Learning from Dr. Nat

One of our most decadent evenings on Oahu was spent at Madre Chocolate in Kailua. We were the last ones to arrive for a whiskey & chocolate tasting, taking place in their tiny retail storefront. We squeezed into our chairs at one of the two tables of 8 people each. In front of each person was a placemat with two sets of flavor wheels on one side and a colorful list of all the available chocolates and whiskeys on the other. We also each had a line of whiskeys in shot glasses and the table was laid with about 15 different cocoa pod-shaped dishes, piled with small tastes of various chocolate bars made by Madre.

We made our way down the line of whiskeys, popping in chocolate before, during and after the aromas of whiskey cleared our sinuses. I determined that my favorite order was a sip of whiskey and putting chocolate on my tongue before the whiskey flavor left my mouth. And with the many whiskeys and many chocolate flavors and origins, I couldn’t tell you which combination was the most delicious. Frankly, they were all good! My favorite chocolate bar was a traditional 70% Lachuá Guatemala bar followed by the Dominican Republic Chipotle Allspice bar.

chocolate and whiskey

chocolate and whiskey

Another day, we headed to Madre for a bean-to-bar chocolate class. One of Madre’s cofounders, Dr. Nat Bletter, led both events, and has one of the most scientific approaches to chocolate we’ve seen. He has a Ph.D. in Ethnobotany and works with the University of Hawaii to continue to research cacao, particularly its flavor components and fermentation techniques. He told us, proudly, that Hawaii is the only place in the world where you can find chocolate researchers, chocolate-makers, and cacao-growers!

We enjoyed learning his style and methods and look forward to staying in touch so we can stay updated on the latest research in the field of making delicious chocolate from high quality beans.

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Thanksgiving Chocolate Tasting

Last weekend, we were thankful to have Richard’s parents in town to celebrate Thanksgiving. For the occasion, we hosted a true blind chocolate tasting adventure. We pulled out Eagranie Yuh’s The Chocolate Tasting Kit (Tasting Kits), Richard conducted a dramatic reading of the instructions, and we handed out pads of paper and pens. I noted the order of the chocolates and cut the bars into small pieces, then tried to forget which was which as I passed them around. The other 5 tasters were completely blind.

We tasted 13 chocolate bars (avoiding any flavored chocolate) and surprisingly, there were no truly clear winners. We are amazed by the variation of tastes and preferences among us!

Chocolate tasting

Dan & Sarah tasting chocolate

A few tidbits of learning we are taking away from this experience:

  • Thirteen is probably too many chocolates to provide detailed tasting notes on each all at once. Eight would have been a better number
  • Chocolate smell fatigue happened around bar 6 or 7, when all the bars started to smell very similar.
  • We are not very good at describing the appearance of small pieces of bars – they were either dark or light brown and either shiny or not shiny. We could not come up with many more descriptors.
  • The sheer difference between the taste of chocolate when it first enters our mouth and when it melts away is astonishing. We noted some that shifted from fruity to astringent or from buttery caramel to toasty.
  • Each of us used a slightly different overall ranking system. Some ranked 1-13; others high, medium and low; others with an A-D scale, and others with words like “meh,” “yum,” and “no.” In the future, we may encourage a single scale for the overall ranking, in order to evaluate them at the end!
  • We all had very different opinions, so the notes below are an amalgamation, not an average. We also tended to get harsher over time – perhaps because of our dislike of higher percentages or perhaps because of our gained knowledge as we moved through the tasting.
  • None of us are professional chocolate tasters. We all really enjoyed the experience and took it seriously while having fun (it’s basically required to have fun when tasting chocolate)! Don’t take our opinions as facts – rather as impressions of the chocolate we tasted under the circumstances in which we tasted it.

And now, the bars we tasted and what we thought… enjoy, pick up some bars, and let us know what you think, too!

Christopher Elbow 63% with roasted cocoa nibs

  1. Where did we get it: we picked this one up on a trip to Kansas City where we visited the shop and tried some very tasty chocolates
  2. How did it rank: 2 high, 1 medium, 3 low
  3. Some notes: bland taste, earthy and nutty, crunchy bits

Ikea’s dark chocolate bar

  1. Where did we get it: we bought this for comparison recently to remind us of commercial chocolate flavor and texture
  2. How did it rank: 2 high, 3 medium, 1 low
  3. Some notes: sweet, almost milky, hot chocolate, coffee finish

