New Guinea Beans

Side note: in Papua New Guinea (PNG), because the weather is so wet and humid, some farmers dry their beans in a smoker, leaving them with a smokey flavor that I’m pretty excited to taste! Check out what Dandelion did with some PNG beans here.

When looking at the beans, we’re looking for mold, if they appear to be washed, if they’re very dirty, if there are a lot of doubles or broken shells or buggy beans, etc. This is similar to what we look for when sorting beans. Our sample looks pretty good – nothing terrible stands out.

whole raw cocoa beans

whole raw cocoa beans

2. Taste the beans

Keeping in mind that these are raw beans and have been subjected to the messy process of fermentation, drying, shipping across borders, and could harbor some potential diseases… but we taste most raw beans anyway. As I’ve mentioned before, this is not my favorite part. Richard’s much better than I am at picking out the flavor notes in raw beans. However, we both picked up the same flavors here: a very mild start, slightly earthy or woodsy hints, and then very little bitterness on the back end. The good news? These beans are definitely not acidic or putrid. The bad news? They may result in a boring chocolate, since we didn’t sense any specific strong flavors.

We’ve heard that the taste in our mouth after we’ve finished a raw bean – in other words, the aftertaste – shows the flavor notes that could appear in a chocolate bar made from those beans. Try it out!

3. Perform a cut test

This is a particularly fancy part of checking bean quality and provides a numerical score to bean quality. High end bean-to-bar chocolate makers use what’s called a guillotine to slice at least 100 beans (typically 300) in half, lengthwise, thus opening up each one so the inside is visible. Given that I don’t own one of these expensive devices, I manually sliced 100 beans and laid them out on a cutting board.

cut test

cut test

Now, we’re looking for a few different results on the inside of these beans. This chart by the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board of Trinidad and Tobago shows many of the potential options very clearly! The summary: we’re looking for a) fully fermented beans, b) slatey beans, c) partially slatey beans, d) purple beans, e) over-fermented beans, f) moldy beans, g) germinated beans, h) infested or insect-damaged beans, or i) flat or shriveled beans.

As far as I can tell, these are either all fully fermented or over-fermented. There were no slatey, partially slatey, purple, moldy, germinated, infested, or flat beans in this sample.

There are additional tests and measures to determine if cocoa beans will be good for high quality chocolate. That said, with our experience level, we’ll stick to these methods, but we’ll continue to share what we learn as we go!

So far, we’re doing pretty well with these particular beans! We’ll have to make them into some chocolate and see how they turn out!

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Chocolate Business Models

How do we transform our experience with chocolate from a hobby to a business without losing the fun, collaborative, part-time nature of it all?

Honestly, this is a very difficult question and we don’t assume that there is an answer. This question goes much deeper than the surface question of how to start a business – it asks how we want to spend our free time, how we want to spend our working hours, how much financial risk we are willing to take on, how confident we are that our chocolate is actually any good, if chocolate bars are our ultimate product, what the future of our family looks like, and how permanent we are in our current living location.

All that said, we are trying to follow the practices of The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, in order to keep the potential business light and flexible. Some of the recommendations in the book are difficult to apply to a brick and mortal chocolate shop, since it’s mostly geared toward tech startups. However, we’re doing our best!

Let’s take a look at the different business model options for starting a bean-to-bar chocolate business (at least to our knowledge in California):

Cottage Food Operator (CFO)

In another post, we went into some detail about this business model. The basic idea is that this business model allows the food maker to prepare food in a private home and sell by delivery or pick-up. We don’t know of a chocolate-maker who has successfully done this.

Pros

  • We could set this up in our kitchen with limited financial input
  • We could work on chocolate at any hour of the day, in our pajamas if we want

Cons

  • We would have to deliver the product to our customers, since shipping is not permitted
  • Most famers’ markets do not allow CFOs, which would limit our distribution
  • Sales are restricted to our county, which is quite small and limits our growth potential significantly
  • Licensing is by county, so if we moved to another county, we would be required to start the process over
  • It would be very difficult (nearly impossible) for us to be profitable due to these limitations
  • We could not import (or store) large quantities of beans in our apartment

Private Wholesale Commercial Kitchen

This business model constitutes a private space in a commercial zone rented and outfitted as a legal commercial kitchen. With the wholesale model, the assumption is that there will not be customers purchasing products directly from the physical site. Instead, the product will be sold either online or through a third party distributor. This is what our friends at Arete have at the moment.

