Specialty cacao

What makes cacao “specialty”?

We define specialty cacao as cacao produced on a notion of quality in every single step of the supply chain. The beans should be free from defects, and with distinctive positive aromas and flavours, resulting in a unique and complex flavour profile. Full traceability, and respect for farmers and nature are inseparable from specialty cacao. 

Many factors affect the flavour profile of cacao and finally chocolate, such as terroir, variety, fermentation, transport, storage, handling and of course, the crafting skills of the chocolate makers.

Terroir

A terroir is the combination of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environmental contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat. Specific yeasts and bacteria will be present in specific regions and will steer the natural process of fermentation of the cacao beans. Collectively, these contextual parameters influence the final quality of the cacao beans.

Cacao varieties

All chocolate is produced from the seed of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao L.). Theobroma cacao is a tropical fruit tree, endemic to the Amazonian basin in lowland rainforests and a member of the Malvaceae family. Within this single species, there are different varieties. Historically cacao has long been categorized into three varieties: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forestro. This classification is nowadays somewhat outdated. Molecular analysis of the genetic material has permitted to differentiate cacao into 10 major “genetic clusters’‘: Amelonado, Contamana, Criollo, Curaray, Guiana, Iquitos, Marañón, Nanay, Nacional, and Purús. Recently even more genetic groups from Bolivia, Peru and Columbia have been discovered and probably more will follow. In addition to these primary varieties of cacao, there is a wide range of cultivars and hybrids.

Variety plays a vital role in determining flavour and aroma. Understanding the genetics of cacao helps to trace the historic path of the cacao.

Fermentation

Cacao beans must be carefully fermented and dried to bring out the very best flavours. Flavour development is the result of the succession of microbiological activities.

When cacao beans are removed from the pod, they are covered with a white mucilage. The coating has a high sugar level and provides a food source for the bean when it germinates. Beans begin to germinate as soon as the fruit has been picked. The fermentation process begins almost immediately upon exposure to air. Spores from naturally occurring yeasts settle on the beans and start to split the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Thereupon bacteria start to oxidize the alcohol and processes of acetic and lactic acidification take place in aerobic and anaerobic conditions. During these processes, temperature rises and finally the cacao beans are killed and the cell wall breaks down. Complex chemical processes of enzyme activity, oxidation and breakdown of proteins into amino acids take place. 

These reactions cause the development of flavour and colour. Polyphenols and alkaloids contribute to astringency and bitterness of cocoa and chocolate. A properly controlled fermentation allows positive flavour developments such as fruity, floral, nutty and spicy flavours. Incorrect fermentation can result in negative flavour developments such as ammonia or rancid off-tastes.

Logistics

Cocoa beans are highly hygroscopic, meaning that they can absorb and desorb water depending on the temperature and humidity of the environment. Improperly fermented cacao beans have even a greater tendency to release water vapour.

Specialty cacao, therefore, requires particular temperature, relative humidity and ventilation conditions. Proper control of transport, warehousing and handling from the cacao plantations until the production of chocolate is highly important to maintain the distinctive flavour profiles.

Transport times should be limited and storage should be in a dry, cool and ventilated warehouse appropriate for food storage, and separated from products which might cause cross contamination. The water content of the beans may not be higher than 8% to avoid risk of vapour and mould damage. We recommend storing your cacao beans in a clean and dry room, with relative humidity close to 50% and a temperature lower than 20°C. Lower temperatures result in a lower risk of infestation.