Are you sure?
Yes, that chocolate is tempting. You know that perfectly glazed bonbon with the caramel filling you’re eying with will melt in your mouth. And the 85% cacao dark chocolate bar right next to it will overwhelm your tastebuds with complex flavors perfectly complemented by just the right amount of sweet and salt.
But before you bite, you just might want to think about the cacao beans for a bit. After all, did you know they sit outside in the tropics, fermenting in the open air while a sticky sweet paste dissolves around them, filling the air with noxious odors? After that, they spend another week outside in the heat and humidity, accompanied by bugs, drying before they can be roasted.
“What happens if it rains?” I asked Brad Kintzler, the chief chocolate maker – now there’s a job to strive for – at TCHO’s Berkeley manufacturing site.
He shrugged. “Sometimes they get moldy.”
Kintzler had already cut open some beans TCHO had imported from the Caribbean, and one of them did indeed have some white mold on the bean. “You can definitely taste that,” he said.
You won’t taste that mold, however, in TCHO’s chocolates, though you will be able to see exactly how TCHO creates in chocolate bars if you tour its Berkeley facility. Located, ironically, across the street from a McDonald’s on San Pablo Avenue, the site houses all sorts of modern machinery that turns cacao beans into that very piece of chocolate you hold in your hand.
And though the vats, conveyor belts and other industrial devices aren’t that romantic, what those beans go through before they arrive in Berkeley is a quite a bit more exotic.
To begin with, a cacao bean straight out of the pod it grows in tastes nothing like the chocolate you’re looking at so fondly. In fact, cacao beans are bitter on purpose – it’s the plant’s defense mechanism. The sweet white paste that surrounds each bean in the cacao pods is called “boba” (no, not the Asian tea) and the plant’s plan is for predators to eat the boba, swallow the bean and then, through an obvious process, deposit it elsewhere to start another cacao tree.
The beans, though bitter, rival coffee beans for the depth of flavors, and those flavors were so prized in the tropical regions of America that for thousands of years, they were consumed pretty much as is. The Olmecs of ancient Mexico were the first civilization that we are fairly certain drank chocolate in one form or another, but for most of the 3,500 years since, combining the bitter beans with sugar was uncommon. Instead, the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs mixed the beans with water and drank it straight.
One reason to endure the bitter taste is that cacao beans contain theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine that is also found in tea. And for those of us who need that second (or third) cup of coffee to get the engine started each morning, imagine a world without caffeine. And then imagine what it would be like to suddenly discover something did help your eyes pop open.
So when chocolate finally made its way to Europe, sometime in the 16th century, it arrived ahead of tea and coffee and quickly spread across the continent. At first, the rich and the aristocratic were the only ones who had access to sweetened chocolate, but it didn’t take long for chocolate shops to open up in all the big cities.
And it didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realize that cacao trees would grow anywhere in the tropics, and soon they were planted in the Caribbean, Africa and anywhere the climate was right.
Of course, 17th and 18th century entrepreneurs weren’t known for their worker-friendly corporate cultures, and cheap labor – if not slave labor – was the basis of the industry. Even today, there’s a huge gap between those who grow and harvest the beans and though who consume the finished product.
“Most cacao growers have never tasted the chocolate that grows from their beans,” said Kintzler, primarily because almost all the processing plants are not in the tropics. The beans, though, remain where they are grown until they are fermented in the open air, with flavor supplied by the wild yeasts in the air (similar to how sourdough starters are made), and dried there, but the rest of the process takes place after the beans have been shipped.
And the whole process that delivers that dark chocolate to your waiting hand is uncertain from the start because the quality of the beans is, really, unknown. It’s not like wine, with its centuries of history about grapes, or even coffee, an industry that has slowly developed a supply chain that delivers particular beans with particular flavor profiles to coffee makers.
TCHO, for example, uses beans from Peru (the likely home of cacao) for its Born Fruity bars – which contain no fruit, but definitely have that flavor. On the other hand, its Dark Duo bar comes from the other end of the spectrum, using beans from Ghana for a deep, rich taste.
Still, such single origin chocolate is more the exception than the rule. “Coffee is about 30 years ahead of cacao in terms of understanding flavor,” says Kintzler, in large part because most growers don’t really know how their beans will turn out. TCHO has helped that process along, thanks to a $5 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development that allowed the company to set up 10 overseas labs to allow local farmers to analyze and test their beans.
The long-term goal is to create a supply chain that will let producers know exactly what kind of flavor profile various beans have so they can more carefully create their chocolate bars, truffles and bonbons
– just like the one you’re holding in your hand right now.
Then again, better not hold it too long, because though chocolate, unlike most natural oils, is solid at room temperature, it starts to melt at around 90 degrees Farenheit – which means it literally does melt in your mouth.
So OK, if you’re not bothered by the fact the beans in your bonbon sat outside in a miasma of rotting fruit, unprotected from the elements and bugs in the tropics, for a week or more. And though you know it’s unclear even to the makers exactly how the beans might taste once processed, go ahead and take that uncertain bite.
For the record, I’m guessing you did – and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.