Fermentation & Flavor Development

In the chocolate industry, fermentation is considered one of the crucial steps for the development of all the amazing flavors we experience in fine chocolate. The harvested beans, still covered in their white pulp, are loaded into buckets and transported to a central fermentation area for processing, often mixed in with beans from neighboring farms. Farmers then transfer the cocoa beans to specialized fermenting “sweatboxes”, usually covering them with banana leaves. Here is where the magic happens, or rather where science and nature join forces to develop the precursors of all the chocolatey flavors we so adore.

The process works something like this: the sugars inside the white pulp – glucose, fructose and sucrose – are transformed into alcohol. The alcohol then turns into acetic acid that diffuses into the beans themselves. The chemical reactions involved in fermentation produce a significant amount of heat, making the pile of beans reach temperatures up to 55°C after a few days. The germ within the bean dies and this triggers the release of enzymes. These enzymes are important for the development of chocolate flavors. We can say that these naturally occurring microorganism kick-start the fermentation process, changing the sugars in the pulp to organic acids, and giving the beans their flavor.

After 2-3 days, farmers turn the pile over. This helps to ensure an even fermentation and introduces air into the fermentation process which, depending on the cacao variety, can last up to 7 days.

Fermentation has such a big impact on the cocoa beans that, even by using the same exact cocoa beans, results can vary widely when tiny changes are made during the fermentation process (how long the beans stay inside the boxes, how many times they are turned, etc). Some craft chocolate makers have fun experimenting with cacao that has been subjected to different fermentation protocols. The results are chocolate bars with completely different aromatic profiles, even if they are made with the exact same beans!

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