In this post, our Quality Assurance Specialist, Becca, recounts a recent trip to Trinidad with our Chocolate Sourcerer, Greg, our Flavorist, Minda, and Gino Dalla Gasperina of Meridian Cacao. Together, they spent a few days in a sensory training learning a few things that we may integrate into our own process. To learn more, read on.
During the week of September 7th, a few of us Dandelions had the pleasure of attending a sensory training at the Cocoa Research Centre (CRC) at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. The CRC benefits from a legacy of eighty years of research on fine flavor cacao genetics and flavor characteristics, so attending a training on cocoa liquor evaluation was an opportunity not to be missed. And, we sweetened the deal by paying a visit to the International Cocoa Genebank as well as the origins of one of our chocolate bars, San Juan Estate.
Cocoa liquor is made from 100% cocoa beans which have been roasted, winnowed, and ground (but not conched), so the liquor we tasted initially was quite bitter. Tasting it is like taking a bite out of a 100% chocolate bar. If you’ve tasted our 100% bar, however, you also know that once you adjust to the lack of sugar, a lovely range of other flavors emerge. Tasting the fruity, floral, earthy, or nutty flavors in cocoa liquor requires palate training, which was why we went to train with the experts at the CRC. Dr. Darin Sukha, who leads the flavor and quality team at the CRC and led our workshop, has tasted over 12,000 cocoa liquors and can identify the origin of the beans based on flavor. He worked with us to refine and calibrate our palates so that we can identify certain flavors. We learned to distinguish between the floral of rosewater and citrus blossom, the woody notes of fresh cedar and dried leaves, and the difference between almond skins and almonds. And, we were taught to detect the dank flavor that indicates mold, the lactic or putrid notes that indicate overfermentation, and other unpleasant characteristics that we don’t want in the beans that we buy.
At Dandelion, in order to decide whether we’ll buy a new bean harvest or change something in our process, we make samples of beans into tiny test batches of 70% chocolate, and taste it that way. Chocolate is a much more approachable and familiar medium than liquor, and because the vast majority of our chocolate is 70%, it makes sense to taste exactly what we’ll be making instead of tasting liquor. Tasting liquor is more traditional in part because many makers use more than two ingredients in their chocolate, so liquor is the simplest way to understand exactly what flavors the beans will contribute to their finished chocolate. In our case, because we only use two ingredients, we’ve always opted to make the finished product as our test because it’s practical and allows us to closely approximate the taste of the cocoa beans as a bar. That said, there are other upsides to tasting liquor. Since different makers have different manufacturing processes, tasting liquor provides a bit of common ground to communicate about beans. After our training, we’re excited to add liquor tasting to our evaluative process at Dandelion; we won’t be switching over to liquor completely, but it should help us round out our means of evaluating beans. We’re always looking to add perspectives to our process, which means we’ll also keep tasting chocolate as an entire company. Including everyone in the company is, and always has been, an important part of our evaluative process.
On the second day of our training, we paid a visit to the International Cocoa Genebank (ICGT), which many consider to be the most important cacao genebank in the public domain. We used the visit to the ICGT as part of our sensory training: tasting local bird peppers growing among the cacao trees, cupuaçu (the fruit of Theobroma grandiflora, a close relation to cacao), and culantro, an herb that tastes like a pungent version of cilantro. While there were no ripe pods on the cacao trees to taste, the significance of the genebank collection was still apparent. The ICGT contains an impressive 12,000 trees of 2200 types of Theobroma cacao. The geneticist F. J. Pound collected much of the original germplasm during a series of expeditions to the upper Amazon in the 1930s and numerous varieties from the Caribbean and Central America have been added since. It was striking to see the different varieties of cacao nestled together below the River and Mountain Immortelles trees.
On our visit to San Juan Estate, whose beans we made into a bar for the first time this year, we were curious to learn more about the growing conditions that yield flavor notes of honey, vanilla, and rich chocolate in the Trinitario beans we use. San Juan Estate is a verdant plantation located in central Trinidad in the region of Gran Couva–an area renowned for its excellent cacao-growing conditions. Most of the estate is planted with Trinidad Select Hybrids (TSH), and the cacao that results is consistently high quality. TSH trees were selected from around Trinidad for their productivity and disease resistance and produce cacao with the distinctive flavor notes for which the country is known. San Juan Estate is one of the oldest cacao plantations in Trinidad and commenced operations in 1870. While they continue to use the original fermentation boxes and antique cocoa grading and bean polishing machines, the new owners are interested in cultivating a deeper understanding of the genetics of flavor, and were among our fellow attendees at the sensory evaluation training.
I’m excited to bring some of the insights from our Trinidad trip to Dandelion’s Continuing Chocolate Education (CCE), a weekly educational session for our production wizards and other Dandelions. The goal of CCE is to develop our palates–for example, to detect when a bean is overroasted or when one of our chocolate bars is in perfect temper. I’m responsible for leading CCE and am always looking to create tasting experiences that are engaging, eye-opening, and help us develop as chocolate makers–all things that I experienced in Trinidad. Our visit to the CRC and Trinidad was inspiring, and I can’t wait to figure out the best way to integrate what we learned into our ever-evolving process.