Lillie Belle’s 65% Whiskey in the Bar

  1. Where did we get it: we picked this up at Cacao in Portland a couple months ago
  2. How did it rank: 1 high, 3 medium, 2 low
  3. Some notes: faint flavor, caramel, dull, dry/bitter finish

Cocanu’s 68% Abeja: dark chocolate, baked milk, and bee pollen

  1. Where did we get it: visiting Sebastian in Portland a couple months ago
  2. How did it rank: 3 high, 2 medium, 1 low
  3. Some notes: slightly grainy, melted quickly, creamy molasses

Root Chocolate 70% Madagascar

  1. Where did we get it: we made it!
  2. How did it rank: 4 high, 1 medium, 1 low
  3. Some notes: fruit and citrus, nutty smell, raisin, dry but lingering flavor, complex

Dave Huston’ 70% Upala, Costa Rica

  1. Where did we get it: visiting with our buddy a few weeks ago
  2. How did it rank: 1 high, 1 medium, 4 low
  3. Some notes: smells fruity, bold flavors, burnt ending, pirate, smoky

Root Chocolate 70% Siriana, Costa Rica

  1. Where did we get it: we made it!
  2. How did it rank: 1 high, 1 medium, 4 low
  3. Some notes: sharp, tart, very dry and astringent, roasted, cocoa powdery

Root Chocolate 70% Oko Caribe, Dominican Republic

  1. Where did we get it: this was our first batch in the Premier Wonder Grinder!
  2. How did it rank: 3 high, 3 medium, 0 low
  3. Some notes: lots of flavors, milky, dairy, roasted marshmallow, earthy

Taza’s 70% Cacao Puro

  1. Where did we get it: we bought a mixed flavor pack at Cacao in Portland a couple months ago, I’ve been wanting to try Taza for a long time, since one of my favorite memories with chocolate was eating Mayordomo (a very similar style) in Oaxaca, Mexico
  2. How did it rank: 2 high, 2 medium, 2 low
  3. Some notes: granules – polarizing, sweet buttery flavor

Castronovo 72% Criollo+Trinitario, Sierra Nevada, Colombia

  1. Where did we get it: I bought it at The Chocolate Garage during my first visit many months ago. We intend to go back and taste more chocolate there soon!
  2. How did it rank: 3 high, 2 medium, 1 low
  3. Some notes: spices, buttery, toasted cream, black tea, not exciting, caramel

Root Chocolate 75% Venezuela

  1. Where did we get it: we roasted the beans with John Nanci in Oregon, then we made it!
  2. How did it rank: 2 high, 3 medium, 1 low
  3. Some notes: generic, almond, plastic, intense deep chocolate

Root Chocolate 85% Madagascar

  1. Where did we get it: we made it!
  2. How did it rank: 1 high, 3 medium, 2 low
  3. Some notes: hard, tangy, acidic, chemical burnt, slightly grainy

Taza’s 85% Super Dark

  1. Where did we get it: we bought a mixed flavor pack at Cacao in Portland a couple months ago, I’ve been wanting to try Taza for a long time, since one of my favorite memories with chocolate was eating Mayordomo (a very similar style) in Oaxaca, Mexico
  2. How did it rank: 0 high, 1 medium, 4 low
  3. Some notes: coffee, spicy, bitter finish, smell like dairy

Where do cacao farmers fit in?

Most chocolate consumers don’t consider where their chocolate is coming from. Those of you reading this blog are already ahead of your peers, because you’re educating yourself about the process, about what it takes to bring those tasty bars of chocolate to your tongue.

Even then, the majority of what I’ve covered so far involves the processing end of chocolate, once it’s considered cocoa. However, there’s a whole world of chocolate that occurs before the beans are hard and dry. That’s the world of the cacao farmers. I’ve discussed the importance of knowing the supply chain of your food, and the concept of slow food. It’s also important to consider the individuals who plant the cacao trees, cut down the cacao pods, and open them up to ferment and dry the cacao beans.

Recently, a video of a cacao farmer tasting chocolate for the first time went viral. The video was produced by Dutch news outlet, Metropolis. NPR covers the story focusing on the divide between producers and consumers. Metropolis also covered the other end of the story: what Dutch chocolate consumers feel and know about the plant their chocolate came from.

A few chocolate-makers are already paying close attention to the farmers, incorporating them into their decision-making process, and ensuring that their voices are included at the table of the chocolate industry. For example, SPAGnVOLA in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a vertically integrated chocolate business. They own their own farm in the Dominican Republic and control every part of chocolate production, from branch to bar. I highly recommend taking a look at their single estate system and impressive impact strategy. Eric Reid, CEO and Founder, explains his strategy on a visit to Nigeria here.

