Interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, Part II

Today, we continue the interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, focusing on how they formulate a chocolate, and their philosophies on sourcing cacao. On a side note, my sister-in-law and her family went on an adventure to New York City, (with two little kids, every trip is an adventure) coincidentally at the same time as the New York Chocolate Show. They said the show was swamped, and that the Amano crew were incredibly busy. They happily did manage to get a bar of the Amano Madagascar, which they rated as their favorite chocolate of the show. I hope to be able to post some of their pictures soon!

Thanks again to Art for all the information in the interview. In this segment, I found his views on chocolate aging to be especially interesting. It’s a topic that’s not widely discussed, but is a crucial part of the process for serious chocolate makers.

On with the interview….I’ll be posting the final part of this interview later this week.

How do you go about “designing” a chocolate? Are you aiming at a specific flavor goal, or are you working from the specific characteristics of a bean?

Each bean is different and has its own unique flavor characteristics. Our goal is to try to bring out the best of each bean we work with. One shortcoming we see in some single-origin bars is that in our opinion, the chocolate makers begin with a preconceived idea what “chocolate” is supposed to taste like. This gives rise to all their varieties of chocolate tasting more or less the same.

For us, our first step is to ensure that the beans we are purchasing are what we are looking for, both in terms of quality and then flavor. From here, we run a number of tests, both as far as roasts are concerned, and then how the chocolate behaves in the conche. In the end, when we feel we have a handle on the characteristics of the bean, we run a small test batch. We then let it age approximately thirty days, to allow the flavor to develop more fully. Then we reexamine it. If we like what we taste and see, then we continue on. If we do not, we start over.

All in all, we keep working with the beans and developing our formulation until we feel we have it right. Some beans take much less work than others.

How long does it typically take you to settle on the formula for a specific bar? How much alteration do you find you need to do for variations in different batches of beans?

It all depends on the bean, really. Some beans are much easier to work with than others. Even with the same bean, the quality may change from season to season and year to year. We run a whole series of tests to probe a bean’s flavor profile(s) and capabilities. This may take from a month (to allow the chocolate to age) to several months. If we are having a hard time with a bean, then we will begin to run a whole battery of tests and let the results age simultaneously.

We do not have a set formula. We seek to bring out the very best flavor from each harvest of beans. Also, I make our chocolate to match the way I like chocolate. This sometimes means that we may change our basic recipe for a bar as my preferences and moods change. I suspect people will notice as time goes on how our flavors will change from lot to lot.
On the other hand, the large industrial chocolate makers seek for total consistency between lots and seasons, and from year to year. In this way, if someone makes a confection with an industrial chocolate, one can be reasonably sure that the next year’s chocolate will be very similar. I call this the “Peter Principle of Chocolate,” since it means that the really good chocolate must be dumbed down so that the chocolate from next year’s crop can match.

Outside of Amano, what chocolates do you admire in terms of flavor or texture?

I have always enjoyed Michel Cluizel. They have always produced a very exceptional chocolate on both points. They have also been able to keep their quality high despite their success. This is a feat which I believe is truly difficult to achieve, and one that many chocolate makers have failed to match.

Cluizel for me represents a company that has been able to grow and yet remain true to its roots. If anything, I think they have allowed their growth to sharpen their focus rather than let it diminish, as other growing companies have. For this, I highly respect not only Cluizel’s chocolate but Michel Cluizel as a company. I expect that we will see great inroads from them in the American market in the years to come. It is my sincere hope that they can maintain the excellent quality they have exhibited in the past throughout the growth phase that I see in their future.

As far as how we compare, we have a slightly different vision here at Amano. When we make chocolate, we make it according to our unique vision. We do not look to others to define what our vision is or where we want to go.

How much aging of your chocolate do you do? How much impact do you find this has on the final product?

