DeVries Makes the Saveur 100 List!

February 26, 2008

Saveur Magazine broke my heart last year when they named Hershey’s Cacao Reserve as item 57 on their 2007 “100 Things We Like” list. While it was nice that they were talking about single origin dark chocolate, I’d hardly rate the Hershey’s entry as the most interesting or delectable chocolate around. They redeemed themselves this year by naming DeVries chocolate to the number 7 position on the 2008 Saveur Magazine 100 Favorites List, and additionally putting the DeVries wrapper on the cover. The Saveur list is always good reading, as any foodie will find one or two things they hadn’t heard of before, but they’ll want to experience. The list ranges from cheap and tasty (competition barbeque) to expensive and tasty (Thomas Keller’s restaurants), and usually includes some cool tools for those of use that spend too much time in places like Sur La Table. On my wish list from the list this year is the Chinese ironwood cutting board.


NPR’s Morning Edition on Cacao Farming

November 19, 2007

National Public Radio ran an interesting feature on Cacao farming this morning. As part of their series on climate change, the piece focuses on how cacao can be grown under existing forest canopy, and hence is a way to farm and preserve existing rainforest. The NPR page, in addition to some good information on how Cacao grows, also has a photo of Mars’ chief agronomist, who looks a little like Santa Claus on a tropical vacation.

Ancient Cacao Wine

November 13, 2007

The New York Times points to some research that indicates cacao pulp was first used as the base for wine before someone had the bright idea to do something with those funny seeds inside the pod. (Oddly, the article refers to cacao “beer”, which seems incorrect since beer is made from starchy materials, while cacao pulp is sugary fruit. C’mon, NYT fact-checkers!)

The early use of alcohol from fermented pulp isn’t too surprising, and the Coe “True History of Chocolate” discusses the use of cacao pulp to make wine, even recently. Cacao pulp, which is the white flesh that surrounds the cacao beans inside the pod, tastes good without any processing, and contains enough sugar that it starts fermenting quite quickly. Using the pulp to create wine actually takes you a step backwards from chocolate, since the pulp is needed to quickly ferment, creating heat that germinates the seed, then causes the seed to ferment. Evidence that pulp fermentation was the first use of cacao is suggestive of a possible pathway to discover the unique properties of the bean.

Tempered Food?

July 27, 2007

So, besides chocolate, lots of metals and glass are tempered, with the same goal of controlling crystal size and composition in a material. Reading the August Gourmet (with the perfect burgers on the front….mmmmm….burgers), I discovered that ice cream is also tempered. To create smooth ice cream, you need to insure that you have a small ice crystal size. To do this, pro ice cream makers use a hardening cabinet that works at like -20, then move the ice cream to a tempering cabinet. Any one know of other foods that involve tempering?

The Mysteries of Roasting

June 19, 2007

The three big processes that determine the flavor of chocolate are fermentation, roasting, and conching. These are the steps where the art of chocolate making really lies, and also the steps that seem to be the least understood in the scientific literature on chocolate. Fermentation has to happen nearly immediately after the cacao pod is harvested from the tree, so is a hard variable to control for, unless you are a huge chocolate company, or a committed chocolatier willing to spend part of your year on a plantation like Steve DeVries. Perhaps some day I’ll be able to experiment with this process, but for now, I have to content myself with tweaking roast and conching to develop chocolate flavor.

S. Beckett’s encyclopedic tome “Industrial Chocolate: Manufacture and Use,” despite it’s forbidding title, actually has some interesting clues for small batch producers. Buried in section 5.8, R.F.M. Heemskerk mentions two interesting studies that sound like good jumping off points for tweaking my next batch. The first is a study by Zeigleder and Oberparleiter in 1996: “Aromaentwicklung in Kakao. Auswirkung der feucht-thermischen Behandlung.” The upshot of this study is that steaming nibs to add about 15% water, then doing a slow pre-roast at 40-60C to reduce the moisture, followed by a full roast at 98-100C develops more cocoa flavor precursors, and yields a chocolate with a more intense taste. Having water present seems to facilitate the sugar/amino acid reactions that form chocolate flavor during the roast. This is yet another scientist proposing using water, chocolate’s natural enemy!

