Chocolate, percentages and varieties: an introduction
Very often people will come up to me and say to me that they only enjoy dark chocolate with a high cocoa percentage as if it is some kind of badge of honour.
But is the cocoa percentage really an indicator of quality?
The answer is: not really.
What if I told you that there are three families of cacao beans? Forastero, Trinitario and Criollo.
And if we dig even deeper, that there are dozens of different sub-varieties within those families…
Then there is, much like the case with wine grapes or coffee beans, the factor of the region, soil, climate, fermentation procedures and processing such as roasting, conching and refining that all play a part in the quality of the final product.
So, let me explain to you, from a chocolatiers perspective, what determines the quality of the end product.
Let’s start with the start: the bean.
Forastero varieties make up the vast majority of global cocoa cultivation; the reason for that is that they are the hardiest trees. They produce higher yields when compared to the Criollo varieties and are much more resistant to disease. On the flip side, the flavour profiles of these beans tend to be much less aromatic and complex.
Most of the plantations for these beans are found in Ivory Coast and Ghana, and while there are definitely some excellent varieties within the Forastero family (my house blend for enrobing and moulding is mostly made from Forastero beans, and I believe it is excellent all-round chocolate), most of these beans, especially the lower-grade ones, will end up in the world of industrial chocolate: Meaning they will end up in the chocolate products you will typically find in your supermarket.
To draw a comparison to the coffee world: the Forastero bean is chocolate’s equivalent to the Robusta beans.
Criollo varieties make up the smallest portion of global cultivation, but this plant is actually closest related to the original tree from the time of the Aztecs and unsurprisingly mainly found in South American countries. The flavour profile is usually more complex and aromatic, but the tree is much harder to grow, with lower yields and more prone to disease.
That explains why the price of these beans is often a multiple of the Forastero beans.
Finally, we come to the Trinitario varieties; the Trinitario is a hybrid between the Forastero and Criollo trees in an attempt to create a plant that is hardier than the Criollo but still has similarly complex flavour notes.
The vast majority of fine chocolate is made from these beans for precisely those reasons.
To get from this humble bean to the rich chocolate that we have come to love, a few steps need to happen. In every step, there is a lot of room for things to go wrong.
Before being roasted, cocoa beans need to be fermented, this is arguably the most critical step, and it will develop the naturally present aromas in the bean. If the process is too long, or too short, a sub-par result will be obtained. This is particularly true for the finer chocolates, where preserving those delicate aromas is the main objective.
Different beans mean different roasting times and temperatures. Usually, a lower quality bean will be roasted more to hide the imperfections (much like happens in the coffee world).
One of my favourite chocolates is Tanzanie 75%. (which is a blend of Trinitario and Criollo beans) When I let people sample this chocolate without telling them anything about the percentage, they often guess it is 65% rather than 75%. The reason for this is that the beans are roasted less, so end up tasting less bitter, while protecting its fruity and floral notes.
Conching is a process where the chocolate gets moved around at a relatively high temperature; this is to remove unwanted aromas but also plays a part in developing the ultimate viscosity of the end-product.
Just like with the roasting, this process will be altered depending on the quality of the bean. A high-quality bean will require less removing of unwanted aromas compared to a lower quality one where we want to hide the real aroma.
Refining is a stumbling block for many small bean-to-bar makers because you can have the best possible bean in the world if you can’t refine it well enough our palate will not be able to pick up all the aromas,
therefor refining is an often overlooked but critical part of the quality of the end-product.
So I hear you ask, what should high-quality chocolate taste like?
Well, in my opinion, high-quality chocolate should be complex. It is something to explore in a conscious way, similar to tasting wine.
Depending on your memories, you may perceive chocolate utterly different from the next person.
For myself, the Tanzanie tablet mentioned earlier has notes of rose and red fruits. (which is why I also use it in the Rose & strawberry bonbon of my forbidden love collection as it compliments those two flavours), but, on more than one occasion people have said to me they get strong notes of coffee… which I don’t taste at all.
I have tasted chocolates that had a pronounced note of banana, to something that reminded me to mulled wine, all the way to coffee and cinnamon.
If I was to give one piece of advice to chocolate enthusiasts: Rather than focus on the percentage, taste several chocolate bars with the cacao coming from different regions and decide based on taste!
I also just want to say, there is no need to become a snob and only want Criollo from here on out, I have tasted Criollo I didn’t like at all, and Forastero that was very rich and smooth. It all depends on your taste!
I like fruity chocolates, where some people don’t like it all; there is no right or wrong. One thing is for sure, though: Chocolate should be more interesting than just bitter & sweet, and there is a whole world waiting to be discovered.