What is drinking chocolate?

IMG_3704.PNGAs an American, the only hot chocolate I ever drank growing up came from mixing a sugary powder with hot milk (or an instant packet, which also contained dry milk powder, with hot water). All I could imagine that might make it better would be the addition of marshmallows!

When I was a college student in France, a friend told me I simply must visit Cafe Angelina, on the Rue de Rivoli, and have the “hot chocolate.” What arrived at my table was wholly unrecognizable: a 6-ounce pitcher filled with this dark, viscous, smooth stuff that, to my embarrassment, I couldn’t even manage to finish, it was so decadently rich.

Rivoli-style drinking chocolate was far from anything I had thus far experienced. Composed solely of melted chocolate, milk, and cream, drinking chocolate made in the French tradition also differs from what you’ll find in southern Europe. In Portugal, Spain, and Italy, thickeners such as corn or potato starch are added until the chocolate almost has the texture of hot pudding. (In Spain, they say your drinking chocolate should be thick enough for you to stand up your churro in it. Because fried dough plus melted chocolate = the breakfast of champions!)

While consuming your chocolate by drinking it might seem like a foreign concept, chocolate as a beverage was actually the first way it was ever consumed. Back before western explorers “discovered” South America, and “discovered” all the people already living there 🙄, the natives were roasting and grinding the beans, adding hot water, spices, and sometimes ground corn, and drinking it—usually in religious ceremonies. IMG_3708While the origins of the words “cacao” and “chocolate” aren’t definitively known, we do know that the Aztec word for chocolate—Xocolatl—translates loosely to bitter water, or bitter drink.

It was the Europeans who first started adding sugar, and later, dairy to the cacao. Solid chocolate bars are a relatively recent phenomenon—a fact that may come as a surprise to most Americans!

Going from bean to bar (Bean-to-bar basics, Part II)

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Once cocoa beans are grown, harvested, fermented, and dried, the actual chocolate producer, or chocolate maker steps in. The following are several of the steps crucial to producing edible chocolate:

Roasting
Roasting not only helps to kill any bacteria that may linger on fermented and dried beans, but it helps reduce the moisture content of the dried bean. Perhaps most importantly, the roasting step is crucial to develop the flavors that will eventually constitute the profile of the finished chocolate. Roasting varies greatly in temperature and length of time, depending on the varietal of the bean and what flavor notes the producer might want to elicit; typical roasting parameters range from 300-350 degrees F, for 30 to 60 minutes.

Cracking and winnowing
Once they’re roasted, cocoa beans need to be cracked and winnowed. In their natural state, the beans have a papery hull (similar to, but a little thicker and stiffer than the dark, papery skin on peanuts fresh out of the shell). To separate these shells from the roasted bean, chocolate makers crack the roasted beans into small pieces, then send the pieces through a strong fan, which blows the light shells away. The resulting small, cracked pieces of roasted cocoa bean are called “cocoa nibs,” which you can sometimes find for sale on their own.

Grinding
To make chocolate out of cocoa nibs, the first step is to grind them. Chocolate makers use stone or metal mills to pulverize the nibs until, after a period in the range of one to two days, a thick, gritty paste or liquid results. This paste is referred to as cocoa mass, or cocoa liquor, and consists of cocoa particles suspended in cocoa butter.

Conching
Conching is a fancy word that encompasses the often-lengthy process of heating, mixing, and aerating chocolate to release undesirable volatiles and acids, and to get the silky smooth texture that can be poured into molds for bars. This process can take from hours to days (!) to complete; standard formulas remain elusive, as makers vary their processes depending on the type of beans they start with, and what kind of chocolate they’re aiming to produce in the end.

Tempering
Tempering is needed to make the cocoa butter (the natural fat from the cocoa bean) solidify in a stable way. Cocoa butter is made of a few different glycerides that solidify at different temperatures; tempering is a process of repeated heating and cooling, while constantly moving and stirring the chocolate. The result: a smooth, evenly textured mixture that is ready to be poured into molds, cooled, and eaten!

What does bean to bar mean? (Bean-to-bar basics, Part I)

IMG_3700.PNGCacao grows in pods that sprout directly from the trunk or branches of a tropical evergreen tree from the same family as hibiscus, okra, and cotton. Cocoa pods can be found in a striking array of colors, from deep purples to bright yellows, oranges, and reds. Depending on the varietal and growing conditions, these oblong pods can range up to a length of 14 inches; for flavor-bean cacao, think about the size and shape of a Nerf football.