Pros

  • We would have full access to the space
  • Once we pay for the outfitting of the space, our cost of operation would decrease significantly
  • This provides the highest potential for growth
  • We could import beans and store them here

Cons

  • It is difficult to find a space small enough to be practical for small-batch chocolate-maker use
  • These types of spaces are few and far between, can be very expensive to rent, and are almost always very expensive to outfit
  • This is very location-dependent and would require the decision to permanently be located somewhere

Private Retail Commercial Space

This business model constitutes a private space in a commercial zone rented and outfitted as a legal commercial kitchen, like the wholesale space described above. Products could still be sold online and through other distributors. In addition, this model makes it possible for customers to come purchase products on site, like Dandelion’s Valencia Cafe.

Pros

  • We would have full access to the space
  • This can be incredibly lucrative, depending on the location, marketing, local foot traffic, and many other factors
  • We could import beans and store them here

Cons

  • It is a huge investment to build out a retail space
  • There are a lot more requirements, such as ADA bathrooms, to consider
  • This is very location-dependent and would require the decision to permanently be located somewhere
  • We would need to either quit our jobs or hire staff to physically run the store

Shared Commercial Kitchen

This model involves renting shared commercial kitchen space, typically by the hour or with a monthly membership fee. An example of this is KitchenTown, located in neighboring town, San Mateo.

Pros

  • This provides the lowest up-front cost of making chocolate commercially
  • The commercial kitchen has legal documentation and gear for producing and selling food
  • There’s a particularly amazing shared commercial kitchen about 10 minutes away from our apartment
  • The hours are usually flexible, so we could continue to do this on nights and weekends
  • This provides a community of food makers who we could get to know
  • We could import beans and store them here

Cons

  • Since cocoa butter is so susceptible to other scents, it’s possible that the chocolate could take on the flavor of whatever else is being cooked in the space while it’s in the melanger
  • It’s possible that we do so well that we would outgrow the shared space
  • Not all of the gear is provided, so we’d need to bring our own in
  • We would need to share the space with other chocolate-makers, which means coordinating times and machine usage

So, what’s the verdict? Good question. We’re not sure yet. We’ll keep you updated with our decision!

Where do you make your chocolate? What do you think the best option is for a chocolate start-up? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Visiting Letterpress Chocolate

As we’ve mentioned, Richard and I spent MLK Jr. weekend in LA. During our trip, we had the opportunity to explore Guelaguetza and to visit our friends, Corey and David of Letterpress Chocolate.

We could smell that amazing brownie-like scent as we walked up the stairs to their apartment and as soon as they opened the door, the whirling of multiple Premier Wonder Grinders provided a pleasant white noise background. As usual, they were in the middle of making chocolate!

We first met David at a Yellow Seed gathering last summer and besides some great phone conversations, we met Corey in person during the FCIA weekend just recently. It was great to see them in their element, surrounded by beans, bars, and equipment! Like us and like David and Leslie of Arete (who we also visited in their space last year), they are a husband and wife team of chocolate-makers with different skill sets but a similar goal – to make amazing chocolate.

We learned a few useful lessons to note and had fun with what may seem silly, but is very typical for chocolate-makers: a bean tasting quiz/lesson.

Let’s start with our most useful lesson – documentation. When we walked in, David and Corey were in the middle of a roast (hence the amazing brownie-like smell), so we chatted while they finished the roast with precision. They pulled beans out of the oven every ten minutes and tasted them, jotting down flavor and texture notes religiously into a notebook. This level of detail hasn’t been our strong suite so far. In fact, we’ve kept great notes on our white board or in our blog posts, but we do not have a scientific tracking system yet. We now realize the importance of such detail for the ability to repeat a particular bar’s flavor and in order to really lean from our work. Dave Huston has an incredible documentation system which we hope to learn from as well!

For our bean tasting quiz/lesson, David pulled out sample after sample of raw beans, testing our tastebuds and informing us of the complex and detailed history of each set of beans. This is one of Richard’s favorite things to do, though I’m still learning to love the bitter, chewy nature of raw beans. David and Corey are far more experienced with cocoa beans than most chocolate-makers we know. They spend a lot of time in the producing countries, particularly Guatemala where they own cacao farm acreage. Some of my favorite beans were Oko Caribe from the Dominican Republic and Coto Brus from Costa Rica, Heirloom Cacao Preservation #6.

cocoa bean tasting quiz

cocoa bean tasting quiz

We also discussed an exciting new development. Richard and I will be taking a trip to Hawaii next month, partially for his big birthday and partially for chocolate research! Having spent a lot of time with his mentor, Dr. Nat of Madre Chocolate, David had a lot of great advice. We’re excited to visit and look forward to reporting back!

