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May 24, 2011

Knowing your beans

Last November, while Todd was in Costa Rica on vacation, he went to a Bribri reservation and checked out one of their chocolate houses where he bought some sample beans from the APPTA collective:

He was super excited to try the beans so we roasted them up as soon as he got back. Unfortunately, the batch turned out pretty badly so we had to throw it out. We were busy with other things so we didn’t have a chance to really understand the beans and why they made bad chocolate… until now.

We were doing some cleaning and rediscovered his sample of APPTA beans. Now that we have our own handy Magra, we decided to do a cut test to try and understand what was causing the poor flavor:

As soon as we opened the Magra, it was completely obvious what was wrong. First, there were a lot of unripe beans:

You can spot the unripe beans (in red circles above) by their purple color. They have a pretty neutral flavor to start out but then they get really bitter and nasty, almost like a bad olive. Once this flavor’s in your chocolate, you can’t get rid of it. Our tolerance for unripe beans when making chocolate is near zero and these beans were almost 40% unripe!

Unripe beans were only half of the story, though, as there were a large number of under-fermented beans too:

You can find the under-fermented (again, circled in red above) because they look plump and full (well fermented beans have lots of ridges and look “brainy”). Unlike unripe beans, under-fermented beans don’t add a lot of bad flavor. In fact, they don’t really add flavor at all which means that a few under-fermented beans isn’t going to cause a big issue. However, if you have a lot of under-fermentation, you’re not going to get great flavor. Combine that with a lot of unripe beans and you’ve got a bad recipe.

Unfortunately, because APPTA is a collective, they have a number of challenges, particularly around quality control. With about 1000 producers, it’s really hard to verify that each producer is harvesting at the right time. Worse, because beans are combined across producers, you never know what you’re going to get. Add to that variable genetics across producers and the challenges get even bigger.

So what does all this mean? The take away for us is that there’s no replacement for knowing who’s growing your cacao and how they’re doing it. Without that direct relationship, you’ll never be sure of what you’re going to get: even if you get good stuff once, you may not the next time around. Also, as most cacao farmers have never actually tasted finished chocolate, by going direct we can give them feedback on how their processes affect the end product and how to improve them. Finally, and most importantly, by working directly with the farmers, we can make sure more money goes into their pockets rather than someone in the middle.


  1. Pete C

    Very impressive page with illustrious images and descriptive wording! Did note one grammatical error shown below:

    However, if you have a lot of under-fermentation, you’re not going great flavor. Combine that with a lot of unripe beans and you’ve got a bad recipe.

    (i.e., “you’re not going great flavor…”)

    Just looking at all that chocolate certanly gets my mouth watering!


    • Cam

      Thanks for the finding the mistake!

  2. José Crespo

    ¡Excellent and very informative post! Now explain to me why the Magra cost that much money. 🙂

  3. Jan

    where can I buy the cocoa guillotine? Could you please advise?


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