The other study mentioned by Heemskerk is Mohr, et. al., 1978, in “Uber die Grundlagen der Aromaveredelung von milchfreien und milchhaltigen Shokoladen-massen.” The finding here is that optimal development of chocolate flavor is accomplished by a slow pre-roast, lowering moisture in the cacao bean to about 3% before rapidly increasing the temperature to the final roast temperature.

Both of these ideas seem simple enough to try, though it’s going to be an incredible pain to build some parallel batches to compare the taste of the final product under different roast conditions if I’m going to go all the way to completed chocolate.

Like Water for Chocolate?

June 5, 2007

Artisan chocolate, made by hand, with exacting attention to the cacao bean is what motivates this blog. At the same time, it’s fascinating to look at how far science and industrial production can drive the frontiers of chocolate. Chocolate making is a gigantic industry, and like any gigantic industry, there are millions of dollars poured into advanced research and development, all with the hope of gaining some competitive edge.

Side Note: For a peek into how brutal the candy industry is at the top levels, check out Joel Glenn Brenner’s “The Emperors of Chocolate“, which details the rivalry between Hershey’s and Mars. It’s a 35 year old slugfest that makes Coke vs. Pepsi look like 3rd graders squabbling in a playground. Even more remarkably, Mars and Hershey’s used to work together closely, with Hershey’s supplying raw chocolate to Mars. As a side effect, while the first M in M&M’s stands for Mars, the second stands for Murrie, the president of Hershey’s at the time!

Patent 7,186,425, just issued on March 7th, shows how this kind of research can turn centuries of technique upside down. In traditional chocolate making, rule #1 is “water is the enemy.” Even a small amount of moisture in chocolate can render it lumpy, granular, and can make it sieze up, destroying machinery. Almost every step of the conventional chocolate making process is about driving out moisture, and the end product has less than 1% water. This patent shows how, paradoxially, to make chocolate that contains up to 30% water! The motivation is to create a lower calorie chocolate that can also contain nutrients that are only water soluble. The trick seems to be to premake chocolate, then very gently mix in a suspension of water in oil (using lecithin or PGPR to emulsify.) The mixture keeps the water from forming a continuous phase, preventing it from affecting the cocoa fat matrix and screwing up the chocolate. Various other inventors have proposed processes for this trick, but none have gotten to this level of water content.

According to the patent, with proper handling through the conching process, and careful tempering, this watery chocolate will form bars with classic chocolate texture that will not bloom for a long time. The primary inventor of this process is S.T. Beckett, the author of the encyclopedic “Industrial Chocolate: Manufacture and Use” and the introductory “Science of Chocolate.”

I don’t think I’ll be heading to the store for any watery chocolate anytime soon, but I have to admire the pure mad scientist aspect of this technique!

Thanks, Mr. Biting Midge!

May 31, 2007

Chocolate is the end result of a seemingly endless cascade of unlikely events — fermentation, enzymatic reactions between the bean and it’s shell, careful drying, etc., even not considering the difficult process from bean to bar. Tonight, I’m sending a shout-out to the bug that sort of starts this process, Forcipomyia from the ever-popular Ceratopogonidae family!

The Chocolate Bug
(Image from

This little guy, a close relative of the no-see-um and other biting midges, in addition to annoying people around the world, is the primarily pollinator of Theobroma Cacao, the chocolate tree. No pollination, no fruit. No fruit, no cacao beans! Because cacao depends on the activity of this midge, the plant primarily grows in forested locations where rotting fruit and other decaying plant matter provide them with food and lodging. Thanks for the chocolate, bug! (Any insect that makes chocolate possible but gets stuck with the label “biting midge” needs a new agent.)