Thank you, David and Corey, for inviting us into your space and for teaching us about your wonderful chocolate-making practices! We look forward to more adventures in the future!

Guelaguetza

Last weekend, Richard and I took a wonderful trip down to LA. And like we usually do, we incorporated chocolate into the trip in a variety of ways. First of all, we brought chocolate to share with our friends and family. (Everyone’s favorite was the Venezuela from John Nanci’s beans!)

One of the other ways we incorporated chocolate into our trip was by visiting local phenomenon, Guelaguetza Restaurante. This is the most authentically Oaxacan spot I’ve experienced since spending a summer in Oaxaca, Mexico itself. They serve tlayudas, mole, and mezcal, among other southern Mexican delicacies.

Guelaguetza or Fiesta de los Lunes del Cerro, is the name of an annual festival celebrating the diversity of communities and cultures in the state of Oaxaca. You can read more about it here, here, and aquí. When I lived in Oaxaca in 2005, I actually was able to attend the celebrations with my parents and my friend, Medina. It was a spectacular show of dancing and ceremony. Here’s what one of the colorful dances looked like on stage:

Guelaguetza

Guelaguetza

When Richard and I visited Guelaguetza, the restaurant in LA, it looked a little different, but the colors, the sounds, and the smells were very similar. Most of the restaurant guests were speaking in Spanish and we heard a lively rendition of “Felix Cumpleaños” as we walked in. The decor has a bright and traditionally Oaxacan look, with an open view of the tortillas being made in the kitchen and shelves full of Oaxacan treats, pottery, and utensils for sale.

And of course, we spotted the chocolate!

Mexican chocolate and molinillo

Mexican chocolate and molinillo

They sell a variety of products, but we came for the chocolate (and the delicious hot atole). When we later shared the chocolate with our chocolate-making friends, the taste brought back one of my favorite chocolate memories. It looks like a hockey puck and requires a knife to break it into pieces. The texture is very grainy, though in a way that’s different from Taza’s texture. Taza seems to include chunks of cocoa nibs, while the largest particle size of this chocolate came in the form of sugar. We crunched on the sugar crystals with each bite. And the flavor includes strong notes of cinnamon, nuts, and other spices, as some of these ingredients are actually ground down with the nibs and included in the chocolate.

Though it isn’t what we’d call “modern chocolate,” it is a delicious and memory-inducing version of Mexican chocolate that I love returning to.

What’s your guilty pleasure in the chocolate world? Maybe it isn’t the highest quality single origin bean-to-bar maker’s award-winning bar. Maybe it’s something you sneak on the side when no one’s looking!

Dark dark chocolate

When I was in college, one of my closest friends told me that she only liked chocolate that was 80% or higher. I didn’t understand the concept at the time and was still a predominantly milk chocolate eater. I’ve since learned significantly more about the meaning of percentages and the virtues of dark chocolate.

Our chocolate creations have ranged from 70% to, at the highest, 85%. Well, we’ve tasted the ridiculously dark 100% bar from Dandelion and Endorfin’s 98% bar (2% vanilla). Personally, I think such high percentages taste more muddy than chocolatey. But, Richard is a huge fan. And more importantly, our neighbor, Jude, has personally requested a low-sugar bar to mimic the high percentage, bitter chocolate she knows and loves from her hometown of Barcelona. And given her current pregnancy and her self-proclaimed (and incredible) heightened taste buds, we’re excited to comply!

So, we set out to make a truly dark chocolate. We know it’s important to consider the cocoa butter content of our beans. And we have not measured the exact percentage of our Madagascar beans, but we’ll assume 50% for now. They seem pretty oily and our 85% was successful (though quite strong) when we tried previously.

We started, as usual, by measuring our initial cocoa bean batch (after sorting, before roasting). It came in at 1128 grams. We roasted in our beautiful Behmor, indicating 1 pound on the P2 program minus 2 minutes (as recommended by John Nanci). We took the beans (and nibs) through 4 passes of our homemade winnower, reducing the mass to 943 grams on the first pass (when we noticed lots of big shells), followed by 836 grams on the second pass (when we noticed that the nibs and shells had a lot of static energy), followed by 756 grams on the third pass (when it looked pretty good despite a few shells), followed by 722 grams on the fourth pass, which we deemed finished enough. In other words, we had a 64% yield on winnowing. Richard is still working hard on improving our winnowing process and tools!