The pods contain anywhere from 20-60 cocoa beans (with commodity or bulk cacao pushing the top end of that range). Within the pod, the beans are surrounded by a sweet, tangy fruit, or mucilage, which was likely the first part of the plant ever consumed by humans.

The magic happens after the pods are harvested and cut open, when the beans start to ferment in the mucilage. Over a period of a few days, this fermentation essentially begins to develop the chemical compounds that are necessary to make the chocolate taste like, well, chocolate!

Once fermentation is complete, the beans are dried. Bean-to-bar chocolate makers take these dried beans and complete very complex processes that eventually result in the tastes and textures we love to love!

What’s the deal with percentages?

IMG_3696.PNGOver the last several years, most of us have seen percentages pop up on the packaging of some of the higher-end chocolate brands, even in the grocery store candy aisle. Forty percent, 50%, 60%: what do those numbers mean?

Basically, a percentage number tells you how much chocolate is in your chocolate. Once the cocoa bean, or cacao, goes through the steps needed to process it for consumption, it forms what is known as cocoa mass, or cocoa liquor (not to be confused with any sort of alcohol!). To make a chocolate bar, producers combine that cocoa mass with sugar and other ingredients to make up the final product.

American consumers are often surprised at how little cocoa mass, or chocolate, is in the chocolate they eat. Legally, chocolate in American only needs to contain 10% or more cocoa to be called chocolate—any smaller percentages need to be called “chocolatey” or “chocolate-flavored” or the like. (In Europe, the percentages are slightly higher—typically between 15-20%)

Two of the most popular chocolate makers in America, Nestle and Hershey, each contain about 12-13% cacao. Think about it: that’s 87-88% *other* that you’re eating when you munch on one of those bars. Most of that is sugar, but if you look at the ingredients in a typical mass-produced bar, you’re likely to see a long list of additives, some of which may be chemically synthesized.

Higher-percentage bars have recently become more popular, chiefly due to the growing availability of flavor-bean cacao. But beware: if a higher-percentage bar is made with commodity or bulk cacao, it may present some unpleasantly bitter flavor notes. The things to look for when tasting higher-percentage bars include the varietal of bean, the country of origin, and who produces the bar. Chocolate made in small batches, or “batch chocolate” made with flavor beans will be your best bet for finding the depth and complexity of flavor note expression that make eating fine chocolate a truly heavenly experience.

Putting flavor first: more about flavor bean cacao

IMG_3690Chocolate today is experiencing a strong renaissance (or naissance, if you will*). Over the past ten to 15 years, growers, bean-to-bar makers, and chocolatiers are focusing ever more closely on what is known as flavor bean, flavor-grade, or single-origin cacao.

Flavor-bean cacao, as the name implies, is bred for flavor (think of the depth of flavor and breadth of variety of heirloom tomatoes). As today’s food consumers become more and more discerning (especially in Portland), producers have responded by paying more attention to flavor-bean cacao.

Like heirloom vegetables, flavor-bean cacao varietals are harder to grow. They require more ideal growing conditions, and more maintenance than most bulk cacao. But the rewards are great.

Food scientists tell us that they’ve found about three times the flavor notes in cacao than in red wine (about 450-600 flavor notes in cacao, as opposed to150-200 flavor notes for red wine). And we all know how people are about red wine; I’ve known Pinot Noir fans that refuse to drink Merlot!

Bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Portland are all about flavor bean cacao. Each focuses on intentionally selected varietals, different production methods, and carefully developed products to tease out the flavor notes they’re looking for.

  • *naissance = French for “birth;” renaissance = “rebirth.” Chocolate use has continued to grow ever since Columbus and other European explorers first took note of how reverently the South American natives treated the bean. Once cacao traveled back across the Atlantic, the plant was very quickly industrialized, and selective breeding rapidly resulted in easier-to-grow commodity or bulk cacao. Flavor-bean cacao has only started to receive more attention from producers and consumers over the last 15 years or so.

The big business of commodity cacao

IMG_3692.PNGAlmost all of the cacao grown and consumed around the world today is made up of what is known as “commodity” or bulk cacao—depending on who you talk to, that means anywhere from 85%-95%. (The word “commodity” is often used because this unassuming little bean happens to be one of the most highly traded commodities on the open market!)