Aging chocolate is vitally important. Each chocolate ages differently and at different speeds. You will not have a proper idea of the final flavor of the chocolate for at least three weeks after the chocolate is done, and sometimes much longer after that. Three weeks would probably be the earliest at which we would consider releasing a chocolate, but in reality, we haven’t done that yet; we try to release our chocolate at the time at which we believe the flavor is close to its peak. In this way, we hope it will arrive to the consumer at the peak of its flavor. Unfortunately, the aging process is to some degree unpredictable, so there is always an air or mystery around it, as well as some educated guesswork on our part as to when the best time to release a chocolate will be.

I don’t think the resting process is ever really complete, and flavors will tend to shift over time. A friend of mine, a world-class painter, recently returned from Germany, where he grew up. During his trip, he sampled some chocolate that was at least twenty years old, and he described it as phenomenal. I would have greatly liked to sample it. Even more interestingly, I would like to have sampled the original chocolate and take flavor notes to see how the flavor has changed over such a long period. Clearly, a twenty-year resting period is not very practical, but even so, I believe it could be a very interesting learning experience.

I keep meticulous notes on the flavor development of our chocolate, as well as fairly large samples, so that I may monitor the aging of our chocolate—perhaps much longer than the original batch lasts on our website or in stores. I feel it important to be able to watch these changes as they occur, and perhaps this will allow us to predict them to a greater degree.

How do you balance getting a steady supply of beans with control over where you are getting cacao from?

Very simply. We buy the best beans we can, and when they are gone, they are gone. I am not as concerned with having a steady supply of beans as I am about having the right beans. If we are out of a particular bean until the next harvest, then we are willing to wait. If we have to wait several harvests, then we have to wait several harvests. I refuse to make poor quality chocolate, and the most important step in chocolate making has to do with the quality the beans you start off with.

Do you find that cacao growers are more conscious of artisan producers now? Have you seen growers that are trying to cater to smaller producers as opposed to the bulk market?

Yes, some small groups of growers in each country are becoming more and more aware of artisanal producers of chocolate.

What makes them keenly aware of small chocolate producers are the prices that artisan producers are willing to pay for high-quality beans. Growers of cacao are awakening to the fact that if they produce a superior-quality product, there are chocolate makers like me who are more than willing to pay premium prices for their beans.

In my opinion, the development of fine-quality cacao is one of the most exciting aspects to the cocoa market in recent times. The large industrial chocolate makers have for a long time paid bare minimum prices for their cocoa beans. This has kept the prices consumers have paid for chocolate artificially low, since with only just a few buyers of cocoa, there has been little competition in the marketplace, and the farmers have had few options. Now, with the recent developments in the artisanal and fine chocolate industries, there are more buyers, and in general they are willing to pay premium prices for a premium product.

Many cocoa growers have noticed this and are working to increase the quality of their product. This takes additional work on their part, but the rewards far outweigh the effort, because they can now charge premium prices for their cocoa beans.

What do you look for at the cacao production level? How hard is it for you to tell great cacao before it’s been made into chocolate?

One of the first things someone should do is perform a cut test. This will tell you quickly what percentage of the lot is over-fermented, under-fermented, or has other problems, such as insect infestation or moldy beans. Unfortunately, no lot is ever perfect. Some under-fermented beans always end up on the outside of the fermentation box, just as some end up over -fermented. Some lots that are more nearly ideal than others, though, and a cut test will quickly expose which they are.

A cut test is simply a matter of cutting 50 to 100 beans in half and examining their contents. If you do this a few times over the lot, you get a fairly good idea of what you are working with. It isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it does give you some ideas about direction.

You can tell a lot of things about the bean simply by its smell and by taste. I have rejected lots of beans (which others quickly snapped up) simply because for me, they did not pass the “unroasted taste test.” The next step would be to taste them after they have been roasted. That should give some indication how the flavors have developed in that bean during the roasting process.

In the end, though, I believe, it is all about flavor. You will never know the full extent of what a bean can do without making it into chocolate. The flavor(s) can vary wildly throughout the roasting and conching processes, and then again as the chocolate ages. You can use the taste of the bean, both raw and roasted, as a guide, but to really see what the bean can do, you have to make it into chocolate. This may mean you get burned a few times and have entire lots of beans that do not turn out to have the quality you expect. In fact, we have been burned a few times and made some very expensive mistakes in bean sourcing. We don’t plan to make those same mistakes again—though I am sure sooner or later we will make others.

