Specialty cacao is cacao produced on a notion of quality in every single step of the supply chain from the seeds to the cocoa beans.
It is the main ingredient to produce specialty or fine flavor chocolate.
To define if a cacao qualifies as specialty cacao, both the physical and sensorial aspect of the beans are evaluated. The beans should be free from defects, and with distinctive positive aromas and taste, resulting in a unique and complex flavor profile. Full traceability, and respect for farmers and nature are inseparable from specialty cacao.
While today there is not 1 official system that is used to qualify how ‘special’ a cacao is, there are multiple methodologies with high % of overlap, that describe how to evaluate cocoa beans, such as the International Standards for the Assessment of Cocoa Quality and Flavour, the Guidelines for the Sensory Evaluation of Cocoa Beans & Chocolate of Cocoa of Excellence, the grading sheet of Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, etc.
Many factors affect the flavor profile of cacao and finally chocolate, such as terroir, cacao genetics, harvest and post-harvest practices, transport, storage and handling.
- Terroir: known as the combination of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environmental contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat.
- Cacao genetics: all chocolate is made from the seed of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao L.). Theobroma cacao is a tropical fruit tree, endemic to the Amazonian basin in lowland rainforests and a member of the Malvaceae family. Within this single species, there are different varieties. Historically cacao has long been categorized into three groups based on its phenotype: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forestro. This classification is outdated and only based on phenotype, not on genotype. Molecular analysis of the genetic material has permitted to differentiate cacao into “genetic clusters’’. In addition to these primary varieties of cacao, there is a wide range of cultivars and hybrids. The genetics plays a vital role in unlocking the flavor potential during post-harvesting.
- Harvest- and post-harvest practices: to express a maximum of flavor, cacao pods should be harvested when they are mature. Underripe or overripe cacao can result in negative flavor developments. Flavor development during fermentation and drying is the result of the succession of microbiological activities, and are a major contributor to the development of flavor precursors. When cacao beans are removed from the pod, they are covered with a white mucilage. The coating has a high sugar level and provides a food source for the bean when it germinates. Beans begin to germinate as soon as the fruit has been picked. The fermentation process begins almost immediately upon exposure to air. Spores from naturally occurring yeasts settle on the beans and start to split the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Thereupon bacteria start to oxidize the alcohol and processes of acetic and lactic acidification take place in aerobic and anaerobic conditions. During these processes, temperature rises and finally the cacao beans are killed and the cell wall breaks down. Complex chemical processes of enzyme activity, oxidation and breakdown of proteins into amino acids take place. These reactions cause the development of flavor and color. Polyphenols and alkaloids contribute to astringency and bitterness of cocoa and chocolate. A properly controlled fermentation allows positive flavor developments such as fruity, floral, nutty and spicy flavors. Incorrect fermentation can result in negative flavor developments such as ammonia or rancid off-tastes.
- Transport, storage and handling (logistics): cacao beans are highly hygroscopic, meaning that they can absorb and desorb water depending on the temperature and humidity of the environment. Improperly fermented cacao beans have even a greater tendency to release water vapor. Specialty cacao, therefore, requires particular temperature, relative humidity and ventilation conditions. Proper control of transport, warehousing and handling from the cacao plantations until the production of chocolate is highly important to maintain the distinctive flavor profiles. Transport times should be limited and storage should be in a dry, cool and ventilated warehouse appropriate for food storage, and separated from products which might cause cross contamination. The water content of the beans may not be higher than 8% to avoid risk of vapor and mould damage. It is recommend to store cacao beans in a clean and dry room, with relative humidity close to 50% and a temperature lower than 20°C. Lower temperatures result in a lower risk of infestation.
Craft chocolate became popular in the late ’90s in San Fransisco, USA. In analogy with the movement of Specialty coffee, the term “specialty cacao” became popular in the early 21st century. Other terms used to identify high quality beans as needed raw material to produce specialty chocolate are fine flavor cacao or cacao of excellence.
Próximamente versión en español
Entry added: April 16, 2023
Verified on: September 14, 2023
Katrien Delaet, Silva Cacao – Chief Cacaopreneur
Supply chain professional
“Flavor Chemistry of Cocoa and Cocoa Products—An Overview,” Ana Clara Aprotosoaie, Simon Vlad Luca and Anca Miron, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, November 18, 2015.
“Elements of harmonized international standards for cocoa quality and flavour assessment,” Cocoa of Excellence (CoEx), September 17, 2017.
“Factors influencing quality variation in cocoa (Theobroma cacao) bean flavour profile – A review,” John Edem Kongor, Michael Hinneh, Davy van de Walle, Emmanuel Ohene Afoakwa, Pascal Boeckx and Koen Dewittinck, Food Research International, January 2016.
“Guidelines for the Sensory Evaluation of Cocoa Beans as Chocolate,” Cocoa of Excellence, Biodiversity International, August 2021.
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