I remember talking to Carla Martin at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in 2015 about her creation of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI). Part of her goal for FCCI was to create a standard (similar to specialty coffee cupping) which could be used across the cacao and chocolate industry to consistently and accurately communicate about flavor. This is something I’d been wanting for a very long time as it’s quite hard for cacao producers and chocolate makers to speak the same language when it comes to the organoleptic evaluation of cacao. Cacao producers tend to taste fermented and dried beans, chocolate makers tend to taste liquor; the flavors in each often being very different. This is where the FCCI protocol comes in – it is a step beyond tasting a bean and a step before tasting liquor and can be done easily, cheaply, repeatably, and quickly enough that it can be useful for all parties. Full information on the FCCI protocol can be found on the FCCI website.
I’m going to talk about my nascent use of this protocol for cacao evaluation, but before I do, I want to be clear that at this point I’m not certain this will solve all our sensory evaluation challenges. As I’ve used it, I think where this protocol shines is in comparisons rather than absolutes. In fairness the protocol was designed to be used in the absolute and maybe as I use it more, I’ll change my mind :). The great thing about this protocol is even without a lot of training, if you are trying to understand variations in day lots while producing cacao, this is great. If you are a chocolate maker trying to understand variations in harvest from the year before, this will work well. If you are visiting a new cacao producer and want to get a sense of the beans, this is just great! While I think this protocol does a good job of helping understand positive traits and defects in beans, I’m not certain it can be used on its own to determine if beans will make great chocolate (as opposed to just good chocolate). Ed Seguine’s insight about the FCCI protocol is that he felt it would help you understand if you want to turn beans into liquor, which is a much more arduous process. Clearly, this protocol doesn’t mean people magically understand how to differentiate all the various attributes of cacao, that takes time and lots of tasting (and FCCI is working toward making this sort of training available to all). But, even if you just want to start off by understanding how today’s beans compare to last week’s beans, it’s useful.
I also should note that it seems the best way to give feedback on cacao is breaking it up into:
- Physical quality: this is an assessment of the quantity of rocks, flats, broken beans, etc
- Sensory analysis: this is the goal of the FCCI cacao grading – understanding, as well as providing feedback on, the organoleptic qualities of the beans. This should be objective and, if everyone is well trained and calibrated, it should be consistent across assessments
- Hedonic preference: this is subjective and comes down to whether you like the beans and/or think they could work well for you as a buyer
My last caveat is what I am describing here is what I might refer to as the FCCI cacao grading field protocol. The more formal lab protocol was linked above. The formal protocol calls for a different set of tools but it was a set of tools I couldn’t fit into my standard traveling gear. So, I talked to Carla and came up with a smaller set of gear that I’d be willing to carry all the time. The FCCI protocol also has a paper form. I made an offline-capable app.
The field protocol variant I’ve been using has the following steps:
– Pull 100g of beans using a scale and evaluate external characteristics. I will sometimes skip this step for things like day lots which don’t change much.
– Perform a cut test on 50 beans and record the results. Again, if I am just trying to get the flavor, I sometimes skip this.
– Pull a set of 20 beans at random, break up, and peel all 20 beans. If they’re tough to crack, try with a nutcracker. This is important, as you need to use all the beans, not just the ones that are easy to peel, because the tough ones often impact the flavor significantly.
– Put the broken beans (aka unroasted nibs) into your grinder
– Sing a little song while grinding up the beans until they are all ground up!
– Mix the resulting powder to homogenize. This is one of the best aspects of this protocol, tasting 3 or 4 beans doesn’t give you a sense of a whole lot, creating a powder both releases aromatics but also allows you to taste a larger sample size consistently.
– Evaluate aromatics by reading each criterion on the scoring sheet, smelling the sample, and giving a score. It’s a lot easier to smell one time for each criterion than trying to remember the sensation of them all.
– Evaluate the flavors by taking a 1/8 teaspoon sample of the powder and putting it into your mouth. While smelling beans multiple times is easy, tasting that many times is harder so I suggest tasting the sample and then scoring a quickly as possible while it is fresh in your mind. Feel free to spit it out!
There are times I just do aroma and taste and other times I do a full evaluation. I don’t tend to do a cut test but others might like to. I am new to this, I only started using this methodology on a recent trip to the Solomon Islands (sponsored by PHAMA who is doing some great work in the Pacific islands with cacao). What I found was it gave me a good, consistent way to evaluate someone’s cacao. It was thorough enough that you felt comfortable with the result and didn’t take months to give initial thoughts on beans. It also gave me a good opportunity to sit with producers for a few minutes touching and tasting their beans, almost like a little ritual so that they knew I was taking the evaluation seriously rather than tasting 3 beans from a bag and saying “hmmm.” It’s hard to get to know people in short visits and any opportunity to build rapport is worth exploring.
This protocol helped me understand which beans seemed good enough to get a sample and process into chocolate. Narrowing which beans to get for sampling is helpful as one of the worst things a chocolate maker can do is get a sample and not give feedback. Samples take a lot of time and energy for producers to pull together and ship. If you don’t want to give feedback, don’t get a sample. I partially say this as I am guilty of it as well. There have been times we’ve gotten busy, haven’t processed a sample and each time I know I have wronged the producer who sent us the sample, I should’ve just not asked for one at that point in time.
The app I made saves a GPS point, photos, and scores which help me keep track of samples. The app also creates a PDF (such as Solomons-Waisu-Evaluation) which is helpful to give back to the people you are working with. Carla and FCCI are working to make a free, standardized app for evaluation. Until that point I will happily share the app I made, if you are interested, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!
It feels to me like this is a great step in the evolution of cacao sensory evaluation. I’m sure there is more to come but, if you are a cacao producer looking for a consistent way to evaluate lots or a chocolate maker looking for a lightweight evaluation method, give it a try! This is a living protocol and FCCI is looking for any feedback users have to iterate on it and make it more useful, feel free to drop them a line at email@example.com with any thoughts you might have. If you have any questions for me about this I am happy to answer them, feel free to email or drop by our shop if you are in the SF bay area!