We took some advice from the Industrial Chocolate Manufacture and Use book and immediately winnowed the beans, rather than waiting for them to cool. Then we tried a new step in our process: we put the nibs through a quick pre-grind in our new Vitamix 5200 Series Blender, when it turned the discrete nibs into smaller chunks with a slightly oily finish. We heated the stone wheels and reheated the beans, then started the melanger with the 722 grams of nib mush and 100 grams of sugar.

Vitamix

This resulted in an 87.5% dark chocolate with no added cocoa butter. We let it conche and refine for 24 hours, then tried the Chocolate Alchemist’s suggestion for tempering. We poured about a third of the chocolate onto plastic wrap and let it cool slowly in the oven, while the melanger continued conching. This created an effective “seed” chocolate. About an hour or so later, the seed had cooled, and we introduced it back into the warm liquor (at that point around 99 degrees). As the chocolate chunks mixed with the liquid, the temperature dropped significantly, and when we turned off the Premier Wonder Grinder, the temperature of the chocolate had just hit 90. We quickly doled it out into molds with our quick refrigerator pass to complete the tempering process.

And now our dark dark chocolate is ready for gifting!

What’s the highest percentage chocolate you’ve enjoyed eating? Any recommendations for low sugar, high percentage chocolate-making?

Chocolate-struck at FCIA Weekend Activities

We started the year off right with some serious chocolate schmoozing!

This past weekend, San Francisco hosted the FCIA Winter Event, the Good Food Awards and the Winter Fancy Food Show. Quick congratulations to the following chocolate companies for their big wins in the Good Food Awards:

While we did not attend any of the official events this weekend, we were present at two more intimate gatherings of chocolate makers. We feel very fortunate to be friends of Dandelion and were able to attend both an informal chocolate-makers’ meet-up on Friday night, hosted at Four Barrel Coffee, and the post-FCIA brunch Sunday morning.

At the Friday night event, I arrived a little late, but in plenty of time to hear some great tidbits from the experts. It was packed with people sitting high on bags of coffee, on the floor, and anywhere there was space. When someone asked how to work with cocoa farmers, I was excited to hear some of the panelists expand on my favorite topic! Greg from Dandelion talked about wanting the farmers to be as excited about their product as he is, and expecting to not just buy something but to also build something together. Jesse, sourcer of Cacao Vivo talked about the importance of transparency, direct trade, and feedback. In the meantime, Hugo Hermelink, a cocoa farmer from Costa Rica, spoke up about the financial troubles of running a cacao operation. I met many of the Dandelion staff members, people from Raaka, indi, and Videri, among others.

Chocolate-maker meet-up at Four Barrel

Chocolate-maker meet-up at Four Barrel

Sunday morning, with an even larger group, I was almost starstruck (chocolate-struck?) at the names of people in the room. Some had written books or articles I have poured over. Others make amazing chocolate or source beans from ethically responsible co-ops or connect chocolate-makers to beans or educate the public about the bean-to-bar industry. It was amazing to meet Steve De Vries of De Vries Chocolate, Sunita of The Chocolate Garage, Jose of Mindo Chocolate in Ecuador/Michigan and his cacao farmer friend of an Ecuadorian co-op, Clay Gordon of The Chocolate Life (see posts on our previous phone interview on “living the chocolate life” and on making chocolate at home), Brian of Northwest Chocolate Festival, Adam and Matthew of Mutari Hot Chocolate (locals in Santa Cruz!), as well as many many others.

We also got to connect with old friends – Dave and Corey of Letterpress Chocolate, Eli of Bisou, Greg of Dandelion, and Brian of Endorfin, among others. Check out Dandelion’s picture of the event in their Valencia Cafe.

It was such an adventure to learn from these experts and hear suggestions for our own chocolate activities. We’re looking forward to trying a few new experiments in the near future. Keep an eye out for more fun in the world of Root Chocolate!

Chocolate Covered

Welcome to my new favorite 100 square feet in San Francisco, besides maybe Dandelion’s cafe with a cup of Mission hot chocolate… Chocolate Covered. Thanks, Dave Huston, for the recommendation!

This tiny hole in the wall in the Castro/Mission is packed to the gills with chocolate and reminds me of a more crowded, cozy, and even more extensive Cacao in Portland. Jack, the owner, introduced himself and let me know that he’s been selling bean to bar chocolate since the concept began over 18 years ago! He used to sell every bean to bar chocolate available, but he told me that now there are too many for him to fit into his tiny store. We chatted about homemade chocolate, where we buy our beans, the upcoming FCIA event and Good Food Awards, and the additional activities put on by Dandelion that week.

