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Nov 13, 2014

The Bad Beans

Flat or cracked, bad beans come in all shapes and sizes.

Flat or cracked, bad beans come in all shapes and sizes.

Crab claws. Baby shoes. Grasshoppers. When shipments of beans come to port, sometimes we get more than we were counting on.

Making chocolate from the bean means, of course, starting with the bean. In the factory, we’ve dedicated an entire sealed room—“the bean room”—to sorting and weighing the beans we receive. If you’ve dropped by the factory and taken a peek, you’ll likely have seen us shaking and sifting mounds of beans, inspecting the husks for cracks and holes, then plucking out the damaged goods and sweeping the rest into bins for roasting. If you’ve been inside the room, you’ll have noticed the cool temperature and the pop music pulsing from the Jambox in the corner. The former is meant to keep cocoa moths at bay, the latter to keep our rhythm steady.

A bean stays attached to the placenta—the fibrous column in the center of a cacao pod.

Sometimes, a bean stays attached to the placenta—the fibrous column in the center of a cacao pod.

Sorting is, by far, one of the slower and more time intensive steps of the chocolate making process. So why do it? And why by hand?

A few reasons, actually. Making chocolate from just two ingredients means that everything in the bean shows up in the bar, so we’ve got to make sure we’re not letting compromised beans pollute otherwise good batches. Undesirable beans show up in a hundred different ways—cracked, clustered, flat—and the best way to sort them out is with our good, old-fashioned hands. Like most of the equipment in the factory, the industrial sorters of the world were designed to deal with a food that’s not cacao, and while we’re very close to finding an optical sorter that might help us with this process, it’s all manpower for now.

After we sort the beans, we roast and crack them. So why do we ditch the cracked raw beans? If a bean is cracked, even slightly, it means there is a chance of contamination. This isn’t dangerous on a sanitation level (microbes are killed during roasting), so much as it is a hazard to flavor. Depending on where beans are grown or harvested, they can cross paths with everything from chickens to monkeys to all kinds of ambient bacteria. If a bean was damaged at origin, there’s no telling what it encountered.

If there are no cracks, we look for tiny holes. A small hollow at the tip of a bean suggests one of two things: germination or moths. During harvest, pods are twisted off the tree trunk, usually sliced open with a machete, and emptied into heaps or boxes for fermentation. Over the course of a week, they are flipped and turned at regular intervals until fermentation is complete, and then spilled out onto a deck or screen to dry. During fermentation, acids develop and the temperature rises, effectively killing the bean before it sprouts. In some cases, though, a bean will sprout through the husk just before it dies, poking a perfect circle through the end. Holes are also signs that a cocoa moth may have made its way through. In either case, the disruption alters the flavor development of the bean, so we ditch it.

After fermentation and drying, when the moisture content is low enough, beans are be bagged and loaded into containers for shipping.  Soon enough, they land at the Port of Oakland where they’ll be kept until we show up with a truck to haul them back to the factory. Beans sustain a fair amount of jostling throughout transit, so cracks can happen at this stage too.

Beans that dry in clusters will not roast evenly and must be sorted out.

Beans that dry in clusters will not roast evenly and must be sorted out.

We can account for most of the damage we find, the cracks and such, but there is still mystery around how some of the things we come upon ended up in a bag of beans. If we could make a highlight reel of the best finds, it would probably look like a cross between the Little Mermaid’s treasure trove of trinkets, a flea market, and a junk yard. In the end, it’s a bit like a scavenger hunt, except this time the prize is a desiccated fibrous mass, the occasional screw, or a piece of a shoe. And though we might ditch them, the bad beans are some of the most beautiful. Twisted, clustered, cracked or stacked, the rogues are striking and whimsical—a poetic little intersection of art and food. Despite all that, it’s still about flavor at the end of the day so we’ll just keep those for the art collection.

1 Comment

  1. Charlie

    The flat bean pictured here is obvious , but how flat does a been have to be to be considered flat?


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