Chocolate is used in a LOT of products, and commodity cacao is bred for production. The pods are bigger, there are more beans per pod, and the plants are more resistant to pests, drought, and adverse temperatures. Today, about 70% of commodity or bulk cacao is grown in the harsh conditions of West Africa.

The problem is, the flavor notes you’ll taste in commodity cacao tend toward the bitter, the sour, and the acrid. On its own, commodity cacao just isn’t that palatable (think of your mother’s baking cupboard, and the baker’s chocolate you probably sneaked a taste of—I know I did!). This is why most chocolate requires many added ingredients to make it taste good—just look on the back of the package.

Because of these strong, often unpleasant flavor notes, chocolate made with commodity cacao also tends to have a low percentage of cocoa mass (also called cocoa liquor), and a high percentage of sugar. This kind of chocolate is cheaper to produce, as cacao is easily the most expensive ingredient in any chocolate bar.

In addition, the vast majority of commodity cacao users are aiming for what’s called a monoflavor: every Hershey’s Bar, every Cadbury you buy tastes exactly the same as every other one, and that’s what the producer wants. As in a lot of mass-produced food products, bulk chocolate makers strive for dependability, often at the cost of true quality.

That being said, I believe that chocolate should be fun, and I won’t thumb my nose at you if you like to enjoy the occasional Almond Joy, Twix, or Reese’s peanut butter cup!

Commodity vs. flavor-bean cacao

IMG_3698.PNGIn addition to the obvious—confections, chips/bars for baking, etc.—chocolate is used in a dizzyingly large variety of food products. But what you may not know is that about 90% of all the cacao grown around the world today is what is known as “commodity” (or bulk) cacao.

Commodity cacao is bred for production; the goal is to create and grow ever bigger, hardier plants. But these high yields come with a trade-off. The harsh flavor notes found in most commodity cacao mean that chocolate makers have to add a lot of sugar and flavorings to the cocoa mass to make it taste good. And it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to create an outstanding food product when you start with a ho-hum primary ingredient.

The remaining 10%–the top tier of cacao production—is what’s known as “flavor-bean” cacao (also known as single-origin, estate-grown, or flavor-grade cacao). As its name implies, flavor-bean cacao is bred not to produce the highest yield, but to taste good.

Cacao boasts a remarkably wide range of flavor notes, ranging from the deep and earthy to the bright and acidic. The tastes you’ll encounter depend on the varietal of the cacao plant, the country of origin, the terroir, and the many many variables that come into play as the chocolate makes its way from bean to bar.

But there is one constant: Using flavor beans means that chocolate producers can put the cacao front and center, often adding only a bit of sugar (and sometimes not even that!).

“Cacao” also happens to be the name of a unique Portland shop featuring a carefully curated collection of exclusively flavor-bean cacao (also some highly addictive drinking chocolate; more on that later!). A quick glance at the shelves reveals that a large number of Cacao’s featured bars contain only two ingredients: cocoa mass and cane sugar.

Portland is a chocolate town

IMG_3694.PNGAs a sometime tour guide, I often talk to visitors about Portland’s dynamic food scene. And when I do, I always mention chocolate. What I have found is that Portland’s vast collection of bean-to-bar makers and chocolatiers is woefully unheralded in the general population. Indeed, almost every person I encounter–local and visitor alike–is surprised to hear how much chocolate production takes place here.

Portland is a food town, certainly. Our growing list of James Beard award-winning chefs appreciate the area’s year-round availability of fresh, organic, seasonal ingredients, as well as an enthusiastic community that is committed to enjoying great food in all its incarnations.

Portland is a beer town. With the number of microbreweries hovering at around 80, Portland was at the forefront of the craft brewing revolution that has now found strongholds across the country, in cities from San Diego to Atlanta to New York City. And Portland sits at the top of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a must-visit locale for any oenophile. Distilled spirits also make a strong showing here, despite their relatively recent appearance on the scene.

But chocolate? At first, it might not seem to make sense. Cacao is anything but local: this tropical bean only grows within 20 degrees of the equator, north and south. If you picture this wide band encircling the globe, Portland sits well outside its borders. So why, out of all places, does Portland boast a whopping eight bean-to-bar chocolate makers–more than Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, combined? Not to mention a host of chocolatiers that use fine, craft-batch chocolate to create mouth-watering confections to tempt any palate.

Portland is a chocolate town. Find out the whys and wherefores as we explore the world of chocolate, and Portland’s place in it, at I Love Portland Chocolate.