Do you see any changes coming up for producers? Is organic or fair-trade actually taking off?

Changes seem to be occurring throughout the entire chocolate sector. There will be a growing organic segment just as there will be a growing fair-trade segment. I’m not sure how these segments are growing in comparison to the entire chocolate segment as a whole, though. We have used organic beans for some of our chocolate, but our primary focus is on flavor, so to some degree, we consider it a side issue. It is not that sustainable farming practices are not important—they are. It must be understood that the term organic has been to some degree hijacked by the United States Federal Government, and it now means what the government wants it to mean. For example, if a farm has a sustainability program in place and fulfills all the requirements of being “organic” but has not paid to have a government-approved inspector give the United States Government’s stamp of approval, it is not considered “organic,” even though for all practical purposes it is. It is our experience that most cocoa that has been certified “organic” simply does not have the quality we demand, and while sustainability is important to us, labels are not.

As far as fair-trade is concerned, that too is something we do not watch too closely. The reason is the very high prices we already pay for our beans. We pay the growers of our beans significantly higher than “fair-trade” prices. Just as organic has been taken over by the United States Federal Government, the term Fair Trade is a trademarked term and may be used only with permission. It is also, I believe, a term that could best be used to apply to the bottom segment of the market more so than the top. What fair-trade groups are trying to do is to create a “floor” through which the bottom of the market will not fall—Irrespective of quality. As I’ve mentioned, in my experience this often has a detrimental effect on quality.

The premium bean market is different. I have seen beans being sold by the grower in the neighborhood of $4.00-$5.00 / lb, given the right beans and the right buyer. This is clearly far above “fair-trade” prices. Furthermore, no additional monies have to be paid to the certification groups for the right to call a certain batch of beans or chocolate “fair trade” or to use the Fair Trade logo; The money goes directly to the farmers, as I believe it should. After all, they are the ones who produce the cocoa.

How much variation do you see year-to-year from single producers? Do you think that labeling chocolate with the harvest year, as wine is, is a useful thing to do?

There can be quite a bit of variation between years. For example, the weather is capable of determining a bean’s size and flavor. If storms hit (as they often do) during the growing cycle, the bean sizes may remain stunted or the flavor may be affected. It all depends on the weather and when in the growth cycle the adverse weather affects the plantation. Similarly, beautiful weather allows the cocoa trees and their beans to develop optimally both in size and flavor.

There are also differences even between seasons. The fall season (which typically falls around November) tends not only to yield a larger harvest but also produce a slightly finer flavor of bean than the spring harvest (typically around April).

Yes, I believe it to be useful to provide harvest information. We have not yet stamped each bar with the harvest information. Even so, I believe it to be well worthwhile. Right now, we are still working through our initial purchases of beans, so it does not make sense, but this effort may crop up in the future after we start on our second season of production.

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3 Responses to Interview with Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate, Part II

  1. Tom says:

    Don’t throw it out Art, I’ll have some, it can’t taste that bad :)

  2. Art says:

    No, it can’t taste that bad but it isn’t going to go out with my name on it unless it is perfect. Of course, there will be variation from season to season and even from lot to lot (which is part of what makes artisanal products interesting). Even so, if it isn’t up to par, I’d rather throw it out than release something that I do not believe in. It is also my way of reinforcing to myself — “not to do it that way again.”

    -Art

  3. Tom says:

    Too true, I must say I don’t even pass around chocolate at work that I have messed up, I have an extremely astringent under roasted Dominican choc that only my wife and I have tasted…it is so astringent it precipitates out milk protein when made into hot chocolate. Can’t bring myself to throw it out, I think I keep it for the same reason to remind myself not to do it again. I think throwing chocolate out would make me cry, I did throw out nibs that I burnt once….but onto the garden so at least they did something useful (that was your tip). Probably fair to say that your mistakes would be tastier than mine though :)

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