Additionally, Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, Missouri, provides one of my favorite models for a chocolate company. They practice direct trade (something we’d love to do here at Root Chocolate). They also incorporate the farmers they work with in their financial decisions with a strategy they call “a stake in the outcome,” and provide community development support through “a product of change.” Shawn Askinosie also operates Chocolate University, teaching local kids the ins and outs of chocolate and leads trips to Tanzania to share the chocolate journey with those who produce the chocolate in the first place. Shawn gave a commencement address to Missouri State University in December 2011 that still gives me chills.

We’d love to meet these exemplary leaders in the chocolate industry some day! Both Eric Reid and Shawn Askinosie consider the well-being of the cacao farmers just as important as the rest of the chocolate-making process. And frankly, chocolate wouldn’t happen without them, so we agree!

In a recent conversation with Yellow Seed about importing cocoa beans as a network of chocolate makers, an interesting idea came up. What if, just like we chocolate-makers choose which farmers or co-ops to source our beans from, the farmers themselves have the chance to decide which chocolate-makers to sell their beans to? In other words, why not provide some agency to the farmers in the process?

In this world of international trade, inequality, and scarcity, I’m still working out how to best incorporate the interests and voices of the cacao farmers into the chocolate we produce. Thankfully, there are leaders in the industry like SPANgVOLA and Askinosie. If you have additional ideas, please feel free to comment below!

Premier Wonder Grinder

The Premier Wonder Grinder was made to be an Indian spice grinder, but the Chocolate Alchemist, among others, recommends it as a small batch melanger. This recommendation was seconded by Greg D’Alesandre at Dandelion Chocolate, who has been an excellent mentor as we work with new recipes, ingredients, and processes.

[Update 12/14/14 – We previously linked to Chocolate Alchemy’s sale of the Premier Wonder Grinder. Unfortunately, John Nanci is no longer selling this unit (though check him out for replacement parts). So, if you’re thinking about buying a Premier Wonder Grinder, please consider clicking this link to Amazon, as Root Chocolate will receive a small percentage of your purchase. Thank you!]

On Friday, we received this beautiful box in the mail and were so excited to start using it!

Premier Wonder Grinder melanger

And Saturday morning, just over 12 hours after we received it in the mail, we tried using this melanger (beyond our trusty but tiny coffee grinder) for the first time. It was a big step, taking our itty bitty batch sizes of 100 grams of cocoa beans to 888 grams, pre-winnowing. (For our winnowing woes, check out this post.)

Our first use was mostly trial and error, with some guidance from the brilliance of the Chocolate Alchemist’s instructions on using a slightly different melanger and some advice from The Chocolate Life. (Have I mentioned how much I appreciate the online chocolate-making community?) Here are a few lessons we learned:

1. We cleaned the Premier Wonder Grinder with vegetable oil, as recommended by the Chocolate Alchemist. It came out of the box pretty dusty and the vegetable oil came out a muddy brown color. We wiped it clean with paper towels, then washed it with hot water and soap. We let it dry overnight to avoid any residue of water. Solid cleaning lesson, learned.

2. We realized the next morning that we had nowhere near enough beans for a typical batch size in this machine! Dandelion Chocolate to the rescue! We bought 2 kilos of Oko Caribe from the Dominican Republic after tasting their bar samples in the store. Yum – I don’t necessarily expect ours to turn out like that, but maybe someday! We roasted 888 grams of beans and they winnowed down to 773 grams. I wouldn’t recommend putting much more into this melanger, at least not when it’s dry.

roasting Oko Caribe beans

3. That leads us to lesson #3. The Premier Wonder Grinder is a wet grinder. That means, it works best when it is full of liquids, not solids or powders. That said, we don’t yet own an infamous Champion Juicer, as recommended by both Chocolate Alchemy and The Chocolate Life. It’s a little outside of our price range at the moment, though it may join our collection of inordinately large kitchen gear soon enough! So, we used our Nutribullet to grind the cocoa nibs to a powder. Then we heated them slightly in the oven. Our oven only goes down to 170, so we set it to 170, then turned it off and let the cocoa nibs sit in the warmth for about 15-20 minutes. The heat lowers the resistance and provides a closer-to-liquid experience for the melanger. We also used a hair dryer, blowing it on high heat into the melanger as we slowly added a spoonful at a time of cocoa powder. We realize that starting with a solid is not recommended in a wet grinder and that it may wear out the stones faster. We’re working with what we have for now, and it seems to be working ok!