As Clay Gordon informed me way back when, people in the chocolate industry are awesome. It’s impossible to be a grouch when surrounded by so much deliciousness!

chocolate covered 1 chocolate covered 2 chocolate covered 3

As I walked around the store, I spotted all the big names in small batch chocolate, and more that I had never seen before. I picked up a couple Marou bars and some Askinosie bars and promised to come back another time. Oh yes, we will be back!

Bay Area Chocolate Makers’ Meet-Up

Over the break, we had the incredible opportunity to gather with a group of Bay Area chocolate makers for the first of, we hope, many occasions to get together and share our ideas.

We were delighted to have a group of nine other chocolate makers, in addition to ourselves, gather at Dandelion Chocolate one afternoon in December. Though Richard and I had set out an agenda for the gathering, we quickly realized that the highest priority would be getting to know each other. After a brief meet and greet, Pearl of Dandelion, graciously gave us a tour of the space, including the bean room, the kitchen, and the cafe. Most of the makers present have much smaller operations than Dandelion, so it was a treat to walk through the process that we all know and love, though on a bigger scale.

chocolate-makers' meet up at Dandelion

chocolate-makers’ meet up at Dandelion

Then, we each explained whatever chocolate we had brought along with us, and conducted a tasting of a whole line-up of delicious bars.

chocolate tasting

chocolate tasting

The group has a wide range of experience and expertise, so the best part of the afternoon’s activity was simply learning about each makers’ work and focus. In particular, we learned about the techniques linked to neuroscience and sensory experience of Endorfin Chocolat from Brian Wallace. We discovered the unique business model of Cocoa Logos by Brent, sending messages through chocolate. We listened to the precise and scientific methods utilized by Leslie and David Senk of Arete, whose dedication to creating the best chocolate bar is surely starting to pay off! (It was great to see them again, after our visit last year). We tried the chain of different roasts on the same bean by Kane, who told us he was inspired by the advice that Tad Van Leer provided in this post. We shared business plan ideas with Dave of Sacramento. We met Zeina, who encouraged us to visit The Chocolate Garage again, and get to know the bars from up and coming makers available there. And we connected with Jay of Origence, who gave us new ideas about collaborating with other makers to import beans.

We hope that other makers will join us next time for focused discussions on tools, ingredients, process, and sourcing! We’re hoping to get to know Jonas of Firefly Chocolate, Dave Salowich of The Double Monkey & Bittersweet Chocolate Cafe, Steve of Sacred Chocolate, Nancy of The Oakland Chocolate Company, and Eli and Tracey of Bisou Chocolate! We have such a great group of makers in the Bay Area and we’re looking forward to regularly gathering this group for discussions in the months to come!

Are you a chocolate maker in the Bay Area? What would you like to discuss next time we meet up?

Flavored Chocolate

Happy new year!

I hope you all had as relaxing and enjoyable of a break as we did. We spent some quality time on the east coast with family, then a lovely week dog-sitting on the Peninsula.

And now that we’ve given away all our Christmas gifts, I can write about them here!

This year, we gave homemade gifts of… you guessed it… chocolate! And to tailor the chocolate to each of our family members, we adjusted the percentage and tried for the first time (successfully), flavors and inclusions. Inspired by Patric’s Red Coconut Curry bar and Cocanú’s Romulus Remus, among others, we broke into this unknown territory! We used flavor oils from Chocolately and spices from local ethnic grocery stores. It was quite an adventure in flavor!

Two caveats: up to this point, we’ve been very strict about sticking with the basic ingredients in order to stay true to our name: Root Chocolate. However, 1) these were gifts and really fun to play around with, and 2) we’re still discovering/defining our real niche and aren’t ready to limit ourselves to what our name implies. We’ll see where chocolate takes us!

Here’s a rundown of this season’s chocolate gifts:

  • Hot & Spicy: 80% Madagascar with Kashmiri spices
  • Smoky: 80% Madagascar with smoked paprika and hot chili pepper oil
  • Orange: 70% Madagascar with orange oil
  • Mint: 70% Madagascar with creme de menthe oil
  • Indian: 70% Madagascar with Garam Masala
  • Nutty: 70% Madagascar with crumbled pecans

We also, for the first time, used small molds of about 5 grams each, and wrapped the baby chocolates in foil. They look very professional, if I do say so myself!

Christmas chocolates

Christmas chocolates

In my humble opinion, the orange was the best. We learned that just a single drop of orange oil is enough for many many grams of chocolate. Similarly, the creme de menthe is particularly powerful!

According to our family members, the Garam Masala was a huge hit – both unusual and delicious. We’ll have to fine tune that one for future use!

What flavors do you suggest infusing into chocolate? What were your favorite tasty Christmas treats?