Premier Wonder Grinder with cocoa powder transforming to liquor

4. Nice transition. The melanger can’t handle 773 grams of cocoa powder all at once. So, we added it slowly, and only after about an hour of melanging did we add in the sugar. We’re aiming for a 70% chocolate, so that’s 325 grams of sugar, ground up in our coffee grinder in advance.

Grinding sugar

5. Next lesson, the melanger is loud… kind of like a washing machine or a dryer. We have it far in a corner of our kitchen, but our one bedroom apartment isn’t quite big enough to avoid the noise entirely. We decided to consider it white noise and went to sleep with it in the background. It kept working, even through our surprise 6.1 earthquake!

6. Wow, does it work! Just tasting the liquor after about 4 hours in the melanger changed our world! It’s smooth and delicious and amazingly tastes like  the samples we tried at Dandelion earlier that day! Then again, I’m sure we have a lot to learn before we pump out bars like they do.

Premier Wonder Grinder pouring chocolate into double boilerdouble-boiling chocolate

7. It is hard to clean. After leaving it on for 15 hours and 25 minutes, we poured the chocolate into a double boiler, serving as our tempering machine. Another post, another time about our tempering troubles! Now Richard’s trying to get all the chocolate out of the stone wheels and it is not super easy!

And here we are, approximately 18 hours after we started the process… This chocolate is amazingly smooth and delicious. And, this being our biggest batch ever, we ended up with this chocolate war zone!

chocolate war zone

Around the world

We quickly realized that not all cocoa beans are created equal. A bad batch of beans from a small market in San Francisco set us straight. Our chocolate turned out bitter and left our mouth feeling dry. We realized that, like coffee, the origin of the beans plays an important part in the flavor of the chocolate. We’ve since learned much more about the importance of the origin, growing environment, and genetics of the cocoa beans.

In the meantime, we decided to try sourcing guaranteed high quality beans. We did some research and discovered Chocolate Alchemy, an incredibly informative website run by John Nanci in Oregon, who is an expert on all things homemade chocolate. His posts and suggestions have taught us a lot about making chocolate at home! We discovered that he also sells cocoa beans. I ordered a sampler pack, requesting beans from Latin America, and was pleased to received four bags of beans within about a week!

  • Dominican Republic, Conacado Co-op Organic, Fair Trade, 2013
  • Nicaragua, Trinitario, Certified Organic, 2012
  • Peru, Criollo, Fair Trade, Organic Certified
  • Bolivia, Criollo/Trinitario, Certified Organic, 2012-2013

These varieties revolutionized our chocolate-making process! We made four different batches as well as one of the beans from San Francisco and invited friends over to taste them. There was no grant winner of the night. In fact, the Peruvian chocolate tied with the one we made from the San Francisco market for first place, with Bolivia and Nicaragua close behind. Here are their thoughts:

  • Dominican Republic
    • very fruity
    • a little like a deep halavah
    • too fruity for me
    • tastes like Nestle Tollhouse
    • super fruity, not my favorite
    • cherries
    • thicker
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: A soft earthy flavor with full roasting. Malt, biscuit and marmalade aromas
  • Nicaragua
    • mellow, a little bitter
    • bitter taste, sets on late. great!
    • love
    • ok but not great
    • third favorite
    • deep, buttery, rich, decadent
    • I like this!
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: Nuts, medjool dates, molasses and interesting tobacco
  • Peru
    • fudgy, sandy, a little gross
    • Awesome! Great deep flavor, not too bitter
    • second favorite
    • love the taste, sandy texture
    • tastes the most basic with a little zestiness
    • good start, bad finish
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: A light balanced cocoa bean with notes of soft tropical fruits and nuts… don’t over roast
  • Bolivia
    • a little soapy, coconut butter?
    • lighter and sweeter
    • didn’t love the base flavor
    • didn’t like
    • tasted more like butter than chocolate
    • smoky
    • paint
    • Chocolate Alchemist description: Toffee, blueberry and butter. What chocolate should taste like.
  • San Francisco market
    • getting a bit of coffee flavor. reminds me of a brownie
    • too bitter
    • favorite
    • quite good but bitter
    • straight forward, has the least deviance from traditional dark chocolate
    • coffee

I’ll go more into the importance of sourcing beans directly from farmers in another post, but I’m very glad we were able to taste this variety of chocolates from such different sources. I’m also grateful we stumbled across the Chocolate Alchemist and his